April 29, 2011

Previously (i.e. here) I argued that developing the intellect was about passing on an intellectual inheritance that, to adopt the terminology of Matthew Arnold, could be called “culture”. This implies engagement with a particular body of knowledge. However, there is a difficulty to deal with here about the nature of knowledge, one that came to the fore as a real concern in the nineteenth century, and has been used as an excuse for dumbing-down ever since. Probably the most famous description of this problem comes from Dickens’ (1854) ingenious portrait of the classroom:

 ‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’

‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’

‘It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?’

‘He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.’

Mr Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

‘We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here. Your father breaks horses, don’t he?’

‘If you please, sir, when they can get any to break, they do break horses in the ring, sir.’

‘You mustn’t tell us about the ring, here. Very well, then. Describe your father as a horsebreaker. He doctors sick horses, I dare say?’

‘Oh yes, sir.’

‘Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier, and horsebreaker. Give me your definition of a horse.’

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.’

The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely white-washed room, irradiated Sissy. For, the boys and girls sat on the face of the inclined plane in two compact bodies, divided up the centre by a narrow interval; and Sissy, being at the corner of a row on the sunny side, came in for the beginning of a sunbeam, of which Bitzer, being at the corner of a row on the other side, a few rows in advance, caught the end. But, whereas the girl was so dark-eyed and dark-haired, that she seemed to receive a deeper and more lustrous colour from the sun, when it shone upon her, the boy was so light-eyed and light-haired that the self-same rays appeared to draw out of him what little colour he ever possessed. His cold eyes would hardly have been eyes, but for the short ends of lashes which, by bringing them into immediate contrast with something paler than themselves, expressed their form. His short-cropped hair might have been a mere continuation of the sandy freckles on his forehead and face. His skin was so unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge, that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white.

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’

The problem is that once we accept the importance of knowledge then we open ourselves up to the claim that we only favour the learning by rote of lists of facts. Our notions of culture and knowledge have to be wider. Some part of education is indeed about storing information; but at least some part must be about thinking. In the words of R.S. Peters:

‘education’ must involve knowledge and understanding and some kind of cognitive perspective, which are not inert. [my italics]

It is a genuine problem, but does it invalidate the role of culture and knowledge in education? Well let’s return to Arnold (1869)’s view of culture. Arnold believed that culture was an answer to the problems of his time, but when I quoted him talking about this before I did not put it into context:

culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world; and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits [my italics]

Another great nineteenth century philosopher of education distinguished between “acquisition” (of facts) and a wider notion of “Knowledge”:

When I speak of Knowledge, I mean something intellectual, something which grasps what it perceives through the senses; something which takes a view of things; which sees more than the senses convey; which reasons upon what it sees, and while it sees; which invests it with an idea. It expresses itself, not in a mere enunciation, but by an enthymeme: it is of the nature of science from the first, and in this consists its dignity.

Newman (1873)

While we can indeed identify a nineteenth-century problem of an over-reliance on memorising facts, Arnold and Newman were still quite explicit about stating that the educated needed to acquire a store of information, one considerably more demanding than that required by schools today. Have a look at how Newman would conduct an interview for university entrance if you want to see how incredibly high his standards were. Since the nineteenth century the tide has turned. I doubt there is a state school educated child in the country who could pass Newman’s university entrance exam nowadays (and I hope to look at the extent of dumbing-down in a future blog post). By their standards there would be no problem in schools today of children learning too many facts.

However, even though I think over-emphasis memorisation is now a non-issue, relevant perhaps only to classes engaged in excessive preparation for exams, I mention this nineteenth century concern about memorisation because a parody of it is often the inevitable response to what I have outlined so far about the aim of education. Advocates of dumbing-down will apply the words “nineteenth century” or “Victorian” to our current education system in order to pretend we are still teaching largely by rote. Their claim often appears to be that almost any amount of knowledge, and certainly any explicit commitment to its value is a bad thing. The recall of information is to be rejected in favour of other intellectual virtues, however, unlike the Victorian critics of rote-learning, these virtues are not a complement to memorised facts, or a part of knowledge; they are to be taught instead of knowledge. They put forward aims of education that devalue all content. I have already discussed those aims that are not remotely academic. They also come up with aims that are academic, such as a) understanding b) thinking skills c) creativity d) autonomy and e) inspiration, but suggest that they can be divorced from content. We will be looking at these ideas, and their contribution to dumbing-down, in future blogposts.


Arnold, Matthew, Culture and Anarchy, 1869

Dickens, Charles, Hard Times,1854

Newman, John Henry, The Idea of a University, 1873

Peters, R.S. Ethics and Education, Allen and Unwin, 1966


  1. I was thinking about this very thing just last week as I helped out in a GCSE Science lesson. We seem to spend a lot of time asking pupils to evaluate e.g. recycling or global warming, when they have never been required to thoroughly learn the scientific facts underpinning them. I hear them discussing (tick box) such issues with such an alarming level of ignorance and error but the process seems to be the thing.

  2. Yes the way in which I was taught to teach was to by pass fact learning completely and to start by applying those facts right from the beginning. How can you apply facts you’ve never learned?

    I think there needs to be a period of fact learning, and then a later period of applying them. It’s just obvious really, isn’t it?

    • The facts must be first learned (by explanation or exploration) and then applied. The question is how long do you learn before you start applying them. Is your lesson organized like this: “L-L-L-L-A-A-A-A” or like this: “L-A-L-A-L-A-L-A”?

      In my opinion, it depends. It seems like a good idea to organize teaching so that you can apply it as soon as possible; it could be easier to remember this way. But sometimes it may be better to get a big picture first (even if it cannot be applied directly) and then go to details; because then the details fit into the right place. Switching from learning to applying can be refreshing, but it can also fragment the lesson.

      I do not like when people give general answers to questions like this, regardless of the topic being taught, regardless of student motivation, regardless of previous knowledge, et cetera. But is it good to ask yourself questions, such as:

      “Which smallest part of my lesson can be USED to do something? Could I start with this, let students experience the usefulness of new topic, and then continue with the rest?” or

      “Which simplest project can be done with knowledge from my lessons? Could I start with minimum knowledge required for this project, let students do it, and then explain the topic more deeply?”

  3. I blame Bloom’s taxominy or whatever it was called when certain types of thinking are put into a hierachy. Guess what’s at the bottom and by implication ‘inferior’ yep absorbing facts. It isn’t seen as a foundation to other types of thinking which is just plain stupid.

  4. Has Old Andrew ever read Dorothy Sayer’s The Lost Tools of Learning?

  5. Actually Bloom never stated that the hierarchy implied superiority, what he said was that the higher level skills build on the lower level ones and without mastering the lower level cognitive/affective domains; it would not be possible to achieve the top level skills i.e. mastery of the respective domains.

  6. I don’t disagree with OldAndrew on this. I would offer a couple of other reasons why facts are regarded as difficult these days:

    a) Facts need context. Telling you that the Qianlong Emperor came to power in 1736 is most likely deeply unhelpful, because most English people don’t know who he is. We’re less keen on providing that context these days, because the contexts (background assumptions) that have been challenged so strongly by modern academic doctrines. So, for example in history: I actually know quite a lot of kings and queens. But I’m a modern leftie, and I object quite strongly to teaching kings and queens. I think it sets up a horrible and perverse way of understanding our history, distorted through the lens of the privileged dozen. I’d much rather teach an outline social history. But there isn’t an accepted “canon” of social history facts to hang give form to students’ understanding of history (as a list of kings and queens can do, when applied well). So there’s a lack of good off-the-peg frameworks that teachers can apply. Or rather, there are too many. We need some level of consensus around one (or two) frameworks that everyone can teach, and that doesn’t really exist yet (in the humanities).
    b) Because of the lack of fact teaching these days, when you do teach facts it becomes a big drama. It ends up consuming way more time than it should.

    Oh, and TheEdudicator: any time you think something about education is “obvious”, that should set alarm bells ringing. Actually, I think your “obvious” order is dead wrong.

  7. Facts are absolutely essential. The higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy… a widely discredited piece of garbage which might well have disappeared from the lexicon of pedagogy had it not been re-invoked as justification by advocates of ‘process’ learning. The upper levels are all essentially comparative. Without prior knowledge, how exactly do you compare? Or, more specifically, what the hell do you draw your comparisons with?

    Incidentally, which strands of Bloom are addressed by BTECs? Is there a mystical strand, so rarefied and esoteric that itkinda floats on an ethereal plateau high above ‘creativity’ or ‘synthesis’ or whatever the top level is, which is designated: “Sit back and look at facebook on your phone while your teacher does it for you”?

    • Don’t get me started on Bloom’s taxonomy…

    • I missed this one unfortunately and having read it I have a better feel for where oldandrew is coming from with future posts.

      “Facts are absolutely essential. The higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy… a widely discredited piece of garbage which might well have disappeared from the lexicon of pedagogy had it not been re-invoked as justification by advocates of ‘process’ learning.”

      I am starting to worry about some of the views posted here. The above statement raises a few issues….

      *Facts are esseantial to what exactly? Writers of the taxonomy suggest that factual knowledge is the foundation on which other learning is built.
      *Where exactly has Bloom’s taxonomy been widely discredited and to which re-invocation does one refer?
      *What other sort of learning could there possibly be than “peocess” learning..assuming you are talking about the process of learning rather than learning about processes?

      “Incidentally, which strands of Bloom are addressed by BTECs?”

      What a silly and pointless question. And then the statements that follow about teachers doing coursework for pupils, what is the link.

      BTECs require the candidate to complete coursework as an approach to assessment. When a teacher does coursework for a pupil this does not impact the efficacy of Bloom’s taxonomy it simply impacts the efficacy of using coursework to assess pupil learning in the way BTEC design the thing.

      “The upper levels are all essentially comparative. Without prior knowledge, how exactly do you compare? Or, more specifically, what the hell do you draw your comparisons with?”

      Although they are not actually all essentially comparative, there is an element of comparing in evaluation for instance. Is it possible that the originators of Bloom’s taxonomy had realised this and that is why this “discredited garbage” placed “comparing” above knowledge in the hierarchy.

      My concern is that monkeyfish shows the level of understanding (between knowledge and application) that would be common among UK teachers with respect to Bloom’s taxonomy. As with much educational theory, the danger lies perhaps in the application of the theory or the laziness of teachers when using the theory. I have regularly seen Bloom’s taxonomy abused by teachers and managers, bearing in mind it was developed to improve the validity of test items in undergraduate courses in the US about 50 years ago.

      I suggest you read “Fish is fish and frogs is frogs” by Leo Lionni monkeyfish, and then hop out of the pond for a few moments. It’s a big world out there. In fact I recommend anyone to read this story and then venture outside the pond.

  8. Genuinely interested here:
    Can someone point me to where Bloom has been discredited. I want to do some reading …

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