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A Perspective on ‘Seven Myths’

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Daisy Christodoulou’s book Seven Myths About Education has created quite a stir since it was published online earlier this year. After a rave review from a respected colleague and several blogs about the book, I’ve finally managed to read Seven Myths for myself. I’m planning to include this for discussion in a new education Book Club next term.

The conclusion of the book seems to be this:
Knowledge is the bedrock of a good education for the 21st Century. Effective teaching should feature more direct and explicit teaching of factual knowledge. This might include more direct teacher instruction and more explicit drilling and much less group work and ‘activities’. There are,however, institutional barriers to securing this change including guidance from OfSTED and a legacy from ‘anti-knowledge’ theorists and educationalists who still influence teachers to be averse to didactic knowledge transmission, despite academic research that is counter to that position.

I’ve spent ages reflecting on what I think about the Myths and their relevance to my work. I do think this deserves to be regarded as an important book as many people have suggested. However I also worry about polarising the knowledge debate too much because the truth is always more complex; I also think that a Dawkins-esque ‘absolute position’ approach is not always helpful. That said, the book contributes to the debate in a direct manner that is refreshing and probably very timely and necessary.

There is a great deal that I agree with:

1. There is nothing wrong with teacher instruction and this has certainly been turned into ‘a bad thing’ in some quarters in an unhelpful way. Hattie’s evidence confirms what most teachers know from experience: direct instruction works really well…alongside other strategies. Direct instruction is not necessarily passive.
2. Knowledge and skills are interwoven..and abstract skills acquisition is a bizarre notion. I’ve never understood why people undermine their credibility by championing the idea of being explicitly not ‘knowledge driven’. It’s a massive own goal – especially when this is often not what they really mean.
3. 21st Century skills need to be put in proper context and ‘Seven Myths’ does this well. Being well educated doesn’t mean anything subtantively different to what it has ever meant, even though we have technology to make knowledge easier to access.
4. Obviously enough, a core knowledge base is essential for reading and making meaning of any text. That knowledge has to come from somewhere.

It might well be the case that some more direct content transmission would be a good thing. For example we recently discussed the value of teaching a KS3 ‘History Overview’ course so that a good sense of chronology …a schema for all historical events…could be developed prior to the indepth and thematic studies. Would a similar general course in English literature be useful, given that any selection of texts can only be a small sample of the full canon? Perhaps. In science there are certainly some important fundamentals on which everything else hinges: particles, scale, forces, energy, evolution and genetics, diffusion processes, basic measurements and units.

Solid core knowledge in these areas could perhaps be transmitted and drilled…But it isn’t certain to improve overall understanding without a lot of further work. In my experience, whether a student knows an equation off by heart or has to look it up, doesn’t correlate neatly to how good they are at physics. But still, this is an interesting area for discussion and research rather than one for taking an absolute position on.

There are other aspects that I found less convincing.

For me, the myths just don’t ring true as a general description of the state of our schooling or the issues with it.

Most teachers already explicitly teach facts and transmit knowledge as part and parcel of their everyday work. If anything, we have a strong orientation towards exam preparation; exams are not as content free as some people suggest. The new NC may have notched up some content areas; the new GCSEs may have more knowledge requirements, but already school curricula are knowledge rich. Just look at the exam specifications. It is just a question of degrees.

Over many years, I’ve seen a lot of poor teaching in various contexts. I’d suggest that very little of it stemmed from these myths. Mostly the issues are around poor behaviour, an inability to hold a class’ attention, weak subject knowledge, an awkward or excessively dull expositional style, low expectations,…all these teachers were desperately trying to transmit knowledge but failing to do so effectively.

Of course, in some cases, I’ve seen poor lessons where there has been a lame task focus instead of a rigorous learning focus. I cringe as much as anyone when a teacher says “we’re going to work on our resilience today” rather than simply setting ongoing work that inherently demands resilience. But I’d say it is much more common to find a didactic teacher who is not making an impact than a teacher engaging students in group work that isn’t effective. So, even accepting that the myths are out there, I don’t think they go very far in accounting for low standards where they exist in the system in general.

Daisy Christodoulou’s personal anecdotal experience is from a very specific teaching situation and this has clearly been very influential. However, especially in relation to group work and ‘activities’, I feel a wider view is needed. I accept that some poorly conceived activities may be content free..and who would defend that? However, for me, after 25 years in various schools, I’m pretty clear that direct instruction and group work are as inseparable as knowledge and skills. They co-exist in a typical flow of lessons and I think it’s a mistake to create a dichotomy.

Many of the best lessons I have seen have been intensely knowledge rich but involved group work, collaborative learning and student-led activity. I have also seen numerous masterclasses of direct instruction – always, without exception, accompanied by expert questioning and feedback. Knowledge transmission is a very limiting and limited view of teaching…because students always bring their perspective, their own starting point, their own ideas.

Much of the evidence for the myths is taken from OfSTED reports that cite supposedly exemplary practice. I’m not OfSTED’s greatest fan so I was expecting to be reeling in horror, but I wasn’t – even though I see the point that straight direct instruction is rarely profiled as exemplary. For example, the example of Y4s talking about health and safety prior to going on a trip seemed perfectly reasonable. Why not engage them in this way instead of just telling them the dos and don’ts? They might well know already and the activity could show up some misconceptions. In the main, Y4s are quite capable of knowing how to be safe on a trip.

This Y9 History lesson, comparing bombing campaigns, sounds great to me.

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Of course the teacher could just tell them..but imagine being ‘told’ the whole history course. As a learner myself, I’d have found that insufferable…so it wouldn’t work for everyone. I imagine a rich and varied set of responses from this task that the teacher might not have delivered on their own. Ultimately, in same time period, isn’t this at least as effective and potentially more so? In any case, these lessons are part of a sequence and can’t be taken at face value from the reports.

I admire the rigour of looking for a theoretical underpinning for the myths but, to be honest, the references to Freire and Rousseau etc didn’t add to the case for me. Are they relevant? I didn’t follow the link from theory to practice. Freire reminds me of student politics where it is easy to say things you won’t live by. He provokes some thought but his influence is surely marginal at most.

There are quite a few references to RSA’s Opening Minds and passing references to Guy Claxton. But their ideas are only used directly in a tiny sample of schools; they don’t represent the system in any way…and even here, whilst I share scepticism about the full-on competence-based approach, I have to be open minded about the eventual outcomes. It would require a long-term study to show the impact. In any case, there is a stack of content in Opening Minds in practice; it is just arranged differently. Similarly with Building Learning Power schools, the ideas seem to operate more at the level of ethos in schools which often already have a knowledge-rich curriculum. Good teachers don’t do BLP instead of teaching facts.

In the book, projects in general are wrapped in with the RSA approach. Whilst I accept the argument about opportunity costs, many projects merely make links between standard subject-disciplines or give scope for multiple learning pathways through a subject. Is there any evidence that students who do a lot of project work have less knowledge by the end? Projects can be good or bad…but is it helpful to characterise all projects as inherently weak substitutes for teacher transmission? I don’t think so.

The book has some interesting ideas about memory. However, I was struck by the use of numerical examples. No-one thinks students should not learn times tables. It is standard. However, what then? We don’t learn the answer to 32x 29. We work it out. A lot of our knowledge is of processes that we apply. Most of maths is based on learning relatively few principles and applying them to new problems. You learn methods by repeated practice which is slightly more subtle than rote learning. This is uncontroversial and is pretty much how it is always done. Group work can play a role in helping students to practice these methods. Linking the memory argument to other subjects needed further development I felt.

Needing to know about baseball to understand this:

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is obvious enough. Geoff Barton makes a similar case for literacy in general..ie that we need to make implicit knowledge explicit, especially for the ‘word poor’. However, what is the implication in this example? To teach about baseball? No. Kids need as much knowledge as possible – of course – but contextual knowledge will always be finite so they also need to be able to cope when a sentence does not resonate. Sometimes more open-ended tasks allow teachers to flush out which students get an idea and which don’t; effective differentiation is difficult to achieve through direct instruction in isolation.

Of course you can learn a lot of knowledge off by heart…the sequence of English monarchs, poems and soliloquies, the equations of motion, an explanation for the formation of igneous rock -without even understanding the concepts particularly well – and it is a reasonable argument to make that students might benefit from more of that. However, I’d suggest that this only warrants a proposal to increase the emphasis on this type of learning…as opposed to the hyperbole of myth-busting which, to me is over-egging it.

In the end, whilst the book will make a lot of sense to a lot of people, I find the myth vehicle more of a barrier than a persuasive tool. For sure, teachers need to ensure core knowledge is securely learned by each student in their class..but the knowledge doesn’t have to originate from them directly. That might be true of very basic knowledge with the most disadvantaged learners….but we need to be careful not to create a general principle from a specific set of conditions. Let’s explore what happens more widely when students learn in a culture of more explicit and direct knowledge transmission; let’s then discuss the outcomes and opportunity costs relative to the prevailing pedagogy in a range of settings before we start assuming the whole system is wrong and that this is the answer.

 

Related Post: Raising the Bar. 

 

Discussion

62 thoughts on “A Perspective on ‘Seven Myths’

  1. Great review. I agree totally. As a teacher I am imparting knowledge all the time, but alongside that I help develop the skills of an independent learner. I felt the book was not open to a broad curriculum of styles, although some points made sense. Thanks for a good read!

    Posted by Amy | August 6, 2013, 6:10 am
  2. As an advocate of project based learning, seeing the quality of learning experience it gives children day-to-day, alongside traditional methods of knowledge acquisition, it’s reassuring to hear there are some paper thin flaws in this book in terms of research observations. Though there is much to agree with. The quality of outcomes and depth of learning experience and the exceptionally high expectations in our course as well as the sheer enjoyment and stretching of the kids minds makes me realise that what we are doing really works.
    Hattie also speaks about teaching the skills of learning has a powerful effect. Can we please just not all agree that there is room for both direct instruction, independent learning and project based learning. A rich and varied diet of learning rather than believing that DI is the saviour of the modern school teacher.

    Posted by Pete Jones | August 6, 2013, 7:19 am
  3. I agree. Surely a diet of just one approach would kill students’ desire to learn and our desire to teach?

    Posted by kpulleyn | August 6, 2013, 7:43 am
  4. Really sensible article – I think it is so important to get a balance in teaching. I’m old enough to have experienced a lot of dire ‘droning and copying’ lessons when I was at school and one thing that attracted me into teaching was seeing far more engaging lessons with student interaction. I do think that whatever the wrongs of learning styles most people like a bit of variety in work (teachers as well!)

    I do take issue a bit though with the 21st century skills debate though-while I know school isn’t just about preparation for office life, there are some things schools must consider to get students up to date. I worked for a fair while outside of teaching and have heard some cringeworthy comments from teachers about the extent of secretarial support offered for example! Here’s my list of 21st century skills to be shot down http://www.marketingadviceforschools.com/3/post/2013/06/21st-century-skills-they-exist-and-they-matter.html

    Posted by Simon Hepburn | August 6, 2013, 8:46 am
  5. For me this is without a doubt the clearest and most incisive review of the book, thank you. As suggested the book caused a “stir” and it received some rave reviews from respected bloggers. I was starting to think that I was completely out of step but this review summarised very effectively the positives and negatives.

    I also felt (along with others) that the myths did not accurately reflect the mood/feeling of the teaching profession generally although many of the issues raised certainly can be very real in some schools.

    The experience of headguruteacher shines through and I am sure many other teachers will be reading the review and and nodding.

    I hope that this review is reblogged as much as the initial rave reviews were, it certainly deserves to be.

    Thank you

    Posted by bt0558 | August 6, 2013, 8:51 am
  6. It has been fascinating how different starting assumptions have led to a very different understanding of Daisy Christodoulou’s book in the subsequent discussion of it. While she argues there should be more content in our teaching, pointing out that there is still noticeable content in in what is currently taught appears to miss her point. She is arguing that education can be distorted when it is not understood that skills are drawn from fluency of knowledge. While you acknowledge the truth of this I am surprised that you don’t comment on how pervasive this faulty assumption is in education. As a history teacher I frequently encounter problems that are caused by this faulty assumption and I outlined them in a comment on Old Andrew’s blog, which he then re-blogged here:

    http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2013/07/02/the-history-teachers-we-dont-hear-from/

    Two other small points. I know of numerous primary schools that don’t expect children to learn their tables by heart. My local one provides a ‘fact box’ with the necessary tables for the calculation. Secondary maths teachers I speak to don’t seem to think enough year 7 students come knowing their tables.
    Finally I have done that bombing task as it is an example of a current possible piece of AQA coursework. It really is a bad task. The internet does not provide detail in a form that even able students can readily use to find data or interpretations. We teachers (with our superior domain based knowledge…) had to do the same research and were able to find useful information which we put together in a pack, in a format that made the information accessible. We did give students the chance to research independently while doing their controlled assessment but it was not time well spent. In fact although the task is described as ‘independent’ it is clear from the last sentences that the teacher appreciated that plenty of quite specific guidance was actually necessary to get this task off the ground.

    Posted by Heather F | August 6, 2013, 8:53 am
    • Thanks for the comment. I don’t think I miss the point entirely..do I? I just disagree with the polarised characterisations used, eg kids ‘unencumbered by knowledge’ …we can discuss less or more knowledge and whether direct didactic transmission or group work are effective or appropriate but I’m not moved by the idea of teachers being anti-knowledge in an extensive way, even if they are skills-evangelists. I’d like to know now widespread non-teaching of times tables is…I also have met kids who failed to learn them..but they’d been trying to for years. Shame about the bombing example. It reads ok to me from what is presented. However, any research task needs some teacher moderation and guidance. Independent learning doesn’t mean teacher-free; it’s just a different driving force, all part of the mix.

      Posted by headguruteacher | August 6, 2013, 8:49 pm
      • Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Perhaps it is I who am not making my point clearly. In my teaching I observe some very real problems caused by a widespread assumption that skills can be separated from knowledge. One consequence of this can be a reduction in the amount of ‘stuff’ taught or viewing the knowledge as purely a vehicle, a means to a skills based end. However my own experience is more of OTHER very significant distortions created by this false assumption. Forgive including a link in the last post but I spent some time writing the comment on this issue to ensure I made my point clearly. In summary it explains how exam board markschemes were changed at the last round of reforms to separate the assessment of skills and of knowledge and the ways this faulty approach distorts the assessment.
        On the subject of tables your experiences don’t agree with mine. However, surely only a tiny proportion of the population would really be unable to learn them? It is a matter of prioritisation.
        I take your point about independent tasks needing some teacher guidance (and skills based teaching needing some knowledge). However, Ofsted praised this sort of task specifically because the students researched independently. If research was independent then the task is not fit for purpose and self evidently so to any history teacher/inspector interested in the quality of what students learn about WW2 bombing. This inspector clearly set out to praise independent approaches and thus must have been prioritising ‘the skill of research’ over the quality of learning to ever praise the approach.

        Posted by Heather F | August 7, 2013, 6:37 pm
      • I’ve now read the linked post. I see where you are coming from. I think the thing with history is that the content is so vast, any syllabus is a selection, so skills become the unifying element. Even in a specific context eg Harris and Dresden, which specific facts would you choose as being core? I do agree that one could learn an ‘analysis’ almost off pat…that’s an inevitability…like knowing how to analyse Hamlet via Brodie’s notes. Students are meant to embed their knowledge of say Churchill in their analysis… And rarely get a chance to state simple facts about him. We’ve discussed this at KEGS. However, that is a still a nuance issue for me, rather than a myth-busting one. Anyway, thanks for adding to this discussion.

        Posted by headguruteacher | August 8, 2013, 10:19 am
  7. You obviously see yourself as an objective practitioner who calmly weighs competing claims. I don’t think that you are and you give this away when you say, “But I’d say it is much more common to find a didactic teacher who is not making an impact than a teacher engaging students in group work that isn’t effective.” This isn’t even qualified as an argument from your won experience. It’s just asserted.

    As for Friere and Rousseau, I think that this is a place where Keynes’s famous quote applies, “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas”

    Harry

    Posted by Harry Webb | August 6, 2013, 10:03 am
    • Thanks Harry. I’m as biased as anyone of course but, yes, I am summing up my experience of observed lessons. I think where a more didactic approach is poor it is largely an issue of poor differentiation and behaviour issues.

      Posted by headguruteacher | August 6, 2013, 4:46 pm
      • I am writing a post about bias in the coming week that I think might be useful! I really enjoyed this review. I too frustrated by the binary thinking that places DI in opposition to more collaborative learning methods. In any given school day I will teach a range of lessons with a range of methods. I possess no romantic notions of Rousseau, but I do apply a decade of experience and a host of evidential reading and instinct that applies to my school context. I think my bias, working in a very good school, is a bias that sees successful learning happen with a range of pedagogical methods, DI included. Therefore I find your idea of a ‘flow’ of learning much more akin to my experience, rather than the polarised, ideology laden debates.

        Harry – As a side note, I like the Keyne’s quote, but I reckon the impact of Friedman far outstrips Friere in our society and education system. I wouldn’t mind a debate about that!

        Posted by huntingenglish | August 6, 2013, 8:11 pm
      • Thanks Alex. Sage-like as ever.

        Posted by headguruteacher | August 6, 2013, 8:23 pm
  8. Another very helpful post Tom and keeps moving the debate on. I’m still waiting for an answer to my ‘Curate’s Egg’ diagram I posted a few weeks back: http://behrfacts.com/2013/07/19/the-curates-egg-approach-to-learning-outcomes-researched2013/. This divided the 4 parts of a learning outcome ‘egg’ into knowledge, skills, attainment and rank in an attempt to connect curriculum reform with the proposed primary accountability changes. Not quite sure where to go next with it but will be responding to the consultation.

    Posted by behrfacts | August 6, 2013, 4:24 pm
  9. Very nicely put Tom. Like you, it is the choice of using seven myths I take issue with. They just don’t ring true and they are certainly not rife in my experience as Daisy Christodoulou suggests. Whereas there are some important points made regarding the omelette-like, inextricable consistency of skills and knowledge in real-life learning (to paraphrase Daisy’s beloved Hirsch), the vehicle chosen to make these points spoils it for me and stops me from taking the rest as seriously as I perhaps should.

    I also find some contradictions, for example: in her 7th myth Daisy states Teaching knowledge is indoctrination and she then substantiates by writing in support of the importance of teaching knowledge ( which I read to mean facts). However, earlier in her book she regretted the very thing she later goes on to support by admitting that when she was at university “ideas that had absolutely no evidence backing them up had been presented to me as unquestionable axioms”. I’m sure her university lecturers saw those allegedly evidence-unsupported “unquestionable axioms” as pretty good knowledge. So good in fact, they chose to teach it to her.

    I’m just not so convinced.

    Thanks for this Tom. It was a really good read.

    Posted by José Picardo (@josepicardo) | August 6, 2013, 8:17 pm
    • Thanks for the comment Jose. For sure, a wider debate to have about which knowledge and on whose authority etc. Most knowledge is not as absolute as geometry and times tables. If you claim something as a myth it is a big job to prove it as such .

      Posted by headguruteacher | August 6, 2013, 8:33 pm
  10. The only “wrong” teaching strategy is using the same one all the time…

    Posted by Roo Stenning (@TheRealMrRoo) | August 6, 2013, 10:11 pm
  11. Tom and Alex

    I am partial in this debate but I know that I am. Without wishing to be overly emotive, I do feel a little condescended to when people who are actually quite biased pitch themselves as balanced. “Calm down,” I hear, “I don’t know what you’re getting so worked up about.”

    How, for instance, are we meant to logically reconcile, “However, for me, after 25 years in various schools, I’m pretty clear that direct instruction and group work are as inseparable as knowledge and skills,” with, “I’d say it is much more common to find a didactic teacher who is not making an impact than a teacher engaging students in group work that isn’t effective”?

    Alex – I’m not convinced that you do lack romantic notions, despite your protestations. Unfortunately, we all fool ourselves into thinking that we are paragons of rationality when we are actually parroting rationalisations.

    Oh, and I think you both misunderstand Direct Instruction. You seem to be using it in the sense of Explicit Instruction.

    Harry

    Posted by Harry Webb | August 7, 2013, 9:01 am
    • Hi Harry. Both of those statements are separate and consistent..based on my observations and dealings with weaker teachers. Most really good teachers I’ve known wouldn’t see group work or instruction modes as opposed…merely part and parcel of teaching a flow of differentiated lessons. As far as condescension goes..not sure what to say. You strike me as one of the more robust critics on twitter…I’ve just clarified a point about making assertions vs citing evidence. As ever, I’m using my personal experience..which is obviously limited.

      Posted by headguruteacher | August 7, 2013, 2:11 pm
  12. Harry – I have no intention of being condescending, either directly or tacitly. I value the fact that you have a staunch opinion in the debate that is well informed by a range of research, but I happen to disagree with a few of your points and what I perceive as the inflexibility of our position. I am sure I cannot challenge your perspective, nor do I want to, but implying that everyone who doesn’t share your staunch view is fooling themselves takes the debate nowhere. Perhaps I do have romantic notions Harry – perhaps my legion of cognitive biases are just as strong as your contrary biases? That is likely so. All the more reasons to be tentative with our judgements and methods.

    I think I understand direct instruction based on reading quite a bit about it. I have read a fair bit about Engelmann etc. and there is much to be gleaned from his logical model. I recently wrote an extended piece on lesson planning for new English teachers which bears close relation to the DI model. Indeed, I think it is the predominant model of instruction (with more collaborative work at the guided writing stage than Englemann would plan) in my English department and in the lessons I have observed in my school although I doubt many have read Englemann. I happen to disagree with elements of the logical progression of Englemann’s theory of instruction. I also think that language and meaning is always mediated socially between students as well as between the teacher and student, whether we want it to or not. I think Vygotsky has a useful perspective, but based on your ‘Goldilocks’ post I know you are not so sure! I have also found Nutthall’s research instructive on this aspect of learning.

    I apologise if I came across as condescending. I was of a dissenting opinion and nothing more. I follow your blogs with interest and you may be sceptical but I find myself in a middle ground in the instructivist/constructivist debate. I like to think I am one of those relativists who cheats taking one side or another and plucks the best from all sides!

    Posted by huntingenglish | August 7, 2013, 10:14 am
  13. Great balanced (to me) post Tom. I may be missing the point, but there seems to me to be a debate on whether a drill is better than a saw. A brilliant didactic teacher is untouchable for imparting knowledge, but arguably less good at how to use that knowledge effectively. In my subject, physics very little knowledge is needed, what you do with it is more important. However without the knowledge, no connections can be seen so it is crucial they have a solid base. Science without practicals and exploration is like teaching swimming without water, you can get your students to answer exam questions on swimming technique, but they may not be able to swim at all. My experience of working for the Institute of Physics indicates few people can use physics in everyday contexts even those who hold high qualifications in it.
    The variables are also huge even within a single subject area – I teach lessons in elite schools and extremely challenging ones. It would be a nonsense to use the same strategies when the student’s needs and expectations are so different. As Tom said it is about finding what works for those students you have in front of you

    Posted by neilatkin63 | August 7, 2013, 10:39 am
  14. Isn’t the point that while practical work is essential to learn scientific method the content is not efficiently learnt through exploration? Yes, you need to see things demonstrated physically but the general argument is that independent/discovery learning is not effective for novices. Also my physicist husband tells me (not my area!) that the reason students can’t apply physics to real life situations is not because of a lack practical work. It is their exposure to the algebraic modelling which is key and the amount of this has been substantially cut in successive curriculum reviews.

    Posted by Heather F | August 7, 2013, 9:27 pm
    • Sorry to hijack your blog Tom. I agree that the demise of algebraic modelling has had a profound impact on the application and understanding of physics and it’s links with maths. I would disagree that exploration is less efficient as content can still be delivered through it, but at the point where the student realises they don’t understand something as they have insufficient knowledge. I am still delivering content, but at a different point in the lesson. If you look at my blog post http://neilatkin.com/2013/07/02/so-you-do-understand-physics-you-just-thought-you-didnt/ (or my science of surfing blog) you can see the different structure of the lesson. Rather than teach from the ‘bottom up’ where it is assumed they dont know it. a challenge is given that they can only solve if they have sufficient knowledge and understanding. If they already have this knowledge, I dont need to teach them content, if not, I do so I would argue it is much more efficient if done well. (and a disaster if done badly!)

      Posted by neilatkin63 | August 8, 2013, 6:00 am
      • I think we all agree that more maths in physics is a good thing. I’m glad to see more maths in our iGCSE. But, even there, doing the maths can mask a lack of intuition about physics because the models (at school level)often assume no energy loss or simplify the variables. Practical work can also hamper conceptual understanding – Alom Shaha is good on this. It’s adopting a rigorous thoughtful blend of both theoretical and practical domains that is needed. I’m such a middle-roader!!

        Posted by headguruteacher | August 8, 2013, 10:03 am
  15. Thanks for this very detailed and balanced review. I agree with you that a Dawkins-esque ‘absolute’ approach such as the one espoused by the author is not always helpful, especially in the area of what works in education. More over, her clear lack of a wide experience in different types of school settings was very obvious. The fact that her criticisms do not ring true to those who work and have worked for many years in schools and to improve learning and teaching in schools is also clear when reading the book. Yet I also agree that it is good for such books to be written because they can cause some much-needed debate in this area. It reminds be of some passionate discussions that I have had with fellow practitioners about knowledge v skill v both in my own subject (Languages) and anything that encourages us to think more deeply about our practice is surely good.

    It is also the case (I am currently training as an inspector) that if I observed a lesson with no well-planned pair or group work if it was appropriate in that context, it would be hard to rate it well, and this is because it is an effective learning technique and sometimes (e.g. Speaking together in a foreign language) students can only do this when working together.

    Posted by Wendy Adeniji (@wendyadeniji) | August 8, 2013, 5:21 pm
  16. A very interesting analysis of what, as you say, is an ‘important’ book. In my view, it’s important because it perfectly reflects a trend in contemporary education theory towards polarisation for the sake of controversy, simply to get more ‘hits’ on a website or blog, simply to sell more services. Daisy Christodoulou is selling something, and therefore the more extreme her views, the more likely she is to capture the attention of people who sit somewhere on her theoretical scale (and the Oedipus-like love of those – like Bennett, OldAndrew and Gove – for whom her public exposition of their beliefs is their very kind of theory-porn).

    She is also feeding our strange cultural need in this country for polarisation. We do not seem able to accept nuance as a concept, nor compromise as a strategy. Of course, as you say, it’s about knowledge and skills, teaching and projects, drilling and ‘activities’ … and, and, and; not or, or, or. To see things the way Christodoulou does seems impoverished and self-limiting to me.

    The reality is more optimistic … I speak to a lot of teachers and heads about their curricula, and find that, even when they baulk (sometimes angrily) at the very suggestion that they could perhaps include some project-based learning in their students’ experience, it usually turns out on closer inspection that they are already; they just call it something different to ease their troubled ideological consciences.

    Posted by Ben Gibbs | August 9, 2013, 7:18 am
    • Really interesting comment Ben. I believe DC is sincere and has a conviction that she is right in principle. But she doesn’t give herself any room…a different book simply suggesting the idea that more direct knowledge-based teaching would benefit certain learners might have been more persuasive.
      However, I’m with you. I’ve been successful in the classroom with all kinds of learners; I can’t imagine teaching a lesson sequence in the style DC suggests.

      Posted by headguruteacher | August 9, 2013, 7:50 am
      • There seems to be some confusion in this post and in virtually all of the comments as to what direct instruction actually is. It may be helpful to point out that it’s not explicit teaching or transmission teaching. Direct instruction is one of the most evidence backed teaching methods there is and goes from a teacher demonstration to controlled practice to free practice. The teacher moves back up the chain to more controlled practice if students are unable to demonstrate the newly acquired knowledge/skill at an appropriate level in the free practice. It is not only for knowledge, it can be very effective for skills and works well when both are combined. It’s certainly not an panacea but it is well worth finding out about and adding to your tool box.

        Posted by RCA | August 13, 2013, 9:32 am
      • I don’t think I use or understand the term differently to how you describe it. I know plenty of good teachers who would simply call this ‘teaching’! It isn’t a new strategy that needs to be found out about as such. In the context of this discussion I don’t think it makes a real difference…because all these methods are usually integrated….as are pair and group activities. “Explicit instruction” vs “direct instruction” are terms that are possible to define separately but the spirit of the idea that teachers lead the learning seems to override the distinction when presented with DC’s notion of myths.

        Posted by headguruteacher | August 13, 2013, 4:06 pm
  17. RCA – There is some significant evidence to support DI. Devised by Englemann, DI is a specific type of explicit instruction that not only follows the model you describe, but also outlines a whole host of curricula materials and lesson plans – right down to scripting explanations and questioning. In the American context, where textbooks etc. are more normalised than in England, there is evidence of successful impact. I am not suprised – it presents a rigorous strucutre to what most see as good, sound practice. As a side-note, I would be interested to see the methodology of the evidence base to support DI because ‘pure’ DI is highly specific (which of course makes it brand-able and sellable – no small coincidence). I don’t know of any teachers who have actually taught Engleman’s official DI in the UK as of yet, but I am open to finding out.

    The model of pedagogy you describe sounds like DI, but in reality DI and ‘explicit instruction’ are blurred. I therefore agree with Tom when he says it is on a simple level pretty standard teaching practice.

    Posted by huntingenglish | August 13, 2013, 7:44 pm
    • Alex / Tom – I hope you will excuse me if I say that I find your comments on Direct Instruction disturbing. To state that “it is on a simple level pretty standard teaching practice” is on the one hand a sweeping generalisation and on the other a long way from reality. How “standard”, for example, is choral responding in UK (or American) classrooms? What skills do teachers need to use this strategy, a fundamental part of DI initial presentations? What is the DI error correction procedure, why is it used in this form and how? These are basic DI procedures that are quite unlike standard classroom practice. DI is usually based on teaching students in small homogeneous groups. To suggest that group work and DI are at different ends of the curricula suggests that you are talking about something other than DI.

      I have studied DI, practised it, and used it in the UK. I have recently seen Corrective Reading Comprehension successfully help students improve their reading comprehension. It’s a commercially available programme from McGraw-Hill and it has been studied for impact in the UK. I have also used Expressive Writing with Year 9 students.

      However, I find Your assertion that DI is ‘specific’ in order to be commercial is perplexing. You appear to be criticising Engelmann for generating income from his work. Apart form the obvious ad hominem fallacy, is this not so of all other authors and speakers who make money from their approaches / skills? Or are we ruling out all approaches where someone gets paid for their work? In which case, what is left?

      Leaving that aside, the problem with seeing “direct” or “explicit” instruction as similar to DI is that Engelmann and his colleagues’ logical analyses are far beyond what most classroom teachers have time or headspace for. Not that they can’t do it themselves – but doing it properly is a huge task and harder than it looks. Applying DI procedures without the logical analysis of the curriculum has been tried; the results were not impressive.

      You say that “there is some significant evidence to support DI” and then later say “I would be interested to see the methodology of the evidence base to support DI.” That seems like a contradiction. But, in response, I would encourage you to research the most famous piece of evidence, a controlled-group study involving over 70,000 students over several years known as Project Follow Through. The story of Follow Through is remarkable for what it shows about the political selection of narratives in education. There are at least 50 other studies in support of DI. Alternatively, you could get hold of a copy of Shep Barbash’s “Clear Teaching”. It tells the story of Direct Instruction well.

      As for Tom’s comment, “It isn’t a new strategy that needs to be found out about as such,” I am, without any overstatement, shocked. DI is quite unlike general teaching and is indeed a distinct set of strategies which take years to master. I myself am not a DI expert, but I do believe that Engelmann’s work deserves a great deal more consideration than it has been shown here.

      Posted by Horatio Speaks | August 13, 2013, 11:28 pm
      • Blimey! That’s me told!! You need to understand that I’m not making reference at any point to the DI of Engelmann. Shock! Plenty of of people discuss a notion of DI that is refered to by Hattie and others that is more generic…Does Hattie mean the specific commercial product you refer to when he cites the effect size for DI? To be honest, this doesn’t move me too much…purism of this kind doesn’t interest me. Back to the Myths, this DI debate is barely relevant since it is a fringe issue. If you like I’ll write my own definition of DI that means a type of teacher-led teaching that is very commonplace, broadly effective and free to all.

        Posted by headguruteacher | August 14, 2013, 8:11 am
      • Hattie includes both the generic direct instruction model and the Engelmann Direct Instruction programmes in his analysis. Alex appears to be talking about both. You, I gather, are talking about something else again but using the same term. I agree that the discussion here has moved away from the review of Seven Myths, but on the other hand some fairly broad assertions were made that deserved questioning. To be clear, I am not advocating DI as a ‘miracle cure’, I do not claim to ‘know all’, and I do not think DI is the only way to teach. But what you call ‘purism’ is in my view merely accurate terminology. Constructive professional debate depends very much on a shared technical language – and DI has been clearly defined for the last 50 years. Finally, thank you for engaging with these comments even though they were peripheral to the main discussion.

        Posted by Horatio Speaks | August 14, 2013, 9:59 am
      • Ok. Sometimes the definitions are critical; here, that isn’t the case. Especially in the context of the knowledge-skills debate and the pedagogical implications of seven myths. I’ll white-flag here on DI…I’ve stumbled onto territory that is evidently sacred to some people and really I’m not that interested. The myths issue is bigger and more critical. Teaching knowledge in a direct manner is part of what most teachers already do in myriad ways. I’ll leave it there.

        Posted by headguruteacher | August 14, 2013, 3:41 pm
      • Hello Horatio – and thank you for your thoughts.

        Firstly, I have sat in many a primary school classroom and observed choral learning. Forgive me if I am not aghast by this occurrence. I teach poetic meter using a choral approach, but beyond that I find the strategy limiting. I therefore have given it consideration, in my context, and reflected that it should not be part of my core pedagogy. The quick fire questioning approach and the error seeking is formalised in a very rigid step-by-step way (from what I see from writing on the subject – I have not taught using such formal DI as I have indicated) is near aligned to explicit instruction and to standard teaching practice in my opinion, based on lots of lesson observations of similar practice (feel free to debate the parameters of ‘near aligned’). That being said, I see more models of questioning are required for the most effective learning as I see it. Here is a post of mine on questioning I hope you may find useful (or not!): http://www.huntingenglish.com/2012/11/10/questioning-top-ten-strategies/

        I have read Barbash. I was about to buy it on Kindle, but handily it is free online. I also researched ‘Project Follow Through’. I didn’t have the full details of the research methods so I am still unclear about the controls in place for that research. Not only that, the students selected, disadvantaged students linked to SureStart programmes, did appear to benefit from the programme. I expect they made big gains if their starting point was so patently low and given they were placed into a well invested school structure. I would ask were similar children tracked for progress who were taught in other good schools along the same lines? I think evidence has great value in education, but I also recognise the flaws in research, as well as the difficulties in isolating causation and issuing accurate controls in the varied environment of the classroom. Wholly accurate controls over time on this scale would be nigh on impossible in my humble opinion. I will be attending the ResearchEd conference in September and will hopefully learn more (I am no researcher!). I do consider the fact that the context of the research was from a different country, thereby transplanting a wholly different educational culture onto ours, means it requires great consideration and nuanced reflection. Therefore I am consistently healthily sceptical when people present DI as the ultimate panacea. May I make clear, I am not dismissing DI, nor challenging that fact that it deserves ‘consideration’. Quite the opposite.

        I have clearly given, and still give, DI ‘consideration’, I hope you agree. Far from dismiss it, I think there are gems of pedagogy within the model. I also recognise that the small group size model isn’t in any way scalable for my practice or much of the UK education system. I find the scripting of plans and the logical plotting of the curriculum doesn’t translate well at all to the English curriculum I teach, although the error seeking approach and the questioning methods are of course valid (I would argue – once more – it is a fundamental core of teaching, at least in my view). I think the quick-fire questioning doesn’t always allow for the open questioning and tangential knowledge explored in English (perhaps it is just my English department), but I recognise it probably translates to other subjects better.

        I agree with Tom in questioning ‘pure’ methods such as this. Questioning is not e same as dismissing. I hope this all reflects a more considered view of Engelmann’s ideas.

        Posted by huntingenglish | August 14, 2013, 9:41 am
    • I think you’ll both find that explicit teaching as most people use the term (and as Tom appears to be) does not include the free practice element which is pretty essential to D.I. and is also when the role of the teacher shifts to that of monitoring the use of the skill/knowledge. With this free practice in mind, its probably stretching a point too far to say teachers are leading the learning throughout D.I.

      I’d also be really surprised if Tom’s school does have D.I. features such as choral drilling as standard practice.

      Posted by RCA | August 14, 2013, 2:29 pm
  18. Taking a longer view of the knowledge/constructivist debate, the 70s- 90s saw a bias against knowledge–based teaching (speaking as a parent). Science became (in the words of my son) ‘ooh, ah’ science – a general mish-mash. Decimation of grammar, spelling left uncorrected, language taught through pictures,Latin scorned, alphabetic code logic ignored – with structured, systematic phonics almost unknown – learning of times-tables reviled, domestic science replaced by learning how to mix ie ‘Angel Delight.

    SMTs, HTs, Ofsted Inspectors were imbued with this culture. That is what resonates from a reading of 7 Myths.

    It would be almost impossible to fail to impart some knowledge while encouraging a constructivist approach but Ofsted has demonstrated that it is the latter that attracts their approval. Their role is incredibly powerful

    Posted by Geraldine Carter | August 16, 2013, 9:41 pm
  19. No, it is exactly what happened in ILEA. I interviewed heads, initiatived small research project, spoke with hundreds of parents, a number of teachers, witnessed the teaching of my own children – name calling does you no justice – it is simplistic.

    Posted by Geraldine Carter | August 16, 2013, 9:55 pm
    • What is simplistic is trying to describe an entire system based on some personal experience from another era. Of course some aspects of this are real…as I acknowledge at the start…but this ‘angel delight’ stuff is lame. For example SMILE maths was an ILEA inspired project that was deeply flawed but it is dead and buried. Times tables and grammar are taught explicitly along with phonics all over the country. I’m just really tired of the lack of nuance here…hence Mail reference. My kids have also been educated in London and although I have my issues with some of the teaching, the Myths are a mile off.

      Posted by headguruteacher | August 16, 2013, 10:04 pm
      • Fair enough but when working p/t in primary sch.a decade ago, found that teachers were products of 70s-80s education. It is difficult to teach numeracy, literacy (including grammar) when teachers have little grounding in these subjects.
        74% of schools only teach phonics as part of a number of strategies. This is not effective and therefore we still have long tail of underachievement.

        Posted by Geraldine Carter | August 17, 2013, 7:40 am
  20. I came to this book and blog late, but think your analysis is spot on. For a more esoteric angle, check my blog – bear with it – the bit on daisy comes at the end! http://www.rsablogs.org.uk/2013/education/lost-unhappy-home/

    Posted by Joe Hallgarten | November 7, 2013, 9:01 pm
  21. Also very late to this post! But I may make up in quantity what I lack in timeliness!

    So the general shape of the argument is that a traditionalist group are questioning progressive pedagogies and the response from the profession is that the traditionalists are tilting and windmills. “That sort of stuff never went on around here”.

    I am sure there is some truth in that – practice is schools is never quite as extreme/purist as the theory. But if you look at the debate at the political level (for example, the various campaigns against Gove’s approach to knowledge and assessment), then the progressive theory has certainly been very influential. It has also been very influential on the policies pursued over the last decade by Becta in the implementation of education technology. In my view, ed-tech has huge potential, almost entirely unrealised, and the failure of the great ed-tech experiment over the last 15 years can be very largely pinned on dodgy theories about collaboration, independent learning and project work. It would not be surprising if the implementation of ed-tech, which was managed centrally, was more influenced by trendy theories that what happened in real classrooms.

    I agree with the general consensus here that skills and knowledge are inextricably entwined. But that is not what has been spun at us by progressives for the last 20 years, whose mantra has been “it’s not the knowledge, its the skills that count”. And still people attack Gove for advocating knowledge, on the grounds that knowledge and skills are opposed (cf Sir Ken Robinson).

    Down to practicalities – is the bombing campaign comparison project a good one? I suspect it isn’t – not because it is not in itself an interesting exercise but because I suspect that very few Y9 children would, working independently, get through to the interesting bit. What would be interesting IMO would be to consider how the different capabilities of bombers in the two wars affected their strategic use. Why did a strategy of Blitzkrieg not emerge in WW1 (maybe, to some degree, it did in the German offensive of 1918)? Even if WW1 bombers were not up to hitting substantive military targets, to what extent could they be used to hit soft, e.g. communications targets? Was their differing use more of a function of the lack of mobility of the ground war, rather than to do with the intrinsic capability of the aircraft? Or the conservative approach to military tactics of the Western command? I suspect that most Y9 children would produce a back-of-the-cereal packet comparison of aircraft, supplemented by a bald statement of the different ways in which they were used (copied from a textbook), but with little or no personal analysis. And if project work is just going to result in the accumulation of facts, then (paradoxically perhaps) project work perpetuates the focus on knowledge (Bloom level 1) that supporters of project work claim that they are so keen to transcend.

    We all seem to agree that what really counts is the way that the dissemination of information and procedural coaching is combined with opportunities for the student to practice the application of that knowledge. It is the way that different sorts of activity are combined that really matters. And what I find surprising – and not to the credit of the profession – is that while we are constantly sucked into discussing false dichotomies (like knowledge vs skill, instruction vs activity etc), teachers do not seem to articulate the way in which these different stages of the instructional process need to be sequenced. It is assumed that each teacher understands this, intuitively, as a sort of private, unexpressed, understanding (which very many of them clearly don’t).

    As I have argued in “It’s the technology, stupid!” at http://edtechnow.net/2013/11/10/wheel/, the real significance of the failure of the ed-tech experiment is the fact that the technology we are really talking about is not a bit of computer kit that gets left in the cupboard. It is teaching itself that is the technology. And the fact that we are even having the sort of debate above, shows that we don’t really understand what Diana Laurillard has called “teaching as a design science” very well. We are still in the age of leech doctors, discussing whether bile or phlegm has more importance in the transmission of the common cold.

    And if that is the case, then the opening up in 2013 of the debate over pedagogy (in which Daisy Christodoulou has clearly played her part) may well be a really useful stimulus. Maybe it will encourage us to return (once again) to the central task of developing a shared theory of teaching and learning. When the dust has settle on 2013, I don’t think that many of us will judge that constructivism is still standing.

    Crispin.

    Posted by Crispin Weston | December 28, 2013, 3:10 pm
    • I’ve only just read this particular blog. Very interesting blog (as are the comments). I’m fascinated by the difference between explicit instruction and DI. My understanding of DI is that it is a set of scripted lesson plans that are available to purchase. It is interesting to note that critics of ofsted and their preferred teaching style (because as we all know there are many possible effective teaching styles) support DI which seems to suggest a rigid teaching approach which does not allow for the dynamics and individuality that exists in every classroom actions the world. Or am I barking up the wrong tree?
      Damian

      Posted by mrbenney | July 19, 2014, 9:57 pm
      • Have you read Dylan Wiliam’s 2007 keynote to the 2007 ALT conference? Here is a quick extract:

        There was a craze in America a few years ago for perfect teaching, where they would give these teachers scripts, you know, designed by experts on how to teach really well. And they were really scripts, there were things like “Now, walk around the classroom”. [laughter] And the point is, they were useless because classrooms are effectively chaotic places.

        The rest is at https://www.alt.ac.uk/sites/default/files/assets_editor_uploads/documents/altc2007_dylan_wiliam_keynote_transcript.pdf.

        I cannot tell you what the terminological differences are between “explicit instruction” and “direct instruction” but IMO we are looking for a middle way between rigid scripts and the opposite extreme, which is the lack of any shared lesson content (by content I mean planned activity). My view is that the middle way will allow instructional activities to be circulated, and those activities to be aggregated and disaggregated , contextualised and optimised. The degree of structure will vary between subjects and teachers – so we need a medium which will support this sharing & dissemination. This will allow teachers, publishers and learners to find their own preferred equilibrium between scripted lessons on the one hand and a standing start on the other. In my view, ed-tech is (or ought to be) that medium.

        I am not sure the invention of a terminology which makes fine distinctions between different levels of “scriptedness” is helpful in such a dynamic pedagogical exchange.

        Posted by Crispin Weston | July 20, 2014, 8:52 am
  22. Having just read the book and posted a review on Amazon(http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/R1PJU56YJK86GO/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm) I have now found your very balanced and sensitive review that accords very much with my own thinking.

    Why do people wish to present the facts/skills issue as a false dichotomy? It would be like asking for a builder to quote to construct a house only to be asked whether I want it to have foundations or a roof! It strikes me as absurd.

    In agreeing that both are important though does then beg the question of how to balance the passing on of content and the acquisition of skills. To me the balance has to shift as pupils become more proficient in a particular subject. Younger/less proficient pupils will generally require a strong foundation of content whilst older pupils should be swimming without arm-bands.

    By heeding the extreme call-to-arms that Christodoulou makes in the Seven Myths we risk creating a very supine and dependent cohort of learners, ill-fitted for the world as we find it.

    Posted by Tony Wilslon | August 14, 2014, 12:28 pm
    • I am a businessman. I have just read Daisy’s book. I have read this blog with increasing disquiet. Did any of you teachers actually read the book from cover to cover? I see no mention of Hirsch or Massachusetts. I see no concern that a brilliant young student was given such a blinkered training. I see no concern that our education results see the UK slipping ever further down the International league tables. I see no attempt to challenge her detailed research. To compare her to Richard Dawkins is a travesty of justice. She gave me hope that the UK could mirror the improvements seen in the USA. This blog dampened those hopes. So sad.

      Posted by Bob Pigeon | September 18, 2014, 2:05 pm

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