Knowledge matters. In England, we moved away from competency-based curricula, says the author of Seven Myths About Education

Knowledge matters. In England, we moved away from competency-based curricula, says the author of Seven Myths About Education

“We had a competency-based curriculum that was low on knowledge. We moved away from it because it wasn’t working,” says Daisy Christodoulou. Her seminal book, Seven Myths About Education, is out now in Czech for the first time. In her interview with EDUkační LABoratoř, Daisy Christodoulou explains how Seven Myths shifted the opinion of UK’s educationalists, including the schools inspectorate, on the role of knowledge in education.

CZ version: Znalostem se nesmí přisuzovat druhořadá role, tento model jsme v Anglii opustili, říká autorka Sedmi mýtů o vzdělávání.

When Seven Myths About Education was first published in 2014, it created quite a stir. Your book questions pillars of what we know as modern education, such as teachers becoming facilitators, focus on skills, inquiry and project-based learning. At the same time, Dylan Wiliam, the originator of formative assessment, wrote in his foreword that Seven Myths may well be the book of the decade on education. Your publisher, Routledge, calls the book in its blurb controversial. Where did this label come from?

I think it was a controversial book because it was questioning a lot of received wisdom about education. The Seven Myths I identify are very persuasive and very popular ideas about education and my argument was they were all wrong. If you question persuasive and popular ideas, it’s going to be controversial!

A lot of defenders of the status quo were quite angry and annoyed with me for writing the book. However, in the ten years or so since the first publication, I think the debate has changed and more people are willing to consider some of my arguments. 

In the introduction to Seven Myths, you state the following: “My central argument is that much of what teachers are taught about education is wrong, and that they are encouraged to teach in ineffective ways. (…) The kind of practice I am attacking in this book is what many education authorities consider to be the very best practice.” Has anything changed since you wrote this?

Yes, in England a lot has changed, in two important ways. First, there has been a grassroots, bottom-up change as many teachers have started to question the received wisdom and to speak up more about how some of these myths have failed in the classroom. Second, there has been top-down political and institutional change. In the book, I cite a few organisations who were hostile to the arguments I was making, but who now, ten years on, are actually more receptive.

However, there is still a lot more work to do. Myths like ‘you can always just look it up’ are very popular in the wider culture, not just within education. In my most recent book, Teachers vs Tech, I look at the way big technology companies repeat some of these myths in their education products. Globally, I think that most teacher training institutions do not spend enough time teaching the most relevant modern research about how students learn.

In your book, you openly criticise England’s school inspectorate, Ofsted. How did Ofsted react when the book was published? Have you ever been involved in a direct discussion with the inspectors?

Ofsted are the best example of one of the institutions who have changed their approach. I am very critical of them in my book, but in the ten years since I wrote it they have made some very significant reforms. The current Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, took over the organisation in 2016 and has made some far-reaching and important reforms to the Ofsted inspection framework and the training of inspectors. Ofsted are now much more aware of important cognitive science research, and their inspection framework pays much more attention to the quality of a school’s curriculum. I have had direct discussions with a few of their inspectors and I am very impressed by their direction of travel.

(Daisy Christodoulou)

In Czechia, a curricular overhaul is currently taking place. It aims at strengthening the competency-centred approach to learning and reducing the volume of knowledge being taught. Simultaneously, a modern approach to instruction has been making its way to the classrooms, expecting pupils to discover key facts for themselves, promoting discussion, cooperation and differentiation. What would be your message to the authors of the reform?

My message would be ‘stop now’. Every country that has gone down this route has regretted it, and once you start down the route you can do damage that will take years to repair.

In particular, my message would be to understand what the modern research actually says. Do not assume that “modern” is the same as “discovery learning”. Discovery learning is actually a very old-fashioned approach that has been proved to fail over and over again in the last 100 years or so. Likewise, “reducing knowledge” is not “modern”. All the modern research shows that we need large bodies of knowledge in long-term memory to be able to think critically and to solve complex problems. The really smart and modern work at the moment is being done in areas like spaced retrieval practice, ways of using online platforms and algorithms to help students memorise bodies of knowledge more efficiently.

I would also say, come to England and look at what we are doing. We had a competency-based curriculum that was low on knowledge and we moved away from it because it wasn’t working.

Seven Myths would suggest that you are rather sceptical about trends. Nevertheless, what paths do you see education taking in near future?

I’m definitely sceptical about things which sound trendy and intriguing but don’t stand up to evidence. But I’m certainly not sceptical about new ideas. In fact, one of the arguments of my book is that there is a whole set of new ideas about education which are evidence-based and rigorous and which very few people in education have heard of. These ideas are based on theories of how the mind works, how we learn, and the role of long-term memory and working memory. The best guide to this type of cognitive psychology is Dan Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School, which I cite frequently in my book. Willingham is a professor of cognitive psychology and he points out that over the past fifty years we have learnt more about how the mind works than in the previous 5,000 years. Those are the kinds of new ideas I am keen on!

The whole world has experienced an unprecedented era of remote learning with schools forced to adapt quickly to the new circumstances. Meanwhile, you wrote your latest book you have mentioned already, “Teachers versus tech? The case for an ed tech revolution”. What is your view on the role of technology in education?

This follows on nicely from the previous question, about trends and fads and new ideas. Technology can be incredibly powerful and transformative, but too often in education it is based on pseudoscience and flawed ideas of how our mind works. What I tried to do in my third book Teachers vs Tech, is identify methods of using technology that are useful and are based on solid research.  I will give two examples here. One is comparative judgement, a different form of assessment. In my day job I work for an educational assessment organisation, No More Marking, and we use this approach to assess students’ writing. It works by combining together thousands of teacher judgements of writing to create a measurement scale for every piece of writing. It depends on cloud computing power to crunch through lots of decisions very rapidly – it simply wouldn’t work without technology.

The other technique I am very interested in is spaced repetition. There are a lot of online platforms where you can quiz yourself on what you want to learn and an algorithm that will deliver up the quizzes to you at just the right intervals to help you learn them most efficiently.

To go back to the start of the question about remote learning, we have obviously all had an unprecedented experiment with live video lessons, but I think it is important to remember that was brought about as an emergency. It wasn’t anyone’s ideal situation. Sometimes you introduce new ideas in an emergency and it turns out they are still quite useful when the emergency goes. Other times, it turns out those new ideas are not useful when things go back to normal. I think online video lessons are in the latter category. I don’t think they are going to replace physical schools and classrooms any time soon. I think what we’ve seen is it is quite hard to provide the structure and motivation that students need via that kind of remote learning.

Is Seven Myths a manifesto for conservative teaching? Or is there something to appreciate about it by liberal or progressive teachers and parents?

I hope there is something in it for everyone! We don’t look at antibiotics and say these are conservative or liberal. We look at antibiotics and say these are great because they work! I was trying to do something similar in my book – to put forward ideas about education that work and that will help all students and that are rooted in science and not political ideology.

It is true that in the UK the two sides of the educational debate are nicknamed the progressives and traditionalists and I am seen as a traditionalist. And it is probably true that some of the arguments I make about the value of practice and repetition can sound traditionalist. But I don’t make these arguments because I am coming from a political standpoint. I am looking at the evidence. The book is not a political manifesto, it’s a book about the science of how we learn.

Imagine a teacher who read your book over the weekend. With mixed feelings, they go back to the classroom on the next day. If you were asked to give a piece of advice to them, what would it be?

It wouldn’t be advice from me, but a piece of advice from Professor Daniel Willingham, who I mentioned earlier. He says the one most useful piece of advice that cognitive science can give to teachers is this: review each lesson plan in terms of what the student is likely to think about.

This might sound obvious and trivial but it has far-reaching implications. Ultimately it explains why discovery learning is so inefficient, because with discovery learning you are spending lots and lots of time thinking about things that might be wrong or tangential.

It’s also a very practical piece of advice. When I tried it for the first time, it made me realise how much time I spent explaining complicated activities that I thought might be fun. If you strip back a lot of that complication students can spend more time thinking about what you want them to learn.

Rozhovor pro EDUkační LABoratoř vedl Pavel Bobek

Pavel Bobek se stal učitelem v Anglii. V Londýně učil na oceňované veřejné škole v přistěhovalecké čtvrti. Aktuálně působí v Praze na ZŠ Solidarita. Je členem Otevřeno a Učitelské platformy. Věnuje se zejména popularizaci výzkumu ve vzdělávání a jeho implikacím pro každodenní učitelskou praxi. V roce 2022 byl jedním z finalistů soutěže Global Teacher Prize Czech Republic.