Features

Teacher training’s war on science

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

When I trained as a teacher, seven years ago, these are some of the things I was taught: it’s better for pupils to discover a fact than to be told it. Children learn best working on authentic, real-world projects. Schools and traditional subject boundaries are silos which stifle the natural creativity we all have within us. And this last fact especially: there is no point teaching a body of knowledge, because within a few years it will be outdated and useless. Don’t teach the what, teach the how. ‘Drill and kill’ and ‘chalk and talk’ will lead to passive and unhappy pupils.

This, to a large degree, is still what most teachers are taught. So it’s unfortunate that these ideas are deeply flawed. There’s solid evidence that mostly, the exact opposite is true. Discovery learning is hugely inefficient and ineffective. Authentic projects overload working memory and confuse pupils. Skills are domain-specific and depend on a well-organised body of knowledge securely committed to long-term memory. Deliberate practice — what might be called ‘drill’ — is necessary for mastery. Here’s the real truth: direct teacher instruction is good for pupils’ academic achievement and their self-esteem.

Over the past 50 or so years, scientists have discovered more about how the brain learns than ever before. Their findings have profound implications for education, but too few of these are known or taught within English education.

One of the interesting things about the prevailing myths of teacher training is that they are not new. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was pushing them in the 18th century. Since then, despite a consistent lack of success, they’ve persisted, under different names and with different justifications.


For example, one popular buzzword at the moment is ‘21st-century skills’, which sounds about as cutting-edge and modern as it gets. It’s often defined in terms of modern technology and the demands of the modern economy. Generally, it tends to mean not burdening pupils with knowledge, because facts are so easy to look up on the internet and now change so fast. But a similar case was made at the start of the 20th century. In 1911, a prominent US educationalist criticised the way that schools taught pupils ‘a mass of knowledge that can have little application for the lives which most of them must inevitably lead’. Today we also hear a lot about the importance of ‘innovative’ project- and activity-based learning. But in England in the 1930s, the Hadow Report into primary education counselled that the curriculum should be thought of ‘in terms of activity and experience rather than knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored’. We’ve been trying these ideas, and failing with them, for a very long time.

So how have the myths survived? One reason may be that they tell us something that we want to hear. They sell a vision of a world in which we all have fantastic talent just waiting to be unleashed; in which learning is as natural and as inevitable as growing up. Education, the myth-peddlers will tell you, means ‘drawing out’. In fact, that’s not the word’s real etymology — and what is ‘put in’ is vitally important.

Compared to the myths, the reality can sound a bit depressing. While we learn to speak and to understand speech naturally, most of the other things we want our pupils to learn — including reading and writing — will always require effort, and there are few shortcuts. However, there are also some encouraging aspects of this research. Because learning is about hard work and quality of instruction more than it is about innate genius, all pupils are capable of achieving academically. There will always be differences in innate talent, of course, but we have more in common than we have apart, and so it is possible to identify teaching methods that will succeed for most pupils.

And just because learning is hard work doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. Quite the contrary: often we derive the most satisfaction when we put in the most effort. We also derive satisfaction from success. That’s why ‘direct instruction’ teaching has been shown not only to result in more academic success than other methods, but also in pupils having more self-esteem.

One other reason why these myths have proved so pervasive is because, unfortunately, so much of the research evidence to the contrary is not part of teacher training in the UK or the US. Some of the scientists who did the research have noticed this, and protested. Take Herbert Simon. Simon is one of the major intellectual figures of the 20th century. He was a pioneer of artificial intelligence, and won a Nobel prize for his work on decision-making. His research into memory forms the basis of much of the evidence I’ve summarised above, and he was deeply concerned about the failure of the American educational establishment to consider his findings. Together with two colleagues, he wrote an article challenging what he called some of the ‘frightening’ misconceptions of modern education.

Likewise, the reading researcher Keith Stanovich has argued that ‘education has suffered because its dominant model for adjudicating disputes is political rather than scientific’. In his view, this has left education susceptible to romantic fads such as whole language reading methods.

Since I put out an ebook on education myths last summer — it is now published in print — I’ve heard from teachers saying how grateful they are to have evidence for the ideas they’d suspected were right but had always been told were wrong. But there’s also been a lot of criticism. For some readers, direct instruction, teaching knowledge and memorisation are simply beyond the pale.

Given the history, that doesn’t surprise me. The evidence I gather challenges the status quo of English education, and challenges to the status quo are rarely met with equanimity. But my impression is that we are at a turning point in education. More and more teachers are realising the gap between the theory they are taught and their practical experience. More and more books are being published which explain the insights of cognitive science and the implications they have for classroom teachers. Instead of the warmed-through fads of the past century, I think the next few years will see evidence-based reforms that lead to genuine educational improvements.

Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths about Education was published last week by Routledge.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • global city

    It is those sorts of slogans and cod-dogma which shows just how unreformable the whole public eduation sector is….. so should be swept clean of cultural Marxist and Cultural Marxist thinking about how education is approached.

    Political theory (in which ‘eduction’ is mired) and science never mix, as ideology always trumps any evidence based reality.

  • tjamesjones

    30% of secondary physics teachers have physics degrees. But they are *qualified teachers* because they have a PGSE.

  • rtj1211

    The reality about learning is that it is a dynamic process starting at absolute ignorance/inexperience, proceeding after a certain time to a period where drilling/repetition is valuable and necessary, which only gets you so far, before you must develop systemic understanding and, if necessary, modify the parameters of the system to achieve cutting edge improvements.

    Learning requires a combination of aptitude, commitment and experience. You can have children with great aptitude but if they do not become interested, they won’t commit. If they don’t commit, they won’t go through the boring repetitive training processes. If they don’t put the hours in, they won’t get the experience necessary to gain systemic understanding at a level which doesn’t require drilling any more, but rather leads to independent thought, experimentation and synthesis.

    The one thing which is absolutely clear is that there is no one way of teaching anything, there is simply one way which will select out various children who happen to respond to that way.

    Sitting in a classroom is not the best way of doing it, but it is the mantra of education. For some people that works, but the exam results are absolutely clear in that they show that for many it doesn’t. It doesn’t mean they are uneducable, it means that the methods employed are wrong for many.

  • First L

    I did my teacher training in 2011.

    While it was relatively open ended – it was still practically worshipping Rousseau. The man was probably the biggest useful idiot the world has ever seen. Not a single thing he wrote or said was based on any practical evidence whatsoever – all pure conjecture. Why is a crap philosopher held in greater reverence than scientists? Because he says what the Left wants to hear.

    • grimm

      My question is: why does the left want to hear Rousseau’s philosophy? When it suits them they are quite happy to direct and indoctrinate in the most authoritarian fashion.

  • Gwangi

    Having suffered a sort of ‘politically correct’ attempted brainwashing that would make North Korea proud on my PGCE course (at a former poly in London) over a decade ago, I can say that such courses are staffed by pc leftwingers obsessed with promoting their pet causes:
    an end of selection and grammar schools, more comprehensives, ‘positive action’ to unfairly discriminate against white men, race obsession, diversity worship, the promotion of ‘equality’ (by discriminating against white males), gender feminist obsession, a hatred of the male (incl boy pupils whose failure in a feminised system is explained by these feminist teacher trainers claiming females are more intelligent), the incitement of hatred against anyone who believes in selection or wants grammar schools and traditional methods of teaching knowledge, an obsession with silly American ideas which are not backed up by scientific evidence (eg VAK teaching, differentiation).
    Unfortunately, most of my fellow PGCE students swallowed whole this stark propaganda; I, as an already experienced teacher (overseas), did not. For that, a particularly nasty feminist extremist teacher trainer tried to fail an essay of mine called ‘Failing Boys: The Betrayal of the Male by the British Education System’. Her supervisor overruled her because my work was clearly of distinction standard.
    Did I learn anything about teaching from my PGCE course? No. I learnt about theories and educational fashions. I also learnt precisely why our schools in the UK are in such an unholy mess and are so dumbed down and ineffective at producing intelligent and employable youngsters. I sympathise therefore with anyone contemplating the scrapping of all such courses, or in just having short training plus learning on the job for new teachers.
    As it is, I am now one of the many people – I think half – who have done PGCEs but who no longer teach. I think 40% leave the classroom within 5 years of qualifying.

    • TonyB58

      Sounds pretty much like the Cert Ed. I did nearly a quarter of a century ago.

      • Gwangi

        The Cert Ed was the easier version of the PGCE; it’s done by non-graduates. It’s like maybe half to two thirds of a PGCE and leaves out the harder theory papers and coursework.
        Having said that, plenty of non-graduates make and made good teachers.
        It’s just that these days, every tramp and his dog and his dg’s fleas have a degree in something from some fake university, so all teachers (at state schools anyway) have to be graduates.
        Precious little training about how to be a teacher on PGCE courses though. Becoming a teacher trainer is just a way for teachers to leave schools/colleges and take a step up in their careers – and boy how they adore telling people they are now university lecturers (what with their 3 CSEs in woodwork and all).

  • ADW

    All good points, and I wonder if the author would have done quite so well on University Challenge had she been required to “discover” all the answers!

  • Rokewood

    These are simply empirically false claims, ironic for a celebration of the scientific method. For the last decade and more English Teacher ‘Training’ especially has been obsessed with the neurobabbling philosophically & heuristically illiterate fads of ‘brain-based’ learning (see Tallis, Hacker, Davis & now Roger Scruton and Hilary Putnam demolishing these—hardly big Lefties). Any doubts? Look at the programme for the AERA in Philadelphia next month. Domain gripped by tosh that wouldn’t survive Philosophy of Mind 101. Moreover, the author makes another classic error in generalising from an inadequate dataset—her own experience. Look at the frequency of bibliographical entries on eg Standish’s Learning by Heart, published more than 15 years ago. Look at the recurrent teacher ed downloads & citations of Simon (of course some of them highly critical; scan Journal of Philosophy of Education—again, hardly The Morning Star). These claims are simply all over the place.
    Strange too that in polemic of this stripe, inconvenient facts are cavalierly dumped. For the writer’s Comments cheerleaders the conclusive ‘scientific’ evidence for Grammars is that they don’t work (Boliver & Swift; Selina Todd forthcoming; Hughes & Leitch 50yr study of NI Grammars). For the historical record, Government rejected both Hadow Reports and they were never implemented.
    Anything else?

  • Rokewood

    Oh and btw—7 Myths About Education is an excellent book

  • Rokewood

    These are simply empirically false claims, ironic for a celebration of the scientific method. For the last decade and more English Teacher ‘Training’ especially has been obsessed with the neurobabbling philosophically & heuristically illiterate fads of ‘brain-based’ learning (see Tallis, Hacker, Davis & now Roger Scruton and Hilary Putnam demolishing these—hardly big Lefties). Any doubts? Look at the programme for the AERA in Philadelphia next month. Domain gripped by tosh that wouldn’t survive Philosophy of Mind 101. Moreover, the author makes another classic error in generalising from an inadequate dataset—her own experience. Look at the frequency of bibliographical entries on eg Standish’s Learning by Heart, published more than 15 years ago. Look at the recurrent teacher ed downloads & citations of Simon (of course some of them highly critical; scan Journal of Philosophy of Education—again, hardly The Morning Star). These claims are simply all over the place.
    Strange too that in polemic of this stripe, inconvenient facts are cavalierly dumped. For the writer’s Comments cheerleaders the conclusive ‘scientific’ evidence for Grammars is that they don’t work (Boliver & Swift; Selina Todd forthcoming; Hughes & Leitch 50yr study of NI Grammars). For the historical record, Government rejected both Hadow Reports and they were never implemented.

  • Raz Matazz

    Not to be mistaken with a rigid laissez-faire approach, the liberty school insists upon working to unleash the proven forces of competition.

  • Education as paideia, as opposed to a mere Pavlovian conditioning, is about destroying the ability of young people to think for themselves. This is a good thing. Young people have horrible thoughts.
    Admittedly, beating and sexual abuse is more effective than pretending the little beasts have human qualities BUT those little shits are surprisingly strong and have easy access to knives and shotguns. Thus, for the moment, there really is no alternative to Rousseauian Educational theory because the only sane and environmentally sustainable way forward involves killing the mothers of those little shits BEFORE they have a chance to breed. Babies are essentially illegal immigrants and should be treated as such.
    Nothing wrong with our Education system. It’s just the kids and their parents whom we need to exterminate.

  • Mr Grumpy

    I could have told you this in about 1968, when my primary school started dabbling in the latest fads with the aid of some Ladybird books which had been re-invented as project kits. It was a chaotic, tedious waste of time, and I’m very grateful that I didn’t have to endure much of it before moving on to a refreshingly traditional grammar school.

  • mikewaller

    This marvelous young women should be given an 00 prefix and immediate charge of Ofsted!

  • Albert Aho

    According to this article, today’s teachers’ unions aren’t really that interested in teaching: http://politi.co/X5mMK6

  • Jonathan Elms

    At last, the worm appears to be turning. Why should learning be confined to the privileged few, and the rest be condemned to a narrow, politically-motivated, interpretation of education? My grandchildren need the tools to survive and prosper in a world, where the fundamentals tend to hold sway, human nature being what it is.

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