Seven Myths: The Debate I Bunked


The Debate I Bunked
The Debate I Bunked

Last year I wrote a review of Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths book.  You can read it here. I tweeted out the link to draw Daisy’s attention to it.  She didn’t respond or comment at the time.  I think it’s a balanced review and plenty of people have reinforced that view. There’s an opening section on all the things I agree with. It’s a blog review so, I’ve taken the liberty of expressing opinions and making a few assertions based on personal experience and analysis. Lots of if doesn’t ring true. That’s how I felt reading it.  It’s a legitimate response.

Recently I read a post by Daisy that cited my review, dismissing my views with phrases like ‘the only counter-evidence he can bring to bear’ and so on – as if the same burden of proof for a big-publicity book applies to a humble blog post.   I left a comment – but didn’t get a response. In this post and the next Daisy seems to be pretty worked up by my view of the book and seeks to destroy my case with logic. It reads like ‘I am so absolutely right in what I say based on all my hard work that even to question my very rightness is in itself so wrong that my rightness is therefore verified’. That’s not what it says; that’s how it reads. I call this the Dawkins Attack strategy.  You’d have to be a Fool to argue.  All the while – her argument is based on a false interpretation of my views.

Anyway, I received an invitation to attend a debate about ‘Myths’. I accepted; although it would be another evening requiring multiple arrangements to be made to accommodate it, I thought I should go. However, last week, I checked the invite and this time I noticed the footer to the email:

Screen shot 2014-06-10 at 20.18.33

Hang on. Is this a debate? On second reading – a one hour discussion followed by a reception, chaired by someone who has already said that the book is unassailable – I wondered if it might be a PR event and nothing more. I contacted the ARK folk to express these concerns – especially given the logistical hassle of getting there at all. They tried to assure me that a ‘robust debate’ would be welcome.  I wasn’t convinced and resolved to give it a miss given the uncertainty.

Then, on Sunday, an email arrived from ‘A Friend’.  I’m not kidding. I’ve never had one of these before.  An anonymous person shared a document that had been circulated to ARK attendees. Here it is. Key messages and possible audience objections or points misconstrued by press/others

For heaven’s sake! I was meant to attend a debate where an unknown number of people were given ‘prep’ for arguments I might make based on a complete misrepresentation of what I’ve written -as you can read for yourself.

Screen shot 2014-06-10 at 20.08.32


What I actually say is this:

Even accepting that the myths are out there, I don’t think they go very far in accounting for low standards where they exist in the system in general.

So, what is this all about? Why the need to ‘win’ – as if this is some kind of fight to the death?  As if lining up Dylan God of Gods wasn’t enough weaponry already!  What debate is set against a background where whatever argument is made – it’s already been defeated – so don’t bother?  All this from one pretty balanced review.  Thank goodness I didn’t just slag it off completely.

I’ve asked for an explanation for the secret briefing and so far Daisy hasn’t responded and nor has the ARK Chair. Someone at ARK wasn’t comfortable with it and wanted me to know – but clearly didn’t feel it was safe to just tell me openly.  That says something to me about the organisational culture.  ‘A Friend’ – Thanks for letting me know. Of course it may transpire that the event this evening was a genuine opportunity for debate. I look forward to reading the reports. I probably missed a treat but I’m glad I wasn’t there.   Loading up the defensive guns is no way to conduct an exchange of ideas. That’s my view.  And it’s all good PR.

I know there is a massive Daisy Fan Club who are astonished that we’re not all falling over in raptures at the idea of a return to ‘teaching knowledge’ as if a lost art has just been rediscovered.  But, believe it or not, there is another legitimate view – a) that this never went away (all my colleagues have been doing it for the last 25 years) and b) that learning is more multi-faceted than ‘Myths’ allows.  It doesn’t mean that the myths don’t exist anywhere (is that too subtle?)

By chance last week I saw Laura McInerney tweet that her favourite ‘Myths’ review was one by Dr Kevin Stannard in the TES. It does a better job than I did. I agree with it all. I recommend reading it.  I’m not the only one for whom the ‘Myths’ don’t ring true.



  1. Tom, layers within layers, it seems. I agree that this is a worrying development (on the face of it). Setting aside the merits of the book (or otherwise), the apparent setting up of a relatively high profile, perceived ‘antagonist’, for what could well be PR purposes……..let’s hope that there has been a misunderstanding…….


  2. Tom – Standing on the outside looking in this seems to me to be part of the whole zero-sum game that began with the need to create the ‘progressives v. traditionalists’ narrative. I find so much in the debate that provokes me to think about my own understanding of teaching, learning and education that I cherish the debate, but I do find the need to trash the other side distracting. Maybe I suffer from confirmation bias but I just don’t see the seven myths as being that pervasive in our schools and certainly not with the colleagues I work with. Teachers are much more subtle than that.

    If there really was an intention to ambush you then sadly it just demonstrates the inflexibility that turns ideas to dogma. We don’t need one dogma to replace another in education – just honest debate and a willingness to learn from each other. If you cannot doubt your own ideas, you really shouldn’t publish them.


    • I agree entirely. The debate is really interesting – and I’ve definitely been questioning my position because of it. But that sense of dogma is strong. ‘Myths’ would be a much better book if it talked in terms of trends and tendencies rather than absolute positions – and accepted the limits of its research base, allowing the possibility for other realities.


  3. I attended the debate and expressed my concerns about the way the book demonises the profession for things that we were never guilty of in the first place. DC disagreed that she was demonising teachers in her response because many teachers supported her ideas; I’m not sure who these teachers are but as you say she has a fan base out there. I went with the Deputy Head from school, Sue Hay, who spoke to DC afterwards about the lack of evidence in the book that the profession believes in these myths. Much of the evidence DC presents are from Ofsted reports, and she’s yet to find schools which slavishly follow Ofsted dogma. We were lone voices there: the room was full of Gove’s blob, Nick Gibb, Sally Morgan, Tim Oates, etc. Dylan Wiliam had lost his voice and appeared to be a bit of a drowning man, trying to reconcile his real view of things with an attempt to curry favour with the powers that be in education at the moment. As far as I know we were the only teachers there that weren’t from Ark schools.


    • Thanks for adding to the commentary. It sounds like it went pretty much as I feared it might. I must admit that I don’t really understand Dylan’s professed devotion to the book given the holes in the evidence base. I’ve just been talking to my daughter about her GCSE revision for science. I’m struggling to think which myth has applied to her education given how much knowledge she has. None. That’s the answer. Oh, except that she hasn’t done much of the practical work suggested in the specification. This is the gap in her education – the breadth of learning experience, not the purer fact -driven content. The odd thing is that I’d fully expect someone to tell me I’m wrong about that – simply because it doesn’t support the myth-mantra. Her worst teachers over the years have been the most didactic. I don’t think my daughter’s experience is untypical. That doesn’t mean didactic teaching is inherently wrong; far from it. But it does mean that the anti-progressive argument can’t explain a lot of the poor practice we have in the system. Thanks again.

      Liked by 1 person

    • This comment rather proves Daisy’s point. Talking about “Gove’s blob” and implying that those of us who find her ideas interesting are all supporters of Gove is not particularly helpful (his tearing up of the workforce agreement and advocacy of free schools are two of his policies I fundamentally disagree with). Some people have commented that they have never met a teacher who didn’t acknowledge the value of knowledge – well I have certainly met some who belittle it. I would love to see a proper debate about what is done in the classroom, but how often does this happen? How often are we as teachers simply presented with ideas such as the “Shift happens” video or “multiple intelligences” or “project based learning” without any opportunity to debate whether these ideas are necessary or even desirable?
      An interesting point is the issue about poor teaching seen more often when teachers are engaged in direct instruction. But could the answer be that, in an observed lesson, it is easier to set up an “activity” involving pupils using knowledge they already have (Daisy’s example concerned pupils writing about school uniform), than it is to carry out direct instruction of something new, where we risk pitching the level too low or too high, resulting in a loss of pupil engagement?


      • I don’t see why saying most people there were very supportive of Gove’s reforms proves Daisy’s points at all. Many teachers I know discuss pedagogical and epistemological ideas in a more subtle and nuanced fashion than I found in Daisy’s book, which I feel sets up false oppositions.


  4. I agree Tom. I was invited. I didn’t go. The writing was on the wall for me. An internal Ark-affair and an echo-chamber of views. I decided to stay at school and teach; meet with students for revision etc.


  5. I feel really moved to make a comment here; something I would not normally do.

    I am the DHT that ‘Tales Behind the Classroom Door’ mentions. I have never been to an event like this before, and it was very interesting, but ultimately disappointing and demoralising. It was never intended to be a debate – it was a showcase piece with a highly sympathetic and supportive audience – your email from ‘a friend’ shows just how contrived the whole thing was. My colleague and I were the only ‘non-Ark’ serving teachers there, I believe, so the ‘debate’ was never going to happen on fertile ground.

    My main objections were that, having taught for 20 years, been on SLT for 12, worked in 4 schools (3 of which I have been on SLT, in charge of learning and teaching), and observed literally hundreds of lessons, (over 60 this academic year alone, and those are just the formal and pre-arranged ones), I have never seen the practice that DC touts as being standard.

    I am also a historian, so the frequent examples that she uses of history being taught without key dates is an absolute absurdity to me. When I explained this to her, and told her that if I am required to teach a historical period that I have never studied, the first thing I do is go and learn facts about it, in order to impart them to my students, she gave the impression (by shaking my hand and walking away) that she did not want to engage in a discussion with me.

    My other main issue is using Ofsted subject reports as evidence. I know that in the ‘briefing’ people were told to expect this, but I cannot ignore a valid point. Ofsted are part of the problem, not the solution. They may well go into a school and observe 50 lessons, but if 1 lesson does what they are currently advocating as excellent practice, they will write about the 1 and ignore the 49 others. Just because they prolifically write about something does not mean it is routinely happening in schools. Any school leader that is savvy makes sure that they know their school inside and out, that the data/exam results are robust, tracking student groups and intervening where necessary to close the gaps is happening, and that all leaders understand their responsibilities. My main driver as a senior leader t gain an Ofsted ‘outstanding’ grade is purely that such a label sets you free from the shackles of Ofsted. I have never, I hope, done something or initiated some change/policy purely on the basis that it will help my school gain Ofsted ‘outstanding’ – I will always do the right thing by the students and staff in my care, and it will always be bespoke to the students and staff that I currently serve.

    Rant over!


    • I’ve been critical of another aspect of Daisy’s argument. But I was told ‘there was more to it’ than the evidence she presented on her blog, so I attended the ResearchED conference in Birmingham in April, where she was speaking, to find out more. I asked her about the need to take into account other aspects of cognitive science. She said ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ a lot, agreed that more research was needed, and then had to leave.

      I know there often isn’t time in public meetings to get to bottom of things, but a decent debate can sort out misunderstandings and can even get critics onside. I’m uneasy about the significant absence of real debate over Daisy’s argument.


  6. I find the issue of what Daisy C calls “the network” and what appears to be a fairly small fanbase to be fascinating.

    I read a number of reviews of the Daisy C ebook having read the book myself and my views were quite similar although Tom S expressed them clearly and concisely.

    Tom publshed the above post following the “book launch” describing his invitation and his decision not to attend. He included a document authored by Daisy C in which she speaks of “this is not to go outside the network”. I do not regard myself as paranoid but I really did find the purpose and tone of the document a little sinister in what most, including Tom seem to regard as an open and honest debate.

    It now appears that a number of others who were at the same launch have felt the need to describe the nature of the launch, and at least one other who declined the invitation has come forward.

    We have the usual suspects hot on the case, with a well know Tradstremist obsessive talking and “denailists” which I assume means “traditional denialists”. U I guess this is a change from the usual “phonics denialists absession” but all the same it does come across as a bit obsessive.

    We have another blogger from the same ‘network’? twittering on about “I am most disturbed by this sneaky promoting of books AT BOOK LAUNCHES. #willsomebodypleasethinkofthechildren” which I guess was an attempt at sarcasm.

    We have this one also….

    MT “@TessaLMatthews: What actually happened at the #7myths launch by @LKMco. Great to have it all in one place. …”

    It gives apatchy account of some of what went on, but then at the end there is a link by kevin mc laughlin to what is described as “a balanced view of the said book ” by Dr Kevin Stannard.

    Having read both the book and this review, I agree that it is a very balanced review and when combined with Tom S’s review provides a great summary and critique. Both are very fair.

    I appreciate that for some, their input into the debate is about ego. To me, the language used consistently by Tom S and that found in Dr Stannard’s review do not come acroos thus. For other bloggers one might be forgiven for seeing their single minded conviction that they are correct and that anyone who questions this fact is fast becoming a “denialist” and a little egotistic. There is also the need to sell a few books, partly I imagine as step on the career ladder.

    When one looks at the relatively small but vocal “network” which may include a good few Teach Firsters, a few bloggers who are so good they have given up teaching to become professional “denialist exposers”, Michael Gove? (who unfortunately had to cancel) one might be led towards the view that the driving force behind the Tradstremist locomotive is more ogotistical, political and ideological than about “good professional practice”.

    A good few have been worn down by the debate. I just hope the majority of hard working professional educators (or as one well known blogger would describe them Traditional Denialists) including Tom and others with far more savvy and experince than I continue to point out the excellent teaching being done in all corners of the land.

    Thanks om and keep at it.


  7. Tom thanks for this blog which sets out your experiences very clearly. Like many of the commentators on this I found the “missive” from DC very disturbing and indeed reminded me of events I have attended with Richard Dawkins who also goes for the “if you disagree with me it is because you are not clever enough to understand my arguments and therefore can be dismissed”.

    I work in an HEI and this have already been dismissed by MG as an “enemy of promise” yet hope that what I am doing is setting before my students a range of thoughts and ideas and asking them to explore these in their own practice. I have lectured, run PD and observed hundreds of lessons and met with thousands of teachers and have also never met teachers who espouse the myths set up in DC”s book. I have also studied cognitive neuroscience and find different, more subtle messages that those espoused in myths.

    As an experienced researcher one should always ask serious questions about the reliability and validity of evidence and also the question, “what is not included?” as well as what is. So the drugs companies who choose only to publish the positive trials (as we have seen over the last few years) should be challenged and in the same way the use of Ofsted data should be challenged not just on what it says but as the DHT comments on what it does not report.

    Finally the significant lack of experience of DC in the classroom is a factor when balanced against the considerable number of far more experienced colleagues who have come out (several in this thread) to question the very axioms of myths. Like most in this thread I support the ongoing debate and the nature of teaching and learning – the first assignment we give our students is “how do teachers help pupils to learn” – the lapse into polemic and simplistic dualism is not contributing to the debate. I wonder how much this is due to a sound bite culture and the reality TV culture which seems to favour controversy over consideration and shouting loudly over quite debate?


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