Ignorance is strength

In 2011, I read an academic paper that changed the course of my career. Until this point, I had taught fairly explicitly but this was a guilty secret. I knew that it was superior for students to find things out for themselves and so I viewed my own explicit teaching as a cheat; a dodge. This meant that I could not work at improving it. In 2011, this changed.

And once you realise the possibilities of explicit teaching and you abandon the pursuit of generic skills, you start to see value in a much richer academic curriculum. I have some sympathy for those who argue that curriculum is more important than teaching methods but I believe the two are strongly linked by ideas about what education can achieve.

Yet there are those who would deny me my experience. The story goes that most real teachers who aren’t on Twitter don’t care about some vitriolic debate about teaching methods or curriculum. They just get on with the job like proper little troopers. Perhaps this is how you feel?

If so, it is worth noting that this narrative has been constructed. It is seductive because it spares us the work of finding out what the debate is about. Teachers can think of themselves as pragmatic types who just get the job done. Ignorance is strength.

As with all constructed narratives, it is worth looking at who is constructing it and why. Education academics should be in favour of critical thinking and open discussion. And yet it is they who seem to push this barrow. “There’s nothing to see here,” they claim. “It’s just some funny foreigners on Twitter,” they suggest on Twitter. 


This narrative has been constructed because it is highly effective. By denying the grounds for any debate, there is no need to support a position with arguments or evidence. It’s just those silly obsessives mouthing off again. Yet the same people take plenty of positions themselves that are worthy of scrutiny: For example on direct instruction or teacher preparation.

The reading ‘wars’ help explain what this is about. By writing off the debate as something only of interest to obsessives, constructivists were extremely effective at marketing a version of whole language known as ‘balanced literacy‘. Who could possibly object to balance, right? So it works.

And the vitriol? From my perspective, a lot to of it seems to be aimed at me. I write reasoned posts about the evidence as I see it, accepting that I might be wrong. In return, I get compared to Tommy Robinson by Twitter trolls and receive threats to complain to my school or university. I’ve even had threats of legal action. Yet the narrative is constructed so that bloggers like me are to blame for any unpleasantness. It’s our fault. We bring it on ourselves by disagreeing with important people and asking for evidence.

It’s up to you how you read the debate. You are free to dismiss it if you wish. But before you do, ask yourself whose interests this serves.

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20 Comments on “Ignorance is strength”

  1. Tempe says:

    If Stewart Little isn’t interested (there’s no debate) perhaps he should stop writing articles that denigrate traditional methods of instruction.

  2. Stan says:

    I think we should be charitable and assume Riddle is simply purposefully demonstrating the urgent need to teach better critical thinking skills whenever he hits the keyboard.

    I love the don’t test the teacher article. Simply turn it around : 10% of volunteers taking a test he says is aimed at yr 10 failed and yet we shouldn’t care? That is 50 student teachers who fail year 10 literacy. If these proceeded without remedying this that is around 1000 students a year that would be taught by someone that couldn’t meet that standard. And this just for those who volunteered.

    To attempt the claim that the test is invalid because those that passed might not all be good teachers is about as good an argument as Monty Python’s argument sketch. To be fair Riddle probably is making this claim in his spare time.

    • Mike says:

      I wouldn’t mind these literacy/numeracy tests for student teachers so much if the students didn’t have to pay for them out of their own pocket (currently $200, I believe). This is insulting and hardly likely to attract people to the profession.

      There are parts of that article that are indeed good for a bellylaugh, though. The fact that the Queensland DET can provide no fewer than eleven dot points about “what makes a good teacher” and not even tangentially note that the capacity to maintain order in a classroom is, erm, a rather important quality for teachers to have is a bit of a head-shaker. As is the good Dr. Riddle’s dismissive assertion that there is “little evidence to suggest that testing teaching students on their literacy and numeracy will have any impact on the quality of teaching and learning in Australian classrooms”, when this new literacy/numeracy test has only just been implemented. Can anyone spot what’s wrong with this picture?

      • Stan says:

        Hi Mike,
        Why insulting? You are paying to rid yourself of uneducated colleagues. It does seem redundant as students should already have lots of standardized test results. That a large number fail these new tests suggests those are not being utilized.

        In Canada there is an issue that teacher education is relatively cheap for universities so they have little incentive beyond professional integrity to have high entry standards. Each additional student brings in more than they cost so the university has an economic incentive to admit as many as possible. So that might be why some other organization needs to impose the standards.

        I think you could argue $200 displays a lack of efficiency or the presence of gouging.

  3. monkrob says:

    I actually think you overplay the influence of progressive education in the Australian education system.
    We are fairly “trad” when it comes to teaching. There are not many teachers out there advocating progressive constructivist, problem-based learning or enquiry based learning or generic skills rather than content. I think you sometimes create a straw man here.

    When you look, even at the system level, you see an emphasis on Traditional Teaching. The recently released High Impact Teaching Strategies are quite traditional. There is an emphasis on Implicit Teaching, Structured Lessons and Worked Examples. http://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/school/teachers/support/highimpactteachstrat.pdf
    John Hattie has obviously influenced these strategies significantly. I think Hattie’s work certainly encourages a more traditional rather than progressive approach to teaching.
    I feel the pendulum in Australia has swung back in favour of more content based teacher instruction.
    I am not suggesting there is no debate.
    I am suggesting the majority of Australian teachers, and in fact the Australian system, is on the Traditional side of the Progs vs Trads dichotomy.

    • Mike says:

      …There are not many teachers out there advocating progressive constructivist, problem-based learning or enquiry based learning or generic skills rather than content…

      No. But there are legions of academics who do so…and plenty of lazy journalists who treat their pearls of wisdom as descended directly from some pedagogical Mt. Sinai.

    • Chester Draws says:

      We are fairly “trad” when it comes to teaching. There are not many teachers out there advocating progressive constructivist, problem-based learning or enquiry based learning or generic skills rather than content. I think you sometimes create a straw man here.

      Are you a high school teacher?

      In New Zealand most high school teachers in Mathematics teach largely by fairly traditional methods. A few do things like “flip” the classroom that take a lot of their time and effort for little gain, but at least it isn’t destructive.

      But New Zealand primary school teaching is something else entirely. There we see a whole generation of teachers who are almost entirely Progressive. They are taught those methods at Teachers College, and since few of them have any natural love of Maths, they prefer them. Added on to that was a failed reform, “The Numeracy Project” which has made it worse (although things have gotten a bit better as schools are tracking back from the worst of that).

      Most primary teachers love the message that lessons should be fun and that drilling kids isn’t fun. They love “differentiation”. They want to make everything “relevant”. They don’t like algorithms.

      The Maths teaching of students coming into my high school is atrocious — most have only the most tenuous grasp on negative numbers for example. Good kids, hard-working kids arrive not able to do 6 – 9. We make up most of the difference in the three years before they sit their exams, but we shouldn’t have to.

      I’m picking that Australian primary teaching is the same. Whereas high school Maths teachers are good at Maths and like it, their primary colleagues are neither. They therefore have no idea of what good Maths teaching actually looks like. They wouldn’t need to, of course, if the educationalists showed them the best methods.

      • Stan says:

        Very similar split in primary verses high school math in Canada. As high school gets streamed in the final years by coarse selection this leads to two very distinct levels of math education. One for those whose parents get involved directly or via tutoring during primary school and one for the rest.

        If some are lucky enough that they do not see this issue because everyone they see gets a good education then they should be even more outraged that by bad luck large groups of children don’t get this.

    • Greg Ashman says:

      I hear arguments of this kind quite often. Rarely do people attempt to argue that the Australian system is traditional. Instead, it is usually argued that teachers use a mix of different teaching approaches and so the debate is largely meaningless. I think this is flawed reasoning.

      Firstly, the debate is not contingent on what happens in classrooms, whether they are predominantly progressive, traditionalist or a mix. Think of it in terms of bridge design. Imagine that the majority of engineers built bridges a particular way. Would that make a debate about the safest kind of design irrelevant? I don’t think so.

      I am quite prepared to accept that many teachers use explicit approaches. But it is possible that, like I did, they thought they were failing in some way by doing this. It never occurred to me that there are better and worse forms of explicit instruction because I was under the impression that I shouldn’t really be using it. The debate helps raise awareness of the research.

      Setting this aside, I cannot agree with your characterisation of Australian education as traditional. All complex systems will contain a mix of elements so you can always point to some that support this argument. However, I can point to a few others. We have the general capabilities of the Australian curriculum, for example, that require teachers to teach generic skills that don’t exist. We have the achingly progressive Melbourne Declaration that is supposed to underpin our system. We have the APST standards that highlight differentiation (also mentioned in the HITS document you refer to for what can only be ideological reasons, given the evidence they use to justify it). We have teacher education courses that stress inquiry learning and critical pedagogy. We have international studies that demonstrate that we have a problem with behaviour and yet we have a culture that has no way of recognising this issue, let alone discussing it and looking for solutions. We have the Queensland government attempting to shut down Direct Instruction on Cape York by attempting to blame it for deep seated community problems. And we have balanced literacy – a broadly whole-language approach – dominating early reading instruction rather than systematic synthetic phonics. I could go on.

    • Tempe says:

      Hattie has worked for many years with many teachers so I think he’s fairly well placed to discuss what he has seen in ed. circles.. He noted some years ago that they were taught at the university level that direct instruction was bad and inquiry was good.

      He has also noted that many teachers are giving short shift to knowledge and jumping straight to the so-called higher level skills, such as analysis. Of course you can’t analyse what you don’t know but this is where the kids at my daughters high school are often left. They seem to get a small smattering of content, perhaps followed up by instructions to look on the internet and do some research (which I think is supposed to incorporate research skills or 21st C skills) and then it’s all about the generic skills of being creative and producing a good argument.

      Good arguments are the results of lots of knowledge of the specific topic. The Aust. curriculum does not emphasise knowledge enough. It needs to be really specific in relation to what students should know not just what they can do.

      • Greg Ashman says:

        I quite agree. The Australian curriculum is poor.

      • Tempe says:

        Here is an example of a primary school which uses inquiry-based learning and states that there is no longer any reason to memorise and store data. Instead, because of technology, our students just need skills. http://www.stmdow.catholic.edu.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=184&Itemid=646

        I’m sure there are hundreds of schools in Australia that subscribe to the same view regarding pedagogy and knowledge. This school demonstrates that it is committed to progressive ideas and I’d imagine it would be quite difficult to be a teacher in that environment who subscribed to a more traditional way of teaching that incorporated memorising content.

        In fact when I was looking for schools for my kids I systematically went to different web sties and called schools to ask them about their position in relation to pedagogy/knowledge. They were ALL the same. Inquiry, authentic, problem-solving, 21st C skills, learning styles, engagement, differentiation where all the buzz words.

      • monkrob says:

        Some progressive fluff around a traditional core.
        As a leader in a Government school I have certainly seen a shift in the rhetoric from the center in the last 5 years towards a more traditional approach.
        I no longer attend Prins meetings where some guru shows the learning pyramid, talks about learning styles and advocates authentic projects to facilitate student led personalized learning. Ten years ago they were all the rage. The pendulum has swung back to more like the sensible center and people like you and the good folks at ResearchEd are influencing that swing.
        Keep filling the pale.

  4. David F says:

    Hi Greg–thanks for this In the US, my first thought is that if an argument is being constructed, what’s the agency behind that construct? We have very powerful special interests (corporations, foundations, etc.) supporting the constructivist view, and these have embedded this ideology in everything from teacher evaluations to “personalized learning” and anything to do with ed tech.

    For the UK, Ireland, Australia, et al.–which (in theory) are less overtly influenced by said special interests–it’s murkier as to whom might be constructing that narrative–perhaps the Goveian “blob” is at work but perhaps not. After all, didn’t Australia just invest a huge some of money on 1:1 computing? And, haven’t the OECD and Schleicher been promoting constructivist pedagogies to support the ed tech?

    This leads to documents full of nonsense like this: http://education.qld.gov.au/smartclassrooms/documents/strategy/pdf/scbyte-21steps.pdf

    And tucked into that document: “Successfully implementing a 1-to-1 program in any Queensland state school relies on an equal focus on: development of constructivist, student-centred pedagogies”

    Maybe following the money might be worthwhile even outside the US….

  5. “By denying the grounds for any debate, there is no need to support a position with arguments or evidence.” What many (including me) are denying is that the framing of the debate as set out by those advocating a particular model of pedagogy they label ‘traditional’ is valid.

    • Ryan Campbell says:

      Good point, I do think the traditional bloggers have brought a great deal though and you don’t have to accept how they frame things to find their general approach and views on things of interest. That said, there may be a creeping tendency to not engage with evidence or research that doesn’t line up with their general world view which is exactly the claim Greg is making about progressives.

      • Stan says:

        If only there was some way for the likes of Riddle to point out exactly where Greg is going wrong. Some form of comment mechanism on Greg’s blog where detractors could put a link to a counter argument.

    • Stan says:

      Was that intended as a satirical comment? if so quite funny.


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