Empty ‘Creativity’ Is the Easy Option

Part of the attack on knowledge which still strongly persists is the labelling of ‘mere’ factual knowledge as ‘lower order’ in the style of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Such a distinction is often based on a false separation of the two and a belief that you can have skills without knowledge.

But the problems with Bloom’s theory are not only pedagogical; they are also cultural and economic. The classification of knowledge as ‘lower order’ privileges the administrative over the technical. A manager can quickly get a general idea of how a piece of equipment works, or how a scientific principle applies to his business. Having got that general notion, he can move rapidly on to coming up with all kinds of ‘creative’ plans for how to make more money using said technology or science. He can sit around with his fellow managers brainstorming all sorts of innovative ways of selling, marketing and promoting the product. There’s no need for him to get down into the ‘weeds of detail’. He would scorn to get his hands dirty with the fiddly facts. All the while, he can preen himself on how he is engaged in ‘higher order’ thinking, not like those grubby minions who actually make the stuff.

This type of senior manager, with his degree in PPE from Oxford and his lofty separation from the pesky details of the actual work to be done, can thrive in large corporations or government departments which have fast track graduate programmes to recruit and promote those with supposedly ‘higher order’ skills. This often means not much more than cultured articulacy and a knack for concise generalisation.

Meanwhile, Britain has a shortage of engineering graduates. You have to work hard on an engineering degree, in contrast to the three genteel years of expensive skiving on offer in the humanities. On an engineering degree, you have to study hard, because you actually have to know something by the end, otherwise you won’t be able to design bridges that stay up or machines that work. I shared a flat with some engineering undergraduates in my first year, and it was astonishing how long they spent in lectures and how much studying they had to do. It was like having a job! I was much more comfortable in my second year, when I lived with fellow humanities students. I never knew it was possible to waste so much time watching daytime television until that revelatory year. I knew one undergraduate who actually had a full time job at the same time as studying on a ‘full-time’ degree.

I considered myself fairly conscientious. I did the work required, actually read the books and even did a bit of reading around in the library for my essays. And I graduated first class, without ever having to break a sweat. It just wasn’t very demanding.

Should it be any surprise that we are short of skilled engineers, that our manufacturing productivity remains relatively low, that we have a persistent balance of payments problem because we don’t make enough stuff and prosperity sucks in ever more imports? Generations of Britons have received fact light education, and now we even praise ‘creativity’ over facts. Why bother putting the effort into slaving your way through an engineering degree? If you’re smart, you’ll get a nice smooth ride through a trendy humanities course, then a fast track up to the heights of administration, whether it’s in corporations or in civil service departments. You can get high pay, high prestige, influence and power, all without the tedious bother of having to study hard.

One exception to the exaltation of the administrative over the technical is medicine, where it is the top consultant doctors who have the most prestige. But even here, management culture has been swelling in recent years. And of course, we are short of doctors as well as engineers. Everyone knows a medical degree is serious hard work, and evidently that’s putting off too many people who prefer easier options.

I know there are universities where you must study hard in the humanities as well as STEM subjects. I believe Oxbridge is more rigorous. But I went to Manchester, supposedly a top Russell Group university. If I’d had to pay for it, I would have felt ripped off. Some American friends who were spending a year in the UK commented on the light workload. They were from good private colleges where they actually had to work hard.

There should be no easy options at university. Everyone should be working their socks off to master a large body of knowledge, whether it is literary, historical or scientific. And if they’re not interested in doing that, why are they at university?

Because if we continue to idolise so-called creativity and scorn facts, there won’t be much left to manage, except warehouses storing millions of pieces of plastic from China, or perhaps government departments where scores of bureaucrats scratch their heads very creatively about our intractable economic problems.

Letting Pupils Fly Solo

Flying SoloDavid Didau is very good at putting his finger on neuroses which hamper teachers. One of the peculiar ideas which he nails in The Secret of Literacy is the strange notion that teachers should never just let pupils get on with it. Many are anxious about this, particularly if they are being observed. But if we are aiming for pupils to have the knowledge and confidence to tackle work on their own, we have to let them actually do this, without always feeling like we should be circulating around the classroom, pointing out their mistakes before they’ve had the chance to spot them themselves. As Didau comments, ‘We want them to have the confidence and ability to complete tasks by themselves without us there to nag and prompt them’ (p59).

If we have put the effort into teaching material thoroughly, and spent time on guided practice, then there should come a moment where we tell them to fly solo, and they just get on and write silently. This is when they truly demonstrate independence, and they’ll never do it if we can’t bring ourselves to take the risk of letting them do things for themselves. They might make some mistakes of course, but that’s no bad thing. Mistakes are an essential part of learning.

While they write silently, we can work silently ourselves. By writing with pupils, we are modelling the process of focused concentration. We could even do the test that they are doing, so we’ll have a good exemplar to show them afterwards when we are giving feedback. This is another thing which Didau recommends which I have been doing for a while. I must admit I enjoy doing the tests which I set for pupils, and it gives me an insight into tackling the tasks which I could not get in any other way. Why should teachers deny themselves the pleasure of doing the work they set? And if it isn’t a pleasure for them, why on earth are they teaching that subject?

Affluent Intakes and Comfortable Mediocrity

I was educated at a bog standard comprehensive. It wasn’t that horrific. I was picked on because I had been moved up a year (this was in the days before the data culture stopped schools from doing such a sensible thing). I chose a lesson which did not appear on my report and deliberately misbehaved in order to try to shed my ‘swot’ image. I was put on daily report card along with several other more popular boys; my strategy had been a success. Similarly, I got into one or two fights to prove I wasn’t a brainy nerd. Clever people were not popular and intellectual accomplishment was scorned.

But it wasn’t that bad. Some of the teachers were very good, keeping order and explaining concepts clearly. Others presided over chaos or put us into groups so that we could waste time gossiping about the latest school news. I do remember that I quite often helped out other members of my group, attempting to explain the things the teacher had neglected to make clear.

The school was in an affluent market town in the home counties, so it was never going to be too terrible. Also, we were streamed for many subjects, which kept the more middle class and well behaved ones away from the hell raisers.

The school bumbled along doing reasonably well, and even sending the occasional sixth former to Oxbridge. I think there were three in my year (I messed up my Cambridge interview).

Why would anyone want to campaign against such affable mediocrity? It just wasn’t that bad . . . It would be like shouting at a vague and well intentioned old gentleman because he was failing to make much sense. Just let him ramble on and nod and smile.

But we do need to attack mediocrity. It’s not good enough to have schools depending on their middle class intake to keep the inspectors at bay. There is always a significant minority in such schools who are being let down. The larger the middle class contingent, the less the school needs to worry about doing something about those who are leaving school as ignorant as the day they arrived, and with a general impression that education is for the posh, not for such as they.

A tough intake wakes you up. An affluent one allows you to sleep while large numbers of pupils follow demographic destiny.

Why Aren’t More Schools Making Use of Their Freedom?

Checkbox_1.svgThe government has given unprecedented freedom to schools as the academy programme has continued its rapid expansion. But most schools are not using this freedom to make radical changes to the curriculum. Headteachers are more likely to be interested in the financial aspects of the the new governance arrangements. Robert Peal points towards a 2012 survey which indicated that only 5% of headteachers saw curriculum reform as the most important reason for converting to academy status (Changing Schools p19).

There are academy chains that are making a marked difference, particularly Ark and Harris, and it is because of the vision which they vigorously promote, which Peal describes as a ‘no-excuses culture, and a total focus on high academic standards’ (p22).

Why is it that the majority of schools are so cautious to embrace thoroughgoing change, which could see marked improvements, such as those already being demonstrated by no-excuses schools?

Firstly, there is the general human tendency to act out of habit. Most of what we do, we do because we have done it before and it has worked, or at least we think it has, or at least nothing shocking has happened to alert us that it hasn’t. Schools that have been chugging along getting reasonable results understandably see little reason to embrace radical change.

This is why serious reforms are more likely to happen in urban schools with a relatively high proportion of disadvantaged pupils. The inadequacies of progressive pedagogy and permissive discipline have been shockingly apparent here, whereas state schools in more affluent areas have managed to bumble along without too many nasty shocks.

Thorough testing reform so that pupils actually needed broad knowledge might apply the necessary level of shock even to these complacent schools, but while we still have exams that are narrow and box-ticking, and very infrequent, there is little likelihood of change. Which is tough on those who happen to live in rural areas and would like their children to receive a proper academic education.

Then there is the culture of conformity which naturally follows from large scale, bureaucratically controlled, state funded activities. Even if the government repeatedly tells schools that they are free to use any method which gets good results, do teachers believe that? After a lifetime of being under surveillance, the victims of snooping bureaucrats have internalised the principles of conformity to such a degree that it will be very difficult for them to believe in their own freedom. They want to be told the right answer by the person in charge. The idea that they will have to take real decisions themselves and accept responsibility for them is terrifying. Conformity dies hard, and frankly that’s because it’s rather safe and comforting.

But the most important of all the obstacles to reform is the genuine attachment to bad ideas which still prevails. Until schools have better ideas about what constitutes education, the sort of academic curriculum offered by schools such as West London Free School will remain the exception, not the norm. The battle of ideas must be won, so that knowledge is prized, and the virtues of hard work and self-discipline are promoted.

(Image from Wikimedia).

How to Reach Teachers on Different Planets

PW coverMost teachers are not on Twitter excitedly discussing the latest book or blog post to put the nail in the progressive coffin. The vocal online population is not representative of the teaching population at large. I didn’t discover this world until very recently, after the headteacher at my school circulated a reading list containing Seven Myths and Progressively Worse.

It was a revelation to me to find out that there were people out there writing books about education that actually made sense. I had previously avoided such books, because I had the general impression that they were filled with trendy rubbish. When I realised that Robert Peal had first come to prominence through writing a blog, I investigated . . . and since then, well, I have barely paused for breath, as regular readers will have noticed. As I write this, I am standing on a rush hour tube train, trying to keep my balance while I tap away on my phone. I’m that excited about writing about education.

But just six months ago, I had never heard of Daisy Christodoulou or Robert Peal. I viewed educational theorists as people with too much time on their hands who wanted to make my life more complicated and difficult. I initially saw the little pile of recommended books in the corner of the staff room as another demand on my time when I had little enough to spare as it was.

I’m sure there are many teachers out there who feel as I did just a few short months ago. But one of the most inspiring things about what I call the new traditionalism is that there are so many front line teachers getting involved. Whether or not you write a blog or tweet vociferously, you too can help to lift the burden of bad ideas, by challenging them in your classroom practices, and in personal discussions with colleagues. It is this sort of person to person dissemination which often makes the biggest difference. It took a real live human being whom I knew personally to introduce me to the world of Christodoulou, Peal, Hirsch and Willingham. There must be many more teachers out there who would never read a blog, but might well listen to a personal recommendation.

Go forth and do battle with bad ideas!

The Dangers for Education of Inadequate Philosophy

The mind is much more than grey matter.

The mind is much more than grey matter.

I’m not trained in philosophy, any more than Tom Bennett could claim to be a professional social scientist. But just as Bennett gets involved in social science, so I find I must get involved in philosophy, because prevalent theories are having a disastrous impact on the world of education. Influenced by these theories, there are many nowadays who think that materialism can be justified by statements such as ‘Evidence suggests that ‘conscience’ and ‘consciousness’ and other mental processes are products of human brain activity’.

But this sort of statement doesn’t explain what something is, only how it is manifested in the material realm. It mistakes symptoms for the cause. Understanding is always about finding the cause. What causes the brain activity? A human person with freedom and a conscience.

Consider a criminal case. The judge pronounces that the crime was the result of brain activity which led to muscular activity which thrust the knife into the victim. But what caused this activity? A person. And what is a person? Someone with a conscience. Dogs aren’t put on trial.

Perhaps we should stop holding human beings responsible for their actions? After all, what they did is only the result of ‘brain activity’. And how can any value judgement be made about that? How can someone be tried for a set of neural events?

Indeed, we have reached the stage where many do not hold others responsible for their actions, at least in theory. Their materialistic determinism leads them to ‘explain’ actions in psychological or social or (insert favourite flavour of determinism) terms. But this doesn’t explain anything, because it leaves out the person. It removes humanity because it removes conscience and freedom. All humanity is excused because humanity, it turns out, does not exist.

Such people are likely to drop their deterministic theories rather quickly, however, if a crime is committed against them. Then they suddenly start believing in the existence of responsible human beings. They also rather like responsibility when it comes to accepting praise for their achievements. If they win the Nobel prize, will they reject it, and point out that their work was only the result of psychological and social determinants?

Unfortunately, whatever the inadequacies of deterministic theories, they have had a wide impact on education, crippling teachers’ ability to do their job. Teachers must believe in human freedom, conscience and responsibility if they are to maintain good order and demand hard work from their pupils. Determinism only leads to a culture of excuses. ‘We can never cease to be ourselves’, wrote Joseph Conrad is his brilliant but utterly depressing The Secret Agent. If that’s true, we might as well give up our efforts to inculcate good habits in our pupils.

Education and law must work on the basis that there is such a thing as a human person with responsibility and freedom. Even the most materialist of scientists cannot live according to his theory, because he would have to give up the protection of law and even the intellectual copyright on his research. Materialistic determinism is worse than useless as a theory for understanding humanity. To those who would like to convert the world to this way of thinking, may I remind them of the famous comment made by an American officer during the Vietnam War: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

(Image from Wikimedia).

To Educate Human Beings, You Must Believe in Their Existence

Votes for rats!

Votes for rats!

Rediscovering Humanity

In his book on educational research, Teacher Proof, Tom Bennett encourages teachers to use their experience first and foremost, and always resist trendy theories when they contradict that experience. But what is this experience? It is what we have learned about human nature, both by reading the works of those who have traditional wisdom (which excludes many modern authors as they tend not to believe in humanity – see below), and by our own observations of human behaviour.

What do we know about human behaviour from traditional wisdom? Firstly, we know that human beings have free will. Free will undermines every theoretical calculation. It upsets managers, bureaucrats, statisticians, but most of all, proponents of the social ‘sciences’ who claim to be able to measure and predict humanity as though people were so many ounces of a chemical in a laboratory test tube.

In Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, his narrator rails against the socialists who claim that human society can be ordered according to their utilitarian theories. He contends that freedom will have its revenge, whatever system is imposed:

I, for instance, would not be in the least surprised if all of a sudden, a propos of nothing, in the midst of general prosperity, a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a reactionary and ironical, countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: “I say, gentleman, hadn’t we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!”

Moreover, this freedom cannot be destroyed, and its stubborn survival spells the doom of any theoretical system imposed upon human society, however well intentioned and apparently beneficial:

One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy — is that very “most advantageous advantage” which we have overlooked, which comes under no classification and against which all systems and theories are continually being shattered to atoms.

The failure to acknowledge free will is perhaps the greatest among many examples of hubris in educational research. Free will is one of the key reasons why it is simply impossible for any sample of humanity to be replicated in a control. Every single one of the human beings in the control sample is a different individual from every single one of the human beings in the sample being investigated. And every single one of those human beings has their own free will. Tom Bennett makes similar points powerfully in Teacher Proof, as he argues against the aura of scientific certainty with which educational researchers have cloaked themselves, without any valid justification.

Appeal to Reason First, and Research Last

Given the doubtful nature of research data, is it impossible to know anything about the effect of different teaching methods? Of course not, but our first appeal should not be to dubious ‘scientific’ analyses, but to reason, and to what is traditionally known about human nature. For example, every moral tradition has known for countless centuries that human beings are inclined to be lazy and take the line of least resistance. They need to be trained in diligence and dutiful behaviour. Letting them ‘discover themselves’ in the classroom is therefore a recipe for disaster. Permissive discipline leads to chaotic classrooms. No sane and reasonable teacher needs an educational researcher to tell them that.

We only need to appeal to reason to justify strict discipline.

Likewise, it is a reasonable proposition that a teacher knows more about a subject than their pupils do. Therefore, wasting large amounts of class time while pupils ‘share their ideas’ is going to leave them relatively ignorant, compared to spending that time explaining subject knowledge and demonstrating subject skills, and insisting that they master the material that has been explained or demonstrated. Skills are mastered through repeated practice to achieve automaticity; knowledge is mastered through the hard work of memorisation.

We only need to appeal to reason to justify direct instruction.

Traditional methods can be justified without research. It is those who attack traditional methods who need to justify their irrational claims by appealing to supposedly ‘scientific’ data.

Educational research often tells teachers things which contradict reason and human nature, in which case it should be rejected, or it tells them things they already knew by using their reason and observing human nature. An example of the latter case would be the research of cognitive scientists into the importance of knowledge for understanding. Did we really need a cognitive scientist to tell us that you can’t understand an historical or literary text properly without a lot of background knowledge? I would suggest that every reasonable teacher of history knew that long before it was ‘proven’ in laboratory experiments.

The Anti-Humanities Departments

When academics see human beings as clumps of cells determined by social, psychological, political, economic (and on and on and on . . .) factors, then they can believe in their ‘findings’ which supposedly explain and predict human behaviour using their pet determinant. And when politicians and bureaucrats see human beings in this way, they are easy prey for the academics touting whatever theory they invented yesterday.

As part of my degree in English literature, I had to take a course in my first year which explained how the latest theories showed that there was no such thing as humanity. My fellow English graduates will probably remember Cultural Materialism, which explicitly denies the existence of any universal human nature, claiming that human behaviour is culturally determined. University humanities departments are no longer aptly named, as their main theoretical underpinning consists in the annihilation of humanity, traditionally understood. The rot has since spread into the A-level English curriculum, with box-ticking exercises designed to chip away at pupils’ belief in the existence of humanity and literature through small but potentially lethal doses of academic theory.

Graduates from anti-humanities departments have been easy prey for the theorists who have catechised them in vulgarised Romanticism during their PGCE. The Nazis may have been defeated, but their idea that human beings are no more than ‘blood and dirt’ is alive and well, and very fashionable indeed. Until we confront that idea, we will continue to be vulnerable to whatever form of determinism the trendy social scientists decide to foist upon us next, and the crazy educational theories that go along with it.

The existence of human freedom, reason and conscience cannot be proven in the way that scientific hypotheses can, because human freedom, reason and conscience are not material objects subject to laboratory experimentation. To disbelieve in their existence for that reason is to disbelieve in the existence of humanity.

If we continue to treat human beings as purely material, we will never restore wise and effective practices to education.

We must regain our human dignity before we can regain our educational sanity.