All snowflakes are unique: comments on ‘What every teacher needs to know about psychology’ (David Didau & Nick Rose)

This book and I didn’t get off to a good start. The first sentence of Part 1 (Learning and Thinking) raised a couple of red flags: “Learning and thinking are terms that are used carelessly in education.” The second sentence raised another one: “If we are to discuss the psychology of learning then it makes sense to begin with precise definitions.”   I’ll get back to the red flags later.

Undeterred, I pressed on, and I’m glad I did. Apart from the red flags and a few quibbles, I thought the rest of the book was great.  The scope is wide and the research is up-to-date but set in historical context. The three parts – Learning and Thinking, Motivation and Behaviour, and Controversies – provide a comprehensive introduction to psychology for teachers or, for that matter, anyone else. Each of the 26 chapters is short, clearly focussed, has a summary “what every teacher needs to know about…”, and is well-referenced.   The voice is right too; David Didau and Nick Rose have provided a psychology-for-beginners, written for grown-ups.

The quibbles? References that were in the text but not in the references section, or vice versa. A rather basic index. And I couldn’t make sense of the example on p.193 about energy conservation, until it dawned on me that a ‘re’ was missing from ‘reuse’. All easily addressed in a second edition, which this book deserves. A bigger quibble was the underlying conceptual framework adopted by the authors. This is where the red flags come in.

The authors are clear about why they’ve written the book and what they hope it will achieve. What they are less clear about is the implicit assumptions they make as a result of their underlying conceptual framework. I want to look at three implicit assumptions about; precise definitions, the school population and psychological theory.

precise definitions

The first two sentences of Part 1 are;

Learning and thinking are terms that are used carelessly in education. If we are to discuss the psychology of learning then it makes sense to begin with precise definitions.” (p.14)

What the authors imply (or at least what I inferred) is that there are precise definitions of learning and thinking. They reinforce their point by providing some. Now, ‘carelessly’ is a somewhat pejorative term. It might be fair to use it if there is a precise definition of learning and there is a precise definition of thinking, but people just can’t be bothered to use them. But if there isn’t a single precise definition of either…

I’d say terms such as ‘learning’, ‘thinking’, ‘teaching’, ‘education’ etc. (the list is a long one) are used loosely rather than carelessly. ‘Learning’ and ‘thinking’ are constructs that are more complex and fuzzier than say, metres or molar solutions. In marked contrast to the way ‘metre’ and ‘molar solution’ are used, people use ‘learning’ and ‘thinking’ to refer to different things in different contexts.   What they’re referring to is usually made clear by the context. For example, most people would consider it reasonable to talk about “what children learn in schools” even if much of the material taught in schools doesn’t meet Didau and Rose’s criterion of retention, transfer and change (p.14). Similarly, it would be considered fair use of the word ‘thinking’ for someone to say “I was thinking about swimming”, if what they were referring to was pleasant mental images of them floating in the Med, rather than the authors’ definition of a conscious, active, deliberative, cognitive “struggle to get from A to B”.

Clearly, there are situations where context isn’t enough, and a precise definition of terms such as ‘learning’ and ‘thinking’ are required; empirical research is a case in point. And researchers in most knowledge domains (maybe education is an exception) usually address this requirement by stating explicitly how they have used particular terms; “by learning we mean…” or “we use thinking to refer to…”.  Or they avoid the use of umbrella terms entirely. In short, for many terms there isn’t one precise definition. The authors acknowledge this when they refer to “two common usages of the term ‘thinking’”, but still try to come up with one precise definition (p.15).

Why does this matter? It matters because if it’s assumed there is a precise definition for labels representing multi-faceted, multi-component processes, that people use in different ways in different circumstances, a great deal of time can be wasted arguing about what that precise definition is. It would make far more sense simply to be explicit how we’re using the term for a particular purpose, or exactly which facet or component we’re referring to.

Exactly this problem arises in the discussion about restorative justice programmes (p.181). The authors complain that restorative justice programmes are “difficult to define and frequently implemented under a variety of different names…” Those challenges could be avoided by not trying to define restorative justice at all, but by people being explicit about how they use the term – or by using different terms for different programmes.

Another example is ‘zero tolerance’ (p.157). This term is usually used to refer to strict, inflexible sanctions applied in response to even the most minor infringements of rules; the authors cite as examples schools using ‘no excuses’ policies. However, zero tolerance is also associated with the broken windows theory of crime (Wilson & Kelling, 1982); that if minor misdemeanours are overlooked, antisocial behaviour will escalate. The broken windows theory does not advocate strict, inflexible sanctions for minor infringements, but rather a range of preventative measures and proportionate sanctions to avoid escalation. Historically, evidence for the effectiveness of both approaches is mixed, so the authors are right to be cautious in their conclusions.

What I want to emphasise is that there isn’t a single precise definition of learning, thinking, restorative justice, zero tolerance, or many other terms used in the education system, so trying to develop one is like trying define apples-and-oranges. To avoid going down that path, we simply need to be explicit about what we’re actually talking about. As Didau and Rose themselves point out “simply lumping things together and giving them the same name doesn’t actually make them the same” (p.266).

all snowflakes are unique

Another implicit assumption emerges in chapter 25, about individual differences;

Although it’s true that all snowflakes are unique, this tells us nothing about how to build a snowman or design a better snowplough. For all their individuality, useful applications depend on the underlying physical and chemical similarities of snowflakes. The same applies to teaching children. Of course all children are unique…however, for all their individuality and any application of psychology to teaching is typically best informed by understanding the underlying similarities in the way children learn and develop, rather than trying to apply ill-fitting labels to define their differences. (p. 254)

For me, this analogy begged the question of what the authors see as the purpose of education, and completely ignores the nomothetic/idiographic (tendency to generalise vs tendency to specify) tension that’s been a challenge for psychology since its inception. It’s true that education contributes to building communities of individuals who have many similarities, but our evolution as a species, and our success at colonising such a wide range of environments hinges on our differences. And the purpose of education doesn’t stop at the community level. It’s also about the education of individuals; this is recognised in the 1996 Education Act (borrowing from the 1944 Education Act), which expects a child’s education to be suitable to them as an individual.  For the simple reason that if it isn’t suitable, it won’t be effective.  Children are people who are part of communities, not units to be built into an edifice of their teachers’ making, or to be shovelled aside if they get in the way of the education system’s progress.

what’s the big idea?

Another major niggle for me was how the authors evaluate theory. I don’t mean the specific theories tested by the psychological research they cite; that would be beyond the scope of the book. Also, if research has been peer-reviewed and there’s no huge controversy over it, there’s no reason why teachers shouldn’t go ahead and apply the findings. My concern is about the broader psychological theories that frame psychologists’ thinking and influence what research is carried out (or not) and how. Didau and Rose demonstrate they’re capable of evaluating theoretical frameworks, but their evaluation looked a bit uneven to me.

For example, they note “there are many questions” relating to Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development (pp.221-223), but BF Skinner’s behaviourist model (pp.152-155) has been “much misunderstood, and often unfairly maligned”. Both observations are true, but because there are pros and cons to each of the theories, I felt the authors’ biases were showing. And David Geary’s somewhat speculative model of biologically primary and secondary knowledge and ability, is cited uncritically at least a dozen times, overlooking the controversy surrounding two of its major assumptions –  modularity and intelligence. The authors are up-front about their “admittedly biased view” Continue reading