When is a word not a word? The ‘dog debate’.

A post appeared recently on the TES Reading Theory and Practice blog about the relationship between synthetic phonics and comprehension. Its focus is the UK’s statutory phonics screening check taken annually by all eligible children in Years 1 and 2.

The post, written by thumbshrew (aka Tweeter @MarianRuthie) seemed to me well-reasoned, informative and remarkably uncontroversial considering the heated debate that has polarised around decoding and comprehension. But it wasn’t long before the controversy got under way. Another blogger, @oldandrewuk, took issue not with the post as a whole, but with one comment about the categorisation of words. This is the sentence he questioned;

The check is made up of nonwords and real words (although, whether any ‘word’ presented like this, in isolation, is genuinely a word is a debatable point).”

@oldandrewuk observed, on Twitter;

Phonics denialist claims it’s “debatable” whether a word presented in isolation is actually a word: Beyond satire.

A lively discussion ensued, which @MarianRuthie referred to as the ‘dog debate’. @oldandrewuk attempted to refute thumbshrew’s claim using the letter string ‘d-o-g’. His reasoning was that if ‘d-o-g’ is indisputably a word, then the claim “whether any ‘word’ presented like this, in isolation, is genuinely a word is a debatable point” is invalid.

For everyday purposes, I think @oldandrewuk’s argument carries some weight. To the best of my knowledge, the reasonable people on the Clapham omnibus don’t spend time debating whether or not ‘dog’, or ‘cat’ or ‘bus’ are words – they take that for granted and get on and use them as such. But thumbshrew’s post wasn’t discussing the status of words for everyday purposes, but their status in an assessment of children’s facility with phonemes and graphemes. @oldandrewuk was questioning the criteria she used to determine whether a letter string was a word or not. And words are notoriously slippery customers.

When is a word not a word?

We’re all familiar with variability in the meaning of words, but whether something is a word or not isn’t always clear either. Take words presented in isolation. When we speak, the way we say a particular word is affected by the words that precede and follow it. If I say aloud “the dog barked” the ‘g’ in ‘dog’ is barely audible, whereas if I say “the bark of the dog” the ‘g’ in ‘dog’ is much clearer. If ‘dog’ were to be excised from the first phrase, presented in isolation and people asked to say what word it was, they’d be just as likely to respond with ‘dot’ or ‘doll’ as ‘dog’. Or, if given the option, they might say it isn’t a word at all, since ‘d’ followed only by a short ‘o’ isn’t used in English.

Written English poses other challenges. Because English spelling is largely standardised and because we leave a space fore and aft when writing words, ‘dog’ looks pretty much the same in isolation as it does in a sentence, so people don’t have the same difficulty in identifying written words taken from sentences as they do with spoken English. But not all five year-olds (or adults unfamiliar with the Roman alphabet) perceive ‘dog’ in a sans serif font as being the same as ‘dog’ in a font with serifs – and could consider ‘dog’ in a gothic typeface not to be a word at all.

Then there are heteronyms (words that have the same spelling but different meanings and pronunciation) where context determines what meaning and pronunciation should be used – ‘wind’ as in whistling or ‘wind’ as in bobbin. I once found myself having an argument with my mother, then in her 50s, about the word ‘digest’. For the noun, the stress is on the first syllable. For the verb it’s on the second. My mum insisted they were both pronounced like the verb and claimed she couldn’t hear any difference. I thought she was just being difficult until it emerged that my son had a very similar problem differentiating between similar speech sounds.

Words are an integral part of spoken and written English. They are relatively rarely encountered in isolation, and the context in which they occur can be crucial in determining their meaning and pronunciation. You could, as thumbshrew implies, define ‘word’ in terms of the role a sound or letter string plays in spoken or written language and argue that by definition any letter string presented in isolation isn’t a word.

But individuals’ perceptions of spoken and written English don’t determine whether a letter string is a genuine word or not. Unlike French, English doesn’t have an official body to make such decisions. Scrabble players might appeal to the OED, but then use words in the course of conversation that aren’t yet in the dictionary. How we treat novel words highlights the criteria we use to determine whether a sound or letter string is a word or not.

A new word coined by an academic might gain immediate acceptance as a genuine word due to the academic’s expertise and the need to label a newly discovered phenomenon. A street slang term, in contrast, might have only a brief period of usage in within a small community. Would the slang term qualify as a word? Or what about ‘prolly’, a contraction of ‘probably’ used in social media. Does ‘prolly’ qualify as a genuine word or not? Is ‘digest’ used as a noun but with the stress on the second syllable a genuine word? Or how about a toddler who calls a fridge a ‘sputich’? If her family understand and use the word ‘sputich’ in conversation does that make it a genuine word?

Prototype theory

During the course of the ‘dog debate’ I attempted to shed some light on what makes a sound or letter string a word by appealing to prototype theory. In the 1970s Eleanor Rosch showed that people use the features of items to categorise them. Frequently occurring features are highly prototypical for particular categories; features that occur less frequently are less prototypical. For example, birds typically have beaks, wings, feathers, lay eggs and fly, but some birds can’t fly, so flight isn’t as highly prototypical a feature as the others. In a Venn diagram illustrating prototypicality in birds, robins would be near the middle of the circle because they show all prototypical features. Ostriches and penguins would be nearer the edge of the circle. The circle wouldn’t have a clear boundary because it would blur into feathered reptiles.

Words are also things that can be categorised. One prototypical feature of words is frequency of usage. Another is the degree of agreement on whether it’s a word or not. If a word is used very frequently by all and sundry, it’s highly prototypical. ‘Dog’, @oldandrewuk’s example, would be near the centre of a Venn diagram representing the category ‘word’. Chances are ‘sputich’ would fall outside it. As for ‘prolly’, there would likely be differences of opinion over whether or not it was a word, indicating that the category ‘word’ also has fuzzy rather than crisp boundaries.

Because the criteria for whether or not something is a genuine word or not – usage and agreement – are on a scale that could range from 0% to 100%, deciding whether or not a letter string is a word isn’t a straightforward task. And, as @ded6ajd pointed out in the Twitter debate, a word isn’t necessarily a letter string. Words can take the form of sequences of speech sounds, patterns of marks, and gestures, implying that a word is an actually an abstract construct.

So where does all that leave the ‘dog debate’?

Back to the ‘dog debate’

As I said, I think @oldandrewuk’s argument carries some weight for everyday purposes. However, in relation to the point he took issue with, I think there are two flaws in his challenge. If I’ve understood correctly, he’s saying that if a letter string exists whose status as a word is undisputed, that invalidates thumbshrew’s claim that it’s debatable whether any ‘word’ presented in isolation is genuinely a word. To demonstrate he needs only to cite one example, and chooses ‘dog’. If no one is debating the status of ‘dog’, then the status of ‘dog’ isn’t debatable, therefore the claim that the status of ‘any’ word is debatable is false.

But @oldandrewuk’s challenge rests on an implicit assumption that not finding anyone who disputes the status of ‘dog’ is the same as the status of ‘dog’ being undisputed. It isn’t. That’s equivalent to claiming that if no one has ever seen a crow whose plumage isn’t black, we can safely conclude all crows must be black. Of course that conclusion isn’t safe since we cannot possibly gather data on all crows.

The second flaw is this: Even if we were able to interrogate every living English speaker about their opinions on the status of ‘dog’ and we found universal agreement that ‘dog’ was a word, we still wouldn’t know whether all those people were using the same criterion for whether a letter string was a word or not, or what their views might be about other words. On the face of it there might appear to be no debate about the status of ‘dog’, but put a random sample of those in agreement about its status in a room together and get them to talk about their criteria for what constitutes a word, and it’s likely that a debate would start pretty quickly.

There is no universal standard for what constitutes a genuine word. If it were easy to establish one, the French, with their historic penchant for standardisation, would have come up with one by now. Words aren’t like weights or measures, where in principle you could cut a piece of metal to an arbitrary length, put it in a glass case and agree that it’s the international standard for a cubit. Words are more like populations of organisms, with new ones arising and old ones falling out of use and being forgotten continually. One person’s word might be another person’s non-word.

And that’s the nub of the problem. For @oldandrewuk near-as-dammit universal agreement about a letter string’s status as a genuine word, in isolation or not, is good enough. For thumbshrew, it isn’t; she’s aware of the different criteria people use for ‘word’ and concludes that the status of letter strings presented in isolation is debatable.

Personally, I think thumbshrew is right – that it is debatable whether any ‘word’ presented in isolation is genuinely a word and that @oldandrewuk’s challenge is flawed. But because research shows that people identify written words in isolation as words more readily than they do spoken words, frankly I don’t think it would be much of a debate.

A more important point, which @oldandrewuk doesn’t take up, is why there are ‘genuine words’ in the phonics check at all. It would make far more sense for all the letter strings to be pseudo-words. This would give a more accurate picture of children’s phonemic and graphemic awareness, would reduce the impact of confounding factors such as word recognition and avoid the need to have a debate about what constitutes a genuine word.

seven myths about education – what’s missing?

Old Andrew has raised a number of objections to my critique of Seven Myths about Education. In his most recent comment on my previous (and I had hoped, last) post about it, he says I should be able to easily identify evidence that shows ‘what in the cognitive psychology Daisy references won’t scale up’.

One response would be to provide a list of references showing step-by-step the problems that artificial intelligence researchers ran into. That would take me hours, if not days, because I would have to trawl through references I haven’t looked at for over 20 years. Most of them are not online anyway because of their age, which means Old Andrew would be unlikely to be able to access them.

What is more readily accessible is information about concepts that have emerged from those problems, for example; personal construct theory, schema theory, heuristics and biases, bounded rationality and indexing, connectionist models of cognition and neuroconstructivism. Unfortunately, none of the researchers says “incidentally, this means that students might not develop the right schemata when they commit facts to long-term memory” or “the implications for a curriculum derived from cultural references are obvious”, because they are researching cognition not education, and probably wouldn’t have anticipated anyone suggesting either of these ideas. Whether Old Andrew sees the relevance of these emergent issues or not is secondary, in my view, to how Daisy handles evidence in her book.

concepts and evidence

In the last section of her chapter on Myth 1, Daisy takes us through the concepts of the limited capacity of working memory and chunking. These are well-established, well-tested hypotheses and she cites evidence to support them.

concepts but no evidence

Daisy also appears to introduce two hypotheses of her own. The first is that “we can summon up the information from long-term memory to working memory without imposing a cognitive load” (p.19). The second is that the characteristics of chunking can be extrapolated to all facts, regardless of how complex or inconsistent they might be; “So, when we commit facts to long-term memory they actually become part of our thinking apparatus and have the ability to expand one of the biggest limitations of human cognition” (p.20). The evidence she cites to support this extrapolation is Anderson’s paper – the one about simple, consistent information. I couldn’t find any other evidence cited to support either idea.

evidence but no concepts

Daisy does cite Frantz’s paper about Simon’s work on intuition. Two important concepts of Simon’s that Daisy doesn’t mention but Frantz does, are bounded rationality and the idea of indexing.

Bounded rationality refers to the fact that people can only make sense of the information they have. This supports Daisy’s premise that knowledge is necessary for understanding. But it also supports Freire’s complaint about which facts were being presented to Brazilian schoolchildren. Bounded rationality is also relevant to the idea of the breadth of a curriculum being determined by the frequency of cultural references. Simon used it to challenge economic and political theory.

Simon also pointed out that not only do experts have access to more information than novices do, they can access it more quickly because of their mental cross-indexing, ie the schemata that link relevant information. Rapid speed of access reduces cognitive load, but it doesn’t eliminate it. Chess experts can determine the best next move within seconds, but for most other experts, their knowledge is considerably more complex and less well-defined. A surgeon or an engineer is likely to take days rather than seconds to decide on the best procedure or design to resolve a difficult problem. That implies that quite a heavy cognitive load is involved.

Daisy does mention schemata but doesn’t go into detail about how they are formed or how they influence thinking and understanding. She refers to deep learning in passing but doesn’t tackle the issue Willingham raises about students’ problems with deep structure.

burden of proof

Old Andrew appears to be suggesting that I should assume that Daisy’s assertions are valid unless I can produce evidence to refute them. The burden of proof for a theory usually rests with the person making the claims, for obvious reasons. Daisy cites evidence to support some of her claims, but not all of them. She doesn’t evaluate that evidence by considering its reliability or validity or by taking into account contradictory evidence.

If Daisy had written a book about her musings on cognitive psychology and education, or about how findings from cognitive psychology had helped her teaching, I wouldn’t be writing this. But that’s not what she’s done. She’s used theory from one knowledge domain to challenge theory in another. That can be a very fruitful strategy; the application of game theory and ecological systems theory has transformed several fields. But it’s not helpful simply to take a few concepts out of context from one domain and apply them out of context to another domain.

The reason is that theoretical concepts aren’t free-standing; they are embedded in a conceptual framework. If you’re challenging theory with theory, you need to take a long hard look at both knowledge domains first to get an idea of where particular concepts fit in. You can’t just say “I’m going to apply the concepts of chunking and the limited capacity of working memory to education, but I shan’t bother with schema theory or bounded rationality or heuristics and biases because I don’t think they’re relevant.” Well, you can say that, but it’s not a helpful way to approach problems with learning, because all of these concepts are integral to human cognition. Students don’t leave some of them in the cloakroom when they come into class.

On top of that, the model for pedagogy and the curriculum that Daisy supports is currently influencing international educational policy. If the DfE considers the way evidence has been presented by Hirsch, Willingham and presumably Daisy, as ‘rigorous’, as Michael Gove clearly did, then we’re in trouble.

For Old Andrew’s benefit, I’ve listed some references. Most of them are about things that Daisy doesn’t mention. That’s the point.


Axelrod, R (1973). Schema Theory: An Information Processing Model of Perception and Cognition, The American Political Science Review, 67, 1248-1266.
Elman, J et al (1998). Rethinking Innateness: Connectionist Perspective on Development. MIT Press.
Frantz, R (2003). Herbert Simon. Artificial intelligence as a framework for understanding intuition, Journal of Economic Psychology, 24, 265–277.
Kahneman, D., Slovic, P & Tversky A (1982). Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge University Press.
Karmiloff-Smith, A (2009). Nativism Versus Neuroconstructivism: Rethinking the Study of
Developmental Disorders. Developmental Psychology, 45, 56–63.
Kelly, GA (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York: Norton.

seven myths about education: finally…

When I first heard about Daisy Christodoulou’s myth-busting book in which she adopts an evidence-based approach to education theory, I assumed that she and I would see things pretty much the same way. It was only when I read reviews (including Daisy’s own summary) that I realised we’d come to rather different conclusions from what looked like the same starting point in cognitive psychology. I’ve been asked several times why, if I have reservations about the current educational orthodoxy, think knowledge is important, don’t have a problem with teachers explaining things and support the use of systematic synthetic phonics, I’m critical of those calling for educational reform rather than those responsible for a system that needs reforming. The reason involves the deep structure of the models, rather than their surface features.

concepts from cognitive psychology

Central to Daisy’s argument is the concept of the limited capacity of working memory. It’s certainly a core concept in cognitive psychology. It explains not only why we can think about only a few things at once, but also why we oversimplify and misunderstand, are irrational, are subject to errors and biases and use quick-and-dirty rules of thumb in our thinking. And it explains why an emphasis on understanding at the expense of factual information is likely to result in students not knowing much and, ironically, not understanding much either.

But what students are supposed to learn is only one of the streams of information that working memory deals with; it simultaneously processes information about students’ internal and external environment. And the limited capacity of working memory is only one of many things that impact on learning; a complex array of environmental factors is also involved. So although you can conceptually isolate the material students are supposed to learn and the limited capacity of working memory, in the classroom neither of them can be isolated from all the other factors involved. And you have to take those other factors into account in order to build a coherent, workable theory of learning.

But Daisy doesn’t introduce only the concept of working memory. She also talks about chunking, schemata and expertise. Daisy implies (although she doesn’t say so explicitly) that schemata are to facts what chunking is to low-level data. That just as students automatically chunk low-level data they encounter repeatedly, so they will automatically form schemata for facts they memorise, and the schemata will reduce cognitive load in the same way that chunking does (p.20). That’s a possibility, because the brain appears to use the same underlying mechanism to represent associations between all types of information – but it’s unlikely. We know that schemata vary considerably between individuals, whereas people chunk information in very similar ways. That’s not surprising if the information being chunked is simple and highly consistent, whereas schemata often involve complex, inconsistent information.

Experimental work involving priming suggests that schemata increase the speed and reliability of access to associated ideas and that would reduce cognitive load, but students would need to have the schemata that experts use explained to them in order to avoid forming schemata of their own that were insufficient or misleading. Daisy doesn’t go into detail about deep structure or schemata, which I think is an oversight, because the schemata students use to organise facts are crucial to their understanding of how the facts relate to each other.

migrating models

Daisy and teachers taking a similar perspective frequently refer approvingly to ‘traditional’ approaches to education. It’s been difficult to figure out exactly what they mean. Daisy focuses on direct instruction and memorising facts, Old Andrew’s definition is a bit broader and Robert Peal’s appears to include cultural artefacts like smart uniforms and school songs. What they appear to have in common is a concept of education derived from the behaviourist model of learning that dominated psychology in the inter-war years. In education it focused on what was being learned; there was little consideration of the broader context involving the purpose of education, power structures, socioeconomic factors, the causes of learning difficulties etc.

Daisy and other would-be reformers appear to be trying to update the behaviourist model of education with concepts that, ironically, emerged from cognitive psychology not long after it switched focus from behaviourist model of learning to a computational one; the point at which the field was first described as ‘cognitive’. The concepts the educational reformers focus on fit the behaviourist model well because they are strongly mechanistic and largely context-free. The examples that crop up frequently in the psychology research Daisy cites usually involve maths, physics and chess problems. These types of problems were chosen deliberately by artificial intelligence researchers because they were relatively simple and clearly bounded; the idea was that once the basic mechanism of learning had been figured out, the principles could then be extended to more complex, less well-defined problems.

Researchers later learned a good deal about complex, less well-defined problems, but Daisy doesn’t refer to that research. Nor do any of the other proponents of educational reform. What more recent research has shown is that complex, less well-defined knowledge is organised by the brain in a different way to simple, consistent information. So in cognitive psychology the computational model of cognition has been complemented by a constructivist one, but it’s a different constructivist model to the social constructivism that underpins current education theory. The computational model never quite made it across to education, but early constructivist ideas did – in the form of Piaget’s work. At that point, education theory appears to have grown legs and wandered off in a different direction to cognitive psychology. I agree with Daisy that education theorists need to pay attention to findings from cognitive psychology, but they need to pay attention to what’s been discovered in the last half century not just to the computational research that superseded behaviourism.

why criticise the reformers?

So why am I critical of the reformers, but not of the educational orthodoxy? When my children started school, they, and I, were sometimes perplexed by the approaches to learning they encountered. Conversations with teachers painted a picture of educational theory that consisted of a hotch-potch of valid concepts, recent tradition, consequences of policy decisions and ideas that appeared to have come from nowhere like Brain Gym and Learning Styles. The only unifying feature I could find was a social constructivist approach and even on that opinions seemed to vary. It was difficult to tell what the educational orthodoxy was, or even if there was one at all. It’s difficult to critique a model that might not be a model. So I perked up when I heard about teachers challenging the orthodoxy using the findings from scientific research and calling for an evidence-based approach to education.

My optimism was short-lived. Although the teachers talked about evidence from cognitive psychology and randomised controlled trials, the model of learning they were proposing appeared as patchy, incomplete and incoherent as the model they were criticising – it was just different. So here are my main reservations about the educational reformers’ ideas:

1. If mainstream education theorists aren’t aware of working memory, chunking, schemata and expertise, that suggests there’s a bigger problem than just their ignorance of these particular concepts. It suggests that they might not be paying enough attention to developments in some or all of the knowledge domains their own theory relies on. Knowing about working memory, chunking, schemata and expertise isn’t going to resolve that problem.

2. If teachers don’t know about working memory, chunking, schemata and expertise, that suggests there’s a bigger problem than just their ignorance of these particular concepts. It suggests that teacher training isn’t providing teachers with the knowledge they need. To some extent this would be an outcome of weaknesses in educational theory, but I get the impression that trainee teachers aren’t expected or encouraged to challenge what they’re taught. Several teachers who’ve recently discovered cognitive psychology have appeared rather miffed that they hadn’t been told about it. They were all Teach First graduates; I don’t know if that’s significant.

3. A handful of concepts from cognitive psychology doesn’t constitute a robust enough foundation for developing a pedagogical approach or designing a curriculum. Daisy essentially reiterates what Daniel Willingham has to say about the breadth and depth of the curriculum in Why Don’t Students Like School?. He’s a cognitive psychologist and well-placed to show how models of cognition could inform education theory. But his book isn’t about the deep structure of theory, it’s about applying some principles from cognitive psychology in the classroom in response to specific questions from teachers. He explores ideas about pedagogy and the curriculum, but that’s as far as it goes. Trying to develop a model of pedagogy and design a curriculum based on a handful of principles presented in a format like this is like trying to devise courses of treatment and design a health service based on the information gleaned from a GP’s problem page in a popular magazine. But I might be being too charitable; Willingham is a trustee of the Core Knowledge Foundation, after all.

4. Limited knowledge Rightly, the reforming teachers expect students to acquire extensive factual knowledge and emphasise the differences between experts and novices. But Daisy’s knowledge of cognitive psychology appears to be limited to a handful of principles discovered over thirty years ago. She, Robert Peal and Toby Young all quote Daniel Willingham on research in cognitive psychology during the last thirty years, but none of them, Willingham included, tell us what it is. If they did, it would show that the principles they refer to don’t scale up when it comes to complex knowledge. Nor do most of the teachers writing about educational reform appear to have much teaching experience. That doesn’t mean they are wrong, but it does call into question the extent of their expertise relating to education.

Some of those supporting Daisy’s view have told me they are aware that they don’t know much about cognitive psychology, but have argued that they have to start somewhere and it’s important that teachers are made aware of concepts like the limits of working memory. That’s fine if that’s all they are doing, but it’s not. Redesigning pedagogy and the curriculum on the basis of a handful of facts makes sense if you think that what’s important is facts and that the brain will automatically organise those facts into a coherent schema. The problem is of course that that rarely happens in the absence of an overview of all the relevant facts and how they fit together. Cognitive psychology, like all other knowledge domains, has incomplete knowledge but it’s not incomplete in the same way as the reforming teachers’ knowledge. This is classic Sorcerer’s Apprentice territory; a little knowledge, misapplied, can do a lot of damage.

5. Evaluating evidence Then there’s the way evidence is handled. Evidence-based knowledge domains have different ways of evaluating evidence, but they all evaluate it. That means weighing up the pros and cons, comparing evidence for and against competing hypotheses and so on. Evaluating evidence does not mean presenting only the evidence that supports whatever view you want to get across. That might be a way of making your case more persuasive, but is of no use to anyone who wants to know about the reliability of your hypothesis or your evidence. There might be a lot of evidence telling you your hypothesis is right – but a lot more telling you it’s wrong. But Daisy, Robert Peal and Toby Young all present supporting evidence only. They make no attempt to test the hypotheses they’re proposing or the evidence cited, and much of the evidence is from secondary sources – with all due respect to Daniel Willingham, just because he says something doesn’t mean that’s all there is to say on the matter.

cargo-cult science

I suggested to a couple of the teachers who supported Daisy’s model that ironically it resembled Feynman’s famous cargo-cult analogy (p. 97). They pointed out that the islanders were using replicas of equipment, whereas the concepts from cognitive psychology were the real deal. I suggest that even the Americans had left their equipment on the airfield and the islanders knew how to use it, that wouldn’t have resulted in planes bringing in cargo – because there were other factors involved.

My initial response to reading Seven Myths about Education was one of frustration that despite making some good points about the educational orthodoxy and cognitive psychology, Daisy appeared to have got hold of the wrong ends of several sticks. This rapidly changed to concern that a handful of misunderstood concepts is being used as ‘evidence’ to support changes in national education policy.

In Michael Gove’s recent speech at the Education Reform Summit, he refers to the “solidly grounded research into how children actually learn of leading academics such as ED Hirsch or Daniel T Willingham”. Daniel Willingham has published peer-reviewed work, mainly on procedural learning, but I could find none by ED Hirsch. It would be interesting to know what the previous Secretary of State for Education’s criteria for ‘solidly grounded research’ and ‘leading academic’ were. To me the educational reform movement doesn’t look like an evidence-based discipline but bears all the hallmarks of an ideological system looking for evidence that affirms its core beliefs. This is no way to develop public policy. Government should know better.

Traditional vs progressive teaching

Educational approaches adopted by teachers have been presented in terms of ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ for many years. These terms have long served as signposts to point in the general direction of particular teaching philosophies or methods, but it looks as if in recent years they have become reified; what happens when abstract ideas are treated as if they have a concrete existence. Attempts have been made to define ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’, or to point out the advantages of one over the other, and they are often presented as polar opposites, as if approaches to teaching form a spectrum with extreme ‘traditional’ methods at one end and extreme ‘progressive’ methods at the other. I don’t think it’s possible to arrive at a general definition of ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’ teaching, and it certainly isn’t helpful to frame the debate in that way. Here’s why.

Defining traditional and progressive teaching

‘Teaching’ can be adequately defined in fairly simple terms, but in the real world ‘teaching’ is a pretty complex thing involving many activities and processes. If we were to define ‘teaching’ not verbally, but in the form of a Venn diagram, it would be a set containing many elements. If we then tried to divide the elements in our set {teaching} into two subsets {traditional} and {progressive}, that might help us discover the characteristics of ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ teaching.

Some elements, such as ‘only use talk and chalk’ would clearly fall into the set {traditional} whereas ‘always using discovery learning’ would clearly fall into the set {progressive}. But some elements, like ‘reading for more information’ or ‘asking questions’ would fall into both sets i.e. the intersection of the sets. Some elements I found difficult to allocate; I couldn’t decide if ‘watching a dvd’ or ‘using a whiteboard’ could be included in {traditional} because both technologies are so recent they wouldn’t qualify as ‘traditional’ for historical reasons. However, they could both be used in ‘direct instruction’, one of the elements that’s frequently cited as a feature of a traditional approach. The more elements I tried to allocate to either the {traditional} or {progressive} set, the more elements ended up in the intersection of the two. I came to the conclusion that it’s impossible to arrive at a general definition of ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ teaching, not just because different people have different ideas about what constitutes ‘traditional’ or ‘progressive’, but because it’s not a valid way of representing teaching – it doesn’t reflect accurately what happens in the real world.

An analogy would be comparing ‘the olden days’ with ‘modern times’. These are useful verbal signposts pointing to what happened a long time ago and what happened recently, but to an historian interested in tool manufacture, the 18th century would be ‘modern times’, whereas to an IT specialist the 1960s are ‘the olden days’. Even if you were to agree a boundary between the two, as say, midnight on January 1st 2000, there would be many things that were going on in the olden days that are still happening in modern times, so a clear definition would be impossible.

Working definitions

Some people do want to frame teaching in terms of traditional or progressive, however. If they do, and if they want to discuss those issues with others, it’s important that they explain their own definitions, so everyone knows exactly what they are talking about. Working definitions are widely used for concepts that are a bit fuzzy. For example, a sociologist studying the way single parents behave might define a single parent as living in a home where ‘no other adult is resident for more than five nights a year’. Or as ‘self-identifying as a single parent’. Both are valid definitions; they both map accurately on to the lives of lone adults looking after children. Sociologists recognise that the situations of single parents vary widely, so trying to find a definition that accommodates all of them might be a pointless exercise. But if the definitions used for each study are clear, then at least everybody knows what’s being referred to.

The problem with ambiguities

The subject of my previous post was Old Andrew’s definition of traditional and progressive teaching. Most people wouldn’t have a problem with a working definition even if they disagreed with it, as long as it made clear what the person using the definition was talking about. My problem with Old Andrew’s definition was that even as a working definition it contains ambiguities.

There are two potential sources of ambiguity in a working definition; ambiguity in the terminology used, or ambiguity inherent in the thing that you’re trying to define. One example of ambiguous terminology is Old Andrew’s use of the term ‘practice’. ‘Practice’ could mean learning by ‘rehearsal’- a key feature of ‘traditional’ teaching, or learning by ‘doing’ – a key feature of ‘progressive’ approaches. Sometimes the constructs themselves can be ambiguous; in his definition old Andrew equates ‘tradition’ with ‘body of knowledge’ – when both are rather fuzzy complex concepts with blurred boundaries that themselves need working definitions before people can be clear what’s being referred to.

I can’t say that Old Andrew’s working definition of traditional teaching is right or wrong; it’s his working definition and it’s helpful to have it for future discussions. What I can say is that it contains ambiguities that need further clarification. What I can also say is that although you could have as many working definitions of traditional or progressive teaching as there are people talking about them, it will be impossible to arrive at a standard definition of traditional or progressive teaching that everybody signs up to because the number of ambiguities involved is so great. The Venn diagram exercise suggests that because of the ambiguities, traditional and progressive aren’t actually helpful ways to frame the debate. The terms simply add an unnecessary additional layer of complexity.

Old Andrew responded to my criticism of his definition. I’ve replied by commenting on my previous post.

Old Andrew’s definition of traditional teaching

Old Andrew”, well-known education blogger, was invited yesterday by the Local Schools Network on Twitter to define “progressive teaching”. He obliged by defining it in terms of “traditional teaching” as follows:

“Progressive teaching is that which rejects any of the pillars of traditional teaching. These are 1) the existence of a tradition i.e. a body of knowledge necessary for developing the intellect. 2) The use of direct instruction & practice as the most effective methods of teaching. 3) The authority of teachers in the classroom.”

One problem with using complex constructs like ‘traditional’ is that they are, well, complex. We all know roughly what we mean by ‘traditional’ (or ‘British’ or ‘doing the right thing’) but defining those terms precisely is tricky for several reasons:

a) Complex constructs are sets containing several, sometimes many, elements.

b) Different people will have different elements in their construct sets. Ask 100 people to give precise definitions of ‘traditional’ (or ‘British’ or ‘doing the right thing’) and you’re likely to find that all their construct sets have some elements in common (‘something we’ve always done’, ‘related to Great Britain’, ‘what’s good for people’), but that some elements are mentioned only by some people, and some will be referred to only by single individuals.

c) Often the elements within the sets are themselves complex constructs so a) and b) above apply to them too.

In Old Andrew’s construct set ‘traditional teaching’, there are three main elements, numbered in his definition. But each of those elements is itself a set of elements. I want to explore each in turn.

the existence of a tradition

Old Andrew equates tradition with ‘a body of knowledge necessary for developing the intellect’. I can see what he’s getting at, but a ‘tradition’ isn’t a body of knowledge, it’s a set of customs or beliefs that are passed on from generation to generation. The customs might or might not be beneficial ones, and the beliefs might or might not be true.

body of knowledge

A body of knowledge, by contrast, is knowledge about a particular aspect of the world. But bodies of knowledge are not canon, with clear boundaries and clearly authenticated content. They are constantly intertwining, enlarging and being revised as new information comes to light. There are parts of bodies of knowledge on which there is broad consensus and for which there is robust evidence, and it makes sense for children and young people to learn about these parts, so they know how the world works. But the reliability of bodies of knowledge is dependent on the reliability of the evidence underpinning the knowledge, not on tradition.


Then there’s the knotty problem of the intellect. I’m guessing that Old Andrew refers to ‘the intellect’ because he doesn’t see education solely in terms of imparting knowledge, but also in terms of developing skills that enable the knowledge to be acquired and evidence to be evaluated. But he appears to see the body of knowledge as having to precede intellectual development, when in reality they are interdependent, and indeed some intellectual skills are needed before some types of knowledge can be acquired. The intellectual development of young children is pretty basic, but if they had no powers of reasoning at all they wouldn’t be able to make the associations between objects and events that’s essential for all learning.

direct instruction

In Old Andrew’s definition of traditional teaching, teachers give students access to a body of knowledge by direct instruction. But knowledge isn’t homogeneous. Some knowledge is best acquired by someone telling you about it (e.g. events leading up to WW1); some by reading up on the evidence yourself and evaluating it jointly with others (e.g. causes of obesity). Some knowledge is best acquired by investigation (e.g. how ants interact); and some by practice (e.g. how to bake a Victoria sponge).


Old Andrew would probably say that my exceptions to direct instruction are covered by the element ‘practice’ in his definition. He and I have discussed this before. I’ve pointed out that practice has two main meanings in English; ‘doing’ and ‘rehearsal’. It’s not clear in his definition of traditional teaching, which he means or whether he means both.

the most effective methods of teaching

It might be obvious to Old Andrew what teaching methods are effective and what aren’t, but the debates that have rumbled on since at least the late 19th century suggest that what’s effective isn’t obvious to everybody because different people want different things from education. Until we’re all in agreement about what education is supposed to achieve, the debates about what’s effective and how you can measure it will continue to rumble.

the authority of teachers

Authority is another complex construct. On the face of it, it looks like the right to tell others what to do, but it’s not as simple as that, as most teachers will testify. That’s because teachers’ authority doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it has to be backed by something. It can be backed by behaviour (authoritative personality or bullying or aggression), by knowledge and experience, by power structures within or outside the school, by consent of the students, or by all of the above. It’s not a matter of simply giving teachers authority or just recognising it.

the classroom

Old Andrew’s definition of ‘traditional teaching’ is set in the classroom because children and young people have been traditionally taught in schools and schools have classrooms. For obvious reasons he sees it as essential that teachers have authority in the environment in which they are teaching.

I understand that Old Andrew is primarily concerned about how teaching and learning happen in schools. But I also get the impression that he sees teaching and learning happening only in schools. It doesn’t of course. People learn and teach others throughout their lifespan, in school and outside it. Some teaching and learning is explicit and/or formal, some is implicit and/or informal. And I think that’s where much of the disagreement about teaching and learning comes from. If you see education as what happens in childhood and adolescence in schools, your priorities and expectations will be different from those of people who see education as lifelong and formal schooling as only a part of that.

What’s the alternative?

Having taken apart Old Andrew’s definition of traditional teaching and, as a consequence, his definition of progressive teaching, do I have an alternative definition to propose? No I don’t, because I don’t see ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional’ as valid, reliable or helpful ways of categorising teaching. That’s because knowledge isn’t homogeneous, nor are skills, nor are students – nor, for that matter, are teachers. The most effective way of ensuring that students acquire particular knowledge or skills will need to be derived from the characteristics of the knowledge, skills and students involved. Many teachers apply this principle all the time, but they might not do so explicitly. They know, intuitively, that this year’s Year 7s aren’t going to be able to cope with an approach that worked for last year’s Year 7s, or that an approach that worked really well for one topic won’t work for a related one. So, someone observing a particular teacher’s practice might witness one lesson that could have been lifted directly from 18th century Prussia, and another that looks like child-led learning of the most directionless kind. I’m not talking about using simplistic ‘mixed methods’ approach in the hope that something will work. What I am saying is that to be effective methods need to take into account the knowledge, the skills and the students involved.

If, for some reason people must classify teaching in terms of progressive or traditional, it can’t be done by using two distinct categories, because there’s too much overlap in how people define the categories and what methods teachers use. The relationship between progressive and traditional is more like a normal distribution, with at one extreme a few teachers who use only what they consider to be ‘traditional’ teaching come what may, and at the other extreme a few teachers who use only what they consider to be ‘progressive’ teaching, likewise. In the middle are the majority who use a range of methods for different reasons; from those who use whatever is intuitively appealing, through those who use whatever methods they believe a particular authority figure thinks they should use, to those who use whatever does the job most effectively and have the evidence to prove it.

Until we reach consensus on what education is intended to achieve, develop a robust body of evidence that shows how to achieve it and figure out how to accommodate all the unique individuals we want to benefit from it, it’s likely that arguments about simplistic categorisation will go on and on.