Which ideas are damaging education?

June 15, 2013

Just in case you weren’t aware, there’s a book out that I would recommend highly.

Pragmatic Education


“Education must resolve the teacher-student contradiction, exchanging the role of depositor, prescriber, domesticator, for the role of student among students.

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1968


Education still hasn’t learned that poorly designed curricula generate poor performance in both teacher and students.”

Siegfried Engelmann, Academic Child Abuse, 1992



Confused cargo cult ideas are damaging education


In their early encounters with Westerners, Pacific islanders saw cargo being delivered to islands from the sky. What seemed to them to draw in cargo were headphones, handsignals and landing strips. To attract deliveries of goods, they set up ‘cargo cults’ to build crude imitation landing strips and mimic the handsignals they observed of the people operating them, using coconut shells as headphones. They were then puzzled when the goods failed to materialise.

Some time in the late 20th and turn of…

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  1. This looks like a very interesting book and one which I’m sure will confirm all my prejudices concerning the pedagogical model now being pushed by OFSTED. I’ve been teaching for over twenty years, and have encountered some fairly incoherent and damaging ideas from ‘experts’, yet it’s only over the last couple of years that I find myself literally stunned by some of the words coming from the mouths of inspectors and ‘consultants’; to the point where in the last week alone I’ve had to ask them three times to repeat what they’ve said just to make sure I heard them properly. I simply can’t accept that rational human beings can believe in a non-conflicted manner that good teacher explanation hinders learning and progress if it strays past ‘the 5 minute limit’…which was a phrase that was thrown at me six times while being given feedback.

    I’d been observed introducing vectors to a year 10 class of relatively able students. It’s not an easy school by any objective measure. I was given a 3. Apparently it would have been a 2 with outstanding elements except that my introduction, all told, with modelling, questioning and mopping up a couple of misconceptions lasted 8 minutes and 34 seconds! (Seriously) This means I require improvement. Short of recording my introduction and playing it back at double speed, I fail to see what I do. The consultant, who was Maths specialist, told me how he’d have done it. His explanation lasted 25 minutes. In fact, he eventually conceded that he couldn’t actually have done it himself any faster, so suggested maybe I should have broken it up over two lessons, despite having commented that all the class had grasped the concepts and made good progress. When I pointed out that his idea would halve the rate of progress he sort of smiled apologetically and gave a little shrug.

    This man was not unintelligent. I think the shrug was a tacit acknowledgement that he was giving me inconsistent and contradictory advice. It was by way of an apology…but, in the name of consistency…he had to come out with this bullshit; he’s helping implement our new teaching and learning strategy.

    Now, other than the fact that all this stands in direct opposition to everything Wilshaw has said about no fixed teaching models and the acceptability of a didactic approach, it is the sheer lunacy that sticks in my craw. I could not believe what I was hearing. I nearly grabbed him and shook him just to see if he was actually real and that I was not temporarily delusional. It’s just not acceptable that I should be forced to suffer such blatant assaults to my intelligence. Wilshaw makes all the right noises, afaic, but he seems to be spending too much time composing sound bites and none at all in ensuring his message is reaching the ‘frontline’.

    The book looks great, but I can’t see its message ever getting through. OFSTED is now precisely the problem in education. I’m not entirely sure the cargo cult analogy is apt. Certainly, it’s a cult now…a cult whose dogma and ideology is far from fixed…it shifts according to whims of fashion and the subjective interpretation of the local priesthood. But it seems that even when it’s catechisms demand the impossible, the self-defeating or the contradictory, it’s very much a case of extra Ecclesiam nulls sulus.

  2. […] Teaching in British schools « Which ideas are damaging education? […]

  3. @Ignatius Really – great reply. It’s the same with so many of the current fads – group work, for instance, which can be useful as a brief brain-storming exercise, but is otherwise fairly pointless: my sixth-form groups in particular hate it, and want to be taught.

    Going off topic, may I be a horrible pedant and correct your Latin? It’s ‘Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus’ – ‘salus’ is feminine.

    • Group brainstorming doesn’t work either, you get more and better ideas if you let people work alone then pool the ideas. This is yet another theory that has been repeatedly shown to be wrong but which refuses to die.

      From this article:


      “The first empirical test of Osborn’s brainstorming technique was performed at Yale University, in 1958. Forty-eight male undergraduates were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles. The groups were instructed to follow Osborn’s guidelines. As a control sample, the scientists gave the same puzzles to forty-eight students working by themselves. The results were a sobering refutation of Osborn. The solo students came up with roughly twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups, and a panel of judges deemed their solutions more “feasible” and “effective.””

      Incidentally, as someone who spent my working life (in IT) working in teams, the reality of working in teams is that you spend most of your time working by yourself. So we’d have a meeting, decide what we need to achieve, allocate tasks then we’d each go away and get on with our jobs, mostly alone. There are people who want to spend their entire working day sitting in a group talking to their colleagues, but schools should not be trying to produce more of those people!

      • Neil

        I felt quite sad reading this one.

        Two examples of the “I tried it and it doesn’t work therefore it will never work” approach.

        Having read the article in the Newyorker, what did you find when you went and checked the original research. Surely one would not rely solely upon research contained therein. I am guessing you didn’t research further because I think if you had you would not perhaps have made this statement…

        “Group brainstorming doesn’t work either, you get more and better ideas if you let people work alone then pool the ideas.”

        The there was…

        “Incidentally, as someone who spent my working life (in IT) working in teams, the reality of working in teams is that you spend most of your time working by yourself. So we’d have a meeting, decide what we need to achieve, allocate tasks then we’d each go away and get on with our jobs, mostly alone.”

        I have no idea how much you know abiout teams either in practice or in theory, but I think maybe the above says more about you and your “teams” than it does about teamwork. Having said that, what would lead you to believe that team members would not, in some situations, spend more of their time working alone?

        “So we’d have a meeting, decide what we need to achieve, allocate tasks then we’d each go away and get on with our jobs, mostly alone”

        Why is this not teamwork?

  4. Though now I think of it, you probably knew that, and just suffered from an adjacent-key typo.

    • Thanks.
      I’ve been thinking about this all week. Wondering where else this idea that explanation is harmful might actually obtain. I should of course stress that it’s the quality of the explanation that’s the key. It’s really quite hard to think of any examples. The best I can do is suggest television.

      I really only watch the news, football and natural history programmes so I can’t comment too knowledgeably. I believe the BBC now has a policy of pursuing context and background to many of its stories which I do sometimes find superfluous and irritating but I suppose it’s a policy which is necessary partly because many (presumably younger) viewers simply don’t possess the knowledge base to properly interpret events. I don’t suppose anybody has informed the BBC that they needn’t bother since any ignorance on the part of their younger viewers would be overcome through application of all those transferable skills they’ve acquired at school. Maybe Ken Robinson and a team of consultants should go in and draw the BBC a few cartoons? (One also has to ask why these young people might lack the basic knowledge in the first place.)

      So onto natural history. I’ve tried really hard to think back and recall a time when I’ve thought: “shut up Attenborough…too much information”. I certainly can’t remember one. I do wonder, though, whether any OFSTED inspectors would have to switch off after 10 minutes having awarded a 4 and decided he just wasn’t making enough progress.

      So far, I can’t really say that explanation ruins things on television but then there’s Match of the Day. It’s not often I object to the commentary but when it’s Hansen, Shearer and Lineker swapping banal truisms on the comfy sofa…I’ll concede: too much talk can be a turn off. But that’s the whole point; this is all about quality.

      Quality explanation, from a knowledgeable source, enthusiastic about the topic, should be at the very core of education. Now, it may be that inspectors are unable to judge the quality, especially in subjects that are fairly foreign to them. In fact, in many cases, I’m sure this is the case. (I don’t deny they can make valid claims on engagement, behaviour etc) Further, to remedy this would require subject specialists in every inspection with all the consequent logistical and cost issues. But a dictat that attacks the very heart of good education because it better facilitates the ‘auditing’ process is sheer madness.

      Can you imagine if the NHS decided operations could only last 15 minutes maximum and had to be performed in a set routine, regradless of the malady, which a layperson could easily follow in order to more easily compile performance data? Hospitals would be corpse factories. So is it really any wonder that schools are witnessing the accumulation of hordes of disaffected kids with skills and qualifications which nobody wants.

      • Surely, the Match Of The Day trio swapping banal chit-chat is not an example of teacher talk but of group work!

        • Fair point…team teaching maybe? It’s certainly explanatory in nature, but dull. Although possibly because I’m dying to watch the next match, which is where the analogy breaks down now I think about it. It’s rare that all my students are dying to get on with what follows the teacher talk…part of the purpose of the talk is to remedy this. If Shearer, Hansen etc were analysing videos of drying paint, they might have to liven things up to stop the viewers switching off.
          But you’re right it was a pretty silly example.

  5. Sometimes I think maybe we should just point out that one of the symptoms of senility is a loss of memory. So what are we doing? Training teenagers to be senile?

    I constantly have the battle with bright students re learning vocabulary and grammar (I am an MFL teacher) the basic problem is that they are lazy. The anti-memory / knowledge brigade just feeds a teenager’s natural aversion to work. I know the present controlled assessment regime is pretty much a memory test but I think that is something in its favour. How else do we internalise structures but through memorising examples. Of course it would be far better if they memorised the structures with examples and were then able to apply them to other situations in an exam but then they would have to acquire knowledge and use it productively.

    • I’m a language teacher too (ESOL). I think it’s fascinating how people who have no idea how the mind works can twist anything to their advantage. If, in a teacher-led lesson, a student forgets a vocabulary item half an hour after it has been introduced – a normal process of loss from working memory – that’s evidence that teacher-led instruction is wrong. On the other hand, if in a student-led session, they have to ‘discover for themselves’ the meaning of an item, and leave the classroom without discovering this, having floundered around in confusion for an hour – that’s not a failure of student-led methods. In fact, you wonder what would have to happen in order for them to be classed as failing. What occurrence would actually constitute evidence against them?

  6. Great reply Ignatius. My son’s reception teacher is good but at parent consultation time I often feel I have to leave all rational thought at the door and just accept ‘blatant assaults on my intelligence’. The ideology of teacher as facilitator holds such total sway at that level.
    If information is at a kids level, there is no problem with teacher talk. Imagine just settling down to watch a really interesting history documentary when the presenter says, “but you don’t want to listen to me droning on, have a look at these sources and report back what YOU think in 10 minutes…

  7. “Can you imagine if the NHS decided operations could only last 15 minutes maximum and had to be performed in a set routine, regardless of the malady, which a layperson could easily follow in order to more easily compile performance data? Hospitals would be corpse factories.”
    Ignatius, please, please don’t give them ideas like that. I work in the NHS. A&E patients have long since been “prioritised” to meet the 4hr target, almost irrespective of their medical needs. For “lay person” read “NHS manager”, a whole bunch of non-medical clipboard wallahs appointed by politicians for the purpose of making them look good (the politicians, that is). They attempt to interfere with medical staffs’ judgement. Oh, and they also make lots of cash vanish for no discernable improvement in patient care. Then we can’t we afford to hire enough nurses. Sounds familiar?

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