Better a Blob than a Knob.


I usually try very hard to avoid personal attacks in my blogs – even when writing about Michael Gove. But this is a response to Toby Young so an exception can be made. Last week, to much self trumping, Toby Young published for the right wing sink tank, Civitas, an attack on anyone who disagrees with his views on education – accusing one and all as members of ‘The Blob’ – a term nicked from Michael Gove. Most of the article was nicked actually, from Daisy Christodoulou, but with Young’s customary rudeness thrown in for good measure. It was an argument so flimsy and ill informed that a sneeze would dismantle it. And I have a spare five minutes…

For those of you who do not know Toby Young, what better introduction that his own words, on the web site of his school…

“Toby Young is one of the founders of the West London Free School. He is a British journalist and the author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (2001)” Thankfully he has now removed the sentence which listed a ‘sex play’ as one of his achievements – a sentence that sat on the school website for well over a year. What kind of parent was he hoping to attract with that one? I imagine a cluster of pin-striped fathers pushing their offspring through the gates and rushing off for a spanking with a well paid dominatrix (while conjugating latin verbs). But it’s gone now. Now it’s just a school for the unpopular.

So that’s the ad hominem part over – let’s look at the errr…substance…of the actual argument.

His article : “Prisoners of the Blob : Why Most Education Experts are Wrong About Everything” makes a number of assumptions which are in themselves deeply flawed. He claims that:-

British State Schools are “in decline” 

In decline from what? Since the creation of the comprehensive system, the state system has only improved – data from Ofsted itself shows that schools and teachers are better than they have ever been. Where is Young’s evidence for this decline? Well, there isn’t any. It’s an opinion. It might help to define what exactly has declined. If it were teacher morale, children’s interest in school, the moral purpose of schooling etc I might find myself in agreement. But no, the opinion seems to be based on the loss of the ‘O’ Level and Latin.

Everyone in education shares a progressive educational philosophy blocking progress.

Young criticises those of us working in education for being ‘child centred’. He is of course, confusing child centred with child led, a common misconception among those who have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. Of course education should be centred on children. What else could it be centred around? Oh, wait….Ofsted-centred, profit-centred, self-centred? There is an assumption in the pamphlet that child centred means learning without teaching, modelling or guidance. But that is not what happens in schools. In fact Hattie’s research shows clearly that the dominant teaching model in schools is the teacher led one, not the progressive one. For my own part, while I argue strongly for creative and innovative approaches to teaching and learning, I know that some things just have to be taught and learned. This is a common denominator. It is a base line, not an aspiration. Young and his supporters announce that teaching kids facts is indicative of rigour. In fact, it is a lowering of the bar so far that a slug could leap over it. Let me give an example:-

I am ‘teaching’ Romeo and Juliet. We are analysing a speech of Juliet’s and exploring the meaning of some of the metaphors. This is the BASELINE. It is easy to get children across a baseline. But I want them to remember the play and I want them to love it. For that I have to try harder.

We are doing this in role as detectives investigating her death. The children are intently looking at the language for clues as to her state of mind. They are undergoing training from a ‘linguistic forensic expert’ on the use of language. They KNOW it’s a fiction, but the fiction gives them motivation to look harder, to remain focused, to remember the learning. This is CHILD CENTRED learning. 

Young paints a picture of progressive education devoid of knowledge and discipline, with no recognition that teachers are not simply charged with teaching knowledge, but in making that knowledge stick. He bandies around the terms ‘cognitive science’ without engaging with any detailed exploration of what we know about the brain. Here’s some cognitive science for you, Mr. Young:-

1. Accountable talk in groups has a significant impact on learning and achievement – (Michaels and Resnick 2008)

2. Feeling valued and trusted in the classroom creates conditions in which the brain feels safe to learn (Curran 2009)

3. Teachers and children who gesture well and who are attuned to each others gestures have a better understanding of concepts and are more likely to be able to explain them – movement and talk are essential to learning. This makes learning a community endeavour (Goldin- Meadow et al 2003, 2013, 2014)

4. Emotion is inextricably linked to effective decision making – suggesting that equipping children with the skills to explore and handle their emotions links to effective reasoning (Damasio 2006)

It is interesting that not a single one of these eminent and well respected cognitive and neuroscientists are mentioned in Young’s work. Not one. Instead he argues that teachers are basing their practice on the philosophy of Rousseau.

Let me be clear – without undermining my profession, most teachers, even if they have heard of Rousseau, won’t have the faintest idea what his educational philosophy was. Suggesting that we plan our lessons based on his Romantic educational philosophy is plain daft. But then, his whole argument is daft and rather than finding real evidence for it, he describes those who oppose him as ‘blancmange’. The whole article is littered with cliches and mixed metaphors. The Blob is a single amoebic entity but also a collective mass. It is both dangerous and comic. Actually, Toby, the image is just childish, wearisome and dull. Young does claim only to be a journalist and not a writer – a semantic gap akin to woodcutter and carpenter, but still….some originality would be refreshing. Some proper research. Some evidence. Instead we get this:-

“For those of us who favour a knowledge-building, teacher-led approach, it is this ideology that is the enemy, not those who believe in it”.

And there we have it – this is an attempt to pick a fight with an imagined enemy from a small group with a ‘favoured’ view. Nothing more. The problem is that to fight, you have to have an enemy who knows who he is. No-one recognises themselves in this blob because the reality is we need skills AND knowledge. We need engagement AND discipline. Everyone working in the classroom knows this. And if this were all that Young attacked, I’d probably leave it alone, but look at this:-

“The central pillar of The Blob’s educational philosophy is the belief that children are essentially good. That is, children are naturally curious, imaginative and creative and the purpose of a good education is to enable children to express fully these innate talents”.

This belief, that a child is good, creative, curious and imaginative, is apparently a bad thing. But it is the conflation between that belief and the purpose of schooling that is flawed. I do believe that children are naturally (on the whole) curious, imaginative and creative. But I don’t think that the purpose of education is to simply express this. I want them to be able to read, be numerate, have knowledge and experience. It’s just that I want the latter to be achieved without crushing the former. Is that too Blobby for you Mr. Young?

And again, in his ignorance, there is a wilful misinterpretation of a key educational term – relevance. For Young, the idea of making learning relevant to children means limiting what is learned to their world experience. He attacks this as meaning that only popular culture is taught. What utter nonsense. Making learning relevant is about finding the human connection to that which is taught. Finding the wonder in the world. My students love Romeo and Juliet partly because falling in love is relevant to them. They love learning about priests fleeing into priest holes during the reformation because fear is relevant to them. This ridiculous sullying of the concepts of relevance and engagement in education flies in the face of what we know about the brain and how it learns. Making connections – both emotionally and intellectually – is a key strategy for making learning memorable. Keep up Mr. Young.

Like Christodoulou in her book, Young reels out examples of really poorly constructed role play lessons in order to dismiss the entire notion of using role to develop empathy. Imagine if we used a few examples of poor Maths teaching to argue the case that Maths was irrelevant. Putting poor practice out for ridicule in order to attack the whole is an easy way to score points, but it helps no-one. ‘Pretend you’re a slave’ is crass. Almost as crass as lumping the entire education establishment together and calling them a blob. But not quite.

I could go on picking holes in this piece of lace, but they are obvious to anyone who cares to take a look. And I have work to do. So here endeth the spanking Mr. Young. My bill is in the post.










17 thoughts on “Better a Blob than a Knob.

  1. I really do agree with you. State education is better than ever with teachers doing amazing jobs. However, the only thing about your article I do not agree with is how you use Latin as a high culture subject, a signifier of class and, as used in your writing, something that is advocated by ‘the pin-striped fathers who go for a spanking after dropping off their children at school. numerous studies have shown that learning Latin can if, quite rightly so, not taught within a conservative paradigm focusing on conjugating verbs, enhance children’s literacy. Classical civilisation is also the root of any democratic process.
    I have taught for a long time Latin within the context of a state-school outreach project and have found it to be an enriching experience for all students involved.
    I think we need to steer away from attaching meaning to school subjects.

    1. Yes, I take your point. It’s ok to learn Latin without having a good spanking. But nor should it be used as an example of how the education system is supposedly failing. I have always taught a little Latin as part of work on Celts and Romans (when you’re in role as a Celtic villager facing a Roman army it comes in quite handy!).

  2. I think you were talking for 99% of the teaching profession here, and that was just the title, 99.9% for the blogpost itself. Excellent

    It is sad that journalists and bloggers seem able to spout the same old gibberish.

    They do say that “you can fool some of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time”. This doen’t seem to stop some of them trying.

    The only issue you didn’t raise with this document is the fact that it doesn’t credit Andrew Old. It mentions all sorts of people from Daisy C to Rousseau as most of these diatribes tend to but poor Andrew receives no credit whatsoever.

    While I have every sympathy with this position, Toby should next time coinsider the wider context. The world will now have to suffer a self pitying blogpost from Andrew explaining why he wasn’t mentioned but explaining how all involved have promised to involve him next time, now he has come out of the blogger closet.

    My main reflection however is on the strapline to the title on the cover which reads…”Why most education experts are wrong about nearly everything”. Surely if they are wrong about nearly everything they are not experts.

    I assume he doen’t include himself in this description, even though it is obvious that he isn’t an expert. You have identified a few shortcomings in his reasoning and the world would benefit from the identification of the others, lest parents read this thing and form misconceptions. However I think it much more sensible to leave it to your title…”Better a Blob than a Knob”.

  3. The trouble is these cretins know nothing other than their own prejudices. It’s ironic that people who argue for learning facts in a rigid formal manner can’t be bothered to find the real facts about how children learn. I make no apology for pointing out again that we paid millions of pounds for the Plowden, Bullock and Cockroft reports where a balance of parents industrialists academics and educationalists studied their specified areas and all three independently came up with similar recommendations, very much in line with debrakidd’s views. Those authorities that took these reports seriously or were the authorities that were admired by these studies were those that made tremendous improvements across the curriculum (West Riding and Hertfordshire come to mind) and earned international reputations. Proud to be a Blob.

  4. Some balanced sanity at last. Ok a bit emotionally charged but at least you are not trying to pretend you are describing pure science. Education does have many problems but a lack of focus on knowledge is not one of them in secondary education. Knowledge based exams are the dominant driver. Teachers salaries depend on the results so why would they run off to replace learning knowledge with airy fairy nonsense? It simply doesn’t make sense. Of course some teachers struggle, perhaps many, but maybe that is because it isn’t easy to do not because they are ideologically crippled.

  5. When it comes to darling Toby we all need to know that the real name of his game is Patricide.

    He can never forgive or forget his father Michael’s key role in the development of comprehensive education which Toby is wholly fixated on.

    Meanwhile I shudder to imagine what kind of parent he is in turn to his offspring if he so derides their natural inquisitiveness and playfulness. He deserves every bit of probable future rejection of him by them. And what a pair of sad dicks he and Gove make, writing their psychoses large for the imagined general public good!

  6. HI Debra – thanks for writing this – it saved me the trouble but I will Tweet this out (as I hope others have done). I am very concerned about the coverage Young and Christodoulou are getting – her rant on myths is the epitome of the straw man argument. Young is one of this group at the moment who seem to want to dichotomise the argument you have to support skills or knowledge, creativity or rigour there can be no middle ground. I thought we had killed this beast with work from Shulman on Pedagogic Content Knowledge but apparently not.

    1. Thank you Paul – yes, it does seem that there is a concerted effort to shift ‘debate’ into polarised positions and my worry is that young, bright and, I’m afraid, arrogant graduates are fertile hosts for spreading ideas which suit a whole different agenda. I have no doubt that Christodoulou and her peers are well motivated. But they are fed selective research and ideology which best serve the interests of a burgeoning and highly profitable “knowledge” market and this is a worry.

      1. This kind of thing is inevitable when politicians take charge of education. Proper research doesn’t give the answers that they want and so they structure things so that they can get lesser researchers to produce what they want and manipulate the purse strings, the curriculum, the inspection system etc to get what they want and currently the Gradgrind approach is in favour. Unfortunately teachers can be their own worst enemies: just start a discussion on phonics versus look and say. As adults we don’t sound each word unless it’s something we haven’t come across before and then we use phonics and the context and morphemes, but watch politicians and most teachers get all steamed up about a single answer to reading problems-usually phonics. At least the teachers are trying to find the best answer for their pupils but it’s a pity that they try so hard to please without having the confidence or the knowledge (restricted training under government policies) to stand up for the children’s real needs. I could rant on for hours about direct experience and so on. Teachers need to know what children know before moving them on and stuffing them with facts thy don’t understand or relate to is insane. How can their individual needs not be the centre of education?

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