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.

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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.

The Michaela Inspection Result Is Good News for Everyone

Ofsted have a lot of blood on their hands. In the very recent past, they were a progressive inquisition, striking fear into the hearts of teachers who actually wanted to teach. But they have been working to dispel this image, publishing a myth-busting document and engaging on social media to answer questions and promote their claim that no particular teaching style is preferred by inspectors.

Many of us remain skeptical, including the folks at Michaela. I attended the very first Michaela day of debates, in which Katie Ashford argued passionately for the abolition of Ofsted. At that time, of course, the school had never received an inspection.

So this question has been hanging over the school, as they have courageously pursued methods and policies that are entirely focused on helping everyone acquire knowledge and develop self discipline. Would an Ofsted inspector be able to stomach this wholehearted, unapologetically traditional approach? However much the likes of Sean Harford claimed that the inspection body had changed, the Michaela inspection was going to be a litmus test.

Now we can celebrate with them, because they have been awarded ‘Outstanding’ in every area. This in no way proves that they are outstanding. Any of us who have experienced the games and tricks employed by senior managers to obtain that coveted classification will be convinced that there are many mediocre to poor schools which have been labelled this way. The proof that Michaela actually is an outstanding school is there before the eyes of the many people who have visited, as I did two years ago, and spoken to the knowledgeable, polite, happy and confident pupils with which Michaela is filled.

Michaela actually is outstanding. Whatever Ofsted say, that is the truth. But the fact that they have been graded thus is good news for all of us, because it is a fantastic argument which ordinary teachers can use with their senior leadership every time they are asked to do something time consuming which doesn’t actually promote learning.

So next time you’re asked to mark with three different colours, you can point to the Michaela Ofsted report and politely indicate that they don’t mark books at all. Next time you’re told to introduce more group work to promote ‘active learning’, you can point to the Michaela Ofsted report and calmly point out that their pupils make fantastic progress with whole class direct instruction.

Never again should we accept the non-argument that has been used by so many senior leaders across the country to promote so many anti-educational, time-consuming, morale-destroying practices: ‘Ofsted are looking for this’.

No, they’re not. And they’ve proved it.

Further reading:

Can Ofsted Be Reformed?

My Experience of Ofsted Madness

Direct Instruction Transforms Behaviour

We must be very clear that the choices made by pupils are their own responsibility. If they decide to be rude or defiant, they have made that choice, and they must take the consequences. Few things make my blood boil more than hearing senior leaders blaming classroom teachers for pupil behaviour.

But at the same time, we must acknowledge that the methods used by teachers will influence the behaviour of pupils. When teachers spend their time trying to entice pupils to learn something through an endless variety of activities, the implicit message pupils receive is that they are consumers of an education product. And the customer is always right. They are at liberty to ignore the teacher if they don’t ‘buy’ what the teacher is ‘selling’.

So the endless and exhausting task of trying to persuade pupils that learning is fun will have a serious negative impact upon behaviour. On the other hand, when whole class instruction is used, with regular routines and the consistent expectation of full attention from all pupils all the time, classes that seemed to be impossible when they were faced with edutainment can become calm and ordered places. It doesn’t happen overnight, but with firm and persistent effort over a number of weeks, behaviour steadily improves.

Behaviour improves with direct instruction because all pupils know what is expected of them. A good course of direct instruction will include a large amount of repeated practice to ensure mastery. Not only does this make sense from a cognitive point of view, it creates calm and order, because the pupils are not only practising whatever element of the curriculum is being covered, they are also practising how to practise: how to focus the mind consistently on one clear area of study and repeat it until mastery is achieved. This kind of practice is methodical and reassuring, and satisfying in a quiet way. But no pupil could mistake it for entertainment, so they don’t respond as they would to entertainment: with boos, cheers or indifference.

Behaviour improves with direct instruction because when pupils are not practising, the lessons are directly led by the teacher, interacting with the whole class. The teacher stands at the front and expects every pupil to track her. She calls out key concepts and the whole class repeats them. She calls on individuals and they repeat the concepts, word for word; there is no ambiguity about what is expected of them. She goes through worked examples with the whole class, calling on individuals at key moments, without asking for hands up. Answering questions is compulsory, not voluntary. Everyone knows that if they are failing to pay attention, they will be spotted. No one is neglected. Everyone is included. Group work divides and excludes. Whole class interactive instruction is the most inclusive method possible: no one is left out, disaffected, labelled as useless, left behind, disenfranchised. No one has any of these common reasons to start misbehaving.

Behaviour improves with direct instruction because pupils are never asked to do things they cannot do. They are never asked questions to which they do not know the answer. The steady, incremental nature of a well designed programme of direct instruction means that pupils are never thrown in at the deep end. They gradually master each element of the curriculum, and the curriculum is coherently organised so that they are never required to run before they can walk. So often pupils begin to misbehave because they are baffled, so they give up and start mucking about instead.

If you want a calm, ordered classroom in which everyone can make progress, start using direct instruction. You’ll be amazed at how difficult pupils who ignored your every attempt to entertain them will quite contentedly work steadily on clear tasks with definite outcomes. They will gain the calm satisfaction of making progress, and happily leave behind the fraught and confusing role of consumer which had previously been forced upon them by misguided educational ideology.

Whole Class Instruction Enables Targeted Support

In-class differentiation means that the whole class is disadvantaged, because they cannot experience an ordered classroom where the expert instructs them. They cannot experience a coherent curriculum because the curriculum must be personalised.

But there is a huge difference between in-class differentiation and targeted support outside class. Schools such as Michaela, for example, target pupils who need it with an intensive synthetic phonics programme. This is because they recognise that without these fundamentals firmly in place, pupils will not be able to access fully the rich knowledge curriculum that they offer through whole class instruction.

Or consider the example of Japan. Large mixed ability classes receive whole class instruction, and they are all expected to reach the same standard. But teachers regularly give additional support to pupils outside lesson time. They are able to do this because they teach far fewer lessons per week due to the large class sizes, and because they are not wasting time producing complicated, ineffective plans for different activities within each lesson.

This is the best model. Coherent, whole class instruction in orderly classrooms, with the expectation that everyone will master the content, combined with targeted support outside the classroom, made possible by an efficient whole school approach.

In the madness and chaos of differentiated classrooms, with exhausted teachers and the noise and distraction of multiple activities, those who need additional support do not get it. In the orderly, sane world of a coherent curriculum and whole class instruction, there is plenty of time and energy to give them the extra help they need.

Whole class instruction enables targeted support. Differentiation damages everyone’s progress, but like all ineffective approaches, it hurts the disadvantaged most of all.

Further reading:

Differentiation Damages the Disadvantaged

The Cult of Differentiation

An Orwellian Education

George_Orwell_press_photo

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.

The Importance of School Culture

When I was a newly qualified teacher, I worked in a large, chaotic comprehensive, whose head was good at wangling money for new buildings, but apparently uninterested in creating any sort of discipline structure, so that those shiny new buildings wouldn’t have their carpets plastered with chewing gum shortly after completion. Teachers would cower in the staff room during breaks, reluctant to police the riotous corridors and playgrounds. It was a horrible place.

It won’t surprise you to hear that as a new teacher in such a school, I had a lot of trouble keeping my year ten class under control. My only previous experience of teaching had been at a school with a proper discipline structure, backed up by daily detentions which were centrally managed and manned. Here, I was pretty much on my own, faced with rowdy teenagers, including a significant minority who would deliberately interrupt me when I was trying to teach the class. When I remember those year tens, I feel very sorry for the quiet ones, who just wanted to get on with their work, but were frequently prevented from doing so.

And this wasn’t a tough, inner-city school. It was situated in quite a pleasant suburban area, where property was rather expensive. My year ten class wasn’t a bottom set, either. It was a middle set. In every way, I was experiencing something very average and normal for an English secondary school.

I was pleased when the time came round for year ten to do work experience. It was going to be a relief not to have to attempt to teach them for a little while. But I was rather apprehensive about having to go and visit them on their placements.

I needn’t have been. They were quietly getting on with their duties in every workplace I visited. Not a scrap of insolence or unpleasantness of any sort could I find.

They had been taken out of the secondary school culture, where defiance and rudeness are applauded, and placed in the adult world, where such things are frowned upon. And they wanted to fit in. They didn’t want to be looked down on as a snotty teenager. So they didn’t act like snotty teenagers.

It has been the same wherever I have visited teenagers on work experience placements. From the agony and drama of conflict in the classroom, they move quickly and easily into the calm, ordered world of adult work. The power of a surrounding culture is enormous.

It makes me angry that school leaders do not see that the teenagers who are ruining lessons in their school are perfectly capable of behaving politely and respectfully, if that is the prevailing culture they experience. Most people just want to fit in. Schools like Michaela show that it is possible to create a culture where respect is the norm, with the right leadership and the right structures.

There is nothing inevitable about the poor behaviour of young people. There is no excuse for the way so many young people’s education is severely damaged by disruption. It is not the result of their ‘teenage hormones’. It is the result of a permissive culture which idolises self-expression. School leaders must have the courage to challenge this culture, and learn from the example of those who have built a different one.

Further reading:

Discipline Must Be School-Wide

Freedom Requires Discipline

Adolescents Are Not Animals