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.

seven myths about education: traditional subjects

In Seven Myths about Education, Daisy Christodoulou refers to the importance of ‘subjects’ and clearly doesn’t think much of cross-curricular projects. In the chapter on myth 5 ‘we should teach transferable skills’ she cites Daniel Willingham pointing out that the human brain isn’t like a calculator that can perform the same operations on any data. Willingham must be referring to higher-level information-processing because Anderson’s model of cognition makes it clear that at lower levels the brain is like a calculator and does perform essentially the same operations on any data; that’s Anderson’s point. Willingham’s point is that skills and knowledge are interdependent; you can’t acquire skills in the absence of knowledge and skills are often subject-specific and depend on the type of knowledge involved.

Daisy dislikes cross-curricular projects because students are unlikely to have the requisite prior knowledge from across several knowledge domains, are often expected to behave like experts when they are novices and get distracted by peripheral tasks. I would suggest those problems are indicators of poor project design rather than problems with cross-curricular work per se. Instead, Daisy would prefer teachers to stick to traditional subject areas.

traditional subjects

Daisy refers several times to traditional subjects, traditional bodies of knowledge and traditional education. The clearest explanation of what she means is on pp.117-119, when discussing the breadth and depth of the curriculum;

For many of the theorists we looked at, subject disciplines were themselves artificial inventions designed to enforce Victorian middle-class values … They may well be human inventions, but they are very useful … because they provide a practical way of teaching … important concepts …. The sentence in English, the place value in mathematics, energy in physics; in each case subjects provide a useful framework for teaching the concept.”

It’s worth considering how the subject disciplines the theorists complained about came into being. At the end of the 18th century, a well-educated, well-read person could have just about kept abreast of most advances in human knowledge. By the end of the 19th century that would have been impossible. The exponential growth of knowledge made increasing specialisation necessary; the names of many specialist occupations including the term ‘scientist’ were coined the 19th century. By the end of the 20th century, knowledge domains/subjects existed that hadn’t even been thought of 200 years earlier.

It makes sense for academic researchers to specialise and for secondary schools to employ teachers who are subject specialists because it’s essential to have good knowledge of a subject if you’re researching it or teaching it. The subject areas taught in secondary schools have been determined largely by the prior knowledge universities require from undergraduates. That determines A level content, which in turn determines GCSE content, which in turn determines what’s taught at earlier stages in school. That model also makes sense; if universities don’t know what’s essential in a knowledge domain, no one does.

The problem for schools is that they can’t teach everything, so someone has to decide on the subjects and subject content that’s included in the curriculum. The critics Daisy cites question traditional subject areas on the grounds that they reflect the interests of a small group of people with high social prestige (p.110-111).

criteria for the curriculum

Daisy doesn’t buy the idea that subject areas represent the interests of a social elite, but she does suggest an alternative criterion for curriculum content. Essentially, this is frequency of citation. In relation to the breadth of the curriculum, she adopts the principle espoused by ED Hirsch (and Daniel Willingham, Robert Peal and Toby Young), of what writers of “broadsheet newspapers and intelligent books” (p.116) assume their readers will know. The writers in question are exemplified by those contributing to the “Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and so on” (Willingham p.47). Toby Young suggests a UK equivalent – “Times leader writers and heavyweight political commentators” (Young p.34). Although this criterion for the curriculum is better than nothing, its limitations are obvious. The curriculum would be determined by what authors, editors and publishers knew about or thought was important. If there were subject areas crucial to human life that they didn’t know about, ignored or deliberately avoided, the next generation would be sunk.

When it comes to the depth of the curriculum, Daisy quotes Willingham; “cognitive science leads to the rather obvious conclusion that students must learn the concepts that come up again and again – the unifying ideas of each discipline” (Willingham p.48). My guess is that Willingham describes the ‘unifying ideas of each discipline’ as ‘concepts that come up again and again’ to avoid going into unnecessary detail about the deep structure of knowledge domains; he makes a clear distinction between the criteria for the breadth and depth of the curriculum in his book. But his choice of wording, if taken out of context, could give the impression that the unifying ideas of each discipline are the concepts that come up again and again in “broadsheet newspapers and intelligent books”.

One problem with the unifying ideas of each discipline is that they don’t always come up again and again. They certainly encompass “the sentence in English, place value in mathematics, energy in physics”, but sometimes the unifying ideas involve deep structure and schemata taken for granted by experts but not often made explicit, particularly to school students.

Daisy points out, rightly, that neither ‘powerful knowledge’ nor ‘high culture’ are owned by a particular social class or culture (p.118). But she apparently fails to see that using cultural references as a criterion for what’s taught in schools could still result in the content of the curriculum being determined by a small, powerful social group; exactly what the traditional subject critics and Daisy herself complain about, though they are referring to different groups.

dead white males

This drawback is illustrated by Willingham’s observation that using the cultural references criterion means “we may still be distressed that much of what writers assume their readers know seems to be touchstones of the culture of dead white males” (p.116). Toby Young turns them into ‘dead white, European males’ (Young p.34, my emphasis).

What advocates of the cultural references model for the curriculum appear to have overlooked is that the dead white males’ domination of cultural references is a direct result of the long period during which European nations colonised the rest of the world. This colonisation (or ‘trade’ depending on your perspective) resulted in Europe becoming wealthy enough to fund many white males (and some females) engaged in the pursuit of knowledge or in creating works of art. What also tends to be forgotten is that the foundation for their knowledge originated with males (and females) who were non-whites and non-Europeans living long before the Renaissance. The dead white guys would have had an even better foundation for their work if people of various ethnic origins hadn’t managed to destroy the library at Alexandria (and a renowned female scholar). The cognitive bias that edits out non-European and non-male contributions to knowledge is also evident in the US and UK versions of the Core Knowledge sequence.

Core Knowledge sequence

Determining the content of the curriculum by the use of cultural references has some coherence, but cultural references don’t necessarily reflect the deep structure of knowledge. Daisy comments favourably on ED Hirsch’s Core Knowledge sequence (p.121). She observes that “The history curriculum is designed to be coherent and cumulative… pupils start in first grade studying the first American peoples, they progress up to the present day, which they reach in the eighth grade. World history runs alongside this, beginning with the Ancient Greeks and progressing to industrialism, the French revolution and Latin American independence movements.”

Hirsch’s Core Knowledge sequence might encompass considerably more factual knowledge than the English national curriculum, but the example Daisy cites clearly leaves some questions unanswered. How did the first American peoples get to America and why did they go there? Who lived in Europe (and other continents) before the Ancient Greeks and why are the Ancient Greeks important? Obviously the further back we go, the less reliable evidence there is, but we know enough about early history and pre-history to be able to develop a reasonably reliable overview of what happened. It’s an overview that clearly demonstrates that the natural environment often had a more significant role than human culture in shaping history. And one that shows that ‘dead white males’ are considerably less important than they appear if the curriculum is derived from cultural references originating in the English-speaking world. Similar caveats apply to the UK equivalent of the Core Knowledge sequence published by Civitas, the one that recommends children in year 1 being taught about the Glorious Revolution and the significance of Robert Walpole.

It’s worth noting that few of the advocates of curriculum content derived from cultural references are scientists; Willingham is, but his background is in human cognition, not chemistry, biology, geology or geography. I think there’s a real risk of overlooking the role that geographical features, climate, minerals, plants and animals have played in human history, and of developing a curriculum that’s so Anglo-centric and culturally focused it’s not going to equip students to tackle the very concrete problems the world is currently facing. Ironically, Daisy and others are recommending that students acquire a strongly socially-constructed body of knowledge, rather than a body of knowledge determined by what’s out there in the real world.

knowledge itself

Michael Young, quoted by Daisy, aptly sums up the difference:

Although we cannot deny the sociality of all forms of knowledge, certain forms of knowledge which I find useful to refer to as powerful knowledge and are often equated with ‘knowledge itself’, have properties that are emergent from and not wholly dependent on their social and historical origins.” (p.118)

Most knowledge domains are pretty firmly grounded in the real world, which means that the knowledge itself has a coherent structure reflecting the real world and therefore, as Michael Young points out, it has emergent properties of its own, regardless of how we perceive or construct it.

So what criteria should we use for the curriculum? Generally, academics and specialist teachers have a good grasp of the unifying principles of their field – the ‘knowledge itself’. So their input would be essential. But other groups have an interest in the curriculum; notably the communities who fund and benefit from the education system and those involved on a day-to-day basis – teachers, parents and students. 100% consensus on a criterion is unlikely, but the outcome might not be any worse than the constant tinkering with the curriculum by government over the past three decades.

why subjects?

‘Subjects’ are certainly a convenient way of arranging our knowledge and they do enable a focus on the deep structure of a specific knowledge domain. But the real world, from which we get our knowledge, isn’t divided neatly into subject areas, it’s an interconnected whole. ‘Subjects’ are facets of knowledge about a world that in reality is highly integrated and interconnected. The problem with teaching along traditional subject area lines is that students are very likely to end up with a fragmented view of how the real world functions, and to miss important connections. Any given subject area might be internally coherent, but there’s often no apparent connection between subject areas, so the curriculum as a whole just doesn’t make sense to students. How does history relate to chemistry or RE to geography? It’s difficult to tell while you are being educated along ‘subject’ lines.

Elsewhere I’ve suggested that what might make sense would be a chronological narrative spine for the curriculum. Learning about the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies, elements, minerals, the atmosphere and supercontinents through the origins of life to early human groups, hunter-gatherer migration, agricultural settlement, the development of cities and so on, makes sense of knowledge that would otherwise be fragmented. And it provides a unifying, overarching framework for any knowledge acquired in the future.

Adopting a chronological curriculum would mean an initial focus on sciences and physical geography; the humanities and the arts wouldn’t be relevant until later for obvious reasons. It wouldn’t preclude simultaneously studying languages, mathematics, music or PE of course – I’m not suggesting a chronological curriculum ‘first and only’ – but a chronological framework would make sense of the curriculum as a whole.

It could also bridge the gap between so-called ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ subjects. In a consumer society, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of knowledge about food, water, fuel and infrastructure. But someone has to have that knowledge and our survival and quality of life are dependent on how good their knowledge is and how well they apply it. An awareness of how the need for food, water and fuel has driven human history and how technological solutions have been developed to deal with problems might serve to narrow the academic/vocational divide in a way that results in communities having a better collective understanding of how the real world works.

the curriculum in context

I can understand why Daisy is unimpressed by the idea that skills can be learned in the absence of knowledge or that skills are generic and completely transferable across knowledge domains. You can’t get to the skills at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy by bypassing the foundation level – knowledge. Having said that, I think Daisy’s criteria for the curriculum overlook some important points.

First, although I agree that subjects provide a useful framework for teaching concepts, the real world isn’t neatly divided up into subject areas. Teaching as if it is means it’s not only students who are likely to get a fragmented view of the world, but newspaper columnists, authors and policy-makers might too – with potentially disastrous consequences for all of us. It doesn’t follow that students need to be taught skills that allegedly transfer across all subjects, but they do need to know how subject areas fit together.

Second, although we can never eliminate subjectivity from knowledge, we can minimise it. Most knowledge domains reflect the real world accurately enough for us to be able to put them to good, practical use on a day-to-day basis. It doesn’t follow that all knowledge consists of verified facts or that students will grasp the unifying principles of a knowledge domains by learning thousands of facts. Students need to learn about the deep structure of knowledge domains and how the evidence for the facts they encompass has been evaluated.

Lastly, cultural references are an inadequate criterion for determining the breadth of the curriculum. Cultural references form exactly the sort of socially constructed framework that critics of traditional subject areas complain about. Most knowledge domains are firmly grounded in the real world and the knowledge itself, despite its inherent subjectivity, provides a much more valid and reliable criterion for deciding what students should know that what people are writing about. Knowledge about cultural references might enable students to participate in what Michael Oakeshott called the ‘conversation of mankind’, but life doesn’t consist only of a conversation – at whatever level you understand the term. For most people, even in the developed world, life is just as much about survival and quality of life, and in order to optimise our chances of both, we need to know as much as possible about how the world functions, not just what a small group of people are saying about it.

In my next post, hopefully the final one about Seven Myths, I plan to summarise why I think it’s so important to understand what Daisy and those who support her model of educational reform are saying.


Peal, R (2014). Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools. Civitas.
Willingham, D (2009). Why don’t students like school?. Jossey-Bass.
Young, T (2014). Prisoners of the Blob. Civitas.

A tale of two Blobs

The think-tank Civitas has just published a 53-page pamphlet written by Toby Young and entitled ‘Prisoners of The Blob’. ‘The Blob’ for the uninitiated, is the name applied by the UK’s Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, to ‘leaders of the teaching unions, local authority officials, academic experts and university education departments’ described by Young as ‘opponents of educational reform’. The name’s not original. Young says it was coined by William J Bennett, a former US Education Secretary; it was also used by Chris Woodhead, first Chief Inspector of Ofsted in his book Class War.

It’s difficult to tell whether ‘The Blob’ is actually an amorphous fog-like mass whose members embrace an identical approach to education as Young claims, or whether such a diverse range of people espouse such a diverse range of views that it’s difficult for people who would like life to be nice and straightforward to understand all the differences.

Young says;

They all believe that skills like ‘problem-solving’ and ‘critical thinking’ are more important than subject knowledge; that education should be ‘child-centred’ rather than ‘didactic’ or ‘teacher-led’; that ‘group work’ and ‘independent learning’ are superior to ‘direct instruction’; that the way to interest children in a subject is to make it ‘relevant’; that ‘rote-learning’ and ‘regurgitating facts’ is bad, along with discipline, hierarchy, routine and anything else that involves treating the teacher as an authority figure. The list goes on.” (p.3)

It’s obvious that this is a literary device rather than a scientific analysis, but that’s what bothers me about it.

Initially, I had some sympathy with the advocates of ‘educational reform’. The national curriculum had a distinctly woolly appearance in places, enforced group-work and being required to imagine how historical figures must have felt drove my children to distraction, and the approach to behaviour management at their school seemed incoherent. So when I started to come across references to educational reform based on evidence, the importance of knowledge and skills being domain-specific, I was relieved. When I found that applying findings from cognitive science to education was being advocated, I got quite excited.

My excitement was short-lived. I had imagined that a community of researchers had been busily applying cognitive science findings to education, that the literatures on learning and expertise were being thoroughly mined and that an evidence-based route-map was beginning to emerge. Instead, I kept finding references to the same small group of people.

Most fields of discourse are dominated by a few individuals. Usually they are researchers responsible for significant findings or major theories. A new or specialist field might be dominated by only two or three people. The difference here is that education straddles many different fields of discourse (biology, psychology sociology, philosophy and politics, plus a range of subject areas) so I found it a bit odd that the same handful of names kept cropping up. I would have expected a major reform of the education system to have had a wider evidence base.

Evaluating the evidence

And then there was the evidence itself. I might be looking in the wrong place, but so far, although I’ve found a few references, I’ve uncovered no attempts by proponents of educational reform to evaluate the evidence they cite.

A major flaw in human thinking is confirmation bias. To represent a particular set of ideas, we develop a mental schema. Every time we encounter the same set of ideas, the neural network that carries the schema is activated. The more it’s activated, the more readily it’s activated in future. This means that any configuration of ideas that contradicts a pre-existing schema, has, almost literally, to swim against the electromagnetic tide. It’s going to take a good few reiterations of the new idea set before a strongly embedded pre-existing schema is likely to be overridden by a new one. Consequently we tend to favour evidence that confirms our existing views, and find it difficult to see things in a different way.

The best way we’ve found to counteract confirmation bias in the way we evaluate evidence is through hypothesis testing. Essentially you come up with a hypothesis and then try to disprove it. If you can’t, it doesn’t mean your hypothesis is right, it just means you can’t yet rule it out. Hypothesis testing as such is mainly used in the sciences, but the same principle underlies formal debating, the adversarial approach in courts of law, and having an opposition to government in parliament. The last two examples are often viewed as needlessly combative, when actually their job is to spot flaws in what other people are saying. How well they do that job is another matter.

It’s impossible to tell at first glance whether a small number of researchers have made a breakthrough in education theory, or whether their work is simply being cited to affirm a set of beliefs. My suspicion that it might be the latter was strengthened when I checked out the evidence.

The evidence

John Hattie conducted a meta-anlaysis of over 800 studies of student achievement. My immediate thought when I came across his work was of the well-documented problems associated with meta-analyses. Hattie does discuss these, but I’m not convinced he disposed of one key issue; the garbage-in-garbage-out problem. A major difficulty with meta-analyses is ensuring that all the studies involved use the same definitions for the constructs they are measuring; and I couldn’t find a discussion of what Hattie (or other researchers) mean by ‘achievement’. I assume that Hattie uses test scores as a proxy measure of achievement. This is fine if you think the job of schools is to ensure that children learn what somebody has decided they should learn. But that assumption poses problems. One is who determines what students should learn. Another is what happens to students who, for whatever reason, can’t learn at the same rate as the majority. And a third is how the achievement measured in Hattie’s study maps on to achievement in later life. What’s noticeable about the biographies of many ‘great thinkers’ – Darwin and Einstein are prominent examples – is how many of them didn’t do very well in school. It doesn’t follow that Hattie is wrong – Darwin and Einstein might have been even greater thinkers if their schools had adopted his recommendations – but it’s an outcome Hattie doesn’t appear to address.

Siegfreid Engelmann and Wesley C Becker developed a system called Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading (DISTAR) that was shown to be effective in Project Follow-Through – a evaluation of a number of educational approaches in the US education system over a 30 year period starting in the 1960s. There’s little doubt that Direct Instruction is more effective than many other systems at raising academic achievement and self-esteem. The problem is, again, who decides what students learn, what happens to students who don’t benefit as much as others, and what’s meant by ‘achievement’.

ED Hirsch developed the Core Knowledge sequence – essentially an off-the-shelf curriculum that’s been adapted for the UK and is available from Civitas. The US Core Knowledge sequence has a pretty obvious underlying rationale even if some might question its stance on some points. The same can’t be said of the UK version. Compare, for example, the content of US Grade 1 History and Geography with that of the UK version for Year 1. The US version includes Early People and Civilisations and the History of World Religion – all important for understanding how human geography and cultures have developed over time. The UK version focuses on British Pre-history and History (with an emphasis on the importance of literacy) followed by Kings and Queens, Prime ministers then Symbols and figures – namely the Union Jack, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament – despite the fact that few children in Y1 are likely to understand how or why these people or symbols came to be important. Although the strands of world history and British history are broadly chronological, Y4s study Ancient Rome alongside the Stuarts, and Y6s the American Civil War potentially before the Industrial Revolution.

Daniel Willingham is a cognitive psychologist and the author of Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom and When can you trust the experts? How to tell good science from bad in education. He also writes for a column in American Educator magazine. I found Willingham informative on cognitive psychology. However, I felt his view of education was a rather narrow one. There’s nothing wrong with applying cognitive psychology to how teachers teach the curriculum in schools – it’s just that learning and education involve considerably more than that.

Kirschner, Sweller and Clark have written several papers about the limitations of working memory and its implications for education. In my view, their analysis has three key weaknesses; they arbitrarily lump together a range of education methods as if they were essentially the same, they base their theory on an outdated and incomplete model of memory, and they conclude that only one teaching approach is effective – explicit, direct instruction – ignoring the fact that knowledge comes in different forms.


I agree with some of the points made by the reformers:
• I agree with the idea of evidence-based education – the more evidence the better, in my view.
• I have no problem with children being taught knowledge. I don’t subscribe to a constructivist view of education – in the sense that we each develop a unique understanding of the world and everybody’s worldview is as valid as everybody else’s – although cognitive science has shown that everybody’s construction of knowledge is unique. We know that some knowledge is more valid and/or more reliable than other knowledge and we’ve developed some quite sophisticated ways of figuring out what’s more certain and what’s less certain.
• The application of findings from cognitive science to education is long overdue.
• I have no problem with direct instruction (as distinct from Direct Instruction) per se.

However, some of what I read gave me cause for concern:
• The evidence-base presented by the reformers is limited and parts of it are weak and flawed. It’s vital to evaluate evidence, not just to cite evidence that at face-value appears to support what you already think. And a body of evidence isn’t a unitary thing; some parts of it can be sound whilst other parts are distinctly dodgy. It’s important to be able to sift through it and weigh up the pros and cons. Ignoring contradictory evidence can be catastrophic.
• Knowledge, likewise, isn’t a unitary thing; it can vary in terms of validity and reliability.
• The evidence from cognitive science also needs to be evaluated. It isn’t OK to assume that just because cognitive scientists say something it must be right; cognitive scientists certainly don’t do that. Being able to evaluate cognitive science might entail learning a fair bit about cognitive science first.
• Direct instruction, like any other educational method, is appropriate for acquiring some types of knowledge. It isn’t appropriate for acquiring all types of knowledge. The problem with approaches such as discovery learning and child-led learning is not that there’s anything inherently wrong with the approaches themselves, but that they’re not suitable for acquiring all types of knowledge.

What has struck me most forcibly about my exploration of the evidence cited by the education reformers is that, although I agree with some of the reformers’ reservations about what’s been termed ‘minimal instruction’ approaches to education, the reformers appear to be ignoring their own advice. They don’t have extensive knowledge of the relevant subject areas, they don’t evaluate the relevant evidence, and the direct instruction framework they are advocating – certainly the one Civitas is advocating – doesn’t appear to have a structure derived from the relevant knowledge domains.

Rather than a rational, evidence-based approach to education, the ‘educational reform’ movement has all the hallmarks of a belief system that’s using evidence selectively to support its cause; and that’s what worries me. This new Blob is beginning to look suspiciously like the old one.