I was a little chastened after my EdFest post and promised Kris Boulton and Harry Webb that I would read Daisy Christodoulou’s book before making assumptions about her intentions. So I have. It is a brave thing to write a book – the work takes on an extension of your identity and criticism becomes deeply personal. As I write this I am minded of the Yeats line ‘Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams’ and so I will try to tread as softly as I can. Nevertheless, when one writes publicly, especially when one takes as strong a position as this one does, it is inevitable that there will be scrutiny. I hope this scrutiny takes the form of constructive debate and not personal criticism.
The main thrust of the book is that education has moved too far in a progressive direction largely as a result of the ‘defunct’ and ‘pernicious’ influences of Rousseau, Dewey and Freire who advocated what is referred to as ‘fact free learning’. The idea is that this has led to 7 myths in education which are damaging the quality of learning that children receive.
I think it is important to consider two things when reading these sections. Firstly, it is vital that we place the philosophers in their time. Dewey, for example was responding to an education system in which children were not viewed as individuals, and where cruel forms of corporal punishment were routinely administered. My mother remembers being dragged to the front of the classroom as a seven year old child by her hair, and beaten with a stick on the back of her legs. Her crime? She raised her hand to tell the teacher that she thought he had missed an ‘h’ out of the word ‘sugar’. For all three of these ‘pernicious’ writers, the main concern was not with facts, but with power. Each tried to assert the importance of seeing each child as a complex and capable individual. For Dewey, the child ‘excels in complexity and minuteness of differentiations’ so that ‘one who executes the wish of others….is doomed to act along lines predetermined to regularity.’ It is not facts he is opposed to, but the failure of the education system to value individuality. For Freire, writing in times of extreme social oppression in Brazil and Rousseau against the backdrop of the grave inequalities of the 18th Century, the importance was to cast light on the plight of the poor; to try to value their lives and to build education which was holistic in nature. We cannot take their words and ideas and ridicule them with a 21st century perspective without considering the contexts in which they were written. It would be like saying that because the Romantic poets were heavily influenced by Rousseau, we should ignore their work, rooted as it is in a ‘one life’ philosophy. Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shelley are suddenly ‘defunct’ and ‘ pernicious’?
Secondly, we need to consider the extent to which these philosophies have really impacted on education. Why is it that children are still sitting examinations and not rolling around in meadows doing as they please all day? There are other influences at play.
If we are to accept that there is a ‘progressive’ influence in education, we have to examine its opposite – the ‘traditional’. I would argue that the main philosophical influence in education is actually Cartesian. An emphasis on the critical analysis of knowledge : a separation of emotion and reason. This is a model of thinking which has descended in part from Plato and found its voice most forcible in the philosophy of Descartes. Cartesian philosophy led to a widely held belief in what is known as a TOD model of intelligence (Ryle, 1949), a model which has evolved from Plato to Descartes to Freud and in which there is deemed to be a close connection between intelligence, conscious thought and human identity. This model has greatly influenced the development of an education system. Claxton (2012:79) summarises it as:-
Clear-cut (not vague)
Explicit (well justified and not hearf-felt)
Verbal (not manifest in gesture or expression)
Explanatory (not manifest in action or perception)
Rapid (requiring neither patience nor contemplation).
And it is upon these principles that our faith in an examination system is based. I would argue that these strands of philosophy have had at least an equal if not a dominant influence on the development of an education system. I don’t find it helpful therefore to root criticisms of our education systems in one philosophy or another. To be fair, Christodoulou argues that perhaps we should move towards examining evidence from the ‘cutting edge’ of science, so let’s consider that.
One of the problems with Science at cutting edges is that it is working largely with unknowns. Physicists working at the ‘edge’ of particle physics are as much philosophers as they are scientists. Indeed, both Einstein and Bohr used philosophical frames of thought to push their discoveries forward. Neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists are working at the edge of human identity and consciousness, asking questions such as ‘what is identity?’ ‘what is memory?’ ‘where does empathy come from?’ and so on. The best admit that they know very little. They qualify statements with ‘It would seem’ or ‘this suggests’ because new discoveries are being made all the time. Tim Taylor recently likened them to ‘medieval cartographers’ charting an undiscovered globe. It’s exciting stuff. But we must remember that it is not the whole picture.
In Seven Myths, Christodoulou actually references very little science at all. Daniel Willingham is quoted frequently, but I wondered where the others were. No mention of Dehaene, Ansari, Damasio, Greenfield, Goswami, Blakemore, Resnick, Dweck, Goldin- Meadow, Howard-Jones, Scott…I could go on. But these people are also working at the cutting edge. And like any good scientist, even Willingham is the first to admit that he doesn’t know everything. Susan Greenfield sums up the difficulty in pin pointing with any great accuracy, how the brain functions in terms of ‘mind’ and identity (2011) :-
‘While it is possible for neuroscientists to make progress in the physical brain, the great question is still the causal, water-into-wine relationship of the physical brain and body with subjective mental events….we do not have any idea as to what kind of scenario would answer this question.’
It is for this reason, that cognitive science is full of qualifiers such as ‘might’ and ‘suggests’ – we, as teachers, need to be able to keep an eye on their emerging discoveries, but must become more responsible and agentive in developing our own practice. We can certainly see the evolution and adaptation of ideas being implemented in the shifting positions of cognitive load theory.
Most of the evidence for Christodoulou’s claims that our curriculum is largely content free comes from Ofsted reports. My own views on Ofsted are not too far removed from those in the book, but for different reasons. I believe that pouring over Ofsted reports leads to some very poor practice in schools – I have used the metaphor of a football game before in which teachers behave like players intent on ‘running around after the referee instead of the ball’. I agree with Christodoulou that this has led to some vapid practice, but I am concerned at the huge leaps of assumption made from the reading of these reports into what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teaching. For example, Christodoulou cites several tasks as evidence of dumbing down. One of these is an account of a lesson in which children wrote letters to their headteacher about uniform. It is assumed that this offers an example of learning which is content free. But without sight of those letters we cannot know. Imagine if the letter said:-
Dear Mr Head,
We have been studying democracy in our class and I am writing to you in order to propose a way to make our school more democratic.
Democracy comes from the Greek words Demos and Kratos meaning people and power. Our class believes that although we live in a democratic society, Britain, unlike Ancient Athens, has an indirect democracy which means that once politicians are in power, citizens have very little influence over the laws they can pass. A direct democracy, however, allows citizens to vote on each law through a referendum and we would like to propose the development of a direct form of democracy in our school.
One way we might do this is to allow pupils as say on school uniform…..
I am not suggesting that this is what the letters contained, only that we cannot know what kind of knowledge was contained in the letter. It is this lack of context which undermines almost all of the examples offered in the book.
Elsewhere in the book, practices such as role play and pedagogies such as ‘mantle of the expert’ are attacked without any real understanding of the contexts in which they take place. Research by Hough and Hough (2012) into the impact of drama on thinking is quite compelling, but there is no mention of this. In addition, there is a deep misunderstanding of the practices in which children act as ‘experts’. Christodoulou’s view is that they are not experts and so it is silly to make them pretend to be so. But practices which use this technique do not ask children to pretend to be experts, but instead asks them to consider what they would need to know ‘if’ they were. What would the implications be? Where would we get the information from? Who might need to know it?’ This is a very different premise and the distinction is important. Making assumptions on the basis of a reference in an Ofsted report is damaging. In addition, practice leads to expertise – it forms the basis upon which we ask children to play and perform at concerts or to take part in sporting competitions before they are yet expert musicians or athletes – the preparation for the adult goal depends on exposure to experience of performance and competition.
Experience and Professional Judgement
In forming an argument for the benefit of direct instruction, the book mentions anecdotal evidence from Christodoulou’s own personal experience from the three year period she spent in the classroom; two of which were spent training on the Teach First Programme. Again, a leap is made. Citing lessons which did not go well as evidence, Christodoulou draws the conclusion that the fault lies in the theory and not in her own practice. For example she cites a lesson in which she attempted inquiry based learning by showing a picture of Shakespeare and asking children what they knew. Unsurprisingly, the responses were not positive. They see a balding man in funny clothes. I wonder what might have happened if the image had been of a dagger dripping with blood and the question ‘What are the implications of this image?’ or of the bodies of three young people, dead in a tomb and a question of ‘what happened?’ Hooking children into inquiry takes work and reflection. We cannot dismiss its value because we did it badly in the early years of our teaching. I’m sure that all of us who have taught for a number of years can look back at things we did in the first five years of our career and cringe. The trick is to get better.
I’m sure, as ever, that this post will open up some lively debate and this is welcomed. I don’t present this as an attack or as ‘truth’, simply as an alternative view and I hope I have walked softly.