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.

Estelle Morris

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.

Estelle Morris: Show me the evidence

Estelle Morris: Show me the evidence

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:


Hattie concludes:

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.

Fran Abrams

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’.

Mobile learning facility: not a joke

Mobile learning facility: not a joke

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.

Tait Coles

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.

Lincoln Memorial Speech: a masterclass in cultural literacy

Lincoln Memorial Speech: a masterclass in cultural literacy

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’.


~ by goodbyemisterhunter on February 26, 2014.

15 Responses to “Three shockers from the Guardian”

  1. Terrifically well summarised! Great post!

  2. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. I need a British educator to clarify the British interpretation of E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge philosophy. As an American educator, I associated E.D. Hirsch with collaborative, project based learning. It wasn’t until reading British blogs that I read his work associated with traditionalist, direct instruction. For example, here is just one of many examples of the types of instruction that happen in Hirsch’s flagship Core Knowledge Schools in the US. From
    Instruction at Kinard
    The Colorado State Standards and Core Knowledge curriculum provide the content , and because there is such a diversity of learners at a middle school, teachers use a variety of research based teaching methodologies for instruction of content. For example, student choice, relevance, reflection, purposeful grouping, technology and are all tools that motivate student learning . Students then have higher engagement levels and ownership of their learning.
    I encourage you to look at the many other examples from official Core Knowledge schools in the US. I am not advocating any opinion or perspective here, just trying to resolve my own cognitive dissonance.

    • A very interesting point. In terms of Hirsch’s own views, he is most well known for emphasising the importance of knowledge. However, he is a critic of ‘progressive education’ more broadly. In his 1996 book ‘The Schools We Need And Why We Don’t Have Them’, Hirsch criticises the excessive use of child-centred teaching methods in American schools. This is his stance on ‘cooperative learning’:
      ‘The wise and effective orchestration of several groups in a classroom is difficult to do well, needing careful monitoring, clear purposes, and definite incentives. A faith that the method itself will providentially take care of results is not warranted. Cooperative learning, used with restraint, can be an excellent method of instruction when used in conjunction with whole-class instruction. It has not been effective when used as the principal or exclusive means of instruction.’ (p. 247).
      Hope that is helpful. Is it the case that Core Knowledge schools in the US are prescriptive when it comes to curriculum, but a bit more laissez-faire on the subject of pedagogy?

      • Perhaps that is the case, and you are certainly right that he is best known for his focus on knowledge (though as a foundation for the development of skills, not instead of), although the Core Knowledge Foundation claims to have strict entry standards and monitoring for schools that use its branding or conduct teacher training sessions of its ideas. Their presentation sessions have been pretty standard fare for the some years in the US, and I admit to not always staying on the edge of my seat through them. I seem to remember lots of talk of group work, inquiry-based instruction, cross-curricular projects and a little too much (for my taste, anyway) cutting and pasting into ‘lapbooks’ in the sessions I have attended.

  4. Think its a bit naive to keep clinging to a piece of research by Hattie, that people only go on about because it says what they already wish were true. The age old problem with analysing research.

    I have never heard anyone make as much sense when talking about education as Estelle Morris. Just my opinion. But at least I put it politely. Again, just my opinion.

    And Im surprised Twitter is still dragging out this knowledge vs skills thing. Seems common sense to me. Beast that ate itself methinks. Doubt that King would have been any less inspirational if he hadnt referenced Shakespeare or the bible. Message still counted. Big argument about the value of intertextuality there…for another time.

    Anyway, what do I know. I dont blog.

    • Dr King also referenced Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. As King himself made plain in essays and speeches it was essential for his movement to appeal to white Americans as well as blacks. So what better way to appeal to white Americans and to challenge stereotypes of ‘lazy, stupid negroes’ than by referring to the most highly respected American president in history (who was white, obviously) and to Shakespeare. So I don’t think King would have been as inspirational without these references.

      • You have no idea how prejudiced you are do you? Ridiculous.

      • And you patronisingly wonder if Estelle Morris has ‘heard’ of Hattie? She works in HE. For far longer than you have: one school is it? Get in line.

  5. The worst blog post I read in a while.
    Errors, misuse of information, lack of reading (Hirsch’s work) and bias.

    • I agree. Really, this post is just another out- pouring against the bogey of ‘progressive’ educ. Most teachers would reject this stereotype. If the blogger just means state school teachers who don’t teach the way he was taught at private school, he should just say so. Worth mentioning too that the so called Blob is prob responsible for introducing Dr King & Mandela into the curric. Tories in the 80s wanted Mandela hanged as a terrorist and King was regarded as a dangerous Communist. How are those for a couple of socially accepted truths, sorry, historical facts?

  6. […] Robert Peal: Three Shockers From The Guardian […]

  7. […] week I came across this blog post (Three Shockers from the Guardian) in which his author criticizes three articles – one related to collaborative learning, the […]

  8. “Where is the evidence which shows ‘children can learn from one another’?”

    Well, here’s quite a bit, from the EEF Toolkit (oral language interventions are in the “top ten” most impactful practices featured in the toolkit):

    Here’s some more, from the Cambridge University ‘Thinking Together’ programme: – again significant gains reported across a range of different outcomes in a range of contexts

    Here’s a review of evidence on Philosophy for Children – a dialogue-based approach to philosophical enquiries – which reports that P4C leads to significant, sustained cognitive gains, as well as a number of other desirable student outcomes such as self-esteem, pro-active learning behaviours etc –

    Here’s another review from the Institute of Effective Education at York ––what-makes-groupwork-work.pdf

    And since you mention Hattie, he doesn’t have an easy to access web presence like the EEF but here are some slides he once presented which list “collaborative learning” as having an effect size of 0.41 (on slide 9). Which seems perhaps only marginal if you accept that 0.4 is the cut-off for effective practices, but as Dylan Wiliam recently said, an effect size of 0.3 actually represents a doubling in the rate of learning, which is not half bad when you think about it –

    I understand some of the concerns around group work – it can be a nightmare when teachers fail to grasp that you need to explicitly teach students how to work well in groups, just like you would teach them anything else. As anyone who is familiar with the literature on group work will tell you – when it is good it is very very good. And when it is bad, it is horrid.

    I would very much like to hear your thoughts on group work once you have engaged with this literature…

  9. Thank you for the links – most interesting. I have no doubt that, as you write, when group work is good it is very good. However, this article does not intend to question group work per sea. Rather, it puts forward an argument which has to be seen in the context of the debate over Ofsted that was taking place earlier this year.
    Estelle Morris’s article for the Guardian that I attack, written on 25 February 2014, is a defence of Ofsted’s preference for child-centred teaching methods. Responding to the criticism of the inspectorate from Civitas (who I worked for at the time) and Nick Gibb, Morris wrote:

    ‘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.’

    Morris was therefore defending a state of affairs in which group work (and other practices) were given extraordinary preference-way above their just deserves-by Ofsted inspectors. Earlier this year whilst writing a report for Civitas, I read 130 section 5 Ofsted reports for secondary schools inspected between 10th September 2013 and 15th October 2013. 42% of those reports showed an explicit preference for classrooms in which ‘group work’ is used. None showed any preference for ‘direct instruction’, a teaching method for which the evidence base is just as, or perhaps more, sound.
    I do not doubt the validity of the research you cite which states that used judiciously group work has benefits. However, I do oppose the stance taken by many within education which elevates group work to an indispensable classroom practice, and leads to endless CPD sessions which tell you ‘teaching an outstanding lesson is not possible without group work’. This sort of behaviour, as I am sure you know, leads to much rubbishy tokenistic use of group work which both the EEF and the Slavin article you posted warn against.

    In contrast, studies of informal group learning methods which used group goals based on a single product from the work or provided no rewards, found few positive effects, with a median effect size of only +.07. (Slavin, p.8)

    Ofsted’s practice for years popularised just the sort of ‘informal group work’, not the sort that Slavin says does work – group work combined with individualised accountability through assessment.
    In addition, I asked that rhetorical question of Morris due to the irony that, in an article in which she bemoaned the lack of evidence in education debates, she appealed to ‘evidence’ without giving a single citation, or even dropping a name.

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