Review: 'The entire educational landscape is obliterated by a short but intensely argued book'

TES Opinion

Dr Kevin Stannard, director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust reviews Seven Myths About Education (Abingdon: Routledge) by Daisy Christodoulou:

Teachers are used to dealing with pendulum swings in policy and pedagogical theory, and have become habituated to shooting at moving examination goalposts. Each generation is entitled to redefine its field, in part by criticising earlier formulations; and I guess we have to accept that each secretary of state or head of Ofsted is entitled to reposition the goalposts.

But we’re less used to the entire educational landscape being obliterated by a short but intensely argued book that seeks to apply the kind of tactics that Sir Arthur Harris pioneered in the art of aerial bombardment.

The book is aimed at rehearsing and demolishing seven “myths” that are said to be dictating practice in today’s classrooms.

1. That facts prevent deeper understanding;
2. That teacher-led instruction demands passivity in pupils;
3. That the 21st century (and its ways of working) have changed everything;
4. That with the Internet, and with Google in particular, you don’t have to learn facts because you can always just look them up;
5. That we should teach transferrable skills rather than subject knowledge;
6. That projects and activities are the best way to learn;
7. That teaching knowledge is indoctrination.

These myths are despatched in an effort to reclaim the classroom for the transmission by experts and memorisation by students of good old-fashioned factual knowledge.

Each chapter tackles a myth by grounding it in foundational philosophical statements from the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Dewey and Paolo Freire. It then exemplifies their continued influence through the national curriculum and Ofsted reports to show that the authorities continue to prize teaching-lite and content-less approaches to learning. And through the assertions of tech-savvy cheer-leaders for the new economy to show that traditional curriculum [facts] and pedagogy [direct instruction] fail to teach the skills needed in today’s world.

The myths are then demolished through a combination of common sense, anecdote about actual teaching practices, and references to current research, including the findings of cognitive psychology and the work of John Hattie.

Christodoulou’s book deserves to be read sympathetically but critically, because at the very least it forces educationalists to reflect on practice and justify what might otherwise be taken for granted assumptions about what works and why.

Some responses to the book, and to the highly-charged arguments it contains, have been knee-jerk and ad hominem, drawing attention to the author’s very short time spent in actually teaching. But the arguments she uses deserve to be treated on their own terms. She is right about a lot of things, and these shouldn’t be lost when we challenge some of her more eye-catching but ultimately erroneous assertions.

Christodoulou is right on some important things. The use of Ofsted reports, however selective and skewed to a particular rhetorical purpose in the book, underlines the way that external imperatives influence teaching and learning, and often in pernicious and unintended ways.

It is also true, and important, that innovations in education be informed by evidence, including cognitive psychology, and subject to evaluation of their impact, rather than simply assumed to be effective by circular argument. And it is absolutely the case that facts matter.

As Christodoulou makes clear, young people benefit from knowing stuff. Factual knowledge enriches lives and should indeed be an entitlement – and not just for those who have the luxury of opting out from state-sanctioned curricular and state-mandated pedagogies.

It’s also undeniable that the “higher order” skills, of problem-solving, pattern-finding and connection-making (not to mention making Google-searches) are well-nigh impossible without at least some prior knowledge.

The book presents itself as a brave assault on the pristine and previously impregnable fortress of progressive education, ignoring the fact that the fortifications, or at least the outer ramparts, have been well and truly undermined by others – including authors that Christodoulou references approvingly, such as Diane Ravitch and E D Hirsch. The castle of progressive education in reality looks more like Corfe than Caernarfon.

It also uses research evidence patchily and not entirely convincingly – in seeking to demolish project- and enquiry-based learning. Great weight is put on a research paper by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, without acknowledging that it focuses on rather extreme minimal guidance “discovery” approaches, and was itself treated to a sustained critique by others in the same field.

In some cases, as in the chapter on transferable skills, some passages would make good material for a critical thinking class, to see if students can identify the non sequiturs. In fact, given the amount of repetition and the overlap between the seven myths, the whole book might be said to exemplify argumentum ad nauseam.

Ironically, in the book, “facts” themselves take on a mythical status, and it isn’t helpful that Christodoulou really does at times seem to equate facts with isolated nuggets (dates and things) to be learned by heart.
When she asserts the protean importance of facts against the prejudice of progressives, the argument would be stronger if it is accepted that “mere” lists of dates and isolated lines learned from literature are not the end but the means.

It is in the relation between facts – their connection in an argument, their configuration in a pattern – wherein lies the key to understanding and engagement. When she uses the concepts of fast and slow thinking to show how students use deeply embedded knowledge to solve quite tricky mental problems in maths, she is showing not the importance of knowing facts, but knowing rules.

The argument is undoubtedly made in a good cause, but the approach taken is unnecessary (insofar as it has been made before, and on stronger evidence bases). But more importantly, it is indiscriminate. The same criticism made of Bomber Harris could be made of this book. There are too many casualties, and too much collateral damage.

The seven myths aren’t entirely straw men, but there is an awful lot of caricature here, and not just of ideas. Subtle thinkers (Ken Robinson, Chris Quigley, Guy Claxton to name but three) are drawn as extremists, on the dark side of a Manichean world of good and bad. Is project-based learning really always bad? Do all proponents of learning by enquiry really believe that the transmission of facts has no place, ever?

Christodoulou uses a good example of an admiring Ofsted report of a language lesson in which students showed creative and collaborative ways of using their language skills, without direct teacher input, ignoring (she asserts) the fact that at some point the students must have been taught (presumably by direct instruction rather than "discovery") the vocab and the grammatical rules. But there is no recognition, by the author any more than by Ofsted, of the basic truth that deep, sustained learning needs both, at the appropriate time.

Inspectors, and maybe some appraisers, make judgements based on snap-shots of individual lessons, tempting teachers to construct each lesson as a one-off, all singing, all dancing, roller-coaster ride of discovery; but in reality learning is a journey, and teaching is a long game. Linking every lesson episode there is a narrative arc.

Teacher-led instruction, and the transmission of facts and rules, will be in greater evidence at the start of a unit of study, but will no doubt be replaced in subsequent lessons by more independent enquiry, collaborative work, and investigation. Through the journey, the teacher may change her role, from instructor to advisor or adjudicator. The process is iterative. Learners learn in different ways at different stages during each iteration.

Good teachers vary their practice accordingly. Good teachers are not the slaves of an inspection regime or of a polarising ideology. And in modelling attitudes to students, they are always wary of generalisations, bandwagons and poorly supported assertions. They do, however, welcome debate. Fact.

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