“Our consciences dictate that we must protest against it, that we must oppose it and that we must attempt to alter it…”
Nelson Rohihlala Mandela, October 1963, Rivonia Trial
Two great leaders have been on my mind in the last two weeks: JFK and Nelson Mandela. Mandela died this week at the ripe old age of 95. By contrast, Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago this November, aged 46. What united them was their vision against oppression, their courage against adversity, and their conscience against injustice. Both have inspired millions globally, as the commemorations show. In learning about their lives and teaching their speeches, I have like so many others felt personally inspired by them.
Living in South African and teaching in a township primary school in 2004, 2006 and 2010, I found Madiba’s words inspiring: ‘There is no greater revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children’. Living for a short time in Berlin in 2009, exploring its history, I found Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric resonating with me. He was passionate about education: “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The goal of education is the advancement of knowledge and the dissemination of truth.” Fifty years ago this year, while Mandela was on trial for treason in South Africa with the threat of the death penalty or life incarceration looming, Kennedy was in Berlin in 1963. West Berlin had survived a Soviet blockade but was now surrounded by the Berlin Wall. Listening to his words again this week struck me:
“There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world.
Let them come to Berlin.
There are some who say Communism is the wave of the future.
Let them come to Berlin.
There are some who say, in Europe and elsewhere, we can work with the Communists.
Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.”
Hearing these words in the characteristic Bostonian lilt should resonate for us in education this week. The international PISA test has again shown Kennedy’s home state of Massachusetts (mean score 511) leading all other states in the USA (mean score 481), competing with the leading Asian jurisdictions, and well ahead of the UK (491). As Kennedy might have said, let them come to Massachussetts: the state with a core knowledge curriculum.
On False Dichotomies
Many in education dismiss the skills and knowledge debate as a false dichotomy. They lament any such polarising rhetoric and position themselves as between or beyond this debate. Of course, the mediators say, we should teach both.
Sir Michael Barber is one of the mediators: ‘the road to hell in education is paved with false dichotomies… It’s an absurd debate: they go together.’
Alex Quigley, a great Head of English and education blogger takes this position in his post Beyond constructivism versus direct instruction and references the Rowe report:
“The relative utility of direct instruction and constructivist approaches to teaching and learning are neither mutually exclusive nor independent. Both approaches have merit in their own right, provided that students have the basic knowledge and skills (best provided initially by direct instruction) before engagement in ‘rich’ constructivist learning activities.’
Alex’s comments represent the ‘beyond binaries’ way of thinking:
“I get tired of the binary debates that fail to recognise the reality of the classroom is far more nuanced than singular methods or ideologies.”
“I use methods from both perspectives on a daily basis…”
“I worry about polarising the knowledge debate too much because the truth is always more complex”
“I find myself in a middle ground in the instructivist/constructivist debate. I like to think I am one of those relativists who cheats taking one side or another and plucks the best from all sides!”
“I’m frustrated by the binary thinking and polarised, ideology laden debates that place direct instruction in opposition to more collaborative learning methods”
“The vast mass of ordinary teachers are outside of much of these polarising debates, busy getting on with teaching.”
Tom Sherrington, great headteacher and education blogger, also takes this view: ‘I’m just really tired of the lack of nuance here.’ Tom also says, ‘Knowledge transmission is a very limiting and limited view of teaching’ and ‘I can’t imagine teaching a lesson sequence in the style Daisy Christodoulou suggests’.
Headteacher Stephen Tierney also shares this perspective: ‘The debate about teacher or pupil-led teaching has to stop, for me it is “wrong jungle” thinking.’
In this blogpost I want to push back on this imperative to get out of the jungle and stop the debate. I know that as moderates and mediators, Alex, Tom and Stephen are open-minded and willing to listen to challenge, as I am: I am prepared for pushback on this, but this is my challenge to them.
Why the knowledge and skills debate is worthwhile
Here are five reasons why we shouldn’t forestall and close down the debate:
- Evidence-based effectiveness
- Strategy, choice and opportunity cost
- Ideology: a tale of two icebergs
There is now a great deal of statistical, scientific and empirical evidence to show that knowledge and instruction is highly effective for learning, and it is most effective for our most disadvantaged learners. But there is also a research-practice gap: this evidence base is not making its way into teacher training. As Hattie says:
‘Too often direct teaching is portrayed as bad, while constructivist teaching is considered to be good… This is almost directly opposite to the successful recipe for teaching and learning.’ … ‘Every year I present lectures to teacher education students and find that they are already indoctrinated with the mantra “constructivism good, direct instruction bad”. When I show them the results of these meta-analyses, they are stunned, and they often become angry at having been given an agreed set of truths and commandments against direct instruction.’
Hattie presents this table in his latest book, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, distilled from over 900 meta-analyses. It tells its own story:
The flipside is unevidenced approaches that persist. Hattie and Yates say:
“Within both public and professional domains, fallacious ideas of human learning continue to be promoted despite being contradicted by available scientific opinion and evidence. Many such fallacies are potentially destructive and reliant on false premises.”
When such a vast range of statistical, scientific and empirical research tells such a similar story, it’s no good closing down the debate and averting our eyes of the evidence.
Strategy, choice and opportunity cost
The great strategic thinker Michael Porter said that the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. Both John Hattie and Dylan Wiliam make the point that almost any intervention in education has some impact, so it’s ludicrous to set the bar at zero. Instead of asking what works, we should focus only on what works best. Teachers’ workloads are already very high, without losing focus and beavering away at strategies like individualised instruction that have such small impact for such high effort.
But as Dylan Wiliam says, ‘In professional settings, it is incredibly hard to stop people doing valuable things in order to give them time to do even more valuable things. They reply, “Are you saying what I am doing is no good?”’
In other words, we run the risk of making good the enemy of the best. David Didau is asking the right question here: “Should we stop doing good things?” I remember John Hattie urging this at the London Festival of Education in 2012: ‘we need to stop teachers doing things that are just good, in order to get them doing things that have a greater impact.’ The evidence shows that subject knowledge, explicit instruction, worked examples, deliberate practice and guided feedback have a great impact on learning: so why spend time on discovery, inquiry and individualisation, which have such low impact for novice pupils?
There is a terrible opportunity cost in using less effective strategies, especially for our poorest pupils. Disadvantaged students start secondary school years behind in their literacy and numeracy, and millions of words behind in their vocabulary. Every low-impact strategy used is a missed opportunity to narrow the gap.
Counterintuitively, the middle way is not always the right way. If one pupil thinks 20% of 100 is 20, and one thinks it is 30, the answer *in the spirit of compromise* doesn’t suddenly become 25. Tony Blair’s ‘third way’ didn’t work out very well in Iraq, on light-touch regulation in banking, or on tripling education spending whilst national underachievement persisted. When Mandela’s solution was multiracial democracy, and Boethe’s was racial segregation, the answer was not somewhere in between. When Wilberforce’s solution was abolition, and Clarence’s was the continuation of the triangular slave trade, the answer was not somewhere in between. When Kennedy’s solution for Berlin was decentralised liberal democracy, and Khrushchev’s was enforced, command-and-control, state-centralised communism, the answer was not somewhere in between. If one solution is ‘21st century skills’ and the other is ‘core knowledge instruction’, the answer is not somewhere between or even beyond. History shows us that systems based on fallacious ideas collapse under the weight of their own contradictions: the slave trade, the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, apartheid, the banking boom.
Now, as Obama says, educational inequality is the civil rights issue of our time. The skills-only, content-light regime has failed. The ‘outcomes-based’ skills curriculum failed in South Africa, where it entrenched inequality in education, as its proponent and architect Michael Young now acknowledges. The fallacious idea underpinning it is that skills are transferable. They are not; skills depend on domain-specific knowledge. The skills-based curriculum in England has failed over the last decade to tackle educational inequality: 60% of poorest pupils still don’t secure 5 C’s at GSCE, and 20% of school leavers leave school illiterate and innumerate. To urge us to avoid the debate is to perpetuate the skills regime and let it go unchallenged.
With Mandela and Kennedy, those giants of twentieth century leadership, when confronted by injustice, ‘our consciences dictate that we must protest against it, that we must oppose it and that we must attempt to alter it…’ Educational inequality is no different.
Ideology: a tale of two icebergs
Ultimately, questions of what and how to teach come down to a difference in ideas. Here’s a thought experiment: which of these two best represent your ideas about how learning happens?
Have we got our icebergs the wrong way up?
Most teachers I’ve met, after frequent exposure to Bloom’s taxonomy, with low-level knowledge at the bottom and higher-order skills at the top, say that the image of knowledge as just the tip of the iceberg best fits their idea of education.
For many of us, ideology is what the other guy does; that’s a natural bias. The mediators like Alex, Tom and Stephen would like us to get us beyond ideology altogether. But as Daisy Christodoulou points out in her book, teachers who believe themselves quite exempt from any ideology are usually the slaves of some defunct educationalist.
Are we all the slaves of some defunct educationalist*?
It’s no good claiming to be above or beyond ideology; it’s more a matter of working out which ideology most shapes your ideas. And the centre of gravity for at least a decade in teacher training and the educational establishment has been, and still is constructivism. A casual glance through the Learning to Teach textbook series for new teachers reveals hundreds of pages devoted to Vygotsky and constructivism and none to Willingham and cognitivism. Yet his zone of proximal development yields precious little insight compared to the precise specificity of insight yielded by the cutting-edge science.
When I talk about cultural knowledge in the English curriculum, mastery assessment and teacher training in instruction, the reply I hear is often dismissive: ‘We already do all of this anyway’; ‘It’s what we’ve always done.’
But very few of those who claim to be doing it all already are acting on the insights from evidence-based research and cognitive science. Very few have replaced the skills-based zombie levels with a mastery assessment system. Very few have replaced weak texts with a high opportunity cost at Key Stage 3 like Cirque du Freak or Stone Cold with Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre. Very few have taken the cognitive insight to heart: “All that there is to intelligence is the simple accrual and tuning of many small units of knowledge that in total produce complex cognition.” Very few have committed to the cognitive imperative: ‘if nothing has been retained in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.’ Very few have redesigned the curriculum with memory in mind. Very few have put Daisy’s approach into practice: the best way to achieve the aim of complex thinking skills for pupils is not to teach skills; it’s to teach knowledge.
A coherent, sequential knowledge curriculum is still a small, young challenger to the gargantuan orthodoxy of the skills curriculum and the skills assessment system in England. In other words, knowledge is the David to the skills regime’s Goliath.
The point of this blogpost is to challenge those calls to move beyond the knowledge versus skills debate and its polarising binaries. I would urge those who make them to rethink these calls, and those who hear them to resist them. We are yet to excavate the full insight from the rich seam of the knowledge and instruction side of the debate. Cognitive science, international comparisons and statistical meta-analyses are not going to go away, and as they become increasingly sophisticated, we must not preclude thinking through this tension carefully. ‘The ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function is the test of first rate intelligence,’ according to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Let us keep thinking about the effectiveness of those opposing ideas for education.
I realise that this blogpost will likely be criticised for polarising rhetoric. But rhetoric can be a powerful force for changing an iniquitous and intractable status quo. If Mandela was right, and ‘education is the most powerful force you can use to change the world’, it is changing our ideas that holds the greatest hope for improving education. In my next blogpost, I explore the practical differences between a skills-based lesson and a knowledge-led lesson, based on the distinctive and fundamental differences in the ideas underpinning them.