Will Anything Happen?

‘Something’ may be happening in education – even though I suspect that a lot of those at the sharp end wish that rather less was happening for once… But reading around the debates that are currently taking place, I get a distinct sense of things moving on. Many of the shibboleths of the last two decades seem to be coming under fire in a way that would have been unthinkable even a couple of years ago, and I think that is no bad thing. Even Ofsted seems willing to think again in a way that would have been inconceivable just a very short time ago.

Many of the practices we have been directed to enact have felt fundamentally misguided to me, and it is perhaps instructive that many of them neither made it beyond partially-outlined concepts which no one ever explained how to enact fully, nor stood the test of even a short period of time.

Books are now getting published that a few years ago would perhaps never have seen the light of day; when I myself produced a similar script some years ago, I was told it was, “Not what the education world wants to hear”. The Most talked-about of these is Tom Bennett’s Teacher Proof, and I have just finished reading Daisy Christodoulou’s work Seven Myths About Education. This is a clearly-written and well thought out argument for the restoration of the teaching of knowledge. Her basic premise is that functional and thinking skills cannot develop in a vacuum; that they need a body of internalised knowledge to act upon, and that neither knowledge nor skills are as transferrable from one subject domain to another as has been claimed.

While it is easy to argue that Daisy is someone for whom facts work in a way they don’t for everyone  (she is the former captain of a University Challenge champions team), I don’t think that need compromise her arguments too far. What she has to say makes a lot of sense to me, both from my own experience, and from teaching children for over a quarter of a century. Children seem to like facts – they are relatively concrete, and easily understood. I think we forget, in our rush to teach higher concepts, that children simply do not have the capacity for abstract conceptual thought that adults do.

Why this change is happening now isn’t very clear. I would like to think that it’s an admission that the policies of the past two decades have been around long enough for it to be clear that they have not delivered what they promised – and have perhaps even compromised genuine education further. Much of the ‘evidence’ of success they produced has been discredited, or at least more realistically reinterpreted. But I’m not sure whether the evangelists of constructivist education are really going to admit defeat that easily.

I wonder whether the growing momentum of the edu-blogosphere itself is having an effect –  it’s becoming easier to disseminate alternative views; Ofsted’s recent meeting with a group of bloggers might suggest as much. I’m also curious to know whether this is the unintended consequence of actions by our much-reviled Secretary of State for Education. Much of what he is doing seems to me highly dogmatic – but who knows, he might just be changing the climate enough for a wider discussion to take root. It certainly needs to.

What isn’t yet clear is whether we are about to experience a rapid paradigm-shift, or whether change will be more gradual. For those like me who have genuinely struggled with counter-intuitive ideologies and command-control teaching that went deeply against the grain, for whom recent educational orthodoxy has been a blight on our careers akin to living under an oppressive dictatorship, rapid change would seem more than welcome. However, the danger of this is that we might simply substitute one daft world-view with an equally daft alternative. It would not be the first time. Maybe gradual evolution would in fact be better. Despite my reservations, I would certainly not claim that the quantitative revolution in education has taught us nothing of value, even if it is only what happens when target culture subverts authentic human behaviour.

With any luck, we are beginning to realise the limitations of such an approach and are starting to move back towards a more realistic, sustainable position. One major step would be to recognise that education simply is not a science, that the fundamentals of the process are rooted in unique human interactions that make sense only on the scale of the individual, and not macro-scale statistical analyses which are really only of use to policy wonks. Those who still argue from such positions are even starting to look a little dated – the discussion is (hopefully) moving on. It’s unlikely that ”giving more power back to classroom teachers’ is either going to happen overnight – or feel like we expect it to. But maybe that is what is starting to happen.

If that were the case, then it would indeed represent progress.


3 thoughts on “Will Anything Happen?

  1. I cannot recall ever knowing or working with a teacher who did not think that if one is going to think e.g. apply, analyse, evaluate, synthesise etc that they would not require some sort of factual knowledge first.

    Indeed even the much derided Bloom’s taxonomy clearly indicates that this is the case.

    As a professional educator I tend to ignore counter intuitive ideologies and I have never been influenced by command-control methods.

    I think “orthodoxy” should be at the top of Oldandrew’s list of weasel words. I find it being used more and more often to enable teachers to rubbish the practice of fellow teachers who do not agree with their views.

    I feel that the blogosphere has allowed people with a little knowledge (havent done their 10,000 hours) to talk like experts (who have done their 10,000 hours) and unfortunately as some views have face validity or are popular with practitioners who are looking for light at the end of the tunnel people are very easily misled. slagging off Ofsted will always make your blogs popular, slagging off SMT will always make your blogs popular and rubbishing established teachers will alway make you popular with younger teachers especially.

    I think parts of Daisy C’s book are credible and useful and some not so much. I find some of Dan Willingham’s stuff persuasive and some less so.

    I just hope that teachers genberally continue to do that which they find to be effective in the classroom and ignore the counter intuitive ideologies, the command-control management and those that find some satisfaction in scoffing at colleagues in equal measure.

    Your blog actually represents these perspectives in a relatively balanced and calm way, thanks for that.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      I don’t think the issue has been with the experience of ordinary teachers, most of whom seem to work out, sooner or later, that knowledge is necessary and important. The problem has been with fashionable theories that claimed it wasn’t. It isn’t easy to construct a reasonable counter-argument to such claims, and one that was not easily dismissed merely as complacency or resistance to change by those wont to use such tactics – because doing so depends to a large extent on ‘mere’ *experience*.

      I think there have been some valiant efforts to do so recently, and I hope I’m making a modest contribution to that. I agree with your view of Daisy’s book; her biggest weakness is her relatively short time in the classroom. But I still think it is a very helpful contribution to the discussion.

      I think it was Robert Coe who described education policy as ‘the triumph of hope over experience’, and I don’t think we’ve made much headway on that front. Indeed, the hegemony of management culture makes it all too easy (and convenient) to dismiss those with ‘experience’ but no authority when it suits them. In my view, that’s why so many daft theories have gained traction.

      I think we should however, resist the temptation to scoff in return at those who prefer progressive methods – they may indeed work for them – but if they don’t they should be judged equally along with all others. However, I do find the pressure (for example in CPD sessions) to provide ‘classroom tips’ rather than genuine discussion rather mindless.

      10,000 hours has its own critics of course – I worked it out to equate to around 11 ½ years of full-load teaching – and it needs to be full-on reflective practice at that!

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