Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

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The arguments against the phonics screening check have been discredited

April 2, 2015

I had the inevitable holiday run in with phonics denialists on Twitter. Not really worth rehashing any of it here; none of the arguments are new. However, I hadn’t realised that a lot of them, including primary teachers (and presumably this may also apply for a lot of primary teachers who are not denying the evidence for phonics on Twitter) are not actually aware that the main arguments used to deny the usefulness of the phonics screening check have now been discredited.

We now have the results from the students who took the phonics check in 2013 and did their key stage 1 reading assessment in 2014. And (from page 12 here) we learn that:

Pupils who do well in the phonics screening check do well in reading at the end of key stage 1. 99% of pupils who met the expected standard of phonic decoding in year 1 went on to achieve level 2 or above in reading at the end of key stage 1. 43% of these pupils achieved level 3 or above in reading. 88% of pupils who met the expected standard of phonic decoding at the end of year 2 achieved level 2 or above in reading. Only 34% of pupils who didn’t meet the expected standard of phonic decoding by the end of year 2 achieved level 2 or above in reading.

Looking at the more detailed results from here (Table 14) we can break down performance in the KS1 assessment by the results of the phonics screening check. The differences between those who passed 1st time (blue), those who passed 2nd time (red) and those who didn’t pass (orange) are striking.

image (1)

If you were around for the debates over the introduction of the check, you’d know that the following claims were made at the time:

  • Good readers would do badly in the phonics check.
  • The check would not tell us anything useful about their ability to read.
  • Teaching students to pass the phonics check would harm students’ ability to read later.
  • It would tell us nothing that teachers did not already know.

If you know anything about testing, you’d know that a test that identifies loads of pupils (in fact a big majority of the cohort) who will have a 99% chance of succeeding at the next level, is incredibly useful. And even the 66% figure for indicating those who will do poorly in the reading assessment is remarkable for a 5 minute check. Which teacher would not want to know if students were in the blue, red or yellow distributions above? This is remarkably extensive information about probable future performance gained in really very little time. It also tells us the first 3 claims above made by opponents of the phonics check do not match up with what generally happens. Those who do badly in the phonics check (particularly twice) are rarely good readers. Check performance tells us a lot about subsequent reading scores. Those students who have been most effectively prepared for the check, also appear to be better prepared for the reading test.

Of course, the last claim of the opponents, that teachers already knew all the stuff the check told them, could be true. But given the impressive figures for the predictive ability of the phonics check, I think the burden of proof now lies squarely on those who claim that teacher assessment would be more accurate.

Update 2/4/2015:

I was perhaps a bit naive with this post. I didn’t guess that the general response for phonics denialists would be to claim that everybody already knew that performance in the phonics screening check would be closely correlated to reading ability and effectively deny that any of the claims above (except perhaps for the claim that teacher assessment would be more accurate) had ever been an issue. So just in case there is any doubt that people claimed that the phonics check would cause problems for those who could read and would tell us nothing about reading ability, here’s a link to a letter opposing the phonics check from June 2012.

Please note it contains the following claims:

we [don’t] believe that this will help parents know how well their children are learning to read…

They will not show whether a child can understand the words they are reading, nor provide teachers with any information about children’s reading ability they did not already know…

The use of made-up words …. risks … frustrate [sic] those who can already read

…using unrealistic, arbitrary benchmarks in the checks plucked out of the air is of benefit to no one.

The signatories included:

  • Mary Bousted (General secretary, Association of Teachers and Lecturers)
  • Russell Hobby (General secretary, National Association of Head Teachers)
  • Christine Blower (General secretary, National Union of Teachers)
  • David Reedy (United Kingdom Literacy Association)

It also included Stephen Twigg and Lisa Nandy who were both Labour frontbench education spokespeople and the prominent anti-phonics activist Michael Rosen.

This was not some fringe group. These were the loudest enemies of the phonics screening check. And they were all utterly wrong.

Anybody know if any of them have acknowledged this?

 

 

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Politicians Competing To Be The Most Clueless About Education

March 20, 2015

Today it was announced that the government will fund the “Claim Your College” coalition of vested interests and their scheme to create a professional body for teachers that’s actually open to “anyone with an interest in education”.

Either the government hasn’t read the proposals, or simply does not care what they are funding as long as they can say something about education during the election campaign. They are promising to make “significant funding available to the ‘claim your college’ consortium – a coalition of leading organisations in the education sector – to support them in their endeavour to establish an independent college of teaching, which will be owned and led by the teaching profession” [my italics]Where this ownership is meant to come from given who is setting this group up and who is allowed to join it is beyond me. But now they seem likely to have something like £12 million of public money to play with. Worse there is the suggestion that:

It is expected that the new college of teaching might take on greater responsibility for areas such as professional standards and continuous professional development, should it so wish, thus moving stewardship of the profession out of the hands of the government and to the profession.

So that’s not just money, but also power over our professional development, in the hands of a body that has no mandate from the profession, only one from vested interests including (as I pointed out here) at least one private company selling professional development training.

Now, this sort of thoughtless spending of public money would be challenged by a competent opposition spokesman. In fact, in any other sector, it probably would be. Could you imagine Andy Burnham standing by if the government proposed giving power over doctors to an organisation set up by pharmaceutical companies? But in the Bizarro World that is education, the opposition seem as dead set on this quango as the government. In a speech today Tristram Hunt implied that the College of Teaching, rather than being a product of vested interests holding meetings on weekdays, lobbying for public money, was a grass roots product of social media:

…we need an element of trust. To reject an affliction which seems to bedevil Westminster culture. I call it the cult of the big reformer. A sort of alpha male compulsion to see public policy through the prism of your ‘reforming legacy’.

But you only have to see how social media has sent a shockwave through the teaching profession and its conversation about a new College of Teaching, to see how profoundly out of date this attitude really is.

… the days of education by diktat must come to an end. More than ever before change in education must come from the bottom-up. Through decentralisation. Through devolving power.

Yes, that’s right. He thinks that chucking money at vested interests to regulate, sorry, to assume stewardship of the teaching profession is decentralisation. If he’d actually read the conversations on social media about the College Of Teaching, he’d know how few of those involved are actually teaching now and how little say those of us in the classroom have had.

That said, Tristram Hunt was probably focused on trying to deliver the worst speech on education from a British politician I have ever read. In what seemed to be an attempt to give an aneurysm to anybody trying to play Bullshit Bingo, he managed some outstandingly cliché-soaked passages of which the following extract gives a flavour:

But I don’t think anybody here would argue with me if I suggested we have only just begun to scratch the surface of what we could achieve. 3D printing; Augmented reality; Coding; Robotics; Big data; Interactive textbooks; Adaptive learning software; The technology is truly remarkable. So whilst I know it has been prematurely prophesied many times before, I do believe this is finally the moment when technology changes the way teachers carry out their craft. We will see schools where every lesson can be simultaneously tailored to the needs of each individual pupil; schools where data about the effectiveness of different pedagogies can be shared with teachers in real time; and schools where software has liberated teachers from the yoke of marking exercise books.

However, the needs of the economy will dictate a rebalancing of what we teach as well as how we teach it. After all, a creative age demands more creativity. A digital economy demands advanced digital skills such as coding and big data analytics; And a world class STEM sector demands we finally consign our deeply engrained cultural snobbery towards technical education to the dustbin of history. But as Andreas Schleicher of the OECD has argued – our schools system must also“prepare young people for jobs that have not yet been created, technologies that have not yet been invented and problems that we don’t yet know will arise.”

Between government ministers unable to tell the difference between the teaching profession and the CPD industry, and an opposition spokesman sounding like Shift Happens, this is a grim day for the politics of education. Perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me, but I don’t remember even Ed Balls being this hopeless, and the Gove era is a much-missed golden age compared with this shambles.

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The College Of Not-Actually-Teaching

March 14, 2015

An article in the Independent yesterday reported that:

Mr Laws [the schools minister] said funding for a Royal College of Teaching would be announced before the election, to put teaching on an equal footing with professions such as law and medicine. “This has the potential to finally give the teaching profession the recognition, respect and high status it deserves,” he said.

It has always been a likely prospect that clueless, but publicity-hungry, politicians would be making announcements about this in the run up to the election, although there is some irony that that plans to subsidise the education establishment were announced in an article claiming that Michael Gove still had lots of influence over education policy.

I’ve argued repeatedly against the latest plans for a College of Teaching, largely on the basis that they are plans for a body that non-teachers can join which would, nevertheless, seek to speak for or even regulate, the profession. The latest plans seem to have been built around the idea that any group currently involved in CPD, including trade unions and at least one private company, should be involved in the initial structure, and that any recognition of current practising teachers should be put off for at least 4 years and only apply to some subsection of teachers approved by those setting the organisation up.

There are several reasons such an organisation cannot be trusted to spend money intended for the professional development of teachers.

1) The College of Teaching needs to be free to argue for, and organise, changes in how professional development for teachers is provided even if that does not fit the agenda of those already involved in the CPD industry. That cannot happen if the organisation is full of appointees of current vested interests. The involvement of SSAT, a private company providing CPD, is particularly suspect. Imagine if a pharmaceutical company had set up the Royal Society of Medicine. This is not an independent body.

2) The College of Teaching needs to be able to speak for those actually teaching in schools and colleges. It is that lack of power and a voice from the frontline that has deprofessionalised us. If the membership is dominated by educationalists, consultants and non-teaching headteachers it will do the exact opposite of what it is meant to do. It will reinforce our powerlessness.

3) The model of professional development being put forward is one that, I believe, many teachers will object to. It is currently being suggested that teachers be assessed and classified as associates, chartered members, or fellows. This is the old model, where teachers were considered experts depending on where their game playing had got them, i.e their position as managers, ASTs, or even as “outstanding/good/requires improvement/inadequate” teachers based on their latest appraisal. This is not what teacher expertise looks like. We should be recognised for our different types of expertise in different areas, not ranked. The only teachers who would join an organisation dedicated to saying that one teacher is a better teacher than another, are those who think they are better than their peers, or who are chasing promotions or other opportunities to teach less. It will have no appeal to those who actually just want to get better at teaching. And this problem would have been utterly obvious if the movement to set up a College Of Teaching had been teacher-led, not led by vested interests.

Of course, without public subsidy or a means to coerce teachers to join, this organisation will get nowhere in its present form. But if politicians are looking for the appearance of supporting teachers without any of the substance, they are going to throw money at this. So let’s be ready to say loudly and publicly that money paid to the proposed College Of Teaching is money spent undermining, not supporting, the teaching profession. Let politicians know they will face difficult questions if they throw public money at this proposed quango and then claim they are doing something for teachers.

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The International Language of Edu-Platitudes (Updated)

March 3, 2015

I’ve just skimmed through Successful Futures, the report of the Donaldson “Independent Review” of the Welsh Curriculum. It recommends the following:

The purposes of the curriculum in Wales should be that children and young people develop as:

  • ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives
  • enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work
  • ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world
  • healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.

There is also a longer breakdown of these ideas, listed under the heading “Purposes of the Curriculum”. 

Welshcurriculumaims

I get the impression that this review is:

  • intended as a fresh response to recent issues with Welsh education;
  • based on extensive consultation;
  • likely to have cost more than a couple of quid to put together.

However, it will look remarkably familiar if you have read a post of mine from June last year, which I will present again, in full, below:


 

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The International Language of Edu-Platitudes

Here’s something to take you back. Here are the aims of the 2007 National Curriculum:

The curriculum should enable all young people to become:
• successful learners who enjoy learning, make progress and achieve
• confident individuals who are able to live safe, healthy and fulfilling lives
• responsible citizens who make a positive contribution to society.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown (not that I suggest you read it all):

Screenshot 2014-06-23 at 19.59.00 - Edited

Somebody on Twitter recently pointed out to me that this is not dissimilar to the aims of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (written in 2004 but officially implemented in 2010). Its purposes were as follows:

Our aspiration for all children and for every young person is that they should be successful learnersconfident individualsresponsible citizens and effective contributors to society and at work.

And in more detail:

CfE

 

And just, in case you thought this sort of thing was only found in the British Isles, here is the Australian version, from the Melbourne Declaration of Educational Goals, made by all Australian education ministers in 2008.

These goals are:
Goal 1: Australian schooling promotes  equity and excellence
Goal 2: All young Australians become:

  • successful learners
  • confident and creative individuals
  • active and informed citizens

And in more detail:

Screenshot 2014-06-23 at 20.13.05 - Edited

Screenshot 2014-06-23 at 20.14.53 - Edited

Screenshot 2014-06-23 at 20.16.27 - Edited

I have commented on the English version before (here and here) but I will summarise the problems here.

  1. There are far too many aims, particularly if you break them down. As a result nobody could ever use it to make decisions. Almost any option would be covered by something. Inevitably, no school could directly implement these principles as written, and it is left open to a multitude of “experts” to interpret them.
  2. Most of the aims fail to reflect that the primary purpose of education is academic. They are about attitudes, opinions and feelings not about learning.
  3. The one academic category, i.e. “successful learners” contains more items about how students should learn and their attitude to learning than about what is learnt.
  4. A lot of this is vacuous or circular jargon. For instance, being “successful” isn’t an aim, you can only succeed if you already have an aim.

None of these problems seem to have stopped the cut and paste merchants. None of it seems to have offended the politicians. None of it seems to have been seen as contentious by the educational establishment. In the Scottish case I read here that:

…CfE (in respect of those core principles) retains all-party support in parliament. Furthermore, our research, and my recent professional interactions with teachers suggest that the teaching profession remains largely in support of those same core principles.

It’s a shame if that’s how people feel in any education system. It’s a loss of confidence in the ability to identify and directly teach what is worth knowing. But, of course, these are all from the progressive tradition in education. There is an alternative. Here, by way of contrast, are the aims of our new National Curriculum (yes, this is the entire section):

3.1 The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human
creativity and achievement.

3.2 The national curriculum is just one element in the education of every child. There is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the national curriculum specifications. The national curriculum provides an outline of
core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons to promote the development of pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills as part of the wider school curriculum.

Not perfect, but a direct endorsement of the academic purpose of education. In my view, it is official permission to teach.


 

To be fair to the Welsh government, there is some new stuff about knowledge in their curriculum aims which suggests some attention has been paid to how the debate has moved on, but their “independent review” clearly was not independent enough. The same stuff has been recycled yet again, and I doubt any of the cut-and-paste merchants were working for free.

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How the Education Establishment Supports Inequality

March 1, 2015

It’s often difficult to convince people how low the expectations are for working class kids can be in schools. I have a lot of anecdotes from a lot of schools. So many times I have been told that I cannot expect much from “kids like these”. I have been told that I haven’t understood that a school being slightly above average for the number of students on Free School Meals means I cannot expect students to spend a whole lesson learning. I have been told that kids from a particular area “don’t have parents like yours” and so will not care about how they do in school. More than anything, low standards of behaviour are excused on the basis that being disobedient and disruptive is normal for the working class. They simply don’t know any better. The ability of middle class teachers to paint anywhere with council housing as the ghetto, never ceases to amaze me. The worst possible home environment is assumed, again and again, even in schools where the parents evenings indicate that most parents are actually interested, aspirational and articulate.

Probably the most dangerous version of this caricature, is the idea that this difference between the classes requires a difference in the curriculum. It is accepted that academic subjects are fine for our children, and, incredibly, so is didactic teaching and the expectation that children can control themselves. But working class kids won’t be interested in any of that. If they are going to cooperate they must be given a curriculum that isn’t too full of content; that would just demotivate them. What working class kids is something to motivate them; something which does not assume they are capable of being interested in anything more than what they are already used to. The middle classes can have knowledge of all that is worthwhile; working class kids just need to be motivated by being told about matters that are relevant to their lives. Middle class kids can study poetry and nineteenth century novels; working class kids can study text messaging and reality TV.

The worst examples of this sort of snobbery were probably those during the early days of the free school movement. Activists who were desperate to prove free schools were selective struggled to find anything to indicate this in their admissions policies. So, instead, they looked at the curriculum. The claim was that an academic curriculum would deter working class parents from sending their kids to a school. So we saw arguments like these:

it is not uncommon for free schools to market themselves in various ways as appropriate mainly for abler and more middle class families … eg compulsory Latin, lack of vocational provision, focus exclusively on Russell Group as a destination, expensive uniform, religious tests and so on. [my emphasis]

Education for Everyone blog

Numerous studies have shown that languages are a class and gender thing. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to be encouraged to learn them by their parents, less likely to see the point of them and less likely to have parents at home who can help with their homework. It is a particular problem for boys, whose parents are more likely to encourage them in science than in languages.

…When [founder of the West London Free School, Toby] Young says that all children will have to learn Latin at Key Stage 3 (and either Latin or a modern language after that), he excludes the kids of parents for whom Latin is a frightening prospect. So much for comprehensive entry.

From The New Statesman

What we have is a bun fight for the middle-class aspirational children: we have lots of glossy prospectuses and PR in order to recruit the children that are most likely to do well.

“And I don’t buy this idea that admission is open to all. The minute you put Latin on the curriculum for the first few years or put pupils in stripey blazers, you will only recruit one kind of child, regardless of how many times you say your school is for everybody.”

Headteacher quoted in the Guardian

I had hoped that people were a bit more circumspect about their low expectations for working class kids these days. But just this week I was amazed to see the following gem on the ASCL website, reacting to the discrepancies in access to academic subjects across the country:

it seems to me that there’s a big assumption behind the gloomy tone of his comments and indeed of the BBC coverage; that the government’s prescription for improving social mobility was right after all. As far as I can see, the ‘MorGovian’ way to get more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds into Russell Group universities is to ensure that all such pupils study ‘academic’ subjects – an EBacc compatible Key Stage 4 curriculum, for example – and that they aren’t incentivised to study ‘vocational’ subjects, as was the case under Labour.

I would have thought a better way of improving social mobility would be to ensure pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds get the best possible results from a curriculum that motivates and inspires them, whether that be ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’. The trick is to get the curriculum right for each individual. After all, success breeds success; youngsters are surely far more likely to want to keep on with this education thing if they’re doing well at it. Staying on in education (taking respected, high-value qualifications, I should add) is surely the best bet for ensuring long-term success in the labour market.

In fact, I can’t help wondering if the whole question of advantage and disadvantage is a big red herring here. Doesn’t aptitude matter more than social background? Shouldn’t we be more interested in guiding youngsters into the various curricular paths according to where their interests and prior attainment suggest they are most likely to succeed? Okay, a disproportionate number of disadvantaged pupils may have fallen behind by Year 9, but surely such students need intervention and support rather than a curriculum pathway which risks even further demotivation.

This was written by a headteacher on the blog of an organisation representing headteachers across the country. If headteachers are willing to argue in public that students from deprived backgrounds need a curriculum based around motivation rather than academic achievement, what chance do they have? The education establishment still firmly believe that what is appropriate for their children is far too demotivating for other people’s children.

 

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Politician’s Logic and The College Of Teaching

February 11, 2015

I was recently reminded of the politician’s logic described in the above clip:

Something must be done, this is something, therefore we must do it.

It stemmed from a number of conversations about the College Of Teaching on Twitter, and the argument of this blogpost by Tom Sherrington.

Even if the status quo is terrible, people will defend it inadvertently by resisting change and preventing initial ideas from living a while before they’re fully developed…

It sets out a process by which the College could come into being from the initial founder stage through to the mature membership stage.  If this road map is followed, it would be possible to have an influential College of Teaching fully run by teachers delivering on a number of areas relating to teachers’ professional lives – within five years.   I personally don’t have a better idea than this and I don’t know of one; I don’t like the status quo so I’m very happy to support his proposal…

It is also my experience that it’s a mistake to try to seek total agreement or have rules that are too tight before you get started; the experience of running a new initiative in practice will always throw up new possibilities; if you get too bogged down at the start, you never get going.  It’s like kids arguing about the rules of a game for so long that they never actually play it…

…But if we’d be much much better off with a CoT then it’s worth fighting for. I don’t think that message comes through strongly enough – not yet.  At this stage, I’d say it’s more important to promote the Why of a College of Teaching, above the Who or the How…

If the ongoing debate leads to a better process and a better outcome, that’s great.  Let’s have the discussion in that spirit.  But if the debate simply adds weight to the inertia; not offering any alternative except the status quo, then that’s what we’ll get.  That’s what we’ll deserve – and the chance will have gone.

Ignoring the ad hominem implication that anyone who objects to a plan to spend more than £10 million of public money on a loose and unaccountable assembly of interest groups, is somehow simply resistant to change, this argument amounts to:

We need a change from the status quo. This is a change from the status quo. Therefore, we should support it.

I suspect that this logic might indeed win over some of the politicians and the public will end up bankrolling this project. But let me be utterly clear why this won’t win me over. The status quo of having no professional body for teachers has existed for a grand total of 3 years. Prior to that there was a professional body called the General Teaching Council of England (GTCE) which existed for 12 years and which few teachers had a kind word for. So, the creation of a new professional body is not a once in a lifetime proposition, not a radical departure, but a second attempt at something that was tried and failed in recent memory.

Once we actually recall this little bit of history, we remember that the status quo of not having a professional body for teachers was deliberately chosen over an option (the GTCE)  that was seen as worse than the status quo. If we accept this as the case, then the precise details of the proposal do matter. If any professional body will do, then why was the GTCE not good enough? When the discussion of a College of Teaching started, the desire not to repeat the mistakes of the GTCE was a key theme. Only as it became clear that teachers would have as little, or even less, say over the CoT as they did over the GTCE has the GTCE disappeared from the argument.

Now, of course, it could be the case that the people arguing for uncritical support for the CoT proposal, would also have opposed the abolition of the GTCE. Perhaps they genuinely do think that any professional body is better than none. But if so, then they are keeping quiet about it. If not, then there is no excuse for suggesting anybody else accept the CoT proposal on the grounds that any professional body is better than none. For myself, I know from experience that having a professional body for teachers that is not accountable to teachers is worse than the status quo of having no professional body. And for that reason the issue of who will make up and run the CoT is not a “detail”; not something that can be adjusted later, and not something that can be decided by non-teachers and left for teachers to swallow.

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The Problem With Knowledge Part 2

February 9, 2015

In my last post I argued that there may be a split between traditionalists who see knowledge as the ultimate end of education, and those who see it as a means to develop the intellect. Here I discuss how differing positions on this issue may affect how we approach education.

Traditionalists do seem to agree on a lot. However, I think that there are a number of debates that change depending on whether knowledge, or cleverness, is the aim of education.

To begin with, the question of how we select which knowledge is worth learning changes. While progressives have always challenged the body of knowledge to be learnt (the tradition) on a wide variety of grounds such as political incorrectness, obsolescence, irrelevance and the nature of those making the selection, I’ve never really had much time for these arguments. There is knowledge that is considered the best in our culture. There is knowledge that, in our culture, is undeniably associated with being educated or clever. As long as one doesn’t hope to socially engineer a new culture using children as the means (which does seem to be the aim of some progressives) the tradition in our culture is not difficult to locate. While one might seek to change or add to culture, that does not have to be done through schooling, and so the debate about what should be considered best in our culture is a distinct one from the question of what is considered best in our culture. By keeping those debates separate we can accommodate both cultural difference (e.g. by accepting that, say, a British Muslim might include Arabic in their tradition or a British Jew might include Hebrew) and keep a distance from the more difficult debate about what has value rather than what is valued. While the realm of the intellect is recognised in all cultures, the best way to develop the intellect can still be dependent on culture and we have a frame of reference for what is to be taught that can be explored but doesn’t have to be justified from first principles.

If, however, knowledge is being learnt for its own sake, I think the question of “which knowledge?” becomes more complicated. Is the knowledge valued in one’s own culture better to learn for its own sake than knowledge valued in another culture? Will it become necessary to justify directly what is the best knowledge in the world rather than what is considered to be the best knowledge in one’s own culture? This is not necessarily something that an advocate of knowledge for its own sake would shy away from. I have heard many people explain why Shakespeare is correctly held in such high esteem, or why Latin and Greek literature is the greatest inheritance that can be received from past civilisations. However, it is a more difficult argument to have, particularly when any argument that could be used to justify the value of a particular type of knowledge which suggests that learning it is valued as a way to achieve another aim would inherently undermine the idea that knowledge is valued for its own sake. Is it even possible to argue about what is the best knowledge if knowledge is only valued for its own sake?

There is, however, a way in which seeing knowledge as the aim of education might simplify arguments. If one adopts the view that knowledge is an end in itself, it becomes impossible to argue that the ends of teaching can be achieved through ways that are not focussed on knowledge. In that sense this could almost be seen as the strongest form of traditionalism. Those of us who see knowledge as a means to an end allow progressives a means to challenge us over whether there are alternative, and better, means to the same ends. We might end up having to justify our viewpoint by considering empirical evidence rather than through the adoption (usually on ethical grounds) of particular goals. There are relevant empirical questions over whether (as many progressives claim) learning in particular ways improves thinking, or how thoroughly we must know something for it to be useful in our thinking which I do not think can be answered without considering empirical evidence.

Alternatively, if the communication of particular knowledge is the only aim of teaching, it might be possible to view teachers only as people who know what is worth knowing and are able to judge what is worth sharing. From such a point of view, in which teacher knowledge and judgement form the basis of all teaching, it might be possible to argue that these are the only important aspects of teaching. This might seem an odd step, but there are those who believe in the centrality of knowledge to education who reject almost any discussion of the most effective ways to teach, rather than of what to teach. In particular, they reject the use of research to establish how best to teach and how best to learn. For teaching to be informed by evidence of what works is, from this point of view, a distraction from teaching informed by judgements of what is worthwhile. This may seem to be a false dichotomy, but it is the best (and I think fairest) description I can give of the position of those who consider themselves to be advocates of knowledge and teacher authority who reject the use of evidence and research to inform teaching.  However, even though I think this is probably the best possible case against being informed by evidence that a traditionalist teacher can give, I still think it goes nowhere towards discounting the value of research into how memory works.

But I do think the simplified argument for traditionalism has an appeal. I think most traditionalists (and also many progressives) are very suspicious of “instrumentalist” views of education. The idea that education is a means to an end (or ends) that is (or are) not inherently an aspect of education can lead to many dubious suggestions about what and how to teach. By arguing that we should approach education as a goal in its own right, not a means to some other social, political, economic, moral or religious goal we avoid many bad ideas. I think, however, this may have led to an excessive anti-instrumentalism that also seeks to reject any intellectual goals for education. There may be a point of view that people like me are giving too much ground over to the progressives. My talk of intellectual development may have created a space where people start talking of creativity, deep understanding, critical thinking, higher order thinking, independent thinking, i.e. all the vague terms that progressives use to distinguish their view of the intellect from one that revolves around knowledge. From this point of view, I am simply not traditionalist enough; I lack true faith in the importance of knowledge. My defence, however, would be to ask where would the most extreme anti-instrumentalism actually lead? Could we actually argue that knowledge serves no purpose? I think that in eliminating all space for instrumentalism in the argument for knowledge we would end up having to argue that we gain nothing from knowledge. We’d have to argue that it does not give us the capacity for anything greater than we could achieve without it. We’d insist that it gave us no insight, wisdom or happiness. We’d claim that we gained no moral, spiritual, intellectual, social or practical advantage from it. In doing so, we’d have eliminated many arguments against knowledge, but only by accepting that there is no particular reason knowledge had value to us in the first place.

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