3 Things I Strongly Disagree With

January 7, 2015

Because progressive education is multi-faceted, and continually represented as something new, one of the most common techniques used to hide its influence is to claim that the disagreements in education do not really exist. There are two variants on this argument that are used frequently. One is to claim that the terms used to describe the positions (like “traditional”, “progressive”, “child-centred” etc.) are either meaningless or refer to something either nobody or everybody agrees with. The other version is to claim that in all facets of the debate there are compromise positions, rather than stark choices, making it possible for the debate denialist to claim that they (and very often the majority of teachers who are, it is assumed, unaffected by ideology) somehow transcend the debate.

For this reason, every so often I find it worthwhile to point out examples of things that I fundamentally disagree with. Not to debate them, or to criticise them, but to point out that there are some really quite clear cut differences where people need to choose sides. Particularly when those people do have, or have had, power and influence in the education system.Here’s three blogposts that have not won me over. As ever, I would recommend you follow the links to read the whole post, so we can avoid the accusation that I have misrepresented the views by quoting out of context. Also, I acknowledge that I am highlighting what it is I disagree with, so anyone who wants to find some uncontroversial sentence in the blogpost and say that this was, in fact, the true point of the post needn’t bother.

First from a well established educationalist whose blog gets far more hits than mine and whose power to influence future generations of teachers is far greater than mine, some views on the importance of knowledge:

No matter how clever or persuasive certain so called experts’ arguments appear to be about the need for children to memorise facts and receive their knowledge from teachers, we should not be taken in by such rhetoric. We need to see these people for what they actually are. They are dangerous individuals who are trying to prevent progress by perpetuating a restrictive method of schooling that ultimately, will rob our children of their futures. They are self acclaimed experts who wish to maintain control over our education system by perpetuating standardised testing, rote learning and whole class instruction, while demonising alternative approaches such as personalised learning, games playing and problem solving.

They wrap up their ideas in a cloak of respectability and present them exclusively as the answer to today’s education crisis. They snipe and sneer at those who advocate progressive approaches to education, as they fight desperately to preserve what control they have over schools. In so doing, they are depriving an entire generation of children the right to discover for themselves just how wonderful learning really is. They rob this generation of students of their human right to receive a good, dynamic and relevant education.

Next, another educationalist, internationally influential and involved in training teachers defends the inclusion fad of 10 years ago. While I disagree with that argument as a whole, as a result of having lived through that disaster (this blogpost from @Bigkid4 is a great description of what it was like), I’m particularly surprised at one of the obstacles to inclusion:

Sam’s mother lists a number of factors that she sees as having contributed to the failure of schools to meet the needs of many children. Inadequate training of teachers, poor resourcing and the over emphasis upon academic attainment and narrowly focused assessment and testing procedures are all seen as inhibiting progress. These are certainly contributors to the difficulties with moving the inclusion agenda forward that are recognised by many teachers and families. [my italics]

And finally, and this one from a politician (a former minister for schools, as it happens), on the non-academic aims of teaching where the third paragraph sums up the depressing views of so many politicians of all sides:

Today, Tristram Hunt is calling for schools to do more to develop character among young people. Quoting Winston Churchill and the idea of ‘British spirit’ was a clever way to ensure today’s speech got some good Sunday coverage.

As a former teacher I can also imagine that there will be a fair amount of resigned sighing or angry harrumphing in staffrooms this morning about this latest demand on the teaching profession as reports need writing, excited children need calming and the end of term seems just too far away.

But I think teachers should see this call as a massive vote of confidence. If anything demonstrates the power of education and teaching then it is the ongoing assumption that many social or economic problems could be solved if only they were included in the school curriculum or promoted in schools.

Anyone want to tell me I don’t disagree with these sentiments? Or that there are some convenient middle positions between my position and theirs?


  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Can we please make the works of Daniel Willingham compulsory reading for all involved in education, and not reading them and doing what they say into a sackable offence? We might then have some semblance of an education system.

    • A very sound idea. Perhaps, given the nature of the first comment Andrew quotes a course in logical fallacies would be worthwhile; the ebook,”Hunting Humbug 101″, here: http://www.skepticsfieldguide.net/ would be a good edition. I’m curious to know if the guy is normally this vitriolic ?

  3. I’m completely with you at a practical level. So much of this ideology has been translated into terrible initiatives.

    I can’t completely let go of the aspirations though and I do think there is a balance:
    – Some might take the focus on knowledge (and recall of said knowledge) too far, see it as the ultimate aim of teaching (as opposed to a fundamental mechanism and useful measure). In particular I’m thinking of corporations that see a nice objective measure and find the most efficient way of meeting this. dispensing with other ‘non-value-adding’ (i.e. unmeasured) learning.
    – Some might see the abandonment of inclusion as an easy way to remove problems. Inclusion exists to prevent schools avoiding more difficult (or lower performing) pupils.
    – Ultimately, schools do play a social and economic role and these are valid considerations on what should be included in the curriculum. It’s annoying to be expected to solve all of society’s ill, but schools are in a position to influence these things.

    The problem I see is how these things are transformed into initiatives, expectations and measures. It’s always impractical, fanciful and crude.

    • “I can’t completely let go of the aspirations though and I do think there is a balance:
      – Some might take the focus on knowledge (and recall of said knowledge) too far, see it as the ultimate aim of teaching (as opposed to a fundamental mechanism and useful measure).”

      My planned next blogpost is actually about that and there are some issues with taking knowledge too far (although I don’t think that are the ones that the progressive opponents of knowledge-based education highlight). However, the post I quoted was not about the aims of education, but about the value given to knowledge.

      “In particular I’m thinking of corporations that see a nice objective measure and find the most efficient way of meeting this. dispensing with other ‘non-value-adding’ (i.e. unmeasured) learning.”

      That actually seems like a different point. If somebody’s ultimate aim to teach only the objectively testable, then their aim is not knowledge. To be honest, I tend to see this as a bit of a red herring. While I think people might be guilty of overstating the usefulness of testing regimes, I don’t think anyone actually sees testing as the aim of education.

      “Some might see the abandonment of inclusion as an easy way to remove problems.”

      And? You say that like it is better to cause schools problems.

      “Inclusion exists to prevent schools avoiding more difficult (or lower performing) pupils.”

      No, It existed because people believed that the aim of education was socialisation, not developing the intellect. It was seen as inherently wrong to separate children, even when it was to their clear academic advantage.

      “Ultimately, schools do play a social and economic role and these are valid considerations on what should be included in the curriculum. It’s annoying to be expected to solve all of society’s ill, but schools are in a position to influence these things.”

      I’m not sure the “social role” of schools is ever suitable for determining the curriculum. Of course schools, as communities, need to address the social side of living as a community, but the purpose of schools is academic, not social engineering or moral enlightenment. We are not parents, priests or psychotherapists. This attitude is a real cause of making schools less academic.

      • “I don’t think anyone actually sees testing as the aim of education.” – but you could easily get to this position unwittingly. The measures of effectiveness we choose (and the stakes attached) drive behaviours. As (invalid) measures such as willingness to use faddy methods are removed, more store is put on testing as a measure. Then anyone ‘below average’ will be required to improve and will be expected to use whichever methods best impact the test scores. I’ve seen the lengths schools will go to to try and squeeze out a few more points progress in Maths and English and I would not say they represent better education.

        Regardless of it’s origins, my point around inclusion is that there needs to be something keeping schools in check or else the most ruthless school wins. Whilst schools must have the ability to exclude where they cannot reasonably accommodate a pupil, there has to be something that controls this, prevents misuse and shares the burden of more difficult mainstream pupils.

  4. Knowledge is the basis of education, but there are two fundamental issues that most of these debates seem to miss. First what knowledge is essential, what knowledge is important, what is perhaps nice to have and what is a complete waste of time. The second is what methods enable individuals to acquire knowledge most efficiently and in what contexts? Can you force knowledge into children by fear of sanctions in our society or is it more effective to instil intrinsic desire to learn and retain the knowledge? Is the balance of those things the same for all in all contexts? How do you go about doing it legally?

    • ingotian–it’s pretty obvious that you’ve never used direct instruction. The idea that it is necessary to “force knowledge into children by fear of sanctions” is the sort of mindset you get from ITT and CPD, but a well-structured and delivered lesson, one which enables all pupils to achieve mastery, will motivate all pupils. Needless to say, this presumes that the lesson is pitched at a level appropriate to the level of learning already achieved by the class; this is clearly much more difficult in schools with heterogenous grouping. But in a good school, there is no need to differentiate or personalised lessons, as direct instruction makes it possible to ensure that all pupils are always mastering the core curriculum. Formative assessment is an integral element of direct instruction.

      The point about what knowledge is a waste of time–well, that pretty much answers itself. Anything to do with celebrities, for a start. The reason we have academic ‘disciplines’ is because scholars have thought long and hard about how the knowledge in their discipline fits into meaningful schemata. And indeed establishing those schemata should be the aim of teaching. Once these are established, it becomes increasingly possible for the pupil to metamorphise into a scholar–someone whose increasing mastery of a subject creates the kind of curiosity that constructivist classrooms cannot begin to match. A pupil’s untutored curiosity will seldom be a good guide to finding the key elements required to achieve understanding.

  5. I am wondering whether the quality of debate would be improved, if for example, Richard Pring’s ‘Subject-centred verses child-centred education – a false dualism’ were carefully reviewed by leading advocates on both sides. Much of the debate is currently poorly grounded.

    • I tend to agree that the debate is pretty poor quality. @Tom obviously has no clue about me yet is saying what is obvious about my experience :-). Asking questions about different ways of getting children to acquire knowledge is nothing to do with a mindset, except perhaps for an open mindedness, but seizing on one of a range of suggestions probably means there is a political axe to grind. Having observed thousands of lessons across hundreds of schools I think the empirical observation data suggests that ideological utopias where all children are equally motivated to learn through “direct instruction” (or any other monocultural methodological ideology) simply don’t exist. If they did there would not be any debate because all the direct instruction that was the main approach 40 years ago would have worked so well no-one would have bothered trying other methods. The first thing you need to establish is what you believe direct instruction to mean because it seems to mean different things to different people.

      I didn’t say knowledge was a waste of time, Tom so please stop distorting what I did say. Knowledge is not all equally important. Learning my phone number is a lot more useful to me than just choosing a number in a phone book at random and learning it. The sterile debate of whether or not knowledge is important gets nowhere. What we need to focus on is which knowledge is the priority in what context and why? Target the resources better on the basis of importance and then the most efficient method of acquisition.

      • I am forever amazed that constructivists enter the debate without really understanding anything about direct instruction. To say that it was the main approach 40 years ago is simply not so, unless you are setting up the usual straw man by equating it with a lecture where pupils are passive. Lectures are indeed a very poor way of transmitting any kind of knowledge, or of stimulating the desire to learn. I doubt that I attended more than 10 lectures in getting my first degree in History. MOOCs have had massive drop-out rates–and recorded lectures at least have the advantage that they can be replayed if there are any bits you didn’t get.

        Direct instruction was in fact the main teaching method 60 years ago, when I was taught how to add fractions. This wasn’t long before the constructivist revolution began–and it was driven from above, with little thought to the consequences. James Callghan’s Ruskin College speech (just under 39 years ago) attests to the concern outside the profession. Now, I seriously doubt that one primary school teacher in ten knows how to add fractions.

        Admittedly, it’s a skill which has few immediate practical applications now that we’ve gone metric. Years can pass without my ever having to add fractions, but I can still add 2/3 + 3/8 and come up with the answer (1 1/24) without putting it on paper. However, it provides an essential grounding for algebra. So let’s look at a typical lesson where pupils are taught to add fractions with different denominators:

        First, the pupils must know their number bonds effortlessly and automatically, or we will forever be running into the cognitive load problem. The same applies to using conventional algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. In previous lessons, pupils will have learned what fractions are. They will already have learned how to add fractions with the same denominator, and to simplify fractions; e.g., 1/4 + 1/4=2/4=1/2. The lesson will begin with a review–pupils, especially the slower ones, will be asked to solve a few similar questions. They will already have learned how to find the lowest common denominator. Here an interactive whiteboard gives the modern teacher a big advantage on the ones who taught me back in the stone age–it enables a much faster and more focused review.

        Next will come the main lesson, where pupils are shown how to convert fractions and add them. It will consist of a demonstration, followed by examples on the board where pupils are asked to supply the answers. Once the slowest pupils have demonstrated that they can solve the problems, they can be given more examples for practice. They will be given real-life problems to apply their new skills. And finally, they will be told what they will learn in the next lesson. They will already understand that learning fractions will help them master algebra.

        The main point here is that the pupils are active throughout the entire lesson, and they are learning things that they could not possibly discover on their own (there are Amazonian languages which have no number larger than 2). Maths is the universal language of civilisation–one does not ‘construct’ ones own answers to problems. The pupil may now be taught different methods of arriving at the answer, but traditional algorithms were the product of thousands of years of effort by the brightest mathematicians the world has produced. The methods now devised for ITT by educationalists are by comparison a joke, both from a pedagogic and mathematical perspective.

        You may argue that many pupils struggled with the old maths. No doubt a few did–classes were very large, and some teachers believed that the devil took the hindmost. But when I first arrived in England in 1971, I was amazed at the speed with which common labourers could chalk on the dartboard. Fifteen years later, after Lady Plowden’s report reflected the new orthodoxy, pubs had to have electronic dartboards to attract the younger generation.

        • Tom, I’m not sure of your point. The model ‘direct instruction’ lesson you describe closely resembles primary maths teaching methods widely used over the last 10 years (minus differentiated worksheets I guess). What are these ‘methods now devised for ITT’ that you find to be a joke?

          • Nic–You can’t be serious. Last year we tested dozens of Yr 6 pupils in Greater Manchester, and none of them had a clue about fractions. A few of them attempted to use conventional vertical algorithms, and a few of them even did so successfully. Every report I’ve seen indicates that pupils are still encouraged to use different strategies for calculation. I can’t believe you don’t know what I’m talking about.

      • “If they did there would not be any debate because all the direct instruction that was the main approach 40 years ago would have worked so well no-one would have bothered trying other methods.”

        Thing is, what was being done 40 years ago DID work.

        What it didn’t do was the sort of social engineering those who push the Progressive agenda value above actually learning things that are useful.

        Progressive methods simply don’t work as well a direct instruction and that’s why the Progressives have worked so hard over the decades to redefine “success” away from academic achievement and towards things such as “engagement” and “well being” which cannot be objectively measured.

        “The sterile debate of whether or not knowledge is important gets nowhere.”

        Actually, it’s got us a long way very recently. As OA has pointed out, until very recently, we were told it wasn’t a “debate” at all – that the question had been settled and that knowledge has NO value. Again, as Andrew points out, only now are the Progressives saying the debate is “stale” and “everyone has always agreed” with something they actually violently disagreed with (and, one must suspect, still disagree with).

        “What we need to focus on is which knowledge is the priority in what context and why?”

        Agreed, but recall that this is against a background of many in the teaching profession having been trained that knowledge is of no consequence AT ALL. The concepts, obvious from Willingham’s work, that an awful lot of the _real_ _basics_ are actually _extremely_ important, that racing towards the “higher level skills” without the strong foundations of rock solid knowledge, are not obvious at all to perhaps a majority of the profession.

        • I was there and I don’t think it worked at all well except for about 20% or less of the population and even for those there was significant under-achievement. There was a massive adult literacy problem – remember “On the Move” from the BBC? I was in a top set in a Direct Grant Grammar School and I don’t think the teaching then was anything at all to write home about whatever label you want to put on it. If there really was a conspiracy to establish knowledge not having any value at all, how come school league tables which are probably the most influential curriculum factor in secondary education are predominantly determined by knowledge based exams in GCSEs and A levels? I object to being labelled. I have never ever thought knowledge was unimportant. When I did an open survey on the web, it indicated about 2% of teachers thought knowledge unimportant and about 2% thought it the only thing that mattered. That empirical data suggests that there are a few religious zealots at either extreme that make so much noise it leads people to think there is no middle ground at all. It’s simply not supported by the evidence, ironic since we have the zealots quoting their use of evidence as if it puts them on the higher rational ground. Willingham is a point in case. From what I have read of his work, he is often being selectively quoted for political reasons with a claim that this is somehow scientific. That seems to me more dishonest than those at the opposite extreme just saying they believe in religion as a matter of faith.

  6. A small point perhaps: direct instruction can live happily with constructivism, which is about the pupil ‘making sense’.

    • jfin–the crucial difference is whether the sense the pupil makes would make sense to anyone else!

  7. Quite, this polarisation under labels that are not clearly defined and make assumptions (ill-founded) about what other people know demonstrate the danger of believing religious fanatics.

  8. “We need to see these people for what they actually are. They are dangerous individuals who are trying to prevent progress…”

    Comrades ! We must root out the Wreckers !

  9. It’s going to be a hard struggle to develop “character” even in grown teachers, given Steve Wheeler’s remarks on “dangerous people” and your post on why you blog anonymously.

    The late head teacher Ray Honeyford had character, and look what happened to him. Professional people respond remarkably well to incentives and disincentives. Children respond remarkably “well” to being told who it’s acceptable to hate.

    In the US “character” seems to have been renamed “personality”.


  10. The middle(ish) position between ‘memorising facts’ and ‘problem solving’ is that there’s a time and place for both in some subject areas.

    I teach science, and I require the students to learn a multitude of facts. They need explaining, often, via whole class instruction, and then they need to be remembered (or memorised, as you put it, although this implies something a little more robotic that I have in mind). However, having done that, they often need to apply these facts to solve problems. Depending on their ability, this happens at different rates, and therefore requires a degree of independent learning.

    In this sense, I see much science teaching as a combination of traditional and progressive methods. However, I recognise that most(?) ought to be in a traditional manner; that is what is required to give student the bedrock of knowledge necessarily to ‘problem solve’. But if we want the most able to accelerate at their own rate, then we must build in independent learning, and that involves strategies that you would classify (and dismiss) as progressive. I’d just call them, alongside many traditional methods, effective.

    • Agree, practical competence trumps political ideology.

  11. I seem to nod my head a lot at what I read here, drinking coffee in Weatherspoons on a cold Coventry morning. I just wish you would adjust the width of the reading area and increase the font size so people over 50 can read the thing without a magnifying glass or fiddling with computer settings!

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