Discussing the 7 Myths About EducationJuly 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?