A Game-Changing Education Book from England

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
July 2nd, 2013

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post on June 27, 2013. For more on education reforms in America and England, you may also be interested in this interview of E. D. Hirsch by English journalist and educator Toby Young, as well as Chester Finn’s “Reforms that cross the Atlantic—and don’t.”

 

A British schoolteacher, Daisy Christodoulou, has just published a short, pungent e-book called Seven Myths about Education. It’s a must-read for anyone in a position to influence our low-performing public school system. The book’s focus is on British education, but it deserves to be nominated as a “best book of 2013″ on American education, because there’s not a farthing’s worth of difference in how the British and American educational systems are being hindered by a slogan-monopoly of high-sounding ideas — brilliantly deconstructed in this book.

Ms. Christodoulou has unusual credentials. She’s an experienced classroom teacher. She currently directs a non-profit educational foundation in London, and she is a scholar of impressive powers who has mastered the relevant research literature in educational history and cognitive psychology. Her writing is clear and effective. Speaking as a teacher to teachers, she may be able to change their minds. As an expert scholar and writer, she also has a good chance of enlightening administrators, legislators, and concerned citizens.

Ms. Christodoulou believes that such enlightenment is the great practical need these days, because the chief barriers to effective school reform are not the usual accused: bad teacher unions, low teacher quality, burdensome government dictates. Many a charter school in the US has been able to bypass those barriers without being able to produce better results than the regular public schools they were meant to replace. No wonder. Many of these failed charter schools were conceived under the very myths that Ms. Christodoulou exposes. It wasn’t the teacher unions after all! Ms. Christodoulou argues convincingly that what has chiefly held back school achievement and equity in the English-speaking world for the past half century is a set of seductive but mistaken ideas.

She’s right straight down the line. Take the issue of teacher quality. The author gives evidence from her own experience of the ways in which potentially effective teachers have been made ineffective because they are dutifully following the ideas instilled in them by their training institutes. These colleges of education have not only perpetuated wrong ideas about skills and knowledge, but in their scorn for “mere facts” have also deprived these potentially good teachers of the knowledge they need to be effective teachers of subject matter. Teachers who are only moderately talented teacher can be highly effective if they follow sound teaching principles and a sound curriculum within a school environment where knowledge builds cumulatively from year to year.

Here are Ms Christodoulou’s seven myths:

1 – Facts prevent understanding
2 – Teacher-led instruction is passive
3 – The 21st century fundamentally changes everything
4 – You can always just look it up
5 – We should teach transferable skills
6 – Projects and activities are the best way to learn
7 – Teaching knowledge is indoctrination

Each chapter follows the following straightforward and highly effective pattern. The “myth” is set forth through full, direct quotations from recognized authorities. There’s no slanting of the evidence or the rhetoric. Then, the author describes concretely from direct experience how the idea has actually worked out in practice. And finally, she presents a clear account of the relevant research in cognitive psychology which overwhelmingly debunks the myth. Ms. Christodoulou writes: “For every myth I have identified, I have found concrete and robust examples of how this myth has influenced classroom practice across England. Only then do I go on to show why it is a myth and why it is so damaging.”

This straightforward organization turns out to be highly absorbing and engaging. Ms. Christodoulou is a strong writer, and for all her scientific punctilio, a passionate one. She is learned in educational history, showing how “21st-century” ideas that invoke Google and the internet are actually re-bottled versions of the late 19th-century ideas which came to dominate British and American schools by the mid-20th century. What educators purvey as brave such as “critical-thinking skills” and “you can always look it up” are actually shopworn and discredited by cognitive science. That’s the characteristic turn of her chapters, done especially effectively in her conclusion when she discusses the high-sounding education-school theme of hegemony:

I discussed the way that many educational theorists used the concept of hegemony to explain the way that certain ideas and practices become accepted by people within an institution. Hegemony is a useful concept. I would argue that the myths I have discussed here are hegemonic within the education system. It is hard to have a discussion about education without sooner or later hitting one of these myths. As theorists of hegemony realise, the most powerful thing about hegemonic ideas is that they seem to be natural common sense. They are just a normal part of everyday life. This makes them exceptionally difficult to challenge, because it does not seem as if there is anything there to challenge. However, as the theorists of hegemony also realised, hegemonic ideas depend on certain unseen processes. One tactic is the suppression of all evidence that contradicts them. I trained as a teacher, taught for three years, attended numerous in-service training days, wrote several essays about education and followed educational policy closely without ever even encountering any of the evidence about knowledge I speak of here, let alone actually hearing anyone advocate it. … For three years I struggled to improve my pupils’ education without ever knowing that I could be using hugely more effective methods. I would spend entire lessons quietly observing my pupils chatting away in groups about complete misconceptions and I would think that the problem in the lesson was that I had been too prescriptive. We need to reform the main teacher training and inspection agencies so that they stop promoting completely discredited ideas and give more space to theories with much greater scientific backing.

The book has great relevance to our current moment, when a majority of states have signed up to follow new “Common Core Standards,” comparable in scope to the recent experiment named “No Child Left Behind,” which is widely deemed a failure. If we wish to avoid another one, we will need to heed this book’s message. The failure of NCLB wasn’t in the law’s key provisions that adequate yearly progress in math and reading should occur among all groups, including low-performing ones. The result has been some improvement in math, especially in the early grades, but stasis in most reading scores. In addition, the emphasis on reading tests has caused a neglect of history, civics, science, and the arts.

Ms. Christodoulou’s book indirectly explains these tragic, unintended consequences of NCLB, especially the poor results in reading. It was primarily the way that educators responded to the accountability provisions of NCLB that induced the failure. American educators, dutifully following the seven myths, regard reading as a skill that could be employed without relevant knowledge; in preparation for the tests, they spent many wasted school days on ad hoc content and instruction in “strategies.” If educators had been less captivated by anti-knowledge myths, they could have met the requirements of NCLB, and made adequate yearly progress for all groups. The failure was not in the law but in the myths.

Our educators now stand ready to commit the same mistakes with the Common Core State Standards. Distressed teachers are saying that they are being compelled to engage in the same superficial, content-indifferent activities, given new labels like “text complexity” and “reading strategies.” In short, educators are preparing to apply the same skills-based notions about reading that have failed for several decades.

Of course! They are boxed in by what Ms. Christodoulou calls a “hegemonic” thought system. If our hardworking teachers and principals had known what to do for NCLB — if they had been uninfected by the seven myths — they would have long ago done what is necessary to raise the competencies of all students, and there would not have been a need for NCLB. If the Common Core standards fail as NCLB did, it will not be because the standards themselves are defective. It will be because our schools are completely dominated by the seven myths analyzed by Daisy Christodoulou. This splendid, disinfecting book needs to be distributed gratis to every teacher, administrator, and college of education professor in the U.S. It’s available at Amazon for $9.99 or for free if you have Amazon Prime.

 

11 Comments »

  1. Rampant hegemonic anti-academic myths indeed! Alive and well in the Common Core. The fact the Professor Hirsch has not given up yet makes it harder for me to give up. I don’t know how (or whether) to thank him for that.

    Will Fitzhugh
    http://www.tcr.org
    fitzhugh@tcr.org

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — July 2, 2013 @ 2:20 pm

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  3. I wish this were available as a real book –I like to be able to hand people important literature –or leave it lying around on the staff room table.

    Comment by Ponderosa — July 2, 2013 @ 4:17 pm

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    Pingback by Review of Seven Myths about Education – a game changing book for educators | Phonic Books — July 2, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

  5. I have long believed that you understand and advocate the most logical education model for student learning. Your interview with Toby Young just added to my conviction. But taken with your review of the 7 myths book, it’s disturbing because together they paint a picture of complete education paralysis. The significance of the myths with their deep roots of institutionalized thinking has become an immoveable barrier for change.

    Given this barrier, top down reform seems destined to remain only a temporary pressure on the system with little possibility of setting the deep roots necessary for success and sustainment. But because there are educators who do understand the myths and appreciate the CK methods, there is hope of a grassroots reform built on the current CK foothold. I think even the planned top-down CK reform in the UK needs a grassroots component for success.

    For a CK grassroots reform to succeed, the barriers to initial use need to be reduced. Accepting partial implementations by a single teacher. Eliminating annual assessments, dues and certifications until the adoption reached department and school levels.

    Any grassroots reform needs to offer a high value proposition for the teachers along with the promise of improved student learning. This means low cost, making teachers jobs easier, reducing the stress of accountability, saving teachers time, earning professional status, and access to peer support – all while incrementally implementing CK methods and improving student outcomes.

    With these barriers overcome, all that’s needed is an accelerant to make this real. The http://www.on-grade.org web site describes a cloud-based system of information libraries and tools with real-time alignment of content from standards through student learning that looks suitable.

    Comment by Tom Sundstrom — July 2, 2013 @ 5:32 pm

  6. Considering the complexity of the whole I think that Daisy Christodoulou has done a remarkable job of clarifying the points that make this educational theory so bad. Each of these points has a very small part of truth, not enough to make them the absolutes they are that justify them as valid teaching theory, but enough to provide the tenacious support they are given. I think this creates the immoveable barrier for change that Tom Sundstrom mentions, that aspect of hegemonic ideas that makes then “seem to be natural common sense.”

    I think we need to remember too that these ideas are rather old. In the 50s when I was in school we often heard of John Dewey described as “the father of 20th century American education.” Before the 21st century fundamentally changed everything, the 20th century did so!

    There are valid counter-arguments but too many minds are closed to hearing them. I have been trying to speak out for only about 20 years, and now I am delighted to note that the community for real common sense (and, oh yes, around 1960 Hannah Arendt wrote that there was no common sense in the educational theories) is growing.

    Comment by Susan Toth — July 3, 2013 @ 11:27 am

  7. Ms Christodoulou makes sense to the folks who believe in and follow the Core Knowledge philosophy (myself included). The problem: There are too many “experts” who attempt to debunk this philosophy and the contemporary reforms as voodoo and/or insanity.

    Linda Darling Hammond, Deborah Meier, Anthony Cody, Valerie Strauss, even Diane Ravitch, et al are followed by many US teachers as heroes and Gospel spouters; at the same time preaching progressive gobbledegook, which Ravitch herself slammed in her 2000 book, Left Back.

    This means the dichotomy continues. Two schools of thought prevail despite whatever “evidence/research” one group hurls at the other. These same incongruities have existed for over a century. While some contend it’s a good thing, too often it winds up being very counter productive.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — July 3, 2013 @ 6:56 pm

  8. Indeed!

    The problem with the Common Core is not that it is wrong to attempt to raise standards. The problem is that it is a prescription for an illness that has been ritually misdiagnosed.

    The problem is not weak curriculum and assessment standards. The problem that has destroyed American K-12 schools is ill-conceived TEACHING standards.

    Comment by Rob Kremer — July 3, 2013 @ 11:42 pm

  9. [...] a “short, pungent e-book” by British schoolteacher Daisy Christodoulou, is a  must-read, writes E.D. Hirsch, Jr. on Core Knowledge Blog. Both the British and American educational systems [...]

    Pingback by 7 education myths — Joanne Jacobs — July 6, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

  10. Daisy Christodoulou has made a major contribution to our thinking about education and the myths that persist despite the efforts of E.D. Hirsch and others to fix what is wrong with our schools. As for NCLB, I reminded of an article by Roger Shatuck in the New York Review of Books that related his experiences as a school board member in the state to which he had retired. Shattuck pointed to a fundamental truth: that teachers wouldn’t have to “teach to the test” if the curriculum imparted the kinds of substantive knowledge that the tests measure. Most school districts, not teaching substantive knowledge in the subject disciplines, are then put in a position of playing test preparation catch up to avoid the negative consequences of NCLB (Incidentally, Shattuck is a big fan of CK). It makes you wonder, however, who’s in charge. Indeed, I share Susan Toth’s implication, per Hannah Arendt, that “there was no common sense in the educational theories.” Diane Ravitch’s “Left Back” makes that quite clear. William Hurd Kilpatrick may have won the battle with William C. Bagley, but the students were the real losers. How such bad ideas could have been promoted and perpetuated for so many years is a sorry reflection of the quality of our teacher training institutions and many of those who have taught there over the years.

    Interestingly, when I attempted to promote interest in Core Knowledge in my local school district, I discovered that the superintendent did not even have the curriculum for the entire district available in his office (or nearby). I was referred instead to the individual schools. The K-6 principal supplied me with computer print-outs of CC standards taken from CT department of education web site, as if this was supposed to be the local curriculum. I gave her copies of several of Hirsch’s books to familiarize her with CK. She had never heard of it.

    This leaves me confused about the possible ramifications of the CC if local administrators don’t realize that it requires a substantive curriculum to flesh it out. And if they don’t realize it, that they may be in the wrong profession. Sad, really.

    In my view, local districts and communities are missing a great opportunity available with CK, not only substantively, but in the wonderful opportunities that could be realized if everyone is on the same page: students, teachers, parents, tutors, volunteers, whether during the school year or summer vacation.

    Comment by Kendall Svengalis — July 20, 2013 @ 2:27 am

  11. Experienced classroom teacher: wasn’t it only 3 years?
    Non profit: a school headed by a conservative party lord?
    A scholar of impressive powers: because she won a game show?
    It’s easy to recite work from others.
    Plus an unfalsifiable element: denying the myths, well that’s just the brainwashing…
    A bit more critical thinking would have helped in writing this.

    Comment by John — June 11, 2014 @ 9:15 pm

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