Book review: The Monkey-Proof Box

Lear's book is entertaining – but, says Clare Sealey, it seems conflicted, advocating explicit teaching in some chapters only and pupil-led discovery in others

Clare Sealey

The Monkey-Proof Box: Curriculum Design For Building Knowledge, Developing Creative Thinking And Promoting Independence

The Monkey-Proof Box: Curriculum Design For Building Knowledge, Developing Creative Thinking And Promoting Independence

Author: Jonathan Lear

Publisher: Independent Thinking Press

Details: 184pp, paperback, £16.99

ISBN: 9781781353103


Jonathan Lear has written an entertaining and thought-provoking book on curriculum design for building knowledge, developing critical thinking and promoting independence. He writes wittily and ruefully about the orthodoxies and obsessions of the past; the bizarre Qualifications and Curriculum Authority Slippers topic, the frantic and quest for coverage of an over-stuffed curriculum, the futility of chasing rapid and sustained progress, how differentiation all too often becomes predestination.

Rightly repudiating all this, Lear writes about how his school has developed a curriculum that promotes creativity with rigour. His approach has five stages, starting first with setting out the skills progression, then moving to determining procedural knowledge, and then to an inquiry question.  Consideration of authentic outcomes and audience comes next, with enabling pupils to critique their own and others work rounding off the process.

The last of these, the chapter on explicitly teaching children how to critique and then improve their work I found really useful. Inspired by Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence, Lear has developed a series of sentence starters that are routinely used by teachers to give children a script for giving each other sort of kind, specific and helpful feedback that Berger advocates.  

“I really liked the way…”

“What jumped out was…”

“My favourite part is…”

“My eye was drawn to…”

What is really helpful is that alongside these are several exemplar critiques showing the use of these sentence stems in practice. Once the children were able to use this warm feedback independently – a process that took looks of modelling and was given all the time necessary to children to genuinely be able to do this well, then the children were helped to develop ways of giving kind but ‘cool’ feedback, using phrases such as

“Have you considered…?”

“Why don’t you try…?”

Used in conjunction with the focus on authentic outcomes and critical audiences for the previous chapter, I thought this provided a promising way of ensuring that children wanted to work hard to produce their best possible work, not settling for second best.

I was less convinced by the first three elements of his approach. Lear starts with skills progression. After briefly granting that developing basic skills is fundamental to the work of a school, he then concentrates almost exclusively on how to help children develop active learning and creative thinking and trying to describe how children make progress in these areas.

This is problematic not because active learning and creative thinking are not worthy objectives for any curriculum; far from it. I share his passion for curriculum development that has these as ultimate objectives. What is problematic is his emphasis on children developing so-called generic skills such as analysis in order to think creatively. Using elements from SOLO, Lear seeks to demonstrate how the skill on analysis might progress throughout a child’s journey through the school.

We want skills that show clear progression through the school; skills that inform planning and skills that are carefully crafted so they can be used as a formative assessment tools which gauges depth of understanding rather than simply coverage. Above all else, we want skills that actually translate directly into classroom practice.

Defining the skill of analysis as examining methodically and in detail, Lear then goes on to show how to scaffold this and then how to gradually withdraw this scaffolding as children internalise the prompts. By proving models of prompts linked to worked examples in various subjects, Lear argues that, over time, children will internalise the prompts, eventually being able to use their generic skill of analysis transferably across subjects.  Which sounds great on the surface. But, dig a little deeper, and it becomes apparent that the ability to analyse is very much shaped by whatever the subject within which you are seeking to do analysis. Examining methodically implies a method, and that method is determined by the subject being examined. For example, in history, the prompt questions are: Who made the source? Why was is made? When was it made? What does it include? Leaving aside the problem that there is a lot more to history than source analysis, how transferable are these question prompts to other subjects? Just because we ask questions about what we are learning, does that mean it is straightforward to develop a generic skill of asking various questions all starting with a word beginning with W?

Lear concedes that “there will always be slight differences in the way the skill is applied in different subjects.” I’d argue that these variations are anything but slight. The questions you ask vary by subject. How you answer them varies by subject and of course, the knowledge you need to answer them varies by subject. Even if a consistent approach is used throughout the year groups, I very much doubt children would be able to internalise the subtleties of the different ways each subject influences the kind of questions you need to ask. I’m not even sure that many primary teachers are very clear about this, to be honest, let alone expecting children to grasp it. It involves having a deep understanding of the disciplinary knowledge for each subject and the absence of discussion of disciplinary knowledge is the central flaw of Lear’s approach to curriculum design.

This becomes apparent in the next two stages of Lear’s approach to curriculum design: determining content and concepts and deciding inquiry questions. Rightly wary of the tenuous links approach to making cross-curricular links, Lear decides that using concepts is a good way of connecting learning in different subject areas. For example, concepts such as justice, free-will or truth could be used to link subjects together because they don’t fall into subject boxes.

Only they do, and understanding disciplinary knowledge helps us grasp that.

Take, for example, the concept of justice. Questions about what justice is are questions for moral philosophy, not history. Within moral philosophy, it is perfectly acceptable to use examples from the past to explore moral arguments, but using an episode from history as a context for asking questions is not necessarily history. Any more than, to borrow an example from history teacher Michael Fordham, asking “How did Krakatoa erupt in 1883?” is a historical question rather than a geographical one. Historical questions are usually something like this: 

  • Why did something happen?
  • What were the consequences of something?
  • How and in what ways did things change?
  • What lines of continuity persisted across time?
  • How similar were people at a particular time?
  • Does the evidence support a particular conclusion?
  • How and why has the past been interpreted differently?

Teaching the discipline of history is an important induction into the ethical intellectual conventions around a particular inquiry into truth. It is not part of the discipline of history to start judging 13th-century kings, caliphs and peasants using criteria from the present day. Historians call that sort of erroneous thinking presentism. Apart from anything else, so much of went on in the past is obviously unfair by present-day standards, there is a danger to reducing the subject to tutting and gloating from our superior standpoint.  This is dangerous. If history becomes reduced to asking questions about whether X was right/moral/fair, we leave the door open to pernicious views on morality too. Indeed, this is exactly what fascist and communist regimes do; ignore the ethical demands of historical disciplinary knowledge and insert their preferred view of morality instead.

Lear promotes using enquiry questions explicitly because they can be used to promote curiosity and interest.  For example, “Should we accept our place in society?” as an over-arching inquiry question in a project that includes learning about 19th-century Britain through about the Titanic as a microcosm of Edwardian society. It’s not that this over-arching question isn’t worthy of study, it’s that we need to be clear it’s a moral philosophy question, appropriately explored through using the academic resources from that discipline. Nor do we need to fear that learning history by itself is somehow dry and boring and unlikely to engage children or get them thinking. It doesn’t need some juicy moral conundrum to become interesting. It’s interesting already.

There seem to be two Lears in this book. There is the one that talks about how important it is for children to have the knowledge in order for them to be able to develop skills, who is a huge fan of direct teaching and who writes compellingly about how to do it well and with consistency across the school. But then there is the Lear who seems to flinch from anything too teacher-led and starts advocating discovery learning. The very name of the book reveals this ambivalence. The monkey-proof box in the title arises from a nature documentary where scientists tried to ascertain how intelligent monkeys were by leaving a monkey-proof box full of nuts and filming what happened next. Initially the box did incite the troop’s curiosity, but after a while they grew frustrated at their inability to open it, gave up and went off. Then one very gifted and talented monkey returned and discovered how to open it, later teaching the other monkeys how it was done. If this teaches us anything, surely it is that leaving monkeys to find things out for themselves results in frustrating and task abandonment for the vast majority. Curiosity is only reignited when the greater depth monkey explicitly teaches the others what to do. Discovery as a vehicle for learning fails all but one of the monkeys.    

Creative thinking, active learning and curiosity are enabled, not thwarted by knowledge. Lear sort of accepts that, yet the book seems conflicted, advocating knowledge and explicit teaching in some chapters only and pupil-led discovery in others. Yet for all its flaws the book got me thinking, sometimes nodding along in agreement, sometimes thinking now that’s a good idea and sometimes shaking my head in exasperated disagreement. I hope he goes on to write another book. Once he’s realised I’m right, of course.

Clare Sealy is headteacher of St Matthias primary in East London. She tweets @ClareSealy

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