We Need Better Courses, Not More Adaptive Teaching

In recent years, there has been a gradual move in the English education system away from the darkest days of individualised learning, when teachers were expected to plan different lessons for different pupils, thus ensuring curricular incoherence and chaotic classrooms.

This move is to be welcomed, but we must not be complacent. Even if the insanity of planning thirty different lessons is not being proposed, the residual ideas still haunt many classrooms, to the extent that many teachers still feel that it is somehow wrong to teach the whole class the same thing, and require every pupil to do the same tasks.

As David Didau recently pointed out, on some levels, adapting teaching to the needs of individuals seems to be just ordinary good teaching. If a pupil doesn’t​ understand, surely any teacher would adapt the lesson, in the sense of spending time with that pupil explaining a little more? Or if a significant proportion of pupils don’t understand, isn’t it time to re-teach the whole class, rather than moving on?

But as with many teaching practices that just seem to be obvious, it’s worth thinking harder about this one. If one individual is struggling, should a teacher really interrupt instruction for the remaining twenty-nine in order to give her attention? If the teacher did this regularly, instruction would be so frequently interrupted that overall, less would be learned.

And then there is the problem of confusing performance with learning. At an early stage in a course of instruction, we would expect performance to be lower, but this is an ordinary part of the gradual mastery of knowledge. A good course would already have taken this into account. It would already contain many iterations of key elements, spaced out and interleaved with other material, so that over the whole course, every pupil would have overlearned core propositional and procedural knowledge, and it would be securely stored in their long term memory. If a teacher started ‘adapting’ such a course of instruction because they thought there was too much or too little repetition, then the carefully designed sequence would quickly be undermined.

What is needed is not more adaptive teaching, but better designed courses of instruction, so that everyone can make progress. And it is not fair to expect ordinary classroom teachers to design these courses. This is why curriculum leadership is so vital to improving education.

Reasonable Hope

However much our opponents may wish to portray us as gloomy Gradgrindian schoolmasters, traditional approaches give us grounds for reasonable hope. The positive, practical outworking of a coherent, knowledge-rich curriculum and a consistent culture of discipline is not gloom but a cheerful commitment to hard work and a resilient reaction to setbacks. This is because traditional approaches are based not on how we might wish human beings are, but how they actually are.

A traditional teacher doesn’t get downhearted when a pupil forgets something they studied yesterday. She is fully prepared for this. In fact, she expects it, and she has a plan for review of material, spaced out over time, so that the sharp forgetting curve can be overcome. Instead of complaining or blaming herself, she gets on with applying that programme so that pupils can truly master the knowledge that will enable them to think creatively and critically.

A traditional teacher doesn’t despair when pupils don’t share her love for classic literature. She knows that this love will build slowly over time, as their familiarity with the great stories and characters increases. She knows that curiosity is not immanent but emergent: it is a property that must be cultivated in pupils by giving them ever greater knowledge, so that they can make connections and comparisons, and enter into worlds that they would never encounter without her expert guidance. So she presses on with her programme of rich cultural capital, confident that pupils will one day come to appreciate the inheritance which she is passing on. Some will appreciate it sooner than others, but their ability to appreciate it at the age of thirteen in no way affects its intrinsic value.

A traditional teacher doesn’t take it personally when some pupils misbehave, because she knows that good habits take time to form, and that it is her responsibility to form them in her pupils, by consistent discipline over time. Their poor behaviour is a reflection of their imperfect moral formation, which she and her colleagues are striving to improve. She knows that she will be letting her pupils down if she gives in to the desire to be liked, and fails to apply sanctions consistently. So she perseveres, day in, day out, applying rewards and punishments, and knowing that over time, as part of a whole school culture, her pupils will be given the priceless gift of good habits that will serve them well throughout life.

Traditional ideas give us the strength to be cheerful, positive and persevering, because we know that our pupils are on a long journey towards responsible, knowledgeable adulthood, which will take many years of consistent effort to achieve. We’re not looking for instant results or flashy gimmicks. We’re just looking for steady, faithful effort, in ourselves, and in our pupils.

And we know it isn’t personal. We know that there is something outside ourselves which is worth striving for: we know the value of knowledge and good habits, which do not come naturally, but which must be formed in young minds by our efforts and theirs. Nothing worthwhile comes easily to anyone. We’re ready for the setbacks, and the remedies are already accounted for in our planning.

The fantasy land of progressive ideology is what brings gloom, because its bubbles are bound to burst, and its delights will always be temporary. When you break free into the light of reality, then you can actually begin to make progress towards worthwhile goals.

Should Young Children Learn Through Play?

Deadly Nightshade

Not all of the products of nature are nourishing.

The earliest years of education are those which have been reformed the least. In secondary schools, there is a significant and growing movement in favour of strict discipline and formal instruction. Secondary school teachers are subject teachers, so it’s not so hard to convince them that subject knowledge should be foregrounded and children should have to listen to the expert in the room. But teachers of younger children are much less likely to be subject specialists. Primary school and preschool teachers tend to see themselves as teachers of children, not teachers of subjects.

Of course, understood correctly, there’s nothing wrong with considering oneself as a teacher of children. It would be worrying if any teacher did not say this, if we mean by it that we care about those we teach as human beings. It’s stating the obvious.

But when teachers say that they teach the child, not the subject, they often mean more than the obvious. They mean that education should be led by the child. They mean that they believe in what E D Hirsch calls ‘providential individualism’: the idea that if we allow individuals free and unfettered choices, then things will somehow work out for the best in the end. In other words, saying ‘I teach the child’ is frequently a confession of faith in the progressive creed that education must be child-centred, so that it can take its ‘natural’ course.

Because this is an article of mystical faith, and has no basis in the reality of growing up (how many children are potty trained through child-centred learning?), its adherents are fiercely resistant to alternatives, and tend to react with outrage and disbelief when someone says, for example, that basing education mostly around play is not the best way to introduce the very young to the wonderful world of knowledge outside their immediate experience. They tend to see any attacks on their creed as necessarily emanating from child-hating monsters.

But what do very young children do naturally? Even play is not ‘natural’. Anyone who has cared for more than one young child at a time will know how frequently disputes have to be resolved, and how much effort is required to establish some rules for playing: sharing, for example, is not something which children naturally do. They have to be instructed.

Even playing successfully requires formal instruction and an authority figure to enforce rules, if it is not to descend into the Lord of the Flies type experience I had at nursery school, which is still the most savage of my memories of ‘education’.

Then there are the other wonderful things that can be done with groups of young children, all without their having to start learning to read and write excessively early. They can listen to stories, they can learn songs and poems, they can make their first attempts at drawing. All of these require an authority figure to be in charge and to maintain order if they are to be executed successfully.

Most wonderful of all these aspects of early formal education, if we are thinking about opening minds to the wider world, are the ability to listen to stories and to memorise songs and poems. So much fascinating and valuable knowledge can be built into education from the earliest stages, if we are prepared to take charge and stop idolising children.

Allowing Our Pupils to Listen

Man_inserting_earplugsDavid Didau has been at it again, slaying educational sacred cows . . . he has argued that it is not beneficial to require pupils to follow along when reading out loud to them, because it overloads their working memory by asking them to do two things which they cannot in fact do simultaneously.

This is a great example of how Didau reexamines our common teaching practices from first principles. The first principles in this case are:

  1. Working memory is extremely limited.
  2. No-one can multitask.
  3. Reading means hearing, either mentally or out loud.

Didau’s argument is that when we read silently, as pupils must do if they are actually to be following along, we are actually ‘hearing’ the words in our thoughts. To hear them properly, we must block out the voice of the person who is reading aloud to us, because we can’t focus on both at once. So when it appears that pupils are following along well, what they are actually doing is successfully blocking out our voice and reading the text themselves, with the additional mental burden of having to check periodically that they are at the same place as we are in the text. They can manage to do this if they are confident readers, but if they are not so confident, they are likely to end up either failing to follow and just listening, or getting in a hopeless muddle between trying unsuccessfully to follow and also half listening to the person reading aloud.

I’m not the only one of Didau’s readers who reacted against these conclusions when I first read his blog post. It’s worth reading the comments as well as the post to see how the discussion developed over there. I was going to comment, but I had so much to say, I thought I’d better write my own blog post, working through the objections that occurred to me.

1. Following along builds vocabulary and improves comprehension

It may seem that weaker readers need to listen and follow along, because we want them to be connecting the sound of the word with the word on the page, and building up their familiarity with the appearance of a wider range of vocabulary than they are capable of reading independently.

But this depends upon the fallacious idea that reading is a visual activity, when it is in fact aural. If we want weaker readers to be able to comprehend a larger vocabulary on the page, we need to give them the space to do one thing at a time. They can focus all their attention on listening to begin with, and later they can be given time to re-read the text in silence. Having already encountered the new vocabulary aurally, they are more likely to be able to decode it when reading the text themselves.

It’s not the following along which improves understanding for weaker readers, it’s the listening. And if we really want them to listen, we shouldn’t require them to follow along.

2. Following along ensures pupils are paying attention

We have to ask here, paying attention to what? Pupils cannot be paying attention to the spoken voice and reading simultaneously, so they must be doing one or the other, or a more or less muddled mixture of the two.

I’ve often asked pupils, “What’s the next word?” if I think they are not following along. I’ve expended a fair amount of effort monitoring this, because I want to insist that everyone is paying attention. But there are other ways of doing this, if we are not requiring pupils to follow along. We can ask them a quick comprehension question about what we have just read to them, for example. This is actually a more sophisticated way of monitoring attention than the mechanical focus on whether the are on the right line or the right page.

3. Pupils need to follow along so they can annotate

No, they don’t. If we are going to study a text in depth, we can begin by reading it aloud without following along, then require pupils to re-read it in silence, then go through it together as a class, discussing it in detail and annotating it. Let’s just do one thing at a time!

4. It’s the only way I can make sure they read

But following along doesn’t actually make sure they read. If they are strong readers, this isn’t an issue anyway, and if they are weak readers, they will be unable to block out your voice and concentrate on decoding, so they will end up in a muddle.

5. I prefer to follow along, so why shouldn’t my pupils be allowed to?

This is an interesting one. I must admit that when I want to study something in depth, I don’t like just listening to someone read without the anchor of the text in front of me. But what am I actually doing when I have the text there? In fact, as an advanced reader, I am impatient to begin reading the text independently and figuring it out for myself. So this actually illustrates the main point. I want to have the text in front of me because I don’t want to listen. If I’m going to listen properly, I’d better not be looking at it!

Conclusion: let them hear!

I would be very interested in further objections and counter arguments, but I can’t think of any which refute the fundamental principle that if we want to do things properly, we need to do them one at a time, and following along requires pupils to do two things simultaneously.

This is not an argument against reading out loud. Far from it: it’s a principle which gives reading out loud its proper place, without muddling it with other practices, which are also very beneficial, but need to be separated from just listening to the text.

If we allow our pupils just to listen, they can really, really listen, as I used to listen to my father when he read stories to me as a child. The main reason I have a wide vocabulary is that I began by listening to him. The main reason so many of our pupils have lower vocabularies is because they have not been given such opportunities really to listen to the voices of articulate adults.

Understanding or Memorising?


Herbert A Simon (1916-2001)

One of the most damaging myths in education is that there is a conflict between memorisation and understanding, when in fact, they go together, and are both essential. This is one of the ideas demolished by Daisy Christodoulou in Seven Myths, under the heading of ‘facts prevent understanding’. The classic piece of research by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon on chess players shows how memorising and understanding are not in conflict; rather, they are intertwined and interdependent. Chess grand masters can look briefly at a chess board and then remember the positions of the pieces far better than those not skilled in chess. But they could only do this when the pieces were arranged as they would be in a game scenario. When they were randomly arranged, the chess players performed no better than the average.

The chess grand master’s supreme skill is based largely on memorising tens of thousands of game scenarios. Most of the time, most of what a grand master is doing in a chess game is remembering. This is not in conflict with understanding. Obviously the grand master understands the rules of chess, but then so does someone who is only a beginner. What distinguishes the grand master from the beginner is the difference between their long term memories. One is well-stocked with chess moves and scenarios, while the other isn’t. If the beginner wants to advance, she needs to put in the effort and get memorising. She needs to be drilled, or drill herself. She needs to study hard.

This applies to every academic subject. Understanding and memorisation are both essential, but the majority of the effort must go into memorising, because a pupil can grasp a concept readily in a lesson, but quickly forget it, because she has not been drilled in class, nor has she been required to self-quiz for homework to consolidate the knowledge, nor has she been tested at intervals to make sure it does not fade. Drilling, self-quizzing, testing at intervals: these are the foundations of teaching which enable everyone to make progress, because memorisation is absolutely essential, and it strengthens and consolidates understanding. Without the knowledge in your mind, how can you think about it? It is the lack of these foundations which leads to the lament which I have heard so often in so many staff rooms: “I taught them that material. Why can’t they remember it? Why did so many fail the end of term exam?”

It is because of the false distinction between understanding and memorisation that teachers do not focus anywhere near enough time on making sure the foundations are in place. The bulk of class and homework time needs to be dedicated to making sure that core knowledge is thoroughly mastered. If this is not done, then only the most able and motivated will make much progress. The most able and motivated may well then go on to become education professors, and because they were not required to memorise, they’ll think that everyone else can just blithely sail along without the hard work of deliberately committing key facts and procedures to memory.

This is known as expert blindness, and the more gifted a person is, the more likely they are to suffer from it. But all teachers suffer from it to some extent, and to overcome it, we need good programmes of instruction which emphasise drill and repeated practice. We can’t depend upon our gut feeling, or even our ‘professional judgement’, to know when something has been practised enough.

Further reading:

Rote Learning is Ace

Memory and Liberal Education

(Image from Wikimedia).


Learning from Eton


Eton College

In July 1994, I attended Eton for two weeks, along with many other boys and girls from state schools. In those days, it was called the Eton Summer School, and was open to sixth-formers from state schools in the neighbouring counties. Nowadays, it’s called the Universities Summer School, and is open to state school sixth-formers across Britain.

Needless to say, it was an unforgettable experience, for many reasons: the beauty of the surroundings, the hot summer weather and the World Cup where we had to support Ireland (The Guardian issued pretend green passports) would have been enough by themselves to lodge it permanently in my mind. But the most wonderful thing of all was, of course, the teaching.

I attended a very ordinary comprehensive school, and it was a revelation to encounter, during this intense fortnight, so many articulate, knowledgeable men who could confidently explain the most complex literary texts, and did not hesitate to do so.

My readers may very well be saying at this point: that’s wonderful for Eton, but what could an ordinary school learn from this? Ordinary schools do not have lots of Oxbridge graduates knocking at their door. And it’s true, widespread school reform cannot depend upon the widespread deployment of exceptional teachers, because they are, well . . . exceptional. Away from the dreaming spires of Eton, what can be done?

My answer lies in the most memorable Eton lesson of all. It was on Twelfth Night. The teacher drew a simple two column table on the whiteboard and explained the opposing ideas which form the conceptual framework of the play, such as discipline versus licence, temperance versus excess, reality versus fantasy.

It was chalk and talk. A simple, traditional lesson in which the teacher explained key concepts and wrote things on the board. That’s all. And it was fantastic. I had rarely experienced such clear, explicit instruction in literature. There had usually been a fuzziness about studying literature compared to this clarity and directness, delivered from the front in a completely uncomplicated, unapologetically traditional style.

I’ve often wondered how much more I could have learned through all my years at comprehensive school if my teachers had done more of this. I’m sure most of them were capable of it. Some of them, especially in maths and science, did it quite often. In fact, the Head of English at my comprehensive school was a Cambridge graduate, and I used to love it when he just talked to us. I wish he had allowed himself to do it more.

There are some things which Eton has which ordinary schools could never have. But every school could have teachers who teach. The battle to achieve this is not financial; what is needed is not more money, but better ideas.

Our Dishonest Inspection Regime

Book burningThere was, as Squealer was never tired of explaining, endless work in the supervision and organisation of the farm. Much of this work was of a kind that the other animals were too ignorant to understand. For example, Squealer told them that the pigs had to expend enormous labours every day upon mysterious things called ‘files’, ‘reports’, ‘minutes’, and ‘memoranda’. These were large sheets of paper which had to be closely covered with writing, and as soon as they were so covered, they were burnt in the furnace. (George Orwell, Animal Farm).

Generating bits of paper is not equivalent to doing anything. It is a proxy for action. Katharine Birbalsingh rightly points out in this article that the inspector’s mantra should be reversed. Instead of saying ‘if it hasn’t been written down, it isn’t being done’, we should say ‘if people are busy writing it down, then it isn’t being done’.

When I did my teacher training, I was at first alarmed by the prospect of having to provide evidence that I had met the required standards, which seemed enormously detailed and complex. But then I realised that it was not actual evidence that I had to provide, but bits of paper which supposedly recorded my having met the standards. I therefore industriously went about producing these bits of paper. This was a completely parallel activity to the business of actually learning how to teach. There was virtually no connection between them. On the one hand, I had to feed the paper monster and keep my university mentor happy. On the other hand, I actually had work to do and things to learn.

I would have had a lot more time to learn and to work if I had not had to waste time generating bits of paper. And I could easily have generated excellent bits of paper without really learning or doing much that was useful. These are parallel universes.

We pride ourselves in Britain on having honest public servants. Inspectors do not arrive in schools, receive brown envelopes of cash, and write glowing reports. But actually taking bribes is not the only form of dishonesty. Inspectors may not be receiving banknotes, but they are happily receiving other pieces of paper which enable them in good conscience to write glowing reports. The worst thing about this form of dishonesty is that everyone involved in it is convinced of their moral rectitude. Meanwhile, while they pat themselves on the back and accept their generous salaries, the actual goal of education is being undermined by their supposedly honest and disinterested work. And the busier and more assiduous they are, the more they waste the time of classroom teachers, and the more the children, for whom the whole system supposedly exists, are neglected.

Ironically, the pupils would be better served by more straightforward corruption. At least it would be quick to hand over a brown envelope. And it would actually be cheaper. The cost of wasting so much of the time of expensive professionals is astronomical, far higher than even the greediest taker of bribes would accept.

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some points be satiated; but those who torment us for their own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. (C S Lewis).