How Much More Evidence Do You Need?

Flag of France.svgUntil the last few decades, France had one of the most equitable education systems in the world. It also had one of the most coherent. It was world-famous for its determination to give the same education to all citizens, following the same curriculum in every school across the land. But from the sixties onwards, progressive ideas became more influential in the teacher training colleges. Although the curriculum remained the same at first, the methods used began to lead to greater gaps in achievement between different social classes. A more constructivist approach, with an emphasis on discovery learning and a move away from explicit instruction, meant that increasingly, those with the least cultural capital were not receiving the teacher input which would enable them to make good progress.

Ironically, the results of this first move towards progressive ideas was one of the pieces of evidence used by proponents of the 1989 loi Jospin, which abolished national curricular coherence and mandated constructivism in primary schools across France. All primary schools were ordered to adopt child-centred methods, and to create their own local curriculum, adapted to the needs of their pupils. Those arguing for this revolution pointed to the increasing gaps in achievement that had appeared in previous decades, and claimed that these were the result of an ‘elitist’ curriculum that did not appeal to the interests of poorer and immigrant pupils.

Another irony of the campaign for compulsory constructivism was that one of its leading proponents, Pierre Bourdieu, himself came from a humble background, but because of the high quality state education that was available to all when he grew up in the fifties, had succeeded in becoming a leading academic. Now he was campaigning to sweep away the very system which had permitted him to rise. He was pulling up the ladder which he had climbed.

Those who have studied the damage wrought by progressive ideology in the USA and Britain will not be surprised at what followed this particular French revolution. All pupil groups saw a decline in academic achievement, but the decline was steepest for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The middles classes were protected from the disaster to some extent, because of the cultural capital they acquire outside school.

The French school crisis is particularly instructive for us, because it was an unintended natural experiment on a huge scale. Curriculum and pedagogy were radically altered, but other factors remained the same. French primary schools continued to be well funded. The academic standards remained high for the recruitment of French primary teachers. And yet we see this disastrous decline in achievement and equity. French officials measured this across the school population, so we know it was the norm, not an isolated case.

The centrally directed French school system provides a clarity which we can never hope to find when we look at the history of schools in Britain or the USA, where there are so many additional variables which could confound our assessment of the evidence. We have here a clear, explicit programme to enforce progressive ideas in primary schools across the nation, and a clear measurement of the disastrous results.

What need is there for more evidence? No artificially constructed trial could hope to match the French national experiment, which has been conducted on the whole school population for more than a quarter of a century. The results are in, and they are conclusive: explicit, teacher-led instruction and curricular coherence mean excellence and equity, while child-centred methods and personalised curricula lead to decline and inequity.

Ignore it if you want, but the evidence is there for all to see.

For more detail on this, read Chapter Seven of E D Hirsch’s latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, ‘The Educational Fall of France’.

For an insider’s view of the French school crisis, read this blog post.

And thank you to Françoise Appy for translating this post into French.


Don’t Be Yourself


Achilles sacrificing to Zeus, from the Ambrosian Iliad

‘Just be yourself’. We’ve all been advised in this way, when we’re feeling nervous about something, or facing a new challenge. It’s worse than useless, as a piece of moral advice. It’s as futile as the teacher who tells her pupils to ‘use your own knowledge’. The teacher’s role is to impart knowledge that pupils did not previously have. It is also to instil self-discipline so that her pupils will not be stuck in the circular trap of ‘being themselves’.

The conceited, pompous Polonius offers this advice to his son Laertes as he returns to university: ‘To thine own self be true’. Having promoted such licence, he sends spies to check up on his son’s behaviour. That’s our situation. Fatally weakened by the widespread idea that freedom means following the whim of the moment, we are at once licensed to do whatever we please, and placed under close surveillance by the government, which has to deal with citizens who cannot be trusted to act responsibly.

Telling people that freedom means following the whim of the moment betrays a deep pessimism about the human race, a pessimism perhaps expressed most eloquently by Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent, where every character follows their predestined path in the urban hive: ‘We can never cease to be ourselves’. Somehow, the Romantic proclamation of individual freedom had turned, a century later, into the modernist proclamation of social, psychological or evolutionary determinism. We had become gods, only to be relegated soon afterwards to rats in a laboratory maze.

The descent from the divine to the animal was inevitable, because the Romantics had rejected the traditional understanding of human nature, which is at war with itself. ‘I have quelled my passion, as I must’, says Achilles to his mother Thetis, reflecting on the way he had allowed himself to be enslaved by his anger following his quarrel with Agamemnon. Achilles had not been master of himself. He had not fought against the selfish inclination to sulk petulantly, and his friend Patroclus had died as a consequence. Because he had not done his duty and fought with his comrades, but had become the slave of his emotions, he had become a ‘useless burden to the earth’.

The traditional understanding is far more optimistic, because of its faith in human freedom, based on the possibility of self-mastery. Our pupils are rational, and capable of mastering their emotions. They can be trained in doing so, under the caring authority of teachers who do not want them to become the slaves of their whims. Then, when it comes to challenges such as job interviews, they won’t be doomed to ‘be themselves’. They will be able to do battle with laziness and get up early, then do battle with anxiety and remain calm, presenting themselves in a confident, professional manner, and thereby proving to prospective employers that they are masters of themselves, and ready to take on responsibility.

We Teach Too Many Lessons

Image result for confusionIf you want to get really good at something, you need to practise it repeatedly. This is commonly accepted in sports and drama, but often ignored in the academic curriculum, where ideas about creativity and independence are wrongly interpreted to mean that drill and practice will somehow hold back the intellectual development of pupils.

Drill and practice are absolutely essential for fluency, however, and this applies to teachers as well as pupils. Fluency of teaching cannot be achieved without repetition, any more than pupils can achieve fluency in any academic subject without repetition. But how often do teachers get to repeat lessons? Often, teachers will only deliver a lesson once a year, and it is one among hundreds. By the time they come round to teaching it again, too much time has lapsed for them to remember and apply the lessons learned and fine tune the delivery. And there is no hope of automaticity with such infrequent repetition.

This infrequency of repetition results from the typical arrangement of a British secondary teacher’s timetable, where they teach their subject across multiple year groups. It is not uncommon for a secondary English teacher to be teaching as many as seven year groups. They could easily have between twenty-five and thirty different lessons per week, making hundreds of different lessons per term. With the best will in the world, there is no way that they can become fluent in the delivery of any of those lessons.

We have to recognise our own limitations as teachers, and apply the lessons of cognitive science to ourselves as much as to our pupils. Teaching lessons is a demanding and complex process, and the majority of it needs to be automatic for sufficient attention to remain for thinking about the really interesting element: the subject knowledge. If there is going to be any hope of real mastery on the part of the teacher, there needs to be a limit on the number of different lessons they have to teach each year. I would suggest that no secondary teacher should teach more than three year groups. Two year groups would be even better.

Teaching fewer year groups would also have the benefit of allowing teachers to deepen their subject knowledge and become really expert in the part of the curriculum entrusted to them. Of course they should know about the rest of the curriculum to some extent, but deep expertise cannot be achieved in everything. Teachers would be able, in these circumstances, to think of themselves more in the way university academics do, as real experts in a particular aspect of their subject.

Schools are more free to innovate than ever before. It would be wonderful to see more brave leaders considering this question of mastery and fluency in their teaching staff, as well as in their pupils, and placing limits on the number of year groups each teacher has to deal with.

The Curse of Common Sense


How many uses can you think of?

As argument rages between progressives and traditionalists, there have been widespread calls for better research into the question of whether young children should have the opportunity to experiment with sharp knives. Amazingly, no large scale, government funded research has been conducted into this vital question.

The progressive camp insists that the time has come to reject the prejudices of the past, and allow children to discover for themselves the properties of knives, as well as other kitchen implements such as food blenders and kettles. They are disgusted with the narrow minded assertions of the traditionalist camp that it is just common sense to provide the young and inexperienced with carefully controlled instruction under adult authority before allowing them to use such implements independently.

One educational expert commented, “These people claim, without the slightest bit of research evidence, that knives should not be made available to young children to experiment with. They have the temerity to appeal to common sense! They need to stop restricting children’s activities unless they can provide conclusive evidence that it is necessary to do so.”

It seems that the practice of placing sharp knives within the reach of young children is growing in popularity, following the runaway success of a YouTube video created by Sir Chris Bobbins, in which he points out that the adult world has been tyrannically restricting the creativity of the young. He gives convincing evidence of this, by showing that a three year old can think of thousands of uses for a sharp knife, whereas a thirty year old can barely manage half a dozen. Clearly the abundant imagination of children needs to be allowed to flower more fully. As another progressive thinker has memorably said, the ‘greatest resource we have in our kitchens is the children’s imagination’.

Despite such convincing arguments and the lack of any conclusive research evidence for restricting the availability of sharp knives, there remain a significant minority of naysayers who insist that it has been the practice of the human race throughout history to train the young under adult supervision. They even consider adult authority to be paramount in the kitchen, thus preventing our young people from developing into independent minded citizens who can question the powerful.

These people really need to understand that appealing to the past in such an unthinking way will never convince the modern, forward-thinking person of the twenty-first century. The burden of proof should surely rest upon those who would stifle the creativity of the young, not upon those who are determined to liberate it.

[Image from Wikimedia]

Is Poor Behaviour Widespread?

Hoop jumpingFollowing my post yesterday about troublemakers in education, and how important they are, I debated with two people on Twitter who objected to the claim that there is a widespread behaviour problem in England’s schools. They objected on the grounds that I could not provide them with convincing evidence that this problem exists. They were particularly unimpressed with any evidence based on the experiences of classroom teachers. You may not be surprised to learn that neither of these individuals are classroom teachers themselves.

Consider the evidence from Ofsted. The overall picture appears positive: according to Ofsted, behaviour is good or outstanding in 92% of schools. But when we consider this evidence more closely, the picture is not so rosy.

Firstly, visitors to a school, especially when they are preannounced, will not see the reality. Pupils usually behave better for visitors, especially when they are important. However badly behaved they are, they usually have a certain loyalty to their school. I have seen this over and over again during my years as a teacher. Most pupils who would normally be disruptive and rude become polite when visitors from outside the school enter the classroom.

Secondly, there are all the tricks that schools play to avoid Ofsted’s seeing bad behaviour, such as sending home the worst pupils or organising special trips for them. By definition, of course, these tricks will not find their way into official evidence.

After considering these factors, it’s amazing that the figure for good or outstanding behaviour is not 100%. It’s amazing that there are 8% of schools where behaviour is so appalling that they couldn’t put on a good show for Ofsted.

And in any case, what about the 8%? Even if Ofsted’s overall assessment were accurate, that 8% amounts to tens of thousands of children. Are we satisfied with a system where so many must suffer disruption and fear every day of their school lives? Can we afford to be complacent? Would we be happy if 8% of hospitals failed to provide adequate care to children? These tens of thousands of youngsters are required by law to go every day to a place that is often unsafe and frightening.

Now let’s consider the evidence of the first hand witnesses: the classroom teachers. They see the reality of school life, day in, day out. They are not sheltered from it in the way that senior leaders, consultants and inspectors inevitably are. Because Ofsted will never get the real picture, because official research will never reveal it, it is classroom teachers who must tell us what is really going on in England’s classrooms.

So here’s my witness statement. None of the schools I have worked in previously have had good behaviour across the board. In all of them, there were classes where disruption was frequent. In all of them, there was a significant minority of pupils who were rude, disrespectful and uncooperative. In all of them, these pupils were usually allowed to remain in classes and damage the learning of others, unless they did something really outrageous. In all of them, there were many areas of the school that were not properly policed, and because the dangerous pupils were allowed to roam free and did not fear serious consequences, such places were not safe.

The other first hand witnesses are the pupils themselves, of course. My wife was talking to a friend recently, both of whose children have avoided going to the toilet at school because they are afraid of the people who hang around them. Neither of these children go to schools where Ofsted considers behaviour to be poor. But whatever Ofsted says, these are not civilised places.

Meanwhile, in the same city, while most children are finding ways of surviving varying degrees of disorder and danger, there are sixty applicants for every place in the schools of a multi-academy trust which, like Michaela, tackles behaviour through school wide discipline and thorough training to build a culture of kindness and respect. Sixty applicants to every place. There’s some evidence for you. Large numbers of parents are sick of the bog-standard, complacent norm, where disruption and disorder are common in the classroom, and danger lurks in the corners of playgrounds, avoided by teachers who know they will not be backed up by senior staff.

This is the most criminal thing of all. There are schools which demonstrate clearly that it doesn’t have to be like this. They show that it is possible for all schools, whatever their intake, to be ordered, civilised places. But for most parents and children in that city where my wife’s friend lives, they can only dream of a place in such a school. Meanwhile, the daily battle goes on.

We Need Troublemakers

stower_titanic_colourizedIt’s never been easy to point out the problems when you’re surrounded by those who want to believe that everything is fine. Pointing out that the number of lifeboats on the Titanic was inadequate would not have met with a positive response, no doubt. Anyone who did so would have been dismissed as a negative, divisive naysayer who refused to believe in the ship’s wonderful unsinkable qualities, and wanted to bring doom and gloom upon its triumphant maiden voyage.

But pointing out the lifeboat shortage could have saved many lives. It would be the duty of someone who was aware of this and its potential consequences to do so, regardless of how much derision and scorn was poured upon them.

The passengers on the Titanic were blissfully unaware of the poor provision of emergency equipment. Doubtless they enjoyed their voyage far more in this blissful ignorance, and the atmosphere would have been altered significantly if someone had marched into the first class lounge wearing a sandwich board proclaiming the danger that was at hand. Such a protester would have been swiftly removed and banned from entering the lounge again.

Imagine if Twitter had existed in the days of the Titanic. Some troublemaker among the general public might have got hold of the information about the lifeboats. They might have raised awareness of it and gained a large following. The company would have been very annoyed, no doubt, but it would probably have had to do something about it before setting off on the voyage. The false sense of calm would have been disrupted. The troublemaker would have made his point, and doubtless the passengers would have been grateful to this person when they realised he had saved their lives.

It’s uncomfortable for those who want to believe that everything is fine, but Twitter and blogging gives a voice to ordinary teachers. They can point out that there is something wrong with behaviour in many schools. They can point out the fundamental flaws in the progressive methods that have been promoted for decades by PGCE courses and mandated by management in many schools, such as the comprehensive which I attended, which proudly proclaims on its website:

Students are no longer passive receivers of chalk and talk from the front of the classroom. Visitors will find young people investigating, exploring, discussing, debating, recording, filming, planning, drafting and presenting. Teachers use the good behaviour at the school as a basis for challenging all students to learn for themselves and from each other.

When they raise concerns about the attacks on explicit instruction (‘chalk and talk’) or the determination to believe that there is nothing but ‘good behaviour’, teachers are labelled ‘divisive’, they are accused of seeking attention, of undermining morale. But it is the pupils who suffer most when we live in the fantasy land of middle class niceness, the first class lounge of ‘the kids are fine, and they can discover things for themselves’. They need the lifeboat of knowledge and discipline, or many will sink into the icy waters of ignorance and compulsive behaviour.

[Engraving by Willy Stöwer: Der Untergang der Titanic]