Good and Bad Academia

On Tuesday 100 professors and lecturers in education wrote to the Independent criticising the new draft National Curriculum. Their comments go the heart of the approach to learning that is now being ruthlessly championed by the government. A couple of quotes illustrate the argument being made in the letter:

This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.”

“Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.”

It goes on to point out that “high-achieving Finland, Massachusetts and Alberta emphasise cognitive development, critical understanding and creativity, not rote learning”. It could have gone on to point out that the south Asian high achievers like Singapore are going in the same direction.

This debate isn’t of course new. But the reaction from Gove and his sidekicks is becoming ever more shrill. Gove himself dismissed the signatories as “bad academia” as opposed to his friends who make up “good academia”. Wilshaw went even further and “ordered them to get out of their ivory towers”. Not a power anyone knew even this Chief Inspector yet had!

Neither of them actually managed – or even tried – to engage in a serious debate. The nearest they got to an actual argument was to assert that they want kids to learn things and other people don’t. To caricature their opponents and the debate as a whole in this way is frankly just embarrassing. This kind of anti-intellectualism is beginning to be reminiscent of the Tea party’s ability to deny scientific knowledge that the rest of the world can see is obvious.

There’s a particular irony in that one of the signatories (Andrew Pollard) had been singled out by Gove as one of the experts (all professors!) he employed to lead the curriculum review – and then of course dumped when they didn’t tell him what he wanted to hear.

Another irony is that the DfE has just issued a paper by Ben Goldacre on how to use evidence to inform policy and practice. In it he talks of experience in medicine and how inappropriate certainty can be a barrier to progress, especially when there are charismatic people, who claim they know what’s best, even without good evidence”. Sound like anyone we know?

Meanwhile, we’ve seen a few other signs of where things are going.

The long awaited review of PSHE has emerged from the bowels of the department. And it has decided to do … nothing at all. It remains non statutory and there is to be no new guidance. Schools can do it on their own. Maybe that’s better than bad guidance but it’s a clear message that for all the warm words, this is not something anyone is really interested in. The DfE press release makes much of the fact that it is providing some funding for the PSHE Association to support schools – but on the Association’s website it points out that “this funding is significantly reduced”.

Then we have the curious case of Annaliese Briggs, the former Deputy Director of Civitas, the right wing think tank who, at 27, has been appointed head of Pimlico Primary Academy without any teaching experience whatever. By a happy coincidence the sponsor of the academy is the charity set up by Lord Nash, the new Tory education minister and substantial party donor. Ms Briggs has said that she will ignore the National Curriculum and teach lessons “inspired by the tried and tested methods of ED Hirsch Jr”. To be so sure with so little experience is indeed impressive. After all who wouldn’t back her against 100 professors of education. No contest surely?


4 Comments on “Good and Bad Academia”

  1. trevor fisher says:

    see the liz Truss speech on the dfe Web site 18th March. Pimlico academy is promoting a curriculum based on Hirsch… and Truss has backed it officially,

    Gibb wanted the Hirsch curriculum and this may be the trojan horse to get it into academy schools.


  2. David Pavett says:

    The statement in the Independent says

    “This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.”

    It should be self-evidently true that mere data cannot produce critical understanding or creativity. On the other hand, data is necessary for these purposes. The question is how much and taught in what context?

    “Much of it demands too much too young.”

    This may well be so but if it is should we not take the National Curriculum it apart subject by subject. I don’t like Gove’s approach to history and I don’t even think that he should have the right to determine what is taught in that or any other subject. On the other hand, I was not very impressed by the objections of the Historical Association to his proposals.

    In mathematics, on which there has not been much comment, I find the specifications of the National Curriculum absurdly detailed. This sort of detailed specification inevitably turns what should be a supporting framework into a mindless check-list. Do we, for example, need to specify that children at KS1 can count up to and down from 100? I taught maths to A level for many years and I have never counted down from 100 in my life.

    “This curriculum betrays a serious distrust of teachers.”

    I am sure that is right. But this attitude did not begin with Gove It was well in evidence under the Labour Government. Many young teachers have never known anything else than managerial regimes where they are treated as educational operatives who are expected to do what they are told and not to ask critical questions. If that is right then the problem goes far beyond criticisms of Gove. It is already endemic in our educational system. If that is so then how do we get out of that situation?

    To respond by saying “trust the teachers” won’t do since teachers are part of the system in which these problems have developed and many of them dutifully do what the system expects of them without dissension. The answer has to be a broad-based programme about education and its purposes and methods involving all interested parties. This is what they did in Finland and it took 25 years. It cannot be done in a five-year parliamentary term. So, the first objective must be to remove education from the political front-line, i.e. to remove politicians direct control over the functioning of the education system.

    It is easy to talk about things like teaching “problem-solving” and even more “critical understanding” and “creativity” but I think that there is no reason to believe that among those of us opposed to what Gove is doing there is a clear and common understanding of these terms. “Problem-solving” for example is a highly ambiguous demand. All too often in education the problems that pupils are given have been designed to demonstrate that they have learned a specific technique for a specific type of problem. This easily becomes an extension of rote-learning and is very different from an ability to solve real-world problems. The issues are even more complex with “critical understanding” and “creativity”.

    What does the Labour Party have to say in response to these problems? Nothing that I am aware of but I would be happy to be shown to be wrong.

    I have a final question and I would really be interested in responses to this. I have found in my own learning process that I have had to learn some things by rote. Thus I had to learn the order of the colours of the rainbow for physics (ROYGBIV) – for which I initially used a common mnemonic. Only much later did I learn why the rainbow colours are separated in this way. So, my question is this: is all rote learning a bad thing?

  3. trevor fisher says:

    david raises some good points, and I have not seen any response from the Labour party at all. The national curriculum does not apply in academies, but the Civitas move is a way to impose a different curriculum.

    On the bigger point, there is nothing wrong with rote learning. All good teachers use it, and for dates and other info in history there is no other way. We should not get into a rote v non rote dichotomy. I agree with the DfE – that is a false dichotomy. ON history there are many nemonics, the one for remembering the six wive of Henry for exam[ple, though tellingly I have forgotten it

    What is wrong is the gradgrind approach – kids learning material they do not understand. The key issue is knowledge and understanding. This is the right relationship.

    What the Right are doing is trying to freeze a certain body of knowledge and argue this must be learned parrot fashion., The phrase from mATTHEW arnold “the best that has ever been thought and written” comes up, used by Gove even in the house of commons and in the telegraph article on thursday

    it was nonsense when Arnold wrote it (which side of the science-humanities did he come from? How much physics and chemistry did he know?) and is even more nonsense today. But that is what they mean

    What is wrong with the historical association response? They point out that their expert evidence was ignored, that they prescription does not teach essential concepts and skills, and that the chronological approach teaches ancient in primary and modern in secondary and that this means teaching stuff children cannot understand at a young age.

    The ancient world is more difficult than the modern, it does not relate to a young child’s experience.

    This all seems fine to me. What problems do you have with the HA objections? David Cannadine in the TLS this week expands on it. I do wish he would not want compulsory history at gcse level, but apart from that a good article.

    trevor fisher

  4. johneboltj says:

    For the record here is a statement from the Lords front bench today –