Avoiding the Difficult Choices in Education

October 12, 2014

I wrote this post about a week ago, and it largely follows on from my attempt to attend a large number of education events in a short period of time, described here.  A number of comments I heard about education over that time gave me pause for thought and for similar reasons.

The first was during the Battle of Ideas panel discussion that I was involved in. Emma Knights claimed that there wasn’t a debate over the role of knowledge in education, at least not in schools. (With hindsight, the two of us on the panel who did object were also the only two who are currently employed as teachers).

The second was in reading this article from Academies Week about Nicky Morgan, in which she adds “the fifth priority” of creating well-rounded youngsters “emphasising character, resilience, grit” to the other priorities of her department.

The third was during a “Policymeet” on the fringes of Conservative Party Conference, when Ty Goddard from The Education Foundation, claimed that some of the debates in education should be re-evaluated as “false dichotomies”, and seemed to give many examples, such as knowledge versus skills, academic education versus vocational education. I was not the only person present who was sceptical about this:

I’m not claiming any of this is exceptional. With regard to the “fifth priority”, in education you can set lists of priorities so long that it would be easier to say what isn’t a priority. You can design a curriculum with dozens of aims.  You can give out so many prizes that nobody actually feels rewarded. You can promote almost every teacher in a school without giving them any actual power. When people don’t want to make difficult choices they often find that choosing everything is almost the same as choosing nothing. Like giving a child a 17th final warning, you can create the illusion of making a decision without actually committing yourself to anything.

Similarly, when there are apparently stark choices, (including those relating to knowledge) it is easy to claim that they are “false dichotomies”. Don’t know whether small children are in school to play or to learn? Just claim that they learn best through play. Don’t know whether schools are for education or for socialisation? Just claim children are educated best through socialising. Don’t know whether children should be learning academic subjects or concentrating on hobbies? Just claim that everything is academic. Or nothing. It amounts to the same thing.

There are some genuine false dichotomies in education. There are options that are too vague to be meaningful (like educating the whole child, or encouraging creativity in maths). There are times when certain choices are hidden in order to make an unpalatable position seem the best option. For instance, anyone who wants to let kids get away with bad behaviour is likely to claim the only alternative is a philosophy of “behaviourism”. Or those who want it to be okay for kids to learn nothing, will claim that the alternative is a system driven only by exams. But in cases where we have a choice of what to teach, or what to spend resources on, the choices are unlikely to be false dichotomies. People will have to choose what money is spent on and what is taught in lessons.

All of the examples that I started with, seem to come down to an evasion of difficult choices. And perhaps this is why bureaucracy thrives in English education. For a system to function effectively people do have to decide what they are aiming for. They have to decide what gets priority. They have to commit themselves to their decisions. I am always been sceptical when people claim the NHS faces infinite demand that means resources have to be rationed. But in education, there is always more we can do. We cannot do everything. We cannot prioritise every child and teach every desirable personal quality. Sugar paper, post-it notes and brain-storming might generate lists but they don’t generate decisions. In the system we have, people become unpopular not by making the wrong choices, but by making any choices at all. In systems where nobody chooses what it is that must be done first, nothing gets done, and afterwards people try to find somebody to blame for not doing it.

It is important not to pretend there is no debate to be had. There is debate over everything and there needs to be. There are people we should argue with.

These are real debates, and while I don’t doubt there are those will try to dodge them, telling me that nobody meant what they appeared to be arguing, or that none of the apparent conflicts are actually real. But I cannot accept this. The differences in opinion are real and important. So please: make a decision; choose a side; express an opinion. It’s the only way anything gets done.


  1. Yes, debate knowledge v skills but need to be clear about what is understood by these terms. Propositional knowledge, procedural knowledge (knowing how)-knowing how is not the same as skill…
    Not so much a matter of dichotomies, false or otherwise but about distinctions that may or may not complement or antagonise.

    • Absolutely. I’m all for skills where they are simply abilities that are developed through practise and they still have context and meaning. The issue I have is with vague attributes like “thinking skills” or “creativity” which have no clear content and they are meant to be transferable from one context to another. There is certainly a real debate over this sort of skill.

  2. So let’s debate :-)

    There are writers on education who would bring back the culture of endless resits;

    Endless? My brother re-sat Eng Lang O level 6 times back in the 60s so resits are not new. Changed exam boards for the last one and that was the one he passed so gaming the system is not new either. Perhaps just on a different scale when the pressure shifts from students to teachers. Having no resits isn’t sensible either. For example, female biology makes it very likely that a significant number will not be at all well on the day of the exam. Besides, its an easily solvable issue without having to go to one extreme or the other.

    There are senior leaders in schools who are against the teaching of knowledge;

    Probably some extremists but I think they are in a tiny minority. The survey I did on twitter showed only about 2% thought knowledge irrelevant. About the same thought it the only thing that mattered. The overwhelming majority thought “knowledge is very important to a balanced education but some knowledge is essential while some isn’t”. Of course the methods of acquiring that knowledge might well be disputed but that is a rather different issue.

    There are teacher training companies who think the internet has replaced teachers as the source of students’ knowledge;

    Evidence? If these are private companies then its pretty poor marketing to tell the main gate keeper to your products that they are surplus to requirements :-) I find the internet is an extension of my knowledge and I would encourage others to learn how to use it like this. For me it is professionally indispensable.

    There are teacher trainers whose advice about managing behaviour includes sharing learning objectives and catering to learning styles;

    Back in the 70s when I did my PGCE, the lecture on class control had a sign up sheet populated with D Duck, M Mouse and W Cayote. So maybe again this is not desirable but not really new. I do agree that behaviour management is important. I’d also say sharing learning objectives is not primarily a critical factor in most cases but I always found the best teachers did make them clear.

    There are educational consultancies where scepticism about educational ideas gets you fired.

    There are probably medical consultancies that are no different. Thing is in a liberal democracy private companies can make stuff up and claim pretty well anything. Homeopathy, Chiropractors, Detoxing. Avoid working for quacks and expose them with evidence. That is about all that can be done.

    • Not really sure what the point of your post is. I’ve provided evidence these are live debates.

  3. They can aim for sensible balance, somewhere in the middle. Accepting that knowledge and skills are important. Stick and carrot. Targets and freedom…

    I can see why this would be difficult for you however.

    • It’s difficult because in the middle of right and wrong is still wrong and even where there is a spectrum of positions, then it’s still debatable where the middle is. Claiming to hold a centre position of compromise is useful as rhetoric, but splitting the different is lousy for actually making choices.

  4. […] Teaching in British schools « Avoiding the Difficult Choices in Education […]

  5. Blimey, the posts mentioned in your bulletted list there are really worrying!

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