Conditions of Lying…I Mean Learning!

by Robert Pondiscio
March 20th, 2009

Australian whole language guru Brian Cambourne has found himself in a minor dust-up Down Under for suggesting a “subliminal campaign” to undermine phonics as an approach to teaching reading by subconsciously linking it with the idea of failure.

Cambourne, best known in the U.S. for his “Conditions of Learning” theory, sent a mass email to literacy educators suggesting they flood an education minister’s office with emails linking phonics to “readicide”, which Cambourne describes as ”the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools,” the Australian reports.  Cambourne’s suggestion was in response to the official’s announcement of the nation’s “first direct comparison of phonics-based reading methods with other techniques.”

Asked why he had to resort to a subliminal campaign instead of relying on evidence, Professor Cambourne first said: “You don’t really believe we can influence the minister’s subconscious?”  Cambourne tells the Australian:

When the email was quoted back to him, Professor Cambourne said he and his colleagues had to rely on cognitive science’s framing theory. “It’s a way of making ideas change based on new theories rather than just denying or trying to argue with people you can’t argue with,” Professor Cambourne said. “When you rely on evidence, it’s twisted. We can also present evidence but we never get a fair hearing. We rely on the cognitive science framing theory, to frame things the way you want the reader to understand them to be true – framing things that you’re passionate about in ways that reveal your passion.”

Framing things the way you want the reader to understand them to be true?  Forgive me, but isn’t that a fancy definition of lying?

“We have to use the same kind of tactics that have been used to demean and demonise whole language,” he said before adding that, if The Australian reported his comments: “I will deny I ever said this.”



  1. Wow. If I were minister of education and received a flood of emails containing the word “readicide,” I would reply with a polite but curt request to stop the “peace-of-mind-icide” and leave me alone.

    Cambourne’s idea brings to mind the curriculum change movement of the late 1940s and 1950s, which Diane Ravitch describes in detail in Left Back and The Troubled Crusade. As schools rewrote their curricula, they used social engineering techniques to identify and persuade those teachers who resisted the curriculum change. We see some of those techniques in PDs today.

    In his 1964 doctoral thesis, “Kurt Lewin’s Theory of Social Change Applied to Curriculum Change.” Robert William Coleman cites experiments suggesting that people are much more likely to embrace a change if they discuss it in a group than if they simply receive the information from the presenter. Like many involved in the curriculum change movement, Coleman assumes that the change in question is necessary and good. He does not consider that there might be legitimate reasons for resisting it. The authors of Human Relations in Curriculum Change (ed. Benne and Muntyan, 1951) show a similar blind spot. They are quite blithe about it all.

    Another example of such manipulation is the T4 video “Pay Attention,” which uses advertising ploys (in the guise of facts) to convince the viewer that kids should be using iPods and other gadgets in the classroom. This video is used at PDs to get teachers excited about technology.

    Cambourne’s principle is similar: use psychological techniques, not facts or logic, to bring people around to your point of view.

    Much of this psychological manipulation is in very poor taste, but sadly it is a little more effective than one might hope. People are not always wise to the tricks. Also, there’s a rather slimy sincerity behind them. Many who employ these techniques seem to believe in the truth of what they’re saying and in their right to bring others around by any means available.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — March 21, 2009 @ 4:24 am

  2. Diana, that was the best description of the way schools roll out professional development programs I’ve ever read: sell it, sell it, sell it. (And thanks for the useful research cites.) When the latest and greatest schemes don’t get us where we want to go, we blame “fidelity” problems. Which may be nothing more than common sense on the part of practitioners. Of course, your argument applies across all kinds of new ideas–including convictions we personally endorse and others see as foolish.

    I attended an EdWeek Online Chat a few weeks ago with the authors of “Disrupting Class” who are (to me) selling an aggressive conception of on-line learning, positioning it as inevitable. Their provocative sound-bite hook: 50% of all learning will happen on-line in ten years.

    Quotes from the chat:

    Michael B. Horn: “This movement is nothing but great news for teachers. It will change their role and require some shifts in policy as a result, but it should be a much more rewarding role as teachers will have the opportunity to become mentors, coaches, and problem solvers for individual students rather than the entertainers and crowd-control specialists they’ve had to be.”

    Clayton Christiansen: “A common misconception of on-line learning is that it happens out of schools. We believe that most on-line learning will happen within our schools, transforming teachers’ roles from crowd control and monolithic lecturing, into tutors that work with individual students. We think it will be institutions such as Teach for America that lead the way. Rather than expect the Ed Schools to change, creating disruptive institutions and mechanisms for teacher training offers a much higher probability of success.”

    Not sure about you, but I have never, in 30 years, seen my primary teaching role as crowd control, entertainer or monolithic lecturer. And notice the “Teach for America will lead the way?” I don’t see TFA as having any connection to whether on-line learning takes root in more schools, or changes the way teachers deliver instruction. But– TFA is a hot, well-respected commodity to “reformers” so why not toss them into the spiel, so people who aren’t really paying attention will make the subliminal connection?

    And so it goes. Thanks for a interesting post.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — March 21, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

  3. I have a post on my ‘Ed Policy’ blog relating Prof. Brian Cambourne’s subliminal campaign and anti-evidence approach to George Lakoff’s framing theory and pointing also to Steven Pinker’s refutation of Lakoff:

    Comment by Bill Evers — March 22, 2009 @ 12:33 am

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