Archive for June, 2011


Let’s Twist Again…

June 22, 2011

I have commented previously on Francis Gilbert’s capacity to change his mind, but even I was shocked at the speed of his latest sprint down the road to Damascus.

About a week ago the Anti-Academies Alliance (slogan: “no more academies”) uploaded this video of Francis Gilbert’s speech to their recent conference:

I draw your attention to this part of Francis’ speech:

… for me the Anti-Academies Alliance message is a hugely positive one that we as a whole nation have to believe in…

Two days ago The Local Schools Network published this from Francis. Some of my favourite bits appear below:

…I have decided to support the bid of my local secondary school, Bethnal Green Technology College (BGTC), to go for Academy status, where my son will go in September…

…There are actually advantages for everyone if BGTC becomes an Academy. Firstly, the greater independence will help it improve because it will be able to involve universities, charities and other organisations in assisting it help children learn to the best of their abilities. Secondly, it will be able to more readily share its expertise and facilities around the whole borough because it will be freer to do so. The school received £13.5m in Building Schools for the Future funding recently; possibly as an Academy it will be able to open its doors longer so that the whole community can benefit from its great facilities…

…other schools can see what Academy status looks like when it’s adopted by a principled, caring, sharing school. It may be that all schools will be forced to become academies soon – this seems quite likely — and it’s surely going to be advantageous in the borough if there’s a school that knows what’s involved.


More Myths for Teachers

June 18, 2011

A few years ago, I explained the following:

Education has long been enough of an ideological battleground for there to have been philosophies which have developed their own mythologies. A further factor in the promotion of myths for teachers is the fact that before the internet much false information was transmitted through photocopied sheets and teaching had particularly good access to copiers and printing machines. As a result there are many teaching myths repeated to students by education lecturers, transmitted around the internet, or simply quoted as fact by teachers who should know better.

Since then I’ve encountered a few more dubious claims repeated as facts in educational debate, again and again and again.

 Myth 1: The Top Ten in Demand Jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004.

For many, school is still a place where you go to have your head filled with ‘certainties’, a core knowledge base which grows increasingly irrelevant to the world we live in. According to New Brunswick Department of Education, Canada, the top 10% of jobs last year didn’t exist in 2004!  Is the best way to prepare our youngsters for this level of uncertainty to continue feeding them a diet of shallow learning experiences dictated by political presumption?


According to former Secretary of Education Richard Riley . . .The top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004.

We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist . . .

Using technologies that haven’t been invented . . .

In order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.


 It is estimated that the top 10 in-demand jobs of 2010 did not exist in 2004. We are currently preparing students for jobs that do not exist! The 21st Century is a fast moving place. With the evolution of our society and the rapid growth of new technologies, the young learners of today face new challenges on a global stage. As teachers, it is our aim is to prepare students so they can be successful in the modern-day world and workplace, however with a curriculum and lesson structure that dates back to the 19th Century, can we really be expected to do this effectively?


This is a claim used to justify dumbing-down, the idea being that if technology changes working life really quickly then there is no need to teach content as it will be irrelevant by the time our students get to the workplace. The widespread use of the claim in educational environments can almost all be traced back to the “Did You Know?” or “Shift Happens” videos that went viral among fashionably minded educators some time back. These consisted of a variety of poorly sourced and dubious claims about the future accompanied by enough bright colours and loud music to hypnotise the congenitally gullible. The sources are available here and indicate that it can be traced back to a claim attributed to a US politician in an obscure out of print book. This would be reason enough to discount it, however (just in case you think the second hand utterances of the political classes are a reliable source of information), I should also point out that the book was published in 2004 and was a prediction and not a fact. Did it turn out to be true? Well I know of no definitive list of the most “in demand jobs”, but I can find a couple of attempts to find something similar. HR magazine published a list (from a now defunct website) of the Top 10 “in demand” occupations in 2009:

1. Registered nurses

2. General and operations managers

3. Physicians and surgeons

4. Elementary school teachers

5. Accountants and auditors

6. Computer software engineers

7. Sales representatives and managers

8. Computer system analysts

9. Management analysts

10. Secondary school teachers

In January 2008 forecasters looking at economic development in Calgary predicted the following (obviously some of this list reflects specific aspects of the economy in Calgary, but there is no reason to think that Calgary is going to have significantly fewer new occupations than anywhere else in the developed world) :

In the 2007-2010 period, the top ten occupations with the highest total number of new jobs demanded are forecast to be (in order) retail salespersons, financial auditors and accountants, retail trade managers, information systems analysts and consultants, general office clerks, petroleum engineers, geologists geophysicists and geochemists, computer programmers, restaurant and food managers, and administrative officers.

Calgary Economic Development (2008)

Update March 2012: This still leaves open the possibility that the statistic refers to the occupations that children themeselves most wish to pursue. Is it possible that our young digital natives aspire to new jobs, even if the labour market hasn’t yet provided them? Apparently not. A recent article in the Telegraph listed the dream careers of children as follows:

The top ten dream careers for children:

1. Professional Athlete
2. Performer
3. Secret Agent
4. Firefighter
5. Astronaut
6. Veterinarian
7. Doctor
8. Teacher
9. Pilot
10. Zoo Keeper

Of course, these lists aren’t telling us anything that two seconds of thought wouldn’t already tell us, Without serious research, could you name 10 occupations which didn’t exist in 2004? There must be some; there may well be new occupations dealing with 3D cinema technology, or treating people for addiction to Twitter, but there is no reason to think these occupations are the most “in demand” in any way. The claim is absurd. There is also an additional irony in that it is people who are complaining that teachers pass on facts without encouraging critical thinking, who are themselves uncritically passing on this false information as fact.

Update June 2012 (part 1):

In April 2012 a Wall Street Journal Report based on a study by a careers website (okay, possibly not the most reliable source) came up with the following list of best jobs of 2012:

While this list includes less traditional jobs than the others it still falls far short of identifying any jobs which could reasonably be considered to have appeared between 2004 and 2010.

Update June 2012 (Part 2):

I have recently found a new variation on this myth which adds a spurious statistic to the mix, which making the time-frame vaguer:

One of the first things I learned when I became the Shadow Culture Minister was that 60% of the jobs that my three children (aged 9, 7 and 2 months) will go on to work in have not yet been invented.

Dan Jarvis MP on the Labour Teachers blog.

I have tried to find a source for the new version. So far I have identified this blogpost which claims

There is an established piece of knowledge peddled around the educational conference circuit that says that 60% of all the jobs that young people in school today will do have not yet been invented and more importantly, they are going to have to invent those jobs.

And this feature on an academic website  which attributes the claim that “60% of 11 year olds will leave school to do jobs which have not yet been invented” to Collard, P (2008) Key Note Address to conference CITE (Creativity in Initial Teacher Education ), 4/03/2008, Chorley”. I have been unable to find this source online but it would appear that this myth is being spread by educationalists at conferences.

As with the previous version it is, of course, not obvious how one would go about debunking the statistic because it is not obvious how anyone could ever have believed it was true. I could try to list jobs that are unlikely to vanish any time soon (teacher, doctor, refuse collector,  gardner, nurse… ) but I’d be here forever. Anyone certain that new technologies will provide lots of new jobs could do worse than reading Cowen (2011):

Web 2.0 is not … supporting many families, even though it’s been great for users, programmers, and some information technology specialists. Everyone on the Web has heard of Twitter, but as of Fall 2010, only about three hundred people work there.   Let’s go down the list and look at the (approximate) employment figures for some of the top Web companies:

Online Industry Employment Levels

Google— 20,000

Facebook— 1,700 +

eBay— 16,400

Twitter— 300

You get the picture. Again, these companies generate a greater amount of employment and revenue indirectly, but still our major innovations are springing up in sectors where a lot of work is done by machines, not by human beings.   A recent study found that the iPod— a nearly ubiquitous device— has created 13,920 jobs in the United States, including engineering and retail. That’s a pretty small number. Again, we should applaud the iPod for creating so much value with so little human labor, but again you can see that a lot of our innovation but again you can see that a lot of our innovation has a tenuous connection to revenue. Note, by the way, that digital music has eliminated many jobs in the music industry, as listeners buy single songs (or obtain the music illegally) rather than purchasing entire albums. The 13,920 figure doesn’t count those lost jobs at all, and arguably the iPod has had only a very small net positive impact on job creation.

Update August 2012: I have now discovered here and here yet another variation: “65% of todays grade school kids will end up at a job that hasnt been invented yet.” The source given is “United States Department of Labor: Futurework – Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century” which refers to a report from 1999 which does not contain any such claim.

Myth 2: Researchers at Cambridge have shown that the order of letters is unimportant in reading.

Or rather:

Cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!


This and similar paragraphs can be found in any number of places on the internet. Various attempts have been made to establish if it refers to any actual study. The most prominent urban myths site on the internet has failed to locate the original research. More importantly, Matt Davis of the Speech and Language Group of the, Cambridge-based, Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit was able to state that:

To my knowledge, there’s no-one in Cambridge UK who is currently doing research on this topic. There may be people in Cambridge, MA, USA who are responsible for this research, but I don’t know of them.

Now this wouldn’t be of interest if it wasn’t for two matters:

1) The claim is used to oppose the teaching of phonics or correct spelling. (For instance see contributors to discussion here, here or here.)

2) It is not actually true in general; the text has been designed to be fairly easy to read when jumbled. Further information can be found here.

Myth 3: “Education” means “leading out”

To ‘Educate’ means to ‘Lead Out’…The word educate does not mean: to fill up with facts, the original meaning of the word educate comes from the Latin e-ducere meaning “to lead out”. In education one is meant to light an urge in each person, to become human! The rest is up to that person.


The original meaning is: to draw out. To educate means to draw out; whatsoever is hidden in the individual has to be drawn out. The individual has to flower — that is the original meaning of education.


The Latin etymology of the English word, “educate” means “to lead out”. This means to guide or direct what is inside to a place outside. Apparently, within an educational process, this would mean to help a student to go inside himself/herself and externalize the wisdom that already resides within.


This is another claim used to justify dumbing-down; this is an old classic and, although I have picked internet examples, I could have found examples throughout the last hundred years of progressive education literature. The suggestion is that, if educating means leading out, then teachers need only allow students to uncover something internal (motivation, self-esteem, interest or whatever)  rather than to actually teach them any knowledge or exert any external authority over the child.

However, the derivation is not actually so clear. Firstly, we can make the distinction between the Latin words “educere”  and “educare”, as it is the latter which has clearer relevance to our word “education”. (The former is more clearly connected to the English word “eduction”.) Secondly, both of these words, and the word “education” itself, even when used to describe rearing or training, have not always referred to the development of the human mind:

The Latin word ‘educere’ was usually, though not always, used of physical development. In Silver Latin ‘educare’ was used of the rearing of plants and animals as well as children. In English the word ‘education’ was originally used to just to talk in a very general way about the bringing up of children and animals. In the seventeenth century, for instance, harts were said to delight in woods and places of their first education. The word was often used of animals and birds that were trained by human beings such as hounds and falcons. In the nineteenth century it was even used of silkworms.

R.S. Peters 1973, p53

Even if the etymology were correct then there is little justification for the “leading out” approach as an alternative to authority in education. Just to indicate how old this argument is, here is an excellent counter argument from Chesterton (1910):

I know that certain crazy pedants have attempted to counter this difficulty by maintaining that education is not instruction at all, does not teach by authority at all. They present the process as coming, not from the outside, from the teacher, but entirely from inside the boy. Education, they say, is the Latin for leading out or drawing out the dormant faculties of each person. Somewhere far down in the dim boyish soul is a primordial yearning to learn Greek accents or to wear clean collars; and the schoolmaster only gently and tenderly liberates this imprisoned purpose. Sealed up in the newborn babe are the intrinsic secrets of how to eat asparagus and what was the date of Bannockburn. The educator only draws out the child’s own unapparent love of long division; only leads out the child’s slightly veiled preference for milk pudding to tarts. I am not sure that I believe in the derivation; I have heard the disgraceful suggestion that “educator,” if applied to a Roman schoolmaster, did not mean leading our young functions into freedom; but only meant taking out little boys for a walk. But I am much more certain that I do not agree with the doctrine; I think it would be about as sane to say that the baby’s milk comes from the baby as to say that the baby’s educational merits do. There is, indeed, in each living creature a collection of forces and functions; but education means producing these in particular shapes and training them to particular purposes, or it means nothing at all. Speaking is the most practical instance of the whole situation. You may indeed “draw out” squeals and grunts from the child by simply poking him and pulling him about, a pleasant but cruel pastime to which many psychologists are addicted. But you will wait and watch very patiently indeed before you draw the English language out of him. That you have got to put into him; and there is an end of the matter.

But the important point here is only that you cannot anyhow get rid of authority in education; it is not so much (as poor Conservatives say) that parental authority ought to be preserved, as that it cannot be destroyed. Mr. Bernard Shaw once said that he hated the idea of forming a child’s mind. In that case Mr. Bernard Shaw had better hang himself; for he hates something inseparable from human life. I only mentioned educere and the drawing out of the faculties in order to point out that even this mental trick does not avoid the inevitable idea of parental or scholastic authority. The educator drawing out is just as arbitrary and coercive as the instructor pouring in; for he draws out what he chooses. He decides what in the child shall be developed and what shall not be developed. He does not (I suppose) draw out the neglected faculty of forgery. He does not (so far at least) lead out, with timid steps, a shy talent for torture. The only result of all this pompous and precise distinction between the educator and the instructor is that the instructor pokes where he likes and the educator pulls where he likes. Exactly the same intellectual violence is done to the creature who is poked and pulled. Now we must all accept the responsibility of this intellectual violence. Education is violent; because it is creative. It is creative because it is human. It is as reckless as playing on the fiddle; as dogmatic as drawing a picture; as brutal as building a house. In short, it is what all human action is; it is an interference with life and growth. After that it is a trifling and even a jocular question whether we say of this tremendous tormentor, the artist Man, that he puts things into us like an apothecary, or draws things out of us, like a dentist.


Calgary Economic Development,  Calgary Employment Demand Forecast 2007-2017, January 2008

Chesterton, G.K., What’s Wrong With the World?, 1910

Cowen, Tyler (2011-01-25). The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better: A Penguin eSpecial from Dutton (Kindle Locations 97-102). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

HR Magazine, Top 10 ‘In-Demand’ Occupations,  March 2009

Peters, R.S. The Philosophy of Education, Oxford University Press, 1973


Thinking Skills

June 3, 2011

A very common justification for removing content from teaching is in order to encourage students to think. This results in the teaching of a non-subject  which is  given a title such as “thinking skills” or “critical thinking”. Oakeshott(1975)  commented on this idea:

[Liberal learning] has come to be thought of as a general education; that is as learning not only liberated from the here and now of current engagements but also liberated from an immediate concern with anything specific to be learned. Learning here is said to be “learning to think for oneself” or to be the cultivation of “intelligence” or of certain intellectual and moral aptitudes – the ability to “think logically” or “deliberatively,” the ability not to be deceived by irrelevance in argument, to be courageous, patient, careful, accurate or determined; the ability to read attentively or speak lucidly, and so on. And, of course, all these and more are aptitudes and virtues that a learner may hope to acquire or to improve. But neither they, nor self-understanding itself, can be made the subject of learning.

He continues, complaining that what is to be learnt, indeed the whole of culture, is claimed to be a “set of abstract aptitudes” and not “substantive expressions of thought, emotion, belief, opinion, approval and disapproval, of moral and intellectual discriminations, of inquiries and investigations”.

Willingham (2007) asks:

Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives. You can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, they probably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize. Just as it makes no sense to try to teach factual content without giving students opportunities to practice using it, it also makes no sense to try to teach critical thinking devoid of factual content.

Of course, even though there are no compelling philosophical or psychological reasons to think that the ability to think can be divorced from knowledge of what is being thought about, it is still expected that teachers can do exactly this. A good teacher should be insulted at the mere suggestion that mastering their discipline is not thinking.

A number of suggestions are made to teachers about how they should encourage students to think. It is suggested that children be taught philosophy from an early age. Personally, I suspect that most children don’t have enough Greek, and it is not universally accepted by philosophers themselves. One of the most influential philosophers of the last thirty years, Alasdair MacIntyre, objected to teaching philosophy before graduate level:

Q: Do you think there is a strong case to be made for teaching philosophy in schools? How would you state it?

A: Introducing philosophy into schools will certainly do no more harm than has been done by introducing sociology or economics or other subjects with which the curriculum has been burdened. But what we need in schools are fewer subjects, not more, so that far greater depth can be acquired. And philosophical depth depends in key part on having learned a great deal in other disciplines. What every child needs is a lot of history and a lot of mathematics, including both the calculus and statistics, some experimental physics and observational astronomy, a reading knowledge of Greek sufficient to read Homer or the New Testament, and if English-speaking, a speaking knowledge of a modern language other than English, and great quantities of English literature, especially Shakespeare. Time also has to be there for music and art. Philosophy should only be introduced at the undergraduate level. And then at least one philosophy course, and more adequately two, should be required of every undergraduate. Of course an education of this kind would require a major shift in our resources and priorities, and, if successful, it would produce in our students habits of mind which would unfit them for the contemporary world. But to unfit our students for the contemporary world ought in any case to be one of our educational aims.

 Quoted in Knight (1998)

Philosophy as an abstract form of thinking is unhelpful even at the highest level, as is a sketchy knowledge of philosophical ideas. Philosophy is only truly illuminating when applied to distinct areas of human thought, for example: politics; linguistics; history; mathematics; ethics; psychology; science, or religion. While it might be worth teaching students about these subjects, this is quite distinct from teaching philosophy.

Often it is suggested that they think about their own thinking (sometimes this is given the label “metacognition”). This could be a good idea if what teachers knew about thinking was a useful body of knowledge. However, we have already established that many of the educational ideas about thinking are pseudo-science or dogma. Believing children have “learning styles” is a mistake. Telling them they have learning styles is positively harmful. I have had students tell me that they must chat with their friends, or listen to music during my lessons because it is part of their learning style. The worst part of telling them the current fads about thinking is that it spreads the myth that learning is not difficult. There are no magic formulas to take the hard work out of difficult subjects. The very idea is harmful when told to new teachers and it is positively toxic when told to students. How is anyone to motivate students to work hard, if they are told the lie that there are abundant shortcuts that will make it easy? There are a few study skills that can be taught, such as note-taking or tricks to aid with revision, but these fall far short of a significant body of teachable “metacognitive” skills.

Finally, there are individual techniques that are meant to encourage thinking. Most of these are simply what good teachers have always done: asking questions; reflecting on learning; setting problems that involve more than repetition; setting challenging work. Some techniques that are supposed to promote thinking are nonsense, such as the belief that a question without one correct answer involves more thinking than one with a single correct answer. (Presumably, being asked to name a TV programme is more intellectually demanding than finding the square root of 6561.) Some techniques are just the existing stalwarts of progressive education such as groupwork, or discovery learning. Efforts to reduce the authority of teachers, or to reduce subject content, have always been justified by the suggestion that students are left to do more thinking, or to think in different ways (e.g. “creatively” or “independently”). As ever the ideas are not remotely coherent. How could groupwork possibly encourage independent learning? Why should creative thought be considered superior to logical thought? Labels such as “thinking skills” should not be allowed to cover up dumbing down.


Knight, Kelvin, The MacIntyre Reader, Polity, 1998

Oakeshott, Michael, A Place of Learning, 1975

Willingham, Daniel T., Critical Thinking in American Educator, Summer 2007, American Federation Of Teacher s, 2007

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