The Light, the Fountain, the Sage

Knowledge illuminates the darkest corners of human experience.

This has been the ruling paradigm in Western civilisation (and others) for several hundred years. Or has it? To my students learning about the Age of Enlightenment, it appears as though empirical evidence would rule, and rational thought and science would triumph over repressive religious dogma and parochialism. When we think of education, surely we are flooded with impressions that the decisions made by teachers and those governing us would be rational, evidence-based, and with the best interests of our young people at heart. But this has sadly not been the case. We continue to teach lessons that have no impact, despite the overwhelming evidence of our own experience that the strategies we have employed have not been effective.

Many of the reasons for this lie at the feet of Romantic ideas about how children develop. Children should be able to ‘discover’, ‘construct’ and ‘invent’ knowledge as they grow. Most importantly, we should focus on teaching students skills, rather than knowledge, because most knowledge will not be relevant to them in the 21st century, when they can look things up and the cutting edge becomes blunt so quickly. Somewhat ironically, these  ideas fly in the face of modern understanding of cognition, neuroscience and psychology, and therefore, our teaching should reflect this.

This is the central argument of Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths about Education (Routledge, 2014). When I bought her book, it was because I had read criticisms of it, and also heard her theories venerated by senior leaders and on Twitter, and I wanted to see ‘what all the fuss was about’. I anticipated that I would fundamentally disagree with her arguments, but I found the following:

  1. Christodoulou knows her stuff. She has throughly researched her book. She has structured her argument well. The strength of her logic was sound, to the point where had my personal experience of teaching been different, to hers I may still have agreed with her on the strength of her evidence and the way she constructs her argument.
  2. The endorsements from the likes of Hattie and Wiliams, as well as the many other prominent educational theorists and researchers add further credibility to her research.
  3. My own experience supported virtually everything she described.

It is the third point I wish to dwell on today. When I was at university studying Education in Australia, I learned about the theories and philosophy of education, as well as sociological perspectives, and the history and current practice of the psychology of education and cognition. One thing that really stood out to me was that Piagetian theories on constructivism (which can be traced ideologically to Rousseau and Romantic ideals of education) had widely been debunked, but that it was important to learn about constructivism because it had had such wide-ranging impacts on Educational policy in Australia, the UK and the US in the 1970s. For good or ill, it is important to understand the history of your chosen profession.

On a related, yet dissonant note, the work of Lev Vygotsky (although subject to intense scholarly debate about the authorial veracity, and therefore validity of work attributed to him) was taught as a more reliable alternative: regardless of the alleged bastardisation of Vygotsky’s intentions, the theory taught in Australian universities is predicated on the idea the yes, children ‘construct’ knowledge, but they do so best under the guidance of social interaction with a (crucially) more experienced and knowledgable teacher.

It is from contemporary understandings of Vygotsky’s work that much of the use of scaffolding comes from, and indeed you can see terms like zone of proximal development (ZPD) used in programmes such as Accelerated Reader. As a side note, I would put forward that many of the less-effective fads in education in my career could also be linked to a simplification of social constructivist theory. For example, work-sheets that ‘scaffold’ how to write an essay, any acronym/mnemonic based paragraph structure. These are examples of scaffolding that often do not implement the crucial element: removal of support and the shift toward independence.

Why is all this relevant to Christodoulou’s argument that we should focus on knowledge, as much as, if not more than skills when we teach? Or to my own experience and frustration with pedagogical fashions in the UK? Because teaching has an identity crisis. Why should my students learn the process of writing a structured paragraph or essay, if they have nothing to write about? How can I expect students to recognise that Shakespeare’s Macbeth expresses cultural anxieties about tyrant-kings if they do not know about Mary, Queen of Scots or King Henry VIII? Teachers like myself have been encouraged for years to back away from the notion that we are the Fountain of Knowledge in our classrooms. Our own knowledge and expertise has been undermined and de-valued by successive governments looking for ways to staff schools more cheaply. If teachers are encouraged to ‘facilitate learning’ rather than to ‘dispense knowledge’, then we are in grave trouble. I know more than my students do. That is a fact. I do not know everything. That is also a fact. I will never know everything that all of my students do or will know, but I have a much greater understanding of patterns, connections, global forces and the interactions between society, politics, literature, media, language, history and geography than they do. And perhaps if we want them to be ‘global citizens’, ‘twenty-first century workers’, and ‘lifelong learners’ we should start to recognise and respect that. If teachers’ knowledge is undermined and dismissed, then what are we as a society suggesting about the pursuit of knowledge in general?

In October last year, Amanda Spielman announced that Ofsted were entering a period of introspection to examine whether or not the core function of schools had strayed too far from imparting knowledge towards preparing for examinations, and the role that Ofsted may have played in this. Anyone who has read Christodoulou’s book can clearly see the impact her critique of the current state of education in the UK has had. Indeed, as I read Impact from the Chartered College of Teaching  or debates on Twitter, I can see that knowledge is having its time in the spotlight, again. The danger of course is the inevitable swing-back of the pendulum. Nuance is apparently lost in educational policy (just ask Dylan Wiliam, the theorist and architect of Formative Assessment, in whose name many wasted hours of marking and book scrutinies have been spent). Let’s hope that more time and consideration will be given to the expertise of teachers before the next edict from Whitehall comes out: ‘Scrap Skills. Rote Learning is All,’ will be the battlecry.

Let us remember, sagely, that education is a process — a lifelong one, hopefully; it serves the purpose of keeping order in a cohesive and civil democracy. It is the shining light of social mobility, guiding the way forward.  Knowledge and skills play an equal part in this process, and the product of informed citizens is too precious a commodity to waste in a game of ideological tug-of-war.


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