Exploding seven myths about education

Daisy Christodoulou talks to spiked about taking on the educational establishment.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Books

‘Yes, I was a bit worried about how people would respond to it’, says Daisy Christodoulou, a one-time University Challenge winner, UK secondary-school teacher, and now a researcher at ARK schools. The ‘it’ in question is Christodoulou’s book, Seven Myths About Education, and she was right to be concerned. Not because it’s a bad book. On the contrary, it’s pithy, witty, and, at points, even inspiring. No, the potential problem for Seven Myths is that it is perfectly at odds with the educational orthodoxy in the UK and the US.

‘But in general’, she tells me, ‘the response has been positive – which has been lovely. There have been some who have been quite angered by the book. But if you challenge some of the conventions which I’m challenging then it’s unsurprising that you’ll get a bit of criticism. Still, I’ve felt gratified that many teachers have said to me, “I’ve had these instincts all along, and you’ve backed them up”.’

Which is interesting, because what Seven Myths mounts, above all, is something rather unfashionable today; that is, a defence of the role of subject knowledge in education, from the importance of being taught historical dates, to learning times tables or grammar. Yes, it is divided up into seven chapters, each tackling a particular myth now central to the educational establishment, from ‘facts prevent understanding’ to ‘you can always just look it up’. But underpinning these individual myth explosions is Christodoulou’s central concern: the devaluation of knowledge and its replacement by a jargon-heavy emphasis on transferable skills and pupil-led learning through projects and activities.

But as Christodoulou is at pains to point out, what looks like a peculiarly contemporary antipathy to teaching knowledge, ‘this endless transmission of information’ as national curriculum architect Mick Waters disparagingly put it in 2012, actually has a rather long ancestry. ‘It is an intellectual legacy of the Romantic era’, she tells me, ‘with Rousseau its forefather. It’s not a recent phenomenon.’

Indeed, as Seven Myths makes clear, there has long been a tradition of thought in which teaching children facts, inculcating them, sometimes by rote, with particular areas of knowledge, has been viewed as detrimental to the child. As Rousseau put it in Emile, ‘What is the use of inscribing on [children’s] brains a list of symbols which mean nothing to them?’. Rousseau even went so far as to call such teaching methods ‘immoral’ on the grounds that fact-learning robs children of childhood. Again in the late nineteenth century, American philosopher John Dewey argued that teaching children maths or the dates of historical events, rather than letting them learn through their own experience, made them passive, the recipients of ‘a mass of meaningless and arbitrary ideas imposed from without’. And then, of course, there is Gradgrind, the Charles Dickens grotesque in Hard Times who, by famously insisting that ‘Facts alone are wanted in life’, left his pupils emotionally stunted – hardly a ringing endorsement of a knowledge-based education by that most canonical of authors.

Still, there is something distinct about the educational establishment’s current aversion towards teaching the content of subjects. As Christodoulou tells me, the assault on a knowledge-based education is ‘being dressed up with a technological aspect, and an economic aspect, too. That is, there’s this idea that we’re in a skills-led economy, and that therefore we should be teaching skills. So, although the fundamental underpinnings to the criticism of fact-based learning are not new, I think there are new justifications, and some new twists and tweaks to it.’

Christodoulou provides plenty of evidence for such claims. For instance, a 2003 UK government cross-department report, 21st Century Skills: Realising Our Potential: Individuals, Employers, Nation, asserted that, thanks to economic and technological change, ‘nineteenth-century-style’ education was being rendered obsolete. Who needs to memorise dates or poems when the internet can do the memorising for you? Why is knowing a John Donne poem by heart necessary in the contemporary workplace? ‘[We need] to rethink the purposes, methods and scale of education in our new circumstances’, urged the report. Where policymakers have led, the teaching unions have followed. Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, blogged: ‘[the] demand in the workplace for “routine cognitive skills” – based on easily digestible knowledge (like lists of kings and queens) – is in decline, as these tasks are automated and outsourced… the future lies in problem solving and interpersonal skills’.

The idea that we are living in a radically different era, marked by unprecedented rapid technological and economic change, runs like a red thread through the disparate justifications for the jettisoning of subject content from the curriculum. The modern economy, indeed, modern life, has no need of a citizen with a mastery of grammar, and a knowledge of the War of the Roses; it needs a critical-thinking, problem-solving, innovating individual, capable of working independently and as part of a team. Or somesuch. At the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference in 2012, one speaker declared: ‘We are no longer in an age where a substantial “fact bank” in our heads is required… We need to equip our young people with skills; interpersonal skills, enquiry skills, the ability to innovate.’ Or, as Professor Guy Claxton, a regular recipient of Ofsted praise and citation, put it: ‘Rote learning of facts must give way to nurturing through education of essential transferable skills that enable the next generation to navigate the information age.’

And as Christodoulou shows through a careful analysis of myriad Ofsted reports, the overarching anti-knowledge, pro-skills sentiment voiced by policymakers, union leaders and feted educationalists, is reflected in what is and what is not valued by schools inspectors. As Christodoulou glosses at one point: ‘In the broadest terms, inspectors warn the teacher against giving too much direction. Teachers are warned not to talk too much and not to tell pupils things.’

So how does Christodoulou tackle the growing consensus that a nineteenth-century focus on facts and subject content is unsuited to our brave new world? Her first port of call is an unexpected one: cognitive psychology. There she finds the evidential resources to refute many of myths about education. ‘I think what really started me on the book was discovering all this research in cognitive psychology’, she tells me. ‘What was so interesting was that it was a very well established field, and within that field, there’s pretty much a consensus. And yet this whole body of knowledge wasn’t really known in education. That was the real prompt for me to think “people might be interested in reading about this”, that there are lot of teaching conventions we take for granted which are not supported by the evidence.’

Chief among Christodoulou’s claims is that knowledge, our individual stock of facts and formulae, quotes and quatrains, is not antithetical to today’s educationalist values, be it creativity or critical thinking. Rather, knowledge is the precondition for creativity and critical thinking. Knowing the times-tables by heart, or having a thorough grounding in classical literature, helps rather than hinders independent thought. ‘Long-term memory is not a bolted on part of the brain’s architecture’, Christodoulou writes. ‘It is instead integral to all our mental processes. When we try to solve any problem, we draw on all the knowledge that we have committed to long-term memory. The more knowledge we have, the more types of problems we can solve. The reason why we need knowledge in the long-term memory and cannot rely on it being in the environment is that our working memories are limited. Working memory can only hold three to seven new pieces of information at once.’

But Christodoulou doesn’t just rely on cognitive psychology, or the ‘evidence’ as she calls it, to ground her defence of knowledge acquisition; she also relies on, well, her own knowledge. She points out that it’s all very well asserting that the internet is an invaluable research tool, but you still have to have an idea of where and how to look for something – all of which depends on prior knowledge. You need to know what you are searching for; the internet is an aid for research, not its substitute. (Hence she recounts her experience of a secondary school pupil using the internet to research the life of Charles Dickens, and confusing it with the fictional life of Pip from Great Expectations.) In fact, the same goes for all skills, from communication to creativity. ‘If we want pupils to develop the skills of analysis and evaluation, they need to know things.’ Indeed, if we want young people to ‘innovate’, to be ‘creative’, they do need to know things, they need to know what is already possible. As Christodoulou points out, it’s telling that the greatest genius in the English language, William Shakespeare, was the product of a Stratford upon Avon grammar-school education, in which he was forced to learn figures of rhetoric by rote. His knowledge of extant rules and tropes, hammered into him at school, was the very basis for his wordsmithery.

It’s here that Christodoulou is particularly inspiring. ‘For all the talk of evidence’, she tells me, ‘evidence can never answer what the point of education is. As Tom Bennett, a teacher and writer, suggests, a major point of education is cultural inheritance. In order to make breakthroughs, you need to know what’s gone before, in order to push things forward, you need to understand where you got to where you are – a case of standing on the shoulders of giants. So I think cultural inheritance ought to be a massive part of education.’ That is, ‘this endless transmission of information’, as Waters called it, is not the problem with education; it is education’s vital core.

As for the assumption that knowledge is constantly changing and expanding in this fast-paced world, rendering traditional subject content obsolete, Christodoulou notes that precisely the opposite tends to be true. It is the new skills, the new ‘core competences’ that tend to quickly become useless, not the wisdom of the ages. Yes, there is an incredible amount of new data and information pumped out on a daily basis, but that doesn’t invalidate knowledge that has actually withstood the test of time. ‘Universities can turn out as many exabytes of information as they like; they are unlikely to disprove Pythagoras’s theorem or improve on Euripides’s tragedies; alphabet and numbering systems continue to be two of the most valuable inventions we have.’ Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger proves an unexpected ally for Christodoulou: ‘The specific skills for the work world were, and largely still are, learned on the job. So let’s see, which would have been better for me to learn back in 1985, when I was 17: all the ins and outs of WordPerfect and BASIC, or US history? There should be no question at all: what I learned about history will remain more or less the same, subject to a few corrections; skills in WordPerfect and BASIC are no longer needed.’

What Seven Myths amounts to, then, is a vigorous, uplifting defence of knowing things, and therefore, of being taught things, from trigonometry to geography. Sadly, this argument is readily dismissed not just as old-fashioned, but also elitist, snobbish even, a defence of upper-class education. But historically, as Christodoulou points out, it was the ultra-conservatives who wanted to restrict access to knowledge. During the nineteenth century, proletarian autodidacts had to fight for ordinary people’s access to the hallowed environs of a classical education, setting up their own schools and educational associations. Yet today the educational establishment denigrates traditional subject-based education in the name of helping the ‘socially disadvantaged’. Let the nation’s private schools continue to pursue a more rigorous, old-fashioned education; state schools need to modernise.

Sadly, as Christodoulou explains, the continued promulgation of skills instead of knowledge, of form rather than content, actually serves to reinforce the social divide: ‘I never want to claim that education is the only thing that has an effect on social mobility. There are a whole range of factors which have an impact on it. But because it’s poorer people, it’s children of immigrants, who probably depend the most on state education, if state education lets them down, then they’re not going to have the chances that wealthier people have – they don’t have recourse to lots of expensive trips out or private tuition or what have you.’

As Christodoulou concludes in Seven Myths: ‘I agree that we should design our education system to suit everyone, not just the high achievers. I agree that education should be concerned with democracy and equality. I agree that pupils should be active learners and that lessons should be engaging. It is because I believe all of these things that I am so concerned about the current education system. The methods we are currently using to achieve these aims simply do not work.’

Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.

Seven Myths About Education, by Daisy Christodoulou, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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