seven myths about education: the myths

Well, I’ve finally been and gone and read Daisy Christodoulou’s book Seven Myths about Education. Overall, her argument goes as follows;

• the English education system is dominated by a certain set of ideas
• the ideas can be epitomised as seven ‘myths’
• cognitive science demonstrates that the myths are wrong.

Broadly speaking, a challenge to the dominant orthodoxy of the education system is certainly overdue and cognitive science is a good place to start. But when it comes down to specifics I felt that Daisy’s analysis of the ideas, her understanding of the grounds for challenging them, and the conclusions she draws don’t stand up to scrutiny. The discrepancy between the surface plausibility of the arguments and their underlying structure would explain why this book been both lauded and criticised. Whether you laud it or criticise it will depend on the level at which you read it.

the English education system is dominated by a certain set of ideas

The evidence from theory and practice the author sets out supports her thesis that some ideas predominate in educational theory and that teachers are encouraged, if not pressurised, into implementing those ideas. But that’s not all there is to it; there are things missing from the analysis. The English education system is complex, so the quality of education students get is dependent on a range of factors. These include not only the ideas that shape the content of teacher training, the content of the curriculum and the criteria used in Ofsted inspections, but the structure of the system itself, the framework of accountability and expectations about what the system should achieve. No author could tackle everything in one book, of course, but the ideas that shape teacher training and practice need to be assessed in the context of the system as a whole, so a brief explanation of Daisy’s view of the other factors would have been helpful.

the ideas can be epitomised as seven ‘myths’

The myths are;

1. facts prevent understanding
2. teacher-led instruction is passive
3. the 21st century fundamentally changes everything
4. you can always just look it up
5. we should teach transferable skills
6. projects and activities are the best way to learn
7. teaching knowledge is just indoctrination

The structure of the book is clear; one chapter is devoted to each myth and each of the myth chapters is divided into three sections – ‘theoretical evidence’, ‘modern practice’ and ‘why is it a myth’? Unfortunately the same degree of clarity doesn’t apply to the analysis of the ideas. Three tendencies muddy the water;

• a failure to make a clear distinction between theory, opinion and practice
• treating ideas that bear a passing resemblance to a myth as equivalent to the myth itself
• assuming that subscribing to an idea that resembles one myth implies subscribing to other myths.

a distinction between theory, opinion and practice

For some myths (3, 4, 5 and 6) the only difference between the theoretical evidence and the modern practice described is that the two sections contain different quotations – the sources are the same. This might be because the myths in question don’t have a theoretical basis; we’re not told. But given the author’s claim that she’s interested in tracing ideas (p.6) her failure to identify the roots of some of the myths is disappointing. An exploration of their origins might have shed some light on why they’ve been adopted.

ideas that bear a passing resemblance to a myth equated with the myth itself

For most of the myths, several examples of theory and practice are about ideas related to the myth, not the myth itself. For example, questioning the reliability or validity of facts is equated to ‘facts prevent understanding’; calling for holistic and coherent curriculum content to ‘projects and activities are the best way to learn’; and advocating a degree of autonomy in learning to ‘teaching knowledge is just indoctrination’. This conflation would account for the ‘illogical’ criticism Daisy complains about on her blog – people claiming that the myths don’t exist whilst simultaneously agreeing that she has found examples of them presented as best practice. If several related but different ideas are being conflated and treated as one, it’s not surprising that confusion has followed.

subscribing to an idea that resembles one myth implies subscribing to other myths

In several chapters the theoretical evidence refers to myths and related ideas other than the one the chapter purports to be about. The theoretical evidence for myth 2, ‘teacher-led instruction is passive’, refers to children’s difficulties with constant questions and with learning to read, interdisciplinary learning and the power relationship between pupil and teacher, rather than passivity. Evidence for myth 7, ‘teaching knowledge is just indoctrination’, includes questioning the objectivity of facts and advocating interdisciplinary activities and projects, rather than teachers indoctrinating children.

You could argue that people who subscribe to one myth (or ideas related to it) often do subscribe to other myths (or ideas related to them). But the author’s case rests on evidence of the prevalence of seven quite specific ideas. She also claims to trace those ideas from theory to practice (p.6). Her case would have been stronger if she’d been able to do that with more precision.

Daisy locates the origin of all the myths in postmodernism. She says;

Postmodernism is sceptical about the value of truth and knowledge, and many of these myths have at their heart a deep scepticism about the value of knowledge. It is for this reason that I begin with myth 1 (facts prevent understanding) and 2 (teacher-led instruction is passive). These could be said to be the foundation myths of all the others discussed in this book.” (p.8)

To illustrate how ideas are handled in this book, it’s worth taking a closer look at one of the foundational myths – myth 1 ‘facts prevent understanding’.

facts prevent understanding

Daisy attempts to demonstrate the theoretical basis of the myth ‘facts prevent understanding’ by quoting from Rousseau, Dewey, Freire and Dickens. But the quotations are actually about ideas other than ‘facts prevent understanding’. Rousseau expected children to learn facts via nature rather than formal schooling, Dewey objected to pedagogical methods that prevented children learning, Freire explicitly objects to the ‘banking’ approach in education because it conceals facts from children (Freire p.83) and Dickens’ concern was that facts alone were being taught.

Despite failing to demonstrate that the four authors actually thought that facts prevent understanding, Daisy refers to a ‘common trope’ between them. “They all set up polar opposites between facts, which are generally seen as bad, and something else, which is generally seen as good” (p.13). But they don’t. According to the evidence cited, what the writers objected to was the way facts were presented in schools. The alternatives they proposed might not be any better, but it doesn’t follow that any of them thought that facts, per se, were bad.

The origins of the myth, according to the author, lie with Rousseau. His emphasis was actually on what children could learn from interactions with the harsh reality of nature as distinct from than human interventions that were frequently ineffectual. Although Rousseau’s influence is clearly traceable through to modern educational practice, his underlying idea that understanding is as important as factual knowledge is also exemplified in John Locke (who influenced Rousseau), in the Socratic method and in the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, taking it back to several centuries BC. In other words, a distinction between facts and understanding was around for quite a while before Rousseau appeared on the scene.

Daisy acknowledges “sometimes it is argued that these theorists were not hostile to facts per se, merely to certain prescriptive and artificial methods of learning such facts” (p.13) and says she considers this argument in full in the following chapter. What she actually does in that chapter is to quote Rousseau on endless questions from teachers, children’s curiosity and rote learning, Dewey on the correlation of school subjects, and Freire on the co-construction of learning, none of which says anything about hostility to facts.

She concludes that the national curriculum ‘opposes’ subject content and subject concepts just as Rousseau, Dewey, Freire and Dickens allegedly ‘opposed’ facts with “meaning, understanding, reasoning, significance…imagination or creativity” (p.13). Her evidence from the national curriculum certainly demonstrates a move towards subject concepts at the expense of subject content, but that’s a far cry from propagating the idea that ‘facts prevent understanding’. Yet by the end of the chapter on myth 1, theorists and government agencies are described as ‘sceptical about the value of facts’. By the end of the chapter on myth 2, theorists have become ‘hostile’ to facts. What Daisy does, in effect, is to lump together all ideas that include any reservations whatsoever about factual information, who presents it or how it is presented, and assume that what they all boil down to is a belief that ‘facts prevent understanding’. They don’t, of course.

facts

Facts are a key issue for Daisy. She cites Berger and Luckman’s The Social Construction of Reality as epitomising the thinking of some educational theorists for whom ‘the very concept of knowledge is problematic’ (p.111), and comments;

“…Berger and Luckman looked at the way that many of the facts we perceived to be true were in fact social constructions. They did not objectively exist out there somewhere. They were brought into being because we all believed in them, and very often they were buttressed by institutional power” (p.109). (Daisy’s emphasis).

What she doesn’t appear to have thought through is why anyone could see truth, facts and knowledge as problematic. Yet these concepts have had philosophers, historians, lawyers and scientists scratching their heads for centuries. This isn’t because of hostility to facts – all these disciplines actively seek out facts – but because it’s very difficult for human beings to determine what is true and therefore factual. Each of these disciplines is well aware that facts involve degrees of uncertainty and has had to devise ways of evaluating the reliability and validity of evidence behind the facts. The root of the problem isn’t that some people think that facts do not ‘objectively exist out there somewhere’ but that our awareness of what is objectively ‘out there somewhere’ is at the mercy of our perception, which is notoriously unreliable. Ironically cognitive science has recently begun to identify the mechanisms behind the vagaries of human perception that have been so perplexing for so long.

Much of the information transmitted in schools is backed by pretty solid evidence, so for all intents and purposes we can refer to it as factual; e.g. how photosynthesis works, what happens during volcanic eruptions, where and when the battle of Hastings took place, the rules of algebra. Other information is less certain; how subatomic particles behave, evolution, climate change, the causes of WW1. In the latter examples, trying to determine whether the information is factual or not is unhelpful. It’s more informative to frame it in terms of the reliability and validity of the evidence and what conclusions can be drawn about it. I think Daisy is right that currently these skills might be being introduced prematurely, before children have a sufficient grasp of the data and the structure of the relevant knowledge domain, but sooner or later students need to be introduced to uncertainty in knowledge and how to tackle it. The problematic nature of facts doesn’t mean that all facts are equally problematic. Nor does it mean that they are all equally unproblematic. The factualness of information varies, and students need to know how and why it varies.

The evidence that Daisy presents suggests that social constructivism has had a disproportionate influence on educational theory. That’s not surprising given the importance of social interaction and verbal communication in education; education lends itself to a social constructivist paradigm. But this disproportionate influence has resulted in findings from other relevant knowledge domains relevant to education being overlooked. These include fields relating to child development such as genetics, molecular biology, linguistics and developmental and cognitive psychology, and those relating to structural issues such as organisational psychology and the history of education.

I think Daisy is right to highlight the dominance of certain ideas, but she has oversimplified a complex situation. She’s taken groups of ideas with common themes – such as facts, teacher authority, an integrated curriculum – and assumed that one, often extreme, related idea can exemplify all the ideas in a group. Another oversimplification crops up in relation to cognitive science, the subject of my next post.

Daisy debunks myths: or does she?

At the beginning of this month, Daisy Christodolou, star performer on University Challenge, CEO of The Curriculum Centre and a governor of the forthcoming Michaela Community School, published a book entitled Seven Myths about Education. Daisy has summarised the myths on her blog, The Wing to Heaven. There are few things I like better than seeing a myth debunked, but I didn’t rush to buy Daisy’s book. In fact I haven’t read it yet. Here’s why.

Debunking educational ‘myths’ is currently in vogue. But some of the debunkers have replaced the existing myths with new myths of their own; kind of second-order myths. The first myth is at least partly wrong, but the alternative proposed isn’t completely right either, which really doesn’t help. I’ve pointed this out previously in relation to ‘neuromyths’. One of the difficulties involved in debunking educational myths is that they are often not totally wrong, but in order to tease out what’s wrong and what’s right, you need to go into considerable detail, and busy teachers are unlikely to have the time or background knowledge to judge whether or not the criticism is valid.

Human beings have accumulated a vast body of knowledge about ourselves and the world we inhabit, which suggests strongly that the world operates according to knowable principles. It’s obviously necessary to be familiar with the structure and content of any particular knowledge domain in order to have a good understanding of it. And I agree with some of Daisy’s criticisms of current approaches to learning. So why do I feel so uneasy about what she’s proposing to put in its place?

Daisy’s claims

Daisy says she makes two claims in her book and presents evidence to support them. The claims and the evidence are:

Claim one: “that in English education, a certain set of ideas about education are predominant…” Daisy points out that it’s difficult to prove or disprove the first claim, but cites a number of sources to support it.

Claim two: “that these ideas are misguided”. Daisy says “Finding the evidence to prove the second point was relatively straightforward” and lists a number of references relating to working and long-term memory.

Daisy’s reasoning

The responses to claim one suggest that Daisy is probably right that ‘certain ideas’ are predominant in English education.

She is also broadly right when she says “it is scientifically well-established that working memory is limited and that long-term memory plays a significant role in the human intellect” – although she doesn’t define what she means by ‘intellect’.

She then says “this has clear implications for classroom practice, implications which others have made and which I was happy to recap.”

Her reasoning appears to follow that of Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, who lump together ‘constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching’ under the heading ‘minimal instruction’ and treat them all as one. The authors then make the assumption that because some aspects of ‘minimal instruction’ might impose a high cognitive load on students, it should be discarded in favour of ‘direct instruction’ that takes into account the limitations of working memory.

This is the point at which I parted company with Daisy (and Kirschner, Sweller & Clark). Lumping together a set of complex and often loosely defined ideas and approaches to learning is hardly helpful, since it’s possible that some of their components might overload working memory, but others might not. I can see how what we know about working and long-term memory demonstrates that some aspects of the predominant ‘certain set of ideas’ might be ‘misguided’, but not how it demonstrates that they are misguided en masse.

The nature of the evidence

I also had reservations about the evidence Daisy cites in support of claim two.

First on the list is Dan Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School? Willingham is a cognitive psychologist interested in applying scientific findings to education. I haven’t read his book either*, but I’ve yet to come across anything else he’s written that has appeared flawed. Why Don’t Students Like School? appears to be a reliable, accessible book written for a wide readership. So far, so good.

Next, Daisy cites Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s paper “Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching”. This paper is obviously harder going than Willingham’s book, but is published in Educational Psychologist, so would be accessible to many teachers. I have several concerns about this paper and have gone through its arguments in detail.

My main reservations are;
• the simplistic way in which the pedagogical debate is presented,
• what’s left out of the discussion
• why a model of memory that’s half a century out of date is referred to.

That last point could apply to the next three items on Daisy’s list; two papers by Herb Simon, a Nobel prizewinner whose ideas have been highly influential in information theory, and one by John Anderson on his Adaptive Character of Thought model. Simon’s papers were published in 1973 and 1980 respectively, and Anderson’s in 1996 although his model dates from the 1970s.

Another feature of these papers is that they’re not easy reading – if you can actually get access to them, that is. Daisy’s links were to more links and I couldn’t get the Simon papers to open. And although Anderson’s paper is entitled ‘A simple theory of complex cognition’, what he means by that is that an apparently complex cognitive process can be explained by a simple information processing heuristic, not that his theory is easy to understand. He and Simon both write lucidly, but their material isn’t straightforward.

I completely agree with Daisy that the fundamentals of a knowledge domain don’t date – as she points out elsewhere, Pythagoras and Euripides have both stood the test of time. There’s no question that Simon’s and Anderson’s papers are key ones – for information scientists at least – and that the principles they set out have stood the test of time too. But quite why she should cite them and not more accessible material that takes into account several further decades of research into brain function, is puzzling.

It could be that there simply aren’t any publications that deal specifically with recent findings about memory and apply them to pedagogy. But even if there aren’t, it’s unlikely that most teachers would find Simon and Anderson the most accessible alternatives; for example Rita Carter’s Mapping the Mind is a beautifully illustrated, very informative description of how the brain works. (It’s worth forking out for the University of California Press edition because of the quality of the illustrations). Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain is about reading, but is more recent and explains in more detail how the brain chunks, stores and accesses information.

It looks to me as if someone has given Daisy some key early references about working memory and she’s dutifully cited them, rather than ensuring that she has a thorough grasp of the knowledge domain of which they are part. If that’s true, it’s ironic, because having a thorough grasp of a knowledge domain is something Daisy advocates.

So Daisy’s logic is a bit flaky and her evidence base is a bit out of date. So what? The reason Daisy’s logic and evidence base are important because they form the foundation for an alternative curriculum being used by a chain of academies and a high-profile free school.

Implications for curriculum design

Daisy’s name doesn’t appear in the ‘who we are’ or ‘our advisors’ sections of The Curriculum Centre’s (supporting Future Academies) website, although their blog refers to her as their CEO. That might indicate the site simply needs updating. But disappointingly for an organisation describing itself as The Curriculum Centre their ‘complete offer – The Future Curriculum™ – is described as ‘information coming soon’, and the page about the three year KS2 curriculum is high on criticism of other approaches but low on information about itself.

Daisy is also ‘governor for knowledge’ at the Michaela Community School (headteacher Katherine Birbalsingh), a free school that’s already attracted press criticism even though it doesn’t open until September. Their curriculum page is a bit more detailed than that of The Curriculum Centre, but has some emphases that aren’t self-evident and aren’t explained, such as:

Our emphasis on traditional academic subjects will provide a solid base on which young people can build further skills and future careers, thus enabling them to grow into thinkers, authors, leaders, orators or whatever else they wish.

One has to wonder why the ‘traditional academic subjects’ don’t appear to be preparing pupils for careers with a more practical bent, such as doctors, economists or engineers.

Michaela recognises that English and Maths are fundamental to all other learning.”

No, they’re not. They are useful tools in accessing other learning, but non-English speakers who aren’t good at maths can be still be extremely knowledgeable.

Michaela Community School will teach knowledge sequentially so that the entire body of knowledge for a subject will be coherent and meaningful. The History curriculum will follow a chronological sequence of events. The English curriculum will follow a similar chronology of the history of literature, and will also build up knowledge of grammar and the parts of speech.”

The rationale for teaching history chronologically is obvious, but history is more than a sequence of events, and it’s not clear why it’s framed in that way. Nor is there an explanation for why literature should be taught chronologically. Nor why other subjects shouldn’t be. As it happens, I’m strongly in favour of structuring the curriculum chronologically, but I know from experience it’s impossible to teach English, Maths, Science, History, Geography, a modern foreign language (French/Spanish), Music and Art chronologically and in parallel because your chronology will be out of synch across the different subject areas. I’ve used a chronological curriculum with my own children and it gave them an excellent understanding of how everything connects. We started with the Big Bang and worked forward from there. But it meant that for about a year our core focus was on physics, chemistry and geography because for much of the earth’s history nothing else existed. I don’t get the impression Michaela or the Curriculum Centre have actually thought through curriculum development from first principles.

Then there was:

The Humanities curriculum at Michaela Community School will develop a chronologically secure knowledge and understanding of British, local and world history and introduce students to the origins and evolution of the major world religions and their enduring influence.”

I couldn’t help wondering why ‘British’ came before local and world history. And why highlight religions and ‘their enduring influence’? It could be that the curriculum section doesn’t summarise the curriculum very well, or it could be that there’s an agenda here that isn’t being made explicit.

I’m not convinced that Daisy has properly understood how human memory works, has used what’s been scientifically established about it to debunk any educational myths, or has thoroughly thought through its implications for classroom practice. Sorry, Daisy, but I think you need to have another go.

References
Carter, R (2010). Mapping the Mind. University of California Press.
Dehaene, S (2010). Reading in the Brain. Penguin.
Willingham, DT (2010). Why Don’t Students Like School? Jossey Bass.

* My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of books I’ve bought solely for the purpose of satisfying people who’ve told me I can’t criticise what someone’s saying until I’ve read their book. Very occasionally I come across a gem. More often than not, one can read between the lines of reviews.