Three shockers from the Guardian
The Guardian really outdid itself yesterday with three articles on education which were ill-informed, damaging and in one case wilfully misleading. These articles by Estelle Morris, Fran Abrams and Tait Coles require detailed criticism.
First up, the former Education Secretary Estelle Morris (2001-2002). In her comment piece, Morris discusses the goings on at Ofsted over the past two months. Addressing the ‘battle over teaching styles’ which is taking place, she writes,
Today’s most able teachers are engaging children in their learning; acting on the evidence that tells us that children can learn from one another; understanding that the revolution in the way children access information outside school must have an impact on what happens inside the classroom, and seizing the opportunities technology offers to personalise learning.
Where is Morris’s evidence which shows ‘children can learn from one another’? Where is the evidence that classrooms which ‘personalise learning’ lead to success? Does Morris have citations up her sleeve, or is she simply repeating the lazy progressive assumptions of the blob? Within the education establishment, evidence is a spirit much invoked but rarely cited.
I wonder whether Morris is familiar with Professor John Hattie of the University of Melbourne. He is widely seen as the most important education researcher in the world, due to the enormous scope of his project Visible Learning. In two books, Hattie has synthesised the research of over 800 meta-analyses into different teaching methods and interventions, calculating ‘effect sizes’ for each. Effect sizes have their pitfalls, but Hattie’s synthesis encompasses some 50,000 individual research articles involving an estimated 240,000 students. It is so wide-ranging its conclusions cannot be ignored. According to Hattie, if an intervention has an effect size of below 0.4 it probably is not worth bothering with, whilst an effect size above 0.4 should be considered, and an effect size above 0.6 is unusually effective.
In Visible Learning (2009) Hattie includes the following chart, comparing the effectiveness of a ‘Teacher as Facilitator’ with a ‘Teacher as Activator’. The outcome is clear:
Constructivism too often is seen in terms of student-centred inquiry learning, problem-based learning, and task-based learning, and common jargon words include “authentic”, “discovery”, and “intrinsically motivated learning” …These kinds of statements are almost directly opposite to the successful recipe for teaching and learning.
How is that for evidence? Such research unequivocally shows that students learn best from a teacher. Having cited no actual evidence in her article, Morris rather disingenuously concludes ‘As far as pedagogy is concerned, the debate should be away from the political sphere so it can be informed by evidence and not by ideology.’ Agreed. The conclusions of education research cannot be put more simply than this: Ofsted promotes teaching methods that are ineffective, whilst penalising teaching methods that work.
This is at the core of the current disputes over Ofsted, not as Morris believes some media-concocted row between Gove and Wilshaw concerning Free Schools.
Now for Fran Abrams. Yesterday, she wrote a feature for the Guardian suggesting that ‘collaborative problem-solving’ is a more effective way of learning than more ‘traditional’ approaches. Her evidence base was nil, aside from the misleading depiction of one school.
Abrams tells the story of Stanley Park High School in Carshalton, which has apparently transformed its results by replacing a ‘traditional’ approach with ‘collaborative problem-solving’. She writes that until 2012 pupils at Stanley Park had been taught using a ‘more traditional curriculum’, quoting one member of staff who states that previously, pupils had been ‘incredibly passive in their learning’.
I decided to do some digging into Stanley Park. It turns out Abrams’ piece is either poorly researched, or deliberately misleading. The executive head who Abrams quotes in the article and who promotes ‘collaborative problem-solving’ has been head of Stanley Park since at least 2006. During his time, he appears to have backed every trendy-teaching fad imaginable. In 2011, he wrote a paper for the National College of School Leadership explaining the ‘Human Scale Education’ project pursued by Stanley Park since 2006. It could not have been more progressive. The school embraced the following: a skills-based thematic curriculum; teachers who are not ‘the font of all knowledge’ but ‘fellow learners’; teaching topics with ‘relevance’ to pupils’ lives; and, you guessed it, students working ‘cooperatively and collaboratively’. In 2010, the school bought a ‘Mobile Learning Facility’: a 12 tonne lorry which has ‘two pods that open out to form a classroom that facilitates innovative and experiential learning styles’.
‘Traditional curriculum’ Abrams? Really? This stuff makes Ken Robinson sound like Wackford Squeers. Abrams alludes to the school’s poor examination results in 2012, and they really were poor. Six years of ‘Human Scale Education’ at Stanley Park resulted in 35% of pupils attaining five GCSEs, placing them in the bottom quintile for similar schools in all four categories measured (overall results, Maths, English and Science). These results did jump to 55% in 2013, and Abrams implies this was due to the introduction of ‘collaborative problem-solving’. However, according to Stanley Park’s 2013 Ofsted report the improvement was due to a focus on teaching quality, pupil behaviour and pupil attitudes.
The fact that the Guardian would uncritically tout such a troubled school as a model for future success tells us all we need to know about why our state schools underperform.
When Gove accuses the teaching profession of containing ‘Marxists teachers’, I tend to take such accusations with a pinch of salt. But then I read this critique of E. D. Hirsch in yesterday’s Guardian and was not so sure:
Hirsch’s “cultural literacy” is a hegemonic vision produced for and by the white middle class to help maintain the social and economic status quo. It deliberately fails to consider the values and beliefs of any other particular race, class or gender… Schools that adopt this method become nothing more than pipelines producing robotic citizens, perpetuating the vision of a capitalist society and consequently preventing social mobility.
Good God. It is hard to take on your critics when they damn themselves so effectively. The essential thesis of Tait Cole’s piece is that teaching pupils a knowledge of the world, as E. D. Hirsch suggests, makes pupils passive, unquestioning conformists who are unable to challenge societal injustice. He writes,
…teaching a prescribed “core knowledge” instils a culture of conformity and an insipid, passive absorption of carefully selected knowledge among young people. It doesn’t encourage students to think critically about society…
Sadly, this is not an unusual argument. ‘Knowledge based’ teaching has been under attack since the 1970s as an act of cultural hegemony, used to push the oppressed masses into intellectual conformity. Such an argument seems to suggest that pupils whose vision is unclouded by knowledge (sorry ‘accepted social truths’) have the intellectual freedom to challenge the status quo.
How can you challenge the world if you don’t know anything about it? It is poorly educated pupil, ignorant about the world around them, who becomes passively accepting of their lot. Just look at the major 20th century figures who have challenged the status quo. Nelson Mandela benefited from a liberal arts education at a Methodist missionary school. Mahatma Ghandi studied at Rajkot English School, and later read for the bar at University College London. Martin Luther King studied at the pioneering Booker T. Washington High School and held a doctorate in theology. On that point, King’s speech from the Lincoln Memorial was a master class in cultural literacy, alluding to the Old and the New Testament, the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence and Richard III. King’s speeches show just how indebted his inspiring vision of a new America was to his ‘traditional’ education.
I wonder if Coles knows that Hirsch’s inspiration for developing the Core Knowledge Programme came from teaching African American students at Richmond Community College in Virginia during the 1980s. Despite being literate and bright, these pupils could not make sense of a simple text on the American Civil War simply because they had no existing knowledge of the event. Could they, like King, have quoted the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation? No. They had been the recipients of an education that believes, as does Coles, that focusing on knowledge was in not their best interests.
The cultural Marxists who Cole’s piece invokes have betrayed generations of working class pupils. Their critique of ‘cultural hegemony’ has filtered down into schools as the belief that an academic, knowledge based education is not ‘appropriate’ for working class pupils. They have, put simply, promoted ignorance in our schools. As C. S. Lewis wrote, ‘Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive’.