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Seven Myths About Education

Seven MythsOver the last few years I’ve become keenly interested in the importance of curriculum and concerned about how curricular approaches in P12 schools have deprived students of critical content knowledge, especially in the early grades. E. D. Hirsch’s latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, is a masterpiece in this regard, arguing why and how this move away from content has exacerbated achievement gaps (see my posts on Hirsch’s book here and here). But I’ve recently discovered another great little book from the United Kingdom, heavily inspired and influenced by Hirsch’s work, that serves as a great companion piece to Why Knowledge Matters.

Seven Myths About Education, by Daisy Christodoulou, explores how certain myths have pervaded the assumptions and practices of educators. These myths suggest that knowledge is actually of little importance, and encourage teachers to use more “student-centered” methods, but in doing so actually undermine students’ ability to engage in critical thinking, which is inherently dependent on rich, domain-specific knowledge.

For each myth, Christodoulou explains its theoretical origins, but also shows how the myth really does influence teacher practice, often using the recommendations of the Office for Standards in Education (OfSted), the U.K.’s national education inspectorate that are hugely influential on what happens in British classrooms.

Christodoulou makes this case to answer the argument often made by defenders of current educational practices that no one actually suggests knowledge is unimportant or neglects the teaching of content (Hirsch shows how this neglect is very real in the U.S.). Christodoulou's strong conviction is that these myths do, in fact, heavily impact teaching practice and undermine the teaching of meaningful content in schools. That she is writing from a British perspective does not diminish the value of Seven Myths for American educators because education practices in these two countries are so similar and U.S. teachers will easily see the same patterns in their own context. This point is driven home in glowing forwards written by Hirsch himself, and by formative assessment researcher Dylan Wiliam, who says Seven Myths “may well be the most important book of the decade on teaching.”

The seven myths include the following:

  • facts prevent understanding
  • teacher-led instruction is passive
  • the twenty-first century fundamentally changes everything
  • you can always just look it up
  • we should teach transferable skills
  • projects and activities are the best ways to learn
  • teaching knowledge is indoctrination

That some of these statements are myths will likely come as a shock to most educators trained in the last generation (e.g., teacher-led-instruction is passive; projects and activities are the best ways to learn). Christodoulou, citing the currently-popular education scholar John Hattie, notes that "traditional," teacher-led methods like direct instruction are extremely powerful when used effectively. Furthermore, she shows how "student-centered" instruction often involves vapid assignments requiring little to no actual critical thinking, and usually devoid of meaningful content. I've written before about Hattie's finding that project-based learning is a largely ineffective method, unless it is used by students to apply content knowledge they've already acquired.

Other myths tackled by Christoudoulou seem more recent to our education discussion, like the notion that an over-emphasis on facts prevents meaningful understanding, that in the era of Google what students know is less important than their capacity to find the right information, and that in the 21st century students need special skills like teamwork and effective communication. I routinely hear these arguments from educators, policy-makers, and business leaders. And I have to admit that I have made such arguments myself in the recent past.

But authors like Hirsch and Christodoulou have convinced me there are no such thing as transferable skills of any sort that don't require the use of domain-specific content knowledge. Even knowing how to effectively "Google" something requires a relevant vocabulary and framework of referent knowledge to know what to look for, how, and how to make sense of what is found. And Christodoulou easily dispatches the notion that there is anything unique about the skills needed for effectively navigating the 21st century:

It is quite patronising to suggest that no one before the year 2000 ever needed to think critically, solve problems, communicate, collaborate, create, innovate, or read...It probably is true that in the future, more and more people will need these skills, and that there will be fewer economic opportunities for people who do not have these skills. But that would suggest to me that we need to make sure that everyone gets the education that was in the past reserved for the elite. That is not redefining education for the twenty-first century; it is giving everyone the chance to get a traditional education.

This point seems exactly right to me based on my own experiences as a learner. I certainly hope that I possess "21st century skills." But my own education was not skills-driven, from elementary school through my doctoral studies. To the contrary, it was content-laden, and heavily supplemented by a voracious personal appetite for knowledge that my parents actively supported and encouraged. A favorite childhood past-time of mine was sifting through the World Book Encyclopedia, exploring any and every interesting idea or concept I encountered on a daily basis, with a dictionary close at hand to help, and a houseful of other quality books that introduced me to the world. To the extent that I am an effective 21st century learner, it was because my mind was steeped in content knowledge from my earliest days.

Closely related to the myth that learning in the 21st century is unique, Christodoulou tackles the myth (also handled aptly by Hirsch in the closing chapters of Why Knowledge Matters) that articulating a specific body of knowledge that all children should master is somehow politically biased toward the experiences of the traditionally empowered (like men, white people, and the wealthy classes) over the traditionally disenfranchised. But Christodoulou argues that it is just the opposite: that guaranteeing a rich, content-specific education to those who have historically been deprived such an opportunity is deliberately empowering and actually gives the marginalized tools for challenging societal and economic power structures. 

Hirsch is likewise emphatic on this point when he argues that current practices in American elementary schools, which have systematically squeezed out social studies, science, and the arts in favor of a time-consuming and skills-driven approach to reading, have actually deepened achievement gaps by denying children from low-income families the cultural and domain-specific knowledge they need for later academic and life success.

I have written a lot in recent years about my concerns that the factory model of education we inherited from the industrial revolution (which was not, in fact, designed to educate all students to high levels of knowledge) is not sufficient to meet changing economic demands and issues of justice that do, in fact, require us to give all students what was once an elite education. Moreover, the current system, based on arranging students by age cohort with little regard to their actual readiness levels and operated as a government monopoly, does a poor job of educating students at their individual readiness levels or providing the kinds of diversity of instructional and curricular approaches required in a pluralistic society.

But too many of my fellow educators have intentionally or accidentally, in the name of moving beyond the factory model of learning, thrown content out the window in favor of these myth-driven ideas about education. I'm all for personalizing student learning - but that should be primarily meeting students at their individual readiness level as they work through a rich, content-driven curriculum, not about sacrificing the complex body of knowledge we want every educated person to master. 

Of course it is true that we want students to do more than recall a bunch of disconnected facts. It's a poverty of good instructional knowledge and creativity that causes us to think we must either teach students content or teach them to think critically (as if they could think critically without something meaningful to think about). But from a practical perspective, educators simply haven't been taught how to do both. And doing so does require intentional planning and a comprehensive program of instruction. Paideia (better known as "Socratic seminars") represents one method, requiring students to engage in thoughtful collaborative discussion of serious texts.

But the best approach I've seen for this is classical education, based on the medieval Trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, and captured beautifully in Dorothy Sayers' 1948 essay, The Lost Tools of Learning. As I wrote last year in summary:

According to Sayers, the early grades should focus on intensive absorption of a rich and varied, language-based curriculum.  In direct contrast to our modern trend of reserving social studies and science for the upper grades, classical education incorporates science and history from the earliest grades onward, along with the study of classical languages like Greek and Latin.  By the middle grades, students should be introduced to dialectic (logic) and start to synthesize all the content they've learned previously.  And finally the upper grades should have a focus on rhetoric, or argumentation, in which students learn to articulate their own ideas and opinions with evidence from the treasure trove of world civilization and participate fully in a virtuous life as adult and citizen.

This highly-intentional approach to learning ensures that as students absorb new content knowledge, they are systematically instructed and assessed on how to apply it through critical thinking tasks associated with logic and rhetoric. While classical education is spreading like wildfire in American parochial and independent schools and among homeschoolers, there are also promising signs of this approach in charter schools like the Great Hearts Academy network. I would love to see traditional public schools adopt a classical curriculum, perhaps using Hirsch's Core Knowledge Sequence as a foundation.

Such schools provide a laboratory for exploding the myths described by Daisy Christodoulou in Seven Myths About Education and demonstrating how the teaching of knowledge can - and in fact must - be the foundation for serious critical thinking.

Usual disclaimer: Opinions expressed on this website are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Western Kentucky University (where I serve as associate professor of educational administration, leadership and research) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).

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