An uncertain call to end `certainties'

21st August 2015 at 01:00
Bid to raze teaching structures leaves the foundations intact

In his new book, What if everything you knew about education was wrong?, David Didau implores the teaching community to "murder [its] darlings" - namely, the "certainties" that find their way into the policies and practices of teaching.

The scope of the project is ambitious: to reveal the constructed certainties of thought shaping education in England. In doing so, Didau marshals his experiences as a teacher, punctuating the book with nice Gladwellian narratives.

Two themes, not explicitly shared by the author, structure the book. First is the insight that poor leadership practices in schools reduce the capacity for really effective teaching in classrooms. The other is that reason and science might have the answers. What Didau is clear about is that we are sometimes wrong, especially in how we think about education.

As a call to read, question and think more, the book's arguments cannot be faulted. What often limits his attempt at deconstructing certainties, however, is Didau's own certainties. One example is the citation of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky. The positioning of Vygotsky as a supporter of group work shows a tenuous understanding of his "zone of proximal development" research (which looked at what learners can achieve with or without help).

Black and white

The fourth chapter increases the "certainty" count by setting up the author's core beliefs as unquestioned truth. The clearest expression of this occurs when he lists behaviours that we should not compromise on. Didau invokes Hegel's dialectic in terms that would be alien to the German philosopher.

The author then compares the "straightforward" representation of Hegel's dialectic with the key intellectual device for the book, John Keats' complex poetic idea of "negative capability", but without a detailed explanation. There may be a way that these two distinct and interesting ideas work together, but readers are asked to accept the link on faith.

Didau is most engaging when discussing contemporary concerns in education, such as attribution theory by Carol Dweck, the use of praise, lesson observations and research on memory and learning. But the discussion is again dulled by its ongoing certainty - while also asking us to rethink everything.

This is an ambitious and beautifully flawed book. I recommend it to educators suffering from restrictive managerialism, as well as colleagues entering the profession to provide a starting point for their own reflection.

What they do afterwards is a different matter. Didau's book is shaped by a concern around systems, but it does not provide a way for readers to think about the very human work of winning hearts and minds and effecting change.

Nick Dennis is deputy headteacher (academic) at Berkhamsted School

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