Bad ideas can do a lot more damage when they are not explicitly stated. When you are told that ‘nobody believes that’ what is often meant is ‘nobody says that’. But they are not saying it because it has become so deeply absorbed that it does not need to be said.
When Daisy Christodoulou first published Seven Myths About Education in 2013, her critics claimed that nobody actually believed that ‘facts prevent understanding’, but, as E D Hirsch points out in his introduction to the 2014 edition, while they may not put it so ‘bluntly’, the deeply held beliefs of many in the educational establishment do in practice lead to a minimisation of factual content in the classroom, as can be clearly seen from the official sources Christodoulou quotes: Ofsted and the National Curriculum.
One deeply held belief which is so strong that people rarely feel the need to articulate it, let alone justify it, is that children ‘shouldn’t be told what to think’. The assumption here is that freedom depends upon a radical absence of direction. The free person must choose their own path, and any statement of fact destroys freedom by narrowing down possibilities, perhaps even narrowing them down to just one. But if I know the best path to reach a certain destination, do I destroy someone’s freedom by explaining it to them, and perhaps even leading them down it?
Because this assumption is buried beneath such apparently reasonable statements as ‘children need to think for themselves’, and covered by the appealing notion of freedom, people rarely think through the logical consequences of considering freedom and ignorance to be inherently connected.
Because of course, they would not put it in that way. “I don’t mean people need to be ignorant!” they would exclaim. “That’s a straw man!” But in practice, refusing to use direct instruction, refusing to define content coherently (something which the new National Curriculum is still far from doing in a sufficiently concrete and specific way) does in fact lead to ignorance, because children will not discover the best that has been thought and said without a coherent, adult directed programme to transfer that knowledge to them. They will not find the paths we want them to find. They are more likely to find themselves in a pathless wilderness.
But even as direct instruction and factual knowledge are emphasised more strongly by the powers that be, there are so many ways in which their plans can be frustrated by teachers who are still haunted by bad ideas. A good example would be a knowledge organiser left blank for the pupils to fill in, “because I only want to guide them – they need to find things out for themselves”.
Next time a lost tourist asks for help, try this method. Give them an underground map with all the station names removed. If they look at you in bewilderment, point out to them that you want them to really know the underground system, so they need to fill in the blanks themselves. And you’re not going to give them any directions, because you don’t want to tell them what to think!
We need to attack bad ideas at the very root, at the philosophical level. Without a fundamental shift in the beliefs of teachers and parents, no government programme will be effective in shifting teaching practices. The authors who do this root and branch analysis are an essential starting point: Daisy Christodoulou, Robert Peal, and, preeminently, E D Hirsch, who wrote twenty years ago that the progressive dogmas of formalism and naturalism must be ‘challenged frontally and forcefully’ by ‘an informed public’, otherwise they will continue to have a ‘lethal’ impact on education (The Schools We Need p222).