Archive for July, 2013


Blogs for the Week Ending 26th July 2013

July 26, 2013

Kids are failed by The System, not their genes

July 26, 2013

I have argued before that the usual left/right distinctions can be meaningless in education. Instead of a left/right spectrum I preferred this 2-dimensional version

which separates the issues of what should be taught (the content axis) and who it should be taught to (the entitlement axis). Lazy thinking (shown by those who look only at positions on the red line) suggests that a traditional curriculum should be accompanied by an elitist view of who is to learn it, and an egalitarian belief that everyone is entitled to a high quality education should be accompanied by trendy beliefs about content and pedagogy which completely undermine any notion of what a high quality education actually is. Normally this “red line” thinking results in smearing supporters of a knowledge-led curriculum and traditional teaching as right-wing advocates of inequality by refusing to acknowledge the existence of the top-right quadrant.

Yesterday, it led to confusion over the bottom-left quadrant. Two right-wing publications (the Telegraph and the Spectator ; there may have been others) celebrated the work of Robert Plomin who was apparently visiting the UK and popping in on the DfE. An American psychologist, Plomin was reported to have concluded that GCSE results depended more on genes than teaching. These conclusions were music to the ears of those of an anti-egalitarian bent. We no longer have to worry about policy or poverty causing educational failure if it is genetically determined. We no longer have to worry that privilege (say, a place at Eton) provides access to educational advantage if it is of limited effect compared with genes. We can even dismiss differences in attainment between races and classes if they are a result of a genetic legacy rather than social disadvantage. I’ll return to the issue of how Plomin’s data should be interpreted later, but the interpretation the man himself gives places him firmly on the bottom half of my diagram. What was missed, however,  was that far from being a conventional educational conservative in the bottom right quadrant, his views on the curriculum were anything other than conservative. According to the abstract quoted in the Spectator article, Plomin and his co-authors have concluded that:

We suggest a model of education that recognises the important role of genetics. Rather than a passive model of schooling as instruction (instruere, ‘to build in’), we propose an active model of education (educare, ‘to bring out’) in which children create their own educational experiences in part on the basis of their genetic propensities, which supports the trend towards personalised learning.

This is hard to distinguish from educational progressivism. The genetic twist has caused some confusion. Try replacing “genetics” and “genetic propensity” with “class” and “background” and you’d have a sentiment consistent with many a supporter of progressive education. Try replacing “genetics” and “genetic propensity” with “motivation” and “children’s interests” and you’d probably mop up the rest of the progressive educationalists. Plomin is in the bottom left corner of my diagram, rejecting traditional education. Being off the red line means we wouldn’t identify him with today’s supporters of progressive education and we don’t immediately recognise his position; it is rare these days. It would have been common before the second world war when a concern with the genetic material of society was as much a mark of the “progressive” left as the far right with which we tend to associate it today. Diane Ravitch’s book “Left Back” locates the American educational reforms based on psychometrics firmly within the progressive tradition in education and in that era there were no shortage of political “progressives” who advocated both progressive education and eugenics.

Of course, this all means that while a certain type of right-winger, presumably reflected in the sympathies of the Telegraph and the Spectator, had every reason to love the anti-egalitarian implications of what Plomin said, even though there really was little in it that would chime with Michael Gove’s educational policies which have tended to emphasise the importance of both traditional education and academic education as a universal entitlement (i.e. the top right corner). Moreover, the idea that schools and teachers have far less influence than genetics would also lessen the appeal of policies such as free schools, academies, league tables or even performance-related pay. There’s little point judging schools or teachers on results, or putting resources into new types of schools, if it is accepted that genetics is far more important in determining outcomes. Gove has remained loved by educational conservatives largely because he has been so hated by educational progressives and neither group likes to acknowledge any position off of that red line. But Plomin and Gove are at opposite corners of the diagram and neither are on the red line on which “normal” education debate in the media takes place. Inevitably this led to some confusion and I had a great time on Twitter yesterday, after @toryeducation tweeted a link to the Spectator article, explaining just how much Plomin’s views disagreed with, or undermined, Gove’s.

With regard to my views on Plomin’s research, his genetic determinism strikes me as very similar to the economic determinism we get from the political left. It is simply not enough to say that using present data and statistical techniques based on correlation we can conclude what can or cannot be changed. We can only say that, at present, there is greater correlation (controlling for other factors) with one factor than another. If at present our schools aren’t making much difference then it doesn’t mean they never can. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine some interventions that if put in place would make genetically similar children get widely different results thereby completely changing the relative effects of environment and genes found in the data. The data doesn’t even imply that the causation works directly from genes to results without involving any environmental factors. If identical twins are treated more similarly than non-identical twins by parents or schools then the effects of that treatment may well be similar where there is genetic similarity, but that does not mean the genes have directly caused the effects. It is very easy to assume that if statistical techniques are sophisticated enough then they eliminate all the issues of correlation versus causation that we argue over in simpler statistical models, yet correlation is the basis of all these methods and, as ever, it does not imply causation. I don’t believe genes are destiny any more than social class is. If teachers are currently not making enough difference to our students to show up in this data then I suggest we try to make more difference, not give up on that possibility.

And now I need to find just where I put my copy of Gattaca.


Lies, Damned Lies and Things You are Told During Teacher Training

July 24, 2013

This is intended as a short warning for those who have just started, or are just about to start, being trained as a teacher. I don’t want to tar all who train teachers with the same brush, but certain claims are all too commonly made to those training which should be treated with scepticism or even outright denial. I’m not going to argue against them here, just suggest that if you hear any of these you look into it yourself.

I’ll start with those I find most dishonest.

1) The effectiveness of phonics is not supported by the evidence. People are still being told this. Sometimes it’s obscured by talk of “mixed methods” or phonics methods which aren’t synthetic phonics, but basically it is a lie. There is nothing else in education research to compare with the overwhelming evidence for phonics. Some denialists are just misled, but many, particularly those in universities, appear to be just lying. Argue with them and they will soon resort to the same weasel words and half-truths that homeopaths and other pseudo-scientists use.

2) The evidence shows mixed ability teaching is more effective than setting or streaming. The sad fact, and this is an indictment of education research generally, is that there hasn’t really been much in the way of decent evidence on this question. Most studies are just garbage (although I quite like this one); some, like Jo Boaler’s, are more propaganda than evidence and provide a case study in how not to do research. The meta-analyses I’m aware of vary between finding effects indistinguishable from 0 and a small positive effect for setting but every trick in the book is used to claim otherwise. Don’t believe it.

3) Certain psychological theories from 50 years ago or more are still authoritative. I’m no expert on psychology but even looking at Wikipedia is enough to reveal that none of the following are particularly widely accepted in psychology now:

  • Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956)
  • Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943)
  • Piaget’s theories of development (1920s onwards)
  • Vygotsky’s theories of development (1920 onwards)

Yet, to varying extents, all four still seem to be in common currency among educationalists. Now. of course, it is in the nature of an applied discipline that theories can gain a life of their own but too often these are treated as sources of uncontested, basic information about the psychology of learning. There are more dubious theories out there (multiple intelligences, VAK, behaviourism) but more tends to have been written about what is wrong with them, whereas the above theories are not so much debunked as left behind in favour of better theories by the psychological mainstream but preserved in the amber of education where no idea ever dies out as long as it has enough jargon to fool the uninitiated.

Now all three of the above are, in my view, beyond the pale. Other things you might hear while being trained as a teacher are more within the realm of opinion, but you may find that you don’t get to hear other opinions or even any acknowledgement that there are any cases where popular assumptions should not be made. I’m not going to claim any of the following are necessarily false but none of them should ever be assumed to be true without qualification:

  1. Children learn better when they are happy.
  2. A good lesson is entertaining.
  3. Good lessons result in good behaviour.
  4. Behaviour is determined by the relationship between student and teacher.
  5. Lessons need a variety of activities.
  6. Learning will result from discussion between students.
  7. Children are more interested in topics relevant to their lives.
  8. Knowledge and understanding can be distinguished and taught separately.
  9. Children like using technology.
  10. If you teach well, your students will like you.

While these statements are not necessarily false (some are too vague to ever be disproved), I would expect an experienced teacher to be able to think of a dozen examples (or more) of cases where they didn’t appear to be true. Nevertheless these are often claimed and often, and this is more likely to be absorbed by a trainee, implicitly assumed to be true.


Blogs for the Week Ending 19th July 2013

July 19, 2013

Weasel Words #3: Skills

July 13, 2013

Some concepts, like knowledge, are very useful in education. Others, like self-esteem, are invariably harmful and used to justify  failure to educate. However, there is another category of concepts. There are also ideas that frustrate debate through sheer ambiguity; that allow arguments to rest on equivocation. These are the Weasel Words.

A lot of the reaction to Daisy Christodoulou’s recent ebook has centred on the question of whether there is a conflict between teaching skills and teaching knowledge. Is it a genuine conflict, a misunderstanding or a false dichotomy deliberately used to mislead or confuse? I have given my views on this previously:

… I think I have made a case in favour of knowledge. I have also critiqued quite a number of alleged skills which are taught in the place of knowledge. However, I can’t leave it at that as it is quite common for people, having set the question, to accept that knowledge is still important, but to claim that it is a false dichotomy and that we should actually be teaching both. On the face of it there is a certain amount of truth to this. We cannot avoid accepting that students should be developing skills of some description. When I endorsed the teaching of knowledge I was not endorsing rote, I was endorsing the teaching of knowledge which was to be used and understood. This can be termed as “skills”. I also accepted that there was a place for learning the arts, which again can be termed as “skills”. However, we should hesitate to accept at face value the arguments of people who say “teach both” as if they were two separate things, because they can then advocate occupying children with pointless activities or games and call it “skills-based” teaching.

Knowledge versus skills is not a false dichotomy; it is a badly expressed one.

Here I wish to look at this more closely by focussing on the extent to which our interpretation of the word “skills” define this debate and how a clear statement of what is meant by the word would help avoid some disagreements.

The first sense in which the word “skills” seems to be used, is a broad one. Almost anything a person is able to do, or at least anything they may be able to do as a result of learning, can be termed a skill. From this perspective it is hard to deny that schools should teach skills; to advocate skills is simply to state that education should enable students to do things. It is hard to conceptualise a clear conflict with knowledge from this definition, because even the driest academic knowledge can usually be applied to doing something, even if it’s just the learning of more academic knowledge. This lends itself easily to the position that the whole debate is a false dichotomy and everyone really agrees. Even an advocate of the most academic variety of education would never deny that students need the “skills” of being able to read, write and add up. However, the problem with this definition is that it resolves the debate only by brushing it under the carpet. A broad enough definition of skills will make everybody an advocate of skills, but it makes conflict about which type of skills inevitable and just as controversial as the debate it seeks to avoid. A further problem is that if being able to do something counts as a “skill” then almost any activity can be painted as the acquisition of a skill. Let kids play, then they are learning the skill of playing. Let them chat then they are learning social skills or speaking skills. Let them teach themselves then they are learning the important skill of being able to learn. Much of the pointless and unproductive activities students waste their time on in school are justified in these terms. We still have a disagreement here, over teaching, curriculum and methods, we have just renamed it so both sides can be seen as being on the “skills” side. Worse, if people change the definition of “skills” part way through an argument then they can use general acceptance of “skills” under this definition as grounds for advocating skills of another type.

A conception of skills which will make the differences clearer, is that of generic abilities which are not dependent on particular academic disciplines. This is where the conflict is most heated. Whereas the first understanding embraced almost anything, this one excludes almost any academic skill that can actually be nailed down and identified precisely. Terms like “social skills, thinking skills, creativity, problem-solving and communication skills” are perfect examples of this type of thinking. Every single one of the above is entirely dependent on context. There is no single set of social skills which is equally applicable to meeting the Queen and making friends laugh in a pub conversation. There are no thinking skills that apply equally to higher level mathematics and understanding Albanian. There is no capacity for problem-solving which applies equally to splitting the atom and working out who should play which position in your football team. As for communication, what would that be without content? It is under this definition that there is real and genuine conflict. Despite the serious lack of evidence that any teachable, transferable skills exist this is the standard excuse for forcing out content from academic disciplines. The idea that you study a subject because of abilities, dispositions or even virtues (such as “resilience”) which are more generally applicable is not harmful when used to justify studying a particular subject (although I am often sceptical about such claims) but it is toxic when used to evaluate one’s mastery of the subject or when the latest fad in skills, perhaps independence or cooperative learning, becomes the point of a lesson. To call this debate a “false dichotomy” is to hide from the real debate in education. This is the key dividing line and with this definition of skills there is most certainly a skills versus knowledge debate.

Thanks to these two different understandings of what skills are – one in which advocating skills to express only the blandest of uncontroversial statements and one in which it is to advocate a particular ideological position in the most heated part of education debate – it is tempting to think that the word “skills” is best avoided. It can only lead to confusion in which the two positions outlined above are confused, often deliberately, in order to obscure genuine conflict.

However, I think there is a third understanding in which the word is genuinely useful, although it is rarely explicitly stated. If we understand skills to be those abilities which are acquired through practice we probably come closest to how the word is used in real-life outside of the education debate. We can also see why it might be natural to refer to some of the outcomes of academic learning, such as reading and writing, or fluency with knowledge, as skills, without accepting that, say, there is such a thing as generic “thinking skills” or “social skills”. The linking of skills to practice undermines the idea that skills can be taught out of context as most practice takes place within a context, while still making it clear that there is more, even to academic subjects, than memorising lists of information. It also allows us to realise that the mix of skills and knowledge can vary drastically between school subjects and between parts of a subject depending on how important practice is. This may also be an important dividing line between academic disciplines and other school subjects. It also makes a nonsense of the idea that a skills-based curriculum can be expected to be academically rigorous or entertaining. Practise can be tedious and there is little that practise in an academic discipline can achieve without adequate knowledge to support it. If an activity is meant to help students learn a “skill” then the question to be asked is what are they practising. If there is a clear and precise answer and it is relevant, then teach that skill. If there is no answer, or the answer is so vague as to undermine the whole idea of practice, then the chances are the activity is a waste of time. I hope that it is with this definition  that, at the very least, we can have some idea of how skills and knowledge actually interact.


Blogs for the Week Ending 12th July 2013

July 12, 2013

Discussing the 7 Myths About Education

July 7, 2013

If you have had the misfortune to follow me on Twitter recently then you may have seen me getting very frustrated about how those with opposing views have reacted to Daisy Christodoulou’s recent e-book, “7 Myths about Education“. The most common response was to dismiss either the myths or the debate without any solid argument beyond a complaint about false dichotomies, often without reading the book. Others have launched apparently hate-filled, personal attacks which I have yet to see anybody from that side of the debate condemn.

So, I was really relieved to read this post from Debra Kidd (yes, that Debra Kidd) which engaged directly with the content. Please read it, as what follows won’t make much sense without it. I wrote a response to it in the comments, but as there may have been points in my response worth discussing in more detail, I present it here as well:

I genuinely think this is the first attempt to directly argue against the content of the Seven Myths book rather than find excuses to dismiss it, and as such is very welcome. Would you mind if I reblog it on The Echo Chamber? That said I think this misses the mark badly on most of the key points.


“Poisoning the well” is not a valid argument. If there was cruelty in the systems key progressive thinkers were reacting against, that does nothing to validate the systems they were arguing for. We can no more justify progressive education by saying some traditional educators would beat children for academic failure than we could justify traditional education by observing that A.S.Neill would expose his genitals to small children and engage them in conversations about masturbation. No educational ideology can be judged by the worst possible examples.

With regard to the philosophical framework itself, I think that progressive education is wider than 7 Myths lets on. Rousseau’s liberalism, Dewy’s pragmatism and Freire’s Marxism do not paint the whole picture. Bertrand Russell was one of the strongest proponents of progressive education but doesn’t really share any of those perspectives. There are versions of progressive education based on thinkers ranging for Plato to Popper. It has been advocated by fascists, Marxists, libertarians and liberals. One short-lived progressive fad, the Initial Teaching Alphabet, was invented by a Tory MP. The picture in 7 Myths can be criticised for not being broad enough as it focuses only on particular key figures.

However, you have replaced it with an even narrower picture. Traditional education is not simply about taking exams. I’m struggling to imagine any real justification for crediting Descartes with traditional education. Was nobody taught knowledge before him? Did nobody have any ideas about teacher expertise or teacher authority before him? Almost everyone before him seems to have been traditionalist, except Plato who for some reason you put in the same tradition. Perhaps you think traditional education is about rationalism, and therefore Plato and Descartes are responsible as rationalists? But this makes the picture in 7 Myths look broad by comparison. Traditional education can claim ideas from Catholicism and Classicism (but not Plato). Romanticism may be seen as largely on the side of progressive education, but Arnold is a significant exception. Twentieth century philosophers who criticised progressive education include Gramsci, Oakeshott and Arendt, none of whom are really in the tradition of Descartes, but a strong argument can be made that Dewey and Russell were. I think you have found a mote in the eye of 7 Myths while missing a beam in your own.


You seem to be under the impression that science is about quoting the names of scientists. Daisy loses because she (according to you, although not the case in reality) cites only Willingham, and you cite loads more people (although I wonder how many would agree that they do oppose Willingham). Apart from being the very opposite of how science should work, this means you simply have ignored the actual arguments from cognitive science presented in 7 Myths or, for that matter, in Willingham’s work. Have any of your names actually directly condemned any of those ideas? More importantly have they presented evidence against them? Or is this all just your interpretation?

And if we must argue from authority, by my count precisely 0 cognitive psychologists have criticised 7 Myths. Meanwhile Steven Pinker seems to have endorsed it.


Examples of progressive education are everywhere. The book could have gone to 8000 pages if it attempted to survey every influential example. For somebody who got thousands of people to endorse an argument for a progressive curriculum it seems odd that you would reject this proposition. If 7 Myths used only the most influential examples then OFSTED rightly tops the list. If you wish to argue that OFSTED has little influence then go for it, but I don’t think you are going to get very far with it. I also think you have a point that some students will try to do intelligent, academic work even when given largely empty tasks by their teachers. However, what students do despite their teachers is hardly an endorsement of the methods of their teachers. Is it, say, an endorsement of groupwork to notice that sometimes individuals do excellent work in a “groupwork” lesson by ignoring the rest of their group?

Experience and Professional Judgement

You appear to have confused illustrative examples with evidence. That said, the book is in my view persuasive because so many teachers have had similar experiences. Should we all assume that where we have seen progressive education failing it’s because those particular practitioners were not good enough? And for that reason nobody should mention those experiences when explaining their case? But if so, then I think you need to explain your use of the example of how your mother was treated from this blogpost. Or are you really intending to argue that your examples illustrate what was common in the system, whereas those in 7 Myths only illustrate isolated examples of failure?

Overall I welcome your attempt to engage, but I feel you have mainly attempted to present an alternative narrative not identified any error of reasoning or fact within 7 Myths. Is there anything that is actually wrong and there is evidence to suggest it is wrong?

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