Does Personal Experience Count?

When a Twitter storm brews, exchanges can get very heated, and I have noticed a frequently recurring phenomenon that troubles me: one participant in the debate accuses another of not having the experience to qualify them to comment.

Such an accusation must be based on relativism, either implicit or explicit. If there is such a thing as truth and reality, then it doesn’t matter which person speaks that truth or perceives that reality. If, on the other hand, there is no truth, only personal opinion, then we have no grounds on which to hold a public debate. We must all retreat into our private worlds where we know ‘what works for me’.

Everyone is qualified to comment, if their comments are based on reason and reality. If they are illogical or there is no proof for them, they should be refuted on that basis. But an argument can never be refuted simply on the grounds that the one who proposes it lacks the requisite experience.

If we take the position that personal experience is decisive, rather than logic or evidence, no one who is not a politician themselves could criticise a government’s policy. We end up with every profession insisting that they are a kind of Gnostic religion, in which only the initiates may be permitted to intervene. This is a dangerous situation, likely to lead to arrogance and complacency.

Another, even more pernicious tendency, is the appeal to personal feelings. It can feel uncomfortable when someone offers an argument that conflicts with ours. But in order to have a rational debate, we must put our feelings to one side. Heightened emotion, like drunkenness, reduces our capacity to reason. We must make every effort not to succumb to it. This is really a prerequisite for being able to discuss anything reasonably.

The appeal to personal offense is one of the top methods for stifling rational debate in our politically correct culture. It is never a valid argument to say to our interlocutor: ‘You’ve offended me’. Instead, we must overcome our emotions and consider whether their points have any merit, regardless of how they make us feel. When I read Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths, it made me very uncomfortable to be told that reading was not a natural activity that could just be picked up. But I had to admit she was right.

Let’s consider something very offensive for a moment: paedophilia. I apologise for the extreme example, but there are so few things that are still universally condemned as evil nowadays, that my options are limited. The only person who has personal experience of being a paedophile is a paedophile. Does that mean he is the only person who can make a rational comment about it? Or does his emotional attachment to his particular ‘lifestyle’ render him particularly ill-qualified to comment? And would we worry about offending him by pointing out that his actions were wrong?

Here is a rare case in which almost everyone still admits that there is an objective truth, that truth being that paedophilia is wrong. As soon as we admit this, it is obvious that personal experience and personal feelings are irrelevant. What matters is the truth.

When Will Educational Segregation End?

Grammar schools and private schools thrive on the poor quality of general secondary provision. Michael Fordham pointed out in a recent post that they are offering things that many parents want, and which they do not believe they will find in their local comprehensive: high standards of behaviour and high academic expectations, combined with  traditional school structures (prefects, prize giving, and so on).

Non-selective secondary schools could also offer these things, and an increasing number of them are aiming to do so. But until it becomes the norm, there will still be a high demand for grammar schools, and, particularly where there are no grammars, a healthy market for private education.

It was refreshing that Fordham was looking at things from the parents’ point of view, instead of remaining in the arena of ideological generalizations about social mobility. Parents are right to seek schools with high expectations for their children. I commend the efforts and sacrifices of those who go to great lengths to place their children in an ordered environment where they will be able to focus on studying. Who would not want such a thing for their child?

Whilst I believe that selection at eleven should be abolished, I don’t think this should be done until non-selective schools have proven that they can provide the kind of education that so many caring parents naturally want for their child.

A factor which Fordham did not mention, and which severely hampers any move towards abolishing selection, is staffing. Ever since comprehensive education was hijacked by progressive ideology in the seventies, most non-selective secondary schools have been pretty unpleasant places to work. Teachers who just want to teach have often left them to work in selective or private schools, or never gone near them after the horrifying experience of their PGCE placement. A colleague of mine in an independent school once described his decision to avoid working in state education. It was during one of his PGCE placements. A group of boys had kicked a ball out of the playground in his direction, and he passed it back to them. In response, one of the boys shouted ‘F*** off, you c***’ He concluded that this was not the place for him.

All over the London transport network there are notices about how seriously they take abuse of their staff. But how seriously do schools take such abuse? When schools fail to maintain even the most basic standards of human decency, should we be surprised that they struggle to recruit and retain good teachers? And I’m not talking about tough inner city schools here. The levels of rudeness and abuse I experienced as an NQT were shocking, and that was in a wealthy suburban area in the home counties.

If we want to see an end to educational segregation, non-selective state schools must establish an ordered, civilised environment in which everyone is expected to study serious academic material. Until that happens, all of the talk of equal opportunities is just so much hot air.

Encouraging Normal People to Love Literature

We have recently been encouraged as fathers, not for the first time, to be ‘seen reading’ in a family context. I am sure I am not the only father who has at times felt a twinge of guilt that they are not sitting around reading novels in front of their children. I’m rather busy during the day, with five young children. The older children have plenty to do as well, helping around the house, and I often have to tell them to put down their book, because there’s work to be done.

I very rarely read in front of my children, but I regularly read to them. I have continued to do this as they have got older. My eldest is now ten, and each evening I read The Lord of the Rings to the three oldest of my five children. They could all read the book themselves, and indeed they struggle to resist the temptation to do so. If any one of them lets slip a piece of knowledge that could only have come from reading ahead, he or she is roundly condemned by the others for spoiling the shared experience of discovering the book together. (At this point I should confess to never having read it myself before now – so I’m sharing the experience too).

Family reading is a natural and enjoyable activity which was common before the advent of television. It was not confined to small children. Why should they have all the fun? Dickens’ Household Words was squarely aimed at the families who would read out loud each episode of his novels, savouring the plot as it was gradually unveiled, much in the way that a family might watch Coronation Street together (although with multiplying channels and electronic devices in family homes, even that shared experience is less and less common nowadays).

Reading silently is a very solitary activity. It has its pleasures and it has its purpose, but is perfectly understandable that there are many who do not wish to remain solitary for long periods of time: boys and girls, children and adults, may wish to be sociable more often than they are alone. If literature is presented primarily as being solitary and silent, why are we surprised that many say ‘No thanks, I’d rather watch a film or play a video game with my mates’?

Literature was rarely consumed in silent solitude until the advent of the novel, which, combined with industrialisation and mass literacy, turned it into a commodity for mass production and individual consumption. Before that innovation, literature consisted of poetry and drama, both intended for public performance and communal enjoyment.

I used to wonder why it was that although I have always enjoyed poetry, and I even wrote a PhD on it, I have very rarely spent much time reading it when I was not preparing an essay on it or teaching it. Now I have found the answer. Poetry is not intended for silent, solitary consumption. It is intended for memorisation and recitation. At last, I have found the key to enjoying poetry. It is almost as odd to sit and read poetry silently as it would be to sit and read a Mozart score rather than listening to a performance or humming a tune from your favourite concerto. Reading a musical score is the sort of rarefied activity that a few initiates might enjoy, but one would never expect it to become a popular pastime.

Every truly human activity is a communal, shared activity at root, whether it is politics, religion or art. When these activities become privatised, they lose their vital energy, and cease to appeal to the majority of people. We should not, therefore, be surprised at how few people read serious literature.

Along with the family home, school is an ideal place in which to rediscover the original purpose of literature. In a school, poetry can be shared through a communal effort at memorisation and recitation. Novels can be shared by reading passages out loud in a dramatic and vivid style. Literature can be released from its silent, rather gloomy modern prison and can once more become public property, in a form which appeals to people just because they’re human, not because they’re scholars who enjoy spending many hours at a stretch in silent solitude poring over the written word, or bored consumers with so much time to kill that they can afford to spend half of their day in a private fantasy world.

Classroom Research Is Junk Data

Most of the educational research that has ever been done has been conducted in real live situations: in other words, in schools and classrooms, involving real teachers and pupils. Sounds like a good idea, right? Because we need to see how ideas play out in the wild, yes?

No. Classrooms are a hopelessly ineffective place in which to conduct educational research. It is impossible to fulfil any of the conditions needed to establish scientific results with any useful degree of reliability.

It is impossible to establish a proper control, because the control will have to be an entirely different class with a different teacher. In other words, they will be so different that a comparison will not be valid. It is impossible to isolate any effect of the method being used from the general effect of receiving greater attention that always comes with participation in a trial. It is impossible to account for the effect of the teachers who have volunteered to take part in the trial, and are therefore by definition enthusiastic about its potential.

Classrooms are busy places full of distractions, and the teachers and the pupils experience all kinds of motivations and pressures that can never be accounted for in the supposed results of any trial. The slippery nature of the classroom environment, combined with the fact that, as David Didau has pointed out, you can’t observe learning anyway, only current performance, make classroom trials next to useless.

Trying to come to general conclusions about education from classroom trials is like trying to come to general conclusions about jurisprudence from observing the prison population.

This applies in spades to John Hattie’s conglomeration of such trials. It doesn’t matter how much data you crunch: if it’s all junk, then it’s a case of rubbish in, rubbish out, as the software engineers say.

It’s not as if we cannot discover anything about how learning happens. As a matter of fact, great progress has been made in the last century in understanding how we learn and how we forget. But these discoveries have not been made in classrooms. They have been made in carefully controlled experiments run by cognitive psychologists. We can also discover much about human learning through the use of reason, and reading philosophy, which aims to explain the human condition in general terms.

Of course, if you don’t believe in the existence of humanity, then you’ll struggle to learn much from either cognitive science or philosophy, because you have concluded that there is, in fact, nothing to learn. In which case, go ahead and perform any experiments you want on your tender charges. Who cares? They’re just a bunch of rats in the laboratory maze.

But for those of us who believe that the human race exists, and that reason and truth exist, it’s time we drew a sharp distinction between classroom practice, which practitioners endeavour to perfect in their specific circumstances, and general statements about how learning happens. We can learn from science (or, as it used to be known, natural philosophy), properly conducted, and we can learn from philosophy, properly understood.

What we learn from these sources is not likely to surprise us, unless we have been thoroughly indoctrinated in trendy pseudoscience that has supposedly been ‘proven’ in classroom trials.

UPDATE: Based on some very thoughtful and detailed comments from readers (including a series of tweets from @cbokhove), I have rethought the central argument of this post. I’ll leave it as it stands, along with the comments, as a record of a stimulating discussion (this is the power of social media!). But severe scepticism, rather than outright dismissal, should really be our attitude towards classroom based research (or, for that matter, any education research). Also, it should go without saying that the burden of proof rests with the person who proposes any kind of mandatory and/or time-consuming intervention based on the supposed evidence.

Whole Word Reading Is Aping Experts

One of the arguments in favour of whole word reading instruction is that it is something which children will do whether you like it or not. But this is precisely why it should not be the focus of early years instruction. With novices, schools must focus on teaching what does not happen naturally, not distort their methods of instruction into a poor imitation of natural processes that would take place without expensive professional intervention.

Nobody can deny that over time, we come to recognise how words look, as whole words. Once we are fluent readers, this is what we’re doing almost all the time, unless we come across a word we have never read before. Then we have to use our knowledge of phonics to spell it out. But by definition, we are not fluent readers if we are having to decode each individual word laboriously.

The point of using systematic phonics is surely that it is the most efficient way of building the skill of decoding, so that children can begin to read as quickly as possible, read lots, and then naturally progress on to reading by word recognition, which is the end goal, but cannot be the starting point. Using whole word recognition as a method to teach reading to novices is starting at the end instead of starting at the beginning.

This seems to be the confusion in so many areas of teaching. We think that by making children pretend to be experts, they will actually think like experts.

  1. An expert reader recognises whole words.
  2. A novice needs to decode them.
  3. Systematic phonics is the method for decoding them.

This is one of Daniel Willingham’s central points: cognition is different for a novice, and we do novices no favours by having them ape expertise when they do not yet have the knowledge required to think genuinely like an expert.

Put children through a decent systematic phonics programme, then give them books to read, and they’ll soon be recognising words. We found this with our third child (having seen the older two muddle through unsatisfactory programmes): we used Engelmann’s Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.

A Fundamentalist Education

All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore I share my humanity and mortality with Socrates

All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore I share my humanity and mortality with Socrates

The principles of a liberal education are actually rather simple. Pupils will encounter the greatest minds of the past, and from this encounter they will gain the insights to seek after truth and goodness for themselves. Liberal education equips pupils to ask the most fundamental questions: ‘What is man?’, ‘What is the good life?’, ‘What is the good society?’

The principles are indeed simple, but in practice it is very difficult to offer or to a receive a liberal education in twenty-first century Britain. Why is that?

Firstly, we are cut off from the past by a mistaken idea of relevance. Teachers are reluctant to foist ancient material on pupils, thinking that they will reject it as unconnected to their lives. But this lack of connection is only at the most superficial level. Relevance properly understood transcends the immediate concerns of the present. The greatest thinkers are always relevant, because they address the most important human questions, the questions which are of deep relevance to every human being: questions about significance and purpose in the face of mortality, for example. Last time I read the newspaper, death had not yet been abolished, and we are still just as mortal as Socrates.

The second key barrier to a liberal education is relativism. If there is no truth about the human condition, then we cannot expect to benefit at the deepest level from reading serious books, so why put forth the effort?

E D Hirsch is right to point out that exposure to a generous sample of great writers is vital to build cultural literacy, and allow our pupils to gain admission to the civilised conversation of our society. He is right that the ability to read effectively depends upon a good store of core knowledge built up through familiarity with the great legends and myths which have shaped Western society. His arguments are compelling from the point of view of social justice, as they must be accepted if we are to offer equal chances to those from homes that lack cultural capital.

E D Hirsch is right, but his arguments will not be enough to revive liberal education. The principles of core knowledge are attractive partly because they neatly sidestep the philosophical questions. They put to one side the question of whether we will find truth in the great writers of the past, and offer a pragmatic reason for studying them regardless.

The philosophical neutrality of Hirsch’s arguments are both their strength and their weakness. It is certainly eminently sensible and rational to propose the study of core knowledge in order to improve cultural literacy and open up the life prospects for poorer pupils, but is it really exciting, in the way that the discovery of truth is exciting? True liberal education appeals to the eager desire for truth that is in every child. It is the eros of the mind, yearning for consummation. There is all the difference in the world between proposing to study something because it is useful, and proposing to study something because it is true.

The search for truth is what makes us take books seriously. Every time we open one, we might discover something that will change our life. Mere entertainment or practical utility are pale shadows in comparison to the thrill of discovering the truth, and the liberation it brings.

But in the current philosophical climate, a fundamentalist Christian’s education is more liberal than the pupil in the most effective of core knowledge schools. Our modern intellectuals sneer at Bible thumping Baptists, but in fact, the Bible believer has learned the principle that old books should be taken seriously, something that has long been forgotten in university humanities departments. A fundamentalist Christian grows up being exposed to a tradition of serious writing from the past, and reads that serious writing in order to discover truth and apply it to his life. Can our schools offer anything comparable in seriousness and depth? No: they are incapable of doing so, unless they reexamine their philosophical basis.

Why Teachers Won’t Listen to Cognitive Science

Here's a picture of the brain, to prove I'm right.

Here’s a picture of the brain, to prove I’m right.

There was a time when everyone in education knew that if you wanted to master a subject, you needed to work hard, practice frequently and memorise large amounts of information. No one has ever forgotten these basic points in practical areas, because to do so would clearly lead to disaster. I’ll never forget how hard my first year flatmates at university had to work. They were studying engineering, and it was like a job! They had to learn loads of stuff, while I loafed about with hardly anything to do on my English degree.

It used to be obvious that if you wanted to master literature or history then similar levels of sustained effort would be required. Then the progressivists came along and ticked off those nasty schoolmasters for filling the children’s heads with facts, and sternly insisting that they learn them thoroughly. The law of effort had been repealed, and we were now going to unleash our natural potential by, to use Walt Whitman’s words, loafing, and inviting our souls at ease.

This revolution was the equivalent of engineers announcing that they had repealed the law of gravity. Now their bridges would not have to follow the tedious rules slavishly obeyed by their forefathers. The results were also comparable and predictable: widespread collapse of the fancy structures erected by those who had defied the laws of nature.

The cognitive scientists who have reminded the world of education of what everyone used to know anyway — that memorisation is necessary, that learning takes effort and repeated practice — are like a physicist coming to spoil the fun of the revolutionary engineers. The physicist would humbly point out to them that the law of gravity cannot be repealed, and that their bridges are likely to collapse if they fail to observe it.

Kind of obvious, you might think. So why won’t educators listen to the cognitive scientists? Why are we not seeing a large scale revival of hard work and subject knowledge mastery through repeated practice?

The barriers are philosophical, and moral. In order to justify his desire to live exactly as he pleases, modern man has concluded that human nature is exempt from any objective law whatsoever. While he fawns upon the scientists who unlock the secrets of external nature (because they make his life so much more comfortable and convenient) he creates a strict barrier around his own nature, and forbids entrance to anyone who would presume to use the methods of reason and logic to arrive at certain conclusions. Philosophy traditionally understood — the search for what is good, true and beautiful — has been abandoned, or marginalised to the point of irrelevance. Modern man’s freedom must be unconstrained, so he must remain in blissful ignorance. He therefore plugs his ears while his impossible constructions, his castles in the air, collapse around him.

Reality bites back, but so many of us have departed so far from it, taking the drugs offered by the Romantics, that we are unlikely to notice its revenge. As far as human affairs are concerned, we simply don’t believe in the existence of objective reality. The scientists can make discoveries until kingdom come, because we know better. Human nature must be a blank canvas on which we can paint whatever we choose. If it turned out not to be, how could we continue doing whatever we liked and refusing to accept that there will be consequences?

The Matrix is a great metaphor for our times. And we need to take a large blue pill before we are going to be able to profit from the discoveries of cognitive science.