This post is part of a discussion with Harry Webb, following his post linked via the image above. Sometimes blog comments aren’t enough!
Thanks for your blog post where you’ve challenged me on my perspective on Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths. It seems to me that there are several elements to the debate, mainly in two strands:
- The nature of evidence required to support the statements or claims we make in a discussion about our education system and the decisions we make in practice.
- The central issue of the nature of schooling in terms of pedagogy and curriculum and the extent to which the seven myths effectively characterise issues and suggest solutions that will lead to better outcomes.
To explore these strands, let me clarify what I consider to be the limits of the validity of my own arguments. To me it is implicit that bloggers are expressing opinions and making assertions based on experience, their own values and a sizeable dose of confirmation bias when analysing other evidence. In everything I ever say or write about education, that is what I’m doing. It’s on that basis that I’ve reviewed Seven Myths.
When I say things like ‘most teachers think x ‘, it’s expedient short-hand for “my impression from the interactions I’ve had with the teachers I’ve engaged with throughout my career is that the predominant view is x”. I don’t claim to have conducted a mass mind-reading exercise, taken a poll or conducted rigorous research. It’s impressionistic. I made this clear in a comment I left on Daisy’s blog about the evidence for Seven Myths:
I’m not sure why I started by asking if she’d read the review because she obviously had. I think it’s because I’m frustrated and surprised that my review can be read to suggest that I don’t think the myths exist at all which makes it a simple argument to defeat: You say the myths don’t exist – here are examples to show they do. Case closed. But that’s not what I’ve said at any point. In fact, my main objection to the behind-the-scenes briefing that preceded the debate featured in my post last week, was that this incorrect interpretation was promoted again. People were being prepped to defend against an argument I wouldn’t make. It all seemed so unnecessarily defensive and clumsy.
For me, the question is whether Daisy’s catalogue of examples of where the myths manifest themselves adds up to a legitimate and accurate general characterisation of the system as experienced by learners in classrooms. In that context, does my impressionistic anecdotal evidence have any legitimacy as a challenge to Daisy’s analysis?
We all have a context that we reference things against. I enjoyed reading about yours. I went to a good but unspectacular comprehensive school and Sixth Form College from ’77 to ’83 and I’ve taught in various different schools since ’87. Holland Park School was a flagship of progressive education – I worked there for seven years. In the last 15 years I’ve had the opportunity to observe hundreds of lessons in my own schools and other schools from different contexts. I get invited to support other Headteachers and teachers and have had lots of discussions about school improvement and about supporting individual teachers and departments. That’s my context. It’s just one person’s experience and all I am able to say is that, in my judgement, the myths do not succeed in characterising the system as I’ve experienced it and do not account for most of the weak practice I’ve experienced. I’m not making a greater claim than that.
Now, is that valid evidence? I’d suggest that if Daisy’s analysis of the system was absolutely accurate, I’d have a stronger sense of them ‘ringing true’. But I don’t. Although I know a few people who think her description chimes well with their education and I know lots of others who agree with me – that it doesn’t. I’m not alone for sure. Are we wrong or deluded? I don’t think we can all be. We’re not ‘denialists’; we’re simply not convinced by the case that’s been made. Fundamentally, I think the problem arises because of the research approach Daisy has taken. The vast majority of the evidence comes from three areas: her own personal experience in a particular context; citations from sources of influence: OfSTED, academics, prominent writers and the DFE and, finally, some niche programmes like Opening Minds and Building Learning Power. This certainly shows that the myths as defined by Daisy do exist. BUT – that doesn’t equate to evidence that teachers in general across the system believe them or teach in a way that is guided by them. I’d suggest that a massive leap has to be made there.
There are lots of analogies one could make. For example, a visitor to Britain would be able to find a ton of evidence that suggested Christianity dominates the country. It’s embedded in the curriculum of lots of schools, enshrined in the structures of the state, evidenced through the presence of churches, the availability of religious material and the prominence of Christians who promote their faith. But they’d be wrong to assume that ‘most people are Christian’ or that most people even believe in God based on that evidence, no matter how many official references they could find. To do that, you’d need to get in amongst the people and actually ask them or observe their practices. It’s the same with the myths about education. If Daisy’s book was an account of a hundred school visits where lesson observations and interviews with teachers revealed the prevalence of the myths it would be more persuasive – from my point of view. My hunch is that the evidence would be far more complex and, yes, nuanced.
In her conclusion she says that she agrees with the aims of the people she disagrees with – but “the methods we are currently using to achieve these aims simply do not work”. That’s what doesn’t ring true. For Daisy, it’s not enough to suggest that the myths are out there and are potentially harmful – a position we could easily discuss one myth at a time; she is explicitly suggesting that the system in general is failing because of them; that ‘we’ are collectively using methods that don’t work. She goes too far; beyond her evidence base. She’s protested along the lines of ‘how much evidence do I need to show you to prove that I’m right?’ – citing more examples. In return, I’d say ‘how many teachers and school leaders working across the system need to say ‘the myths don’t ring true’ before you accept that maybe the myths don’t carry the weight you’re asserting?’
The TES review by Dr Kevin Stannard echoes this exact point. He also feels that there is too much caricature and a rather indiscriminate critique of various schools of thought. There’s a sense of having to be with Daisy or against her. This quote gives the gist of it:
..in reality learning is a journey, and teaching is a long game. Linking every lesson episode there is a narrative arc. Teacher-led instruction, and the transmission of facts and rules, will be in greater evidence at the start of a unit of study, but will no doubt be replaced in subsequent lessons by more independent enquiry, collaborative work, and investigation. Through the journey, the teacher may change her role, from instructor to advisor or adjudicator. The process is iterative. Learners learn in different ways at different stages during each iteration. Good teachers vary their practice accordingly. Good teachers are not the slaves of an inspection regime or of a polarising ideology.
I’m thinking about some of the practice I’ve known of or seen first hand that has been of low quality, trying to apply the myths. This includes weak teaching by individuals and whole-school initiatives and curriculum models that I think have been flawed. Do the myths help to describe the problems I’ve seen? In general, no they don’t. Usually the problems with weak teachers are related to poor classroom management, weak subject knowledge or low expectations of the students.
If I’m looking for a way to capture the issues I see, do the myths help me?
Myth 1 or 7? No. I never ever encounter this perspective in real life. We can discuss the frequency and nature of assessments and the content of the curriculum – but that’s a different issue. For me, the myths just get in the way of this discussion. I’ve been teaching a content-rich curriculum for decades. Even if I feel that we could have more maths in science and less of the softer public understanding material, that doesn’t mean anyone has seen facts as a barrier to understanding. The discussion about the breadth and depth of the material we teach isn’t a question of whether facts are good or bad. Similarly with the nature of testing – the issue of teaching what we assess vs assessing what we teach – it’s a good, important discussion but one that the myths don’t contribute to. That approach is too polarised; too black and white.
Myth 2? Well, here most teachers I’ve encountered recognise the value of their input as experts. For all the examples of OfSTED prescription over recent years, most classrooms I visit are strongly teacher-led. When students are in groups, usually, they’re building on input from teacher-led instruction in a sensible manner. However, the overriding factor here is the quality of teacher-led instruction; the quality of the engagement with students in that mode of learning; the quality of other structures – such as pair and group work. Bad teacher-led instruction is a barrier to learning, not because of an erroneous assumption of passive learning but because the concepts are not being communicated effectively. We’ve all been fighting the OfSTED nonsense in this area and on the ground, I’d suggest that teachers have a strong tendency towards instructional modes.
Myth 3 and 4? This whole thing about Google and 21st C skills is part of an inevitable process of people coming to terms with new technology and wanting to give significance to the time in which they live. Teachers all around us are exploring the possibilities; there are new ways to find, store, process and share information. Sometimes people get carried away with the novelty factor and overstate the potential for new ways of learning. However, most often, from what I’ve seen of technology in schools, there is general conservatism, scepticism and inertia and most schools are teaching just as they always have, with a few projects on the fringes. There are strong filtering processes are work; we are professionals after all.
I know there is a lobby that is opposed to excessive testing – but they don’t tend to be saying kids don’t need to know things or have good recall. It’s more a case of arguing about the accountability culture and the problem of teaching to a test having a narrowing effect on our concept of what education is in the broadest sense. Could we do more explicit work on knowledge transmission and recall? Yes, definitely. Does it help to construct a myth that teachers in general think students don’t need to know things because they can just look them up? No. I played with this in previous post – again a more subtle discussion is there to be had. In practice, most GCSE and A level specifications require students to know a lot of facts; we can argue for more (I’d vote for more physics equations being learned by heart) but it’s not as if we’ve been living in Cloud Cuckoo Land where no-one needs to know anything.
Myth 5? I’ve read about a few awful content-free skills lessons; I’ve seen some collapsed time-table skills development days that I thought were pretty lame. I’ve cringed through a few presentations of curriculum models that I thought sounded dreadfully woolly. Like you, I’m not a great fan of PLTS – we don’t touch that at my school. But even where the myth is closer to ringing true than the others, I’m not convinced that the school system in general has seen an identifiable negative impact from some of these approaches. Partly, this is because they often don’t penetrate very deeply. In schools that have adopted Building Learning Power as a driving concept, it exists as a layer of discourse within which quite traditional teaching can be taking place. I know lots of BLP advocates who talk about resilience a lot; but the prevailing pedagogy in their schools is strongly content-driven. For them, BLP is a way of delivering content; it doesn’t replace content. And I think Guy Claxton believes that’s what should happen; for him, it’s both, not instead.
However, even if you think BLP and Opening Minds are rubbish, I’d say – relax, the scale of the impact these programmes have had on the system in general, or even on individual schools, is marginal. In any case, I’d argue that we’d need a good long study to know if they are good or not. What if a student did a full-on ‘transferable skills’ programme as part of their learning for five years and other similar student spent all of that time in more traditional knowledge-transmission lessons. Do we know for certain who will be the best educated, most successful and fulfilled in 10 years time? No, we don’t.
Myth 6? Surely there are good projects and bad projects; good activities and bad activities? The idea that, in general, the prevalence of projects and activities explains low standards in the system is dubious as far as I’m concerned. I’m not sure we can meaningfully discuss ‘activities’ as if they are a ‘thing’. We might discuss the relative balance of time given to different modes of teaching in the curriculum and the rigour that is expected from the outcomes – but that’s different to suggesting different strategies are inherently wrong or the cause of failure in the system. I’d refer back to Dr Stannard on this one.
Anyway – I’ve gone on far too long. I don’t know if I’ve answered your questions. I’ve probably just raised hundreds more. If we sat in a room for 30 minutes we’d probably get to the heart of it better than through these missives.
In conclusion, I will restate what I wrote in my original review: 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. From my perspective, there’s been too much hype around ‘Myths’ given the research standard that’s been employed. The methodology doesn’t provide the evidence I would need to accept the case that’s being made even if some big hitters agree with the book and back it forcefully as Dylan Wiliam and others do. However, the book has stimulated a lot of important debate around some key issues in the system and that’s a good thing. It’s not about taking sides and I find all the biff-bash-bosh stuff very frustrating. If I’ve contributed to polarising the debate unhelpfully, I deserve to be admonished for that.
Thanks for your post once again.