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.
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:
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.
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