Not All Reading Is Equal

We often hear about how important it is for children to develop a love of reading. But like so many statements about education, a vital ingredient is missing from this apparently laudable aspiration. It is comparable to bland proclamations that children should learn to be creative. What is missing is specific content.

Creating what? Reading what?

There are many things which I would not want my pupils to read. Reading is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. And the end is knowledge.

There are many kinds of knowledge which reading can bring, which are difficult to access in other ways. Great literature brings knowledge about the fundamental questions of human existence. Historical writing, scientific writing, philosophical writing and even journalism can carry new insights into the nature of the universe and humanity’s place within it. A fluent reader can gain access to thought that will open her mind and raise her aspirations. But she can also gain access to fake news and poisonous propaganda. Reading can poison the mind as well as nourishing it.

There is nothing intrinsically good about reading. It depends what you are reading, and it depends on how accurately you can interpret it.

Of course we want all our pupils to be able to decode fluently. But beyond this, we must think about how we nourish their thinking so that they can use this wonderful opportunity to expand their minds, not to poison or pollute them. A regular diet of knowledge will give them a taste for reality, so that they are increasingly able to discriminate between different authors, and reject what is false.

Liberated by Cognitive Science

Understanding the essentials of cognitive architecture is a wonderfully liberating thing. So many of our misconceptions about education, our own and our pupils’, can be laid to rest.

The first, and most important principle is the understanding of what education actually is: changes in long term memory. This simple definition can and should be refined, but it’s an essential starting point. If you haven’t remembered it, you haven’t learned it. You were wasting your time, as teacher, as a pupil, if the knowledge which you were supposed to acquire has not at least begun to make its way into your long term memory.

This affects the questions we ask about teaching. Instead of chasing endless proxies for learning, we begin to focus on the thing itself. Instead of asking ‘were the pupils engaged?’ or ‘did they enjoy the lesson?’ or ‘did they write lots in their books?’ we can simply ask ‘what did they remember?’ In the end, that’s all that matters.

But that question logically leads to others. If we are interested in long term memory, we have to be interested in the long term. We are therefore liberated from the obsession with individual lessons as units of learning. We must ask ‘what did they remember the next week, the next month, the next year?’ Now we are able to see education as a coherent long term programme for building mental schemas in the minds of pupils, not a series of isolated fragments which could be judged as ‘outstanding’ or ‘satisfactory’. Thus do the principles of cognitive architecture liberate us from the madness of graded lesson observations.

These are just a few of the ways in which understanding cognitive architecture liberates us professionally. But there is a wonderful personal liberation too. So often I have complained over the years about how poor my memory is. Recently, when I was explaining to a colleague how much explicit memorisation I require of pupils, he said, ‘My memory’s rubbish. I suppose you have trained yours to be able to do this?’ From his tone, it sounded like he thought such ‘training’ would require Herculean efforts, beyond the capacities of most ordinary mortals.

But when we understand that we all have extremely limited working memory, but practically limitless long term memory, and that repeated practice and testing can ensure that anything can be securely stored, then we know that we do not have a rubbish memory. We have a human memory, and we face the same limitations and have the same amazing potential as the rest of the human race. The obstacles we face to filling our memories with countless treasures of poetry, history and science are obstacles that we, and our pupils, can overcome with persistent, faithful, steady effort.

It is also a wonderful liberation to realise that we have not, in fact, forgotten most of what we learned in school. Every well educated adult has a vast store of tacit knowledge which enables her to read a wide range of texts, as well as listen to other articulate, educated adults and take part in intelligent conversation with them. It is amazing to consider just how much we do, in fact, remember, but this also places a solemn duty upon us. When we realise how much we know, we appreciate how important it is that we should pass this on, so that succeeding generations can also take part in this conversation. And we’ll never succeed in doing this unless we talk to our pupils!

So with the excitement and liberation of discovering the reality of how the human mind works, come solemn duties: to pass on knowledge, and to fight against the lies which prevent us, or our colleagues, from doing so, such as ‘education is what’s left when you’ve forgotten everything you learned at school’.

These lies are so often glibly repeated in staff rooms or displayed on classroom walls, and they strike at the very root of what education is, and even what human beings are. To fill the mind with knowledge, and to treasure this knowledge and pass it on to succeeding generations, is to perpetuate human civilisation. To refuse to do so is to abdicate from one of the most fundamental human responsibilities.

An Orwellian Education


Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950)

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), education plays a crucial role. It is because most of the animals do not succeed in learning to read and write that the pigs dominate the formulation of the principles of Animalism, the allegorical equivalent of Marxism-Leninism. But it is not only literacy which matters. Memory is a vital component of the plot too, as most of the animals fail to memorise the Seven Commandments, the founding principles of the Rebellion which are painted in large letters on the barn wall. Thus when Squealer, who represents Stalin’s Minister of Propaganda Molotov, alters the Commandments, the animals do not have a clear and certain reference point in their long term memories which allows them to be sure that something is amiss. Squealer also changes history, reversing the role of Snowball (Trotsky) from that of revolutionary hero to that of traitor. Squealer’s lies are so detailed and persuasive that they come to replace reality in the animals’ memories.

As the animals are the allegorical representation of the people of the Soviet Union, it’s worth considering what Orwell is suggesting about education for the masses. There are different types of animals on the farm, and their educational capacity varies from full literacy, in the case of the pigs who represent the Bolshevik elite, down to a complete inability to learn how to read and write, together with a very hazy, indistinct memory that is easy manipulated.

What does this suggest about the people of the Soviet Union under Stalin? Animal Farm suggests that there are different types of people who are capable of different levels of education, and there are those whose capacities for learning are so limited that they will always be at the mercy of their intellectual superiors. This was a widely held belief when Orwell wrote the novel in the forties, and it led to the creation of the two tier education system after the Second World War, based on the assumption that only a small minority could benefit from an academic curriculum.

Thankfully, this belief does not correspond with reality. The capacity to remember is not limited to a privileged few. It is a universal human capacity. Although fluid intelligence – the processing power of the brain – varies quite widely, crystallised intelligence – the store of schemas in long term memory – can make up for this variation. Everyone can remember. Everyone can become smarter and think better about anything, so long as they build up a store of knowledge in their long term memory.

This means that there are no sheep among the human race. There are no people condemned just to bleat whatever slogan the elite imposes upon them. All can remember, and this is the antidote to propaganda. But this antidote depends upon an education system that recognises this reality and endows ordinary people with the treasures of knowledge from past ages, so that they won’t be stranded in the present and easy prey to those who tell lies about history.

William C Bagley, who did valiant battle with his colleagues in the progressive-dominated Columbia Teachers College, put it well in 1922. He was concerned that the misuse of intelligence tests was leading to the categorisation of humanity into those who could and could not benefit from an academic curriculum:

To endow the masses with genius is biologically impossible; but to endow the masses with the fruits of genius is both educationally possible and socially most profitable. The mental tests will help most if they aid the teacher in discharging this transcendent duty. They will render a gratuitous and disastrous disservice if they encourage in the teacher the conviction that the illumination of common minds is either an impossible or a relatively unimportant task. (See Diane Ravitch, Left Back, p153)

The rhetoric of the twenties, with categories such as ‘feeble minded’, would not go down well these days. But in a softer form, these ideas persist. Too often, children are labelled as incapable when really they are just ignorant. The role of the school is to give them the knowledge that will make them capable, not to pander to their interests, and leave them just where they are: easy prey for manipulation.

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.

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).


The Problems with Primary School Testing

Boy Reading

‘Boy Reading – Ned Anshutz’ by Thomas Pollock Anshutz (1851-1912)

From having been a strong advocate of the general reading tests which have been a part of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ federal policy, Hirsch has now become an opponent. In his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, he explains why he has changed his view. Although the general reading tests are valid tests of reading ability, they are what he calls ‘consequentially invalid’. However accurately they may test reading, they have harmful educational consequences.

General reading tests are educationally harmful, argues Hirsch, because they promote the idea that there is such a thing as a general reading skill, when in fact, reading ability is based primarily on knowledge of the domain about which one is reading. Because general reading tests support the fallacious but widespread belief in general skills, their use as a national measure of achievement on which schools and teachers are judged leads to ever more lessons in these general skills. Pupils do ever more practice of comprehension strategies, and ever less time is spent learning specific subject knowledge.

It’s easy to sympathise with teachers and schools that adopt the strategy of training in comprehension skills, rather than take the risk of giving a good general education. Good general knowledge is the best way to improve reading comprehension, but the fact is that teachers and pupils are presented with high stakes tests for which there can be no specific preparation, and this fills them with anxiety. Naturally enough, they want to do something specific that will help their pupils perform better in the tests. And the only specific thing they can do is practise comprehension strategies. All other preparation is indirect, and we cannot blame teachers and schools who are placed under such pressure from being doubtful about indirect, incremental, long-term methods when they are facing an imminent high stakes test.

So the main practical, observable effect across the American education system of holding schools to account through general reading tests has been a further impoverishment of the curriculum, as pupils waste ever more time working on mythical general skills. Hirsch recognises that, politically, there is no possibility in the USA of their being national tests which focus on specific knowledge, so he suggests that school districts remedy the deleterious effects of national testing by introducing their own local system of tests which are focused on subject specific domains rather than general reading ability.

The British government should take heed of the damaging effects of making a general reading test the measure of school attainment. These damaging effects are a matter of historical record in the USA. If the Department for Education wishes to promote a richer programme of subject specific education in primary schools, they need to change the way primary schools are held accountable. They need to scrap general reading tests at key stage two and replace them with specific tests of pupils’ knowledge about literature, history, geography, science, art and music. And while they’re reforming key stage two tests, they should scrap the English Language GCSE, which is also an unfair and educationally unhelpful assessment.

Of course, there will continue to be courageous and intelligent school leaders and teachers who build a rich curriculum of subject specific knowledge, and eschew the false promise of training in mythical general skills. But at the moment, our assessment system, especially at primary level, is hindering rather than helping this movement for educational reform.

Further reading:

General Reading Tests Are Always Unfair