Five morally dubious educational ideas

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You may disagree with the evidence I cite. You may disagree with my logic. But let me be clear about what I am trying to achieve: I want young people to grow into active citizens who understand the society around them and who are empowered to make a difference in that society. I want them to develop a passion, perhaps about an area of culture that they have been exposed to at school and would otherwise never have encountered. I want them to find the means to provide for themselves and their future families.

I believe, maybe wrongly, that the best way to do this is by explicitly teaching a curriculum full of powerful concepts that have endured over time. If you believe that I am wrong then you should feel free to say so. But to paint me as aspiring to a different goal to the one I have repeatedly stated is unfair and unfounded. If you’re going to do that then you need to provide the evidence.

I make this point because there are a number of ideas that I believe to be profoundly wrong and I am going to explain why. Nevertheless, I am sure that the people who hold to them do so with the best of intentions. I am sure they believe that these ideas will lead to a better world, I just happen to think they are mistaken. See what you think – do you agree with me?

1. We should abolish exams

If the education system of a mature democracy decided to abolish all tests and exams, then what would happen next? It depends. Firstly, would students still be assessed and graded? If so, the only means left will be some kind of portfolio assessment or coursework. This would work against disadvantaged students. Not only would they have less help with their coursework from friends and family, they would also be the victims of unconscious bias in the assessment process.

If we did away with all assessment and grades then would this fix the problem? Only if you think that entry into medicine, the law, the civil service and business should be entirely down to people’s connections. Even if you prioritise the so-called ‘soft skills’ of communication, collaboration and so on then who do you think will come out on top; the privileged kid with the middle class accent or the kid from the wrong side of the tracks? Exams, however flawed, militate against privilege. You need to replace them with something that does at least as good a job.

2. Students should engage in projects and inquiry learning

I don’t understand how people can claim to be in favour of social justice while promoting project-based learning. By removing some, if not all, teacher input, you are removing the one mechanism that addresses differences in social background. If you then allow students to design their own projects and questions, you make the matter still worse. The doctor’s child may decide to investigate antibiotic resistance, supported every evening by her parents. The working class child probably won’t.

‘Who needs to know about antibiotic resistance?’ you may ask? This question can be asked about any piece of knowledge on the curriculum, from adjectives to algebra to apartheid – nobody needs to know any of it. But those students who slowly acquire key cultural knowledge are at a profound advantage over those who don’t. Imagine a class being explicitly taught about antibiotic resistance, with the teacher making repeated efforts to check for understanding and re-frame and reteach as necessary, and you are imagining a far fairer, more equitable form of teaching that project-based or inquiry learning.

3. Education is preparation for future employment

The discussion about jobs that don’t exist yet, and the idea that employers want employees with soft skills, is flawed on two counts. Firstly, the best preparation for an uncertain future is to teach concepts that have been useful in the past. It makes no sense to take a bet on what the future might hold. And I doubt that employers really mean they want friendly, if illiterate and innumerate, employees.

However, there is a far greater problem with this logic. It assumes education is purely a machine for producing workers. It is not. I want to educate young people so that they may make better decisions about the future of our democracies; so that they may make a positive change in the world; so that they may live fulfilling and enriched lives. Employers can train people how to answer the phone or contribute to group projects. Expecting schools to provide all of this training is shirking their responsibility.

4. Personalised learning is the future of education

I am a critic of many approaches to differentiation because they lack evidence of effectiveness and may lead to perverse consequences. However, at least Universal Design for Learning doesn’t chill my spine.

Imagine, if you will, a room full of kids, headphones on, staring at a computer screen for several hours a day. The computers are running expensive proprietary software that the students interact with individually, while the teacher circulates, occasionally helping one of them. Is this the future of education? Only if written by Philip K. Dick.

5. We need to teach kids to be (the right kind of) activists

In my last post, I made the point that the role of a teacher should be to present students with concepts, ensure they engage with them but eventually leave it up to the students themselves to decide what to believe and what to internalise. This is what a liberal arts education should be about.

After I wrote that post, I sat down to watch a children’s TV show with my daughters. The show was aimed at young women and was about activism. I found myself cheering along as important points were made about how girls have as much of a right to a voice as boys and how to deal with someone who disrespects that right. As a society, we have disavowed sexism and have made laws against it. However, the show also introduced concepts such as ‘white privilege’ and ‘intersectionalism’ as if they are established fact. These concepts may indeed represent sociological truths, but it is not the case that this has been resolved across society and there is currently a plurality of views. It would have been better to preface these terms with, ‘many people think…’ It may also have been better to include a broader list of causes that young women might want to address through activism.

In encouraging students to shape the future, we should not attempt to impose our agendas on them.

A way forward

I would urge you to think about the ideas I have presented and, if you wish, challenge those ideas. We seem to have entered dark times, full of conspiracy theories: If we don’t agree with someone then this must be because we are virtuous and they are evil or, being generous, they are perhaps the unwitting puppet of evil. Be wary of this. If a person cannot tell you what it would take to convince them that they are wrong then that person is in thrall to a dogma. So ask them that question. For my part, I will attempt to avoid dogmatic thinking. I aim to remain one of the reasonable ones. The world will calm down again and, when it does, reason will return and education will still be in need of better ideas.


39 thoughts on “Five morally dubious educational ideas

  1. Janita Cunnington says:

    You ask who agrees with you. I do, wholeheartedly. How can we make your voice more widely heard? I often “share” your articles on facebook, but from what I can gather nobody reads them.

      • Tara Houle says:

        apologies for butting in…Janita you’d be surprised who actually reads your facebook posts – the silent majority are always watching. Also, Greg, to your point. I have done, exactly as you have suggested, with another powerhouse educator here in Canada. And the editor DID publish his piece, which created a great flurry of activity in the comments and on twitter. I would really support contacting local media outlets and bug the editor to publish many of the articles which land in your inbox. Good luck!

      • Janita Cunnington says:

        I should add that the reason Greg’s articles tend to go unread on my facebook page is no fault of Greg’s, but probably because I never post any photos of cute animals. I’d like to think that some people are silently absorbing every word of his I “share”, but I just have no evidence that they are.

  2. Well said on all counts.

    Point 1 is so crucial, and it’s extraordinary that otherwise intelligent people just don’t follow the logic of the “we should abolish exams” position through to its obvious conclusion (in fact, they don’t even take the first step in doing so). At the risk of sounding like a hardened identitarian, just about EVERYONE that you see publicly espousing the “abolish exams!!” position is white, Anglo and middle-class. That in itself should tell us a great deal.

  3. Tom Burkard says:

    You could write a book about each of these points…er, I suppose you already have. On the last point, once schools start proselytising on controversial topics, they lose credibility. One of the reasons I homeschooled my son was that the fiction his infant school used invariably portrayed boys as dolts and girls as strong, virtuous, capable, etc. This was back in 1992. There’s a lot of it about, and the last thing we need is to fan the flames of the gender wars.

  4. “These concepts may indeed represent sociological truths” –

    In both in the US and the UK the concepts of white privilege and intersectionality have been asserted as truths regardless of reality and evidence not because of it.

    These concepts have been developed in ideological echo chambers and this means academics in those fields are not being held up to scrutiny as they should be.

    Even the concept of race that underpins both concepts is not clear and at times relates to the race realist concepts of different races (which are also used by the far right) as species and sub-species with each group having particular biological, sociological and psychological traits attributed to each racial group.

    This concept of race has been abandoned in the sciences steadily as the result of evolutionary biology. Human variation within, across and between groups debunks the claims of biological groupings in the way that race realists claimed. The use of species and sub-species is questionable now too I cover some of this here and I can give you the name of the person who talked me through it. This is based on the evidence coming from the human genome project and therefore has a sound scientific basis.

    Colour itself was not always considered to be a feature of race – Andrew Sabisky spoke to me about that fact the white working class themselves were being touted as a separate “race” at one point.

    One last point – the use of stipulative definitions (definitions used for academic purposes) is rife and each critical theorist does not use the same one, so some use skin colour to define race but some are now referring to other “races” as white – e.g. East Asians – in the US because of their success. This is redefinition and reclassfication based on whim not based on any sound criteria.

    Other traits are features of culture, society, etc and again can’t be attributed to different racial groupings – even during the colonial era such ideas were being debunked – e.g. that only whites are capable of intellectual pursuit – they were allowing people from the colonies to come over and study in England. Most of the decolonisers from Gandhi and Nehru in India to Khama in Botswana were at least partly educated here. Irony? They were taught the same as their white European counterparts and used this to launch actual decolonisation as opposed to the current talk of it which is simply a means of adding more and more Marxist inspired tracts to the curriculum (why Fanon and not Sowell?)

    The attempts to shoehorn British history into a theories that were originally based on US history is another reason why facts are cherry picked (is it really credible that hundreds of millions of white people lived in the UK so that I could sit in a classroom in 1985 and learn more about them than brown people? This strikes me as one hell of a conspiracy).

    The use of the education system as a delivery system of this ideology is morally and ethically dubious, if anything we should be researching the impact of existing initiatives such as Black History Month and what, if any, impact they have on children before we allow such theories to extend their reach.

    They rely on white people’s fear of being called racist. This can’t continue. If nothing else teachers should ask for the definition of race first and ensure that it does match the legal definition of race in this country. If it doesn’t then they need to teach the difference and why that difference exists.

      • I think the “school yourself” attitude is rude.

        I am a British-Indian from one of the least racist cities in the UK who has lived and worked in cities with greater racial issues than my own. I have a different perspective to many on the issues involved, what I think will make or does make things worse and what might make them better.

        If you have a point to make in response to what I’ve said then please do, bearing in mind I want a way forward not a constant rehashing of the past to justify ongoing conflict between groups in society.

      • Tom Burkard says:

        I think you really need to read almost anything by Thomas Sowell. His central argument is that blacks made great strides in the immediate postwar era both in terms of civil rights but also in crucial matters such as the percentage of children raised by both natural parents and average educational attainment, but social indicators went into reverse after Lyndon Johnson launched his ‘War on Poverty’.

        I was there when all this was happening, and the dynamic was apparent to anyone who cared to look. After I got out of the Navy in 1967, I got a job in production control at a Ford factory in Michigan that manufactured carburettors and alternators. Unlike the summer jobs I’d had working in an iron foundry where white faces were rare on the shop floor, most of the blue collar workers were white ‘rednecks’ whose parents had come up from Kentucky during the war. Still, there was a substantial percentage of black employees, many in supervisory positions. John Hardin–the chap at the next desk–was black, and despite being a nice guy, you could tell he was going places. One of the most popular foremen on the shop floor was black. Ford, like most employers, couldn’t afford to neglect talent, no matter what colour skin it came in.

        Affirmative action was just beginning to rear its ugly head, and soon we had a lot of talentless nobodies who were employed to meet the quotas. Unlike John Hardin, they bristled with resentment and entitlement, and needless to say they also created a lot of resentment–especially from black employees who’d proved their worth and were accepted as ‘one of us’.

        These days, the best way to get ‘moderated’ in the Grauniad comments section is to mention Thomas Sowell. Fortunately, the Graun is one of the few places in England where people obsess about race. Thirty years ago I was working on a building site in Lowestoft, which at that time was almost entirely white. Our foreman came around one morning when we were having our breakfast and asked if anyone would mind if they hired a black brickie. I recall that we just looked at each other, utterly bemused that anyone should think that we’d give a toss who they hired, so long as he could actually lay bricks.

    • John Perry says:

      ‘I think the “school yourself” attitude is rude.’

      I’m not trying to be rude and I’m not trying to tell you to “school yourself”. I think that by reading that very excellent book you will encounter many challenging arguments and for me it would be interesting to see your counter arguments.

      • Thank you for explaining your position more clearly.

        You state there are challenging arguments in the book. As you already know them you can outline them here for all.

    • John Perry says:

      ‘As you already know them you can outline them here for all.’

      Ha ha! I don’t know if I pointed out that the “book” is actually a novel, and therefore for me to take apart the well-woven arguments and insights would require an essay. I’m not sure how Greg would feel about that much space being taken up here, let alone the time that it would take (which I don’t have) for me to argue them cogently.

      I think the best start would be to read some of the reviews – if you don’t have time to read the novel itself – and go from there:

      Google “paul beatty the sellout review”.

      My recommendation is to read anything to do with ABC Australia’s Michael Cathcart and his interview with Beatty:

  5. Stan says:

    Not sure why you claim that intersectionalism doesn’t exist. This is just the fact that the effects of systemic prejudice don’t combine linearly and can worse than just a linear sum of individual factors. As a math physics guy I would think you would welcome the example of a messing non-linear relationship.

    That this happens is established fact. That doesn’t mean it happens everywhere and the point of noticing it is to eliminate cases where this happens. Of course is it not a magic word the use of which makes everything someone writes correct but it is not a bad label for something that every citizen should be aware of.

      • Stan says:

        Okay you claim it might not exist and that is somehow wrong to speak of it as if were a fact. I am intrigued as to what your objection is.

      • Stan says:

        I completely agree with your sentiment. I just thought your wording lets people refute it too easily in a lazy way. I think it is easier to accept that privilege and intersectionalism are handy names for real things and point to

        so people can see that their choices are just choices based on their cognitively biased point of view and that for example, Bill Gates is doing objectively more to help more people who really need it than most of us could possible do. Distance from us being one of the biggest factors in appreciating any intersection of the misery people face.

        The problem is not that these biases exist it is that people are just seeing other people’s not their own.

  6. Agree entirely with your points. I’ve just finished reading “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. It was brilliantly written and enlightening about the origins and nature of morality, and is highly relevant to the issues raised- particularly around why some people are ‘progressives’ and others ‘traditionalists’.

  7. Pingback: Some interesting thoughts on education | The Culmer Family Blog

  8. You write “In encouraging students to shape the future, we should not attempt to impose our agendas on them.”

    I agree. What drives me batty is the number of people who probably agree with this statement but yet believe that their own agenda is so well established that it qualifies as an unbiased take on reality, or who feel that in pushing a certain agenda it is not their “personal” agenda but a larger one in which their educational mission is swept up within — they do not see supporting it in the classroom as “imposing our agenda” but in promoting “good” in generic terms.

  9. panoptical says:

    “These concepts may indeed represent sociological truths, but it is not the case that this has been resolved across society and there is currently a plurality of views.”

    The same is true for evolution and climate change, at least in the US. 48% of Americans believe in anthropogenic climate change. 56% believe in white privilege. 62% believe in evolution. These numbers are the latest I could find from Pew Research Center.

    Do you support “teaching the controversy” in these areas as well? Do you propose science teachers or children’s television show producers preface an introduction to topics such as the age of the Earth or the existence of dinosaurs with “many people think…” so that children have the opportunity to choose to become young earth creationists? How about Flat Earthers? Do you propose that all topics in all schools be taught in such a way that students learn to doubt expert consensus if a significant proportion of the public holds other views?

    The overwhelming consensus among people who study racial relations in Western societies is that white privilege represents a sociological truth. I am curious as to why you believe that in this matter, public opinion should override the scholarly work of professors and researchers and academic departments who have been rigorously studying, and publicly debating, the issue for over 40 years.

    Of course there are open questions about the nature, extent, and impact of white privilege – just as there are open questions about the nature, extent, and impact of climate change and evolution. These questions can and should be open to debate, and the latest and best evidence ought to be presented when discussing the topics in question. But that doesn’t mean we pander to ignorant reactionaries who try to suppress scientific findings that threaten their power and privilege. That was true of Church officials trying to bury Darwin’s theories, it’s true of oil companies trying to discredit the IPCC, and it’s true of modern conservatives who dismiss decades of scholarship on privilege and intersectionality because they see their own social status threatened by the movement for social equality and justice.

    • Bart says:

      I’m intrigued how 8% more Americans could be convinced on white privilege than climate change.
      To be honest there is a big difference between objective science and social science. Like education you will find a lot of ‘personal experiences’ and ‘case studies of 3 conveniently chosen individuals/communities who perfectly match what my pet theory says’. I would probably also wonder to the extent one could enter the field of racial relations from a standpoint of refuting white privilege. Especially in today’s world of closing debate once the mass has decided you are racist, etc.
      My problem with ‘white’ privilege is how much is ‘majority’ privilege (culture will more likely be made for its target audience – the majority) and how much of the privilege is actually from other factors. I am not denying that there are different statistics on a range of desired measures or that our politicians and business leaders are not very much of the old white men crowd but when every individual has a range of advantages and disadvantages (I acknowledge I have been very lucky in a number of ways) is it fair to identify some as worthy of guilt or victimhood and others as just your own problem.

      • Stan says:

        Sure – don’t try being an albino in some places. But that is an argument about word meaning. It is unfair to the users to take these words out of context and a distraction to argue whether the jargon is perfect or not. And existence of white privilege only has to be shown to exist to defeat an argument that it doesn’t exist.

        If there is something wrong with what people are doing with these concepts it has to be more significant than the jargon is imperfect or it doesn’t happen all the time everywhere.

      • In my post, I took care to discuss the contested nature of the *concept* of white privilege. It is certainly true that we can point to specific facts – for instance that bandaids in white majority countries tend to use typically white skin tones – and define that as an aspect of white privilege. The truth of the existence of white privilege is then undeniable because these bandaids, and other such facts, exist. And yet this seems unsatisfactory.

        Consider, for instance, the current discussion of an ‘African gang crisis’ in Melbourne. There is no doubt that there are some groups of youths that are predominantly from South Sudanese backgrounds who are involved in gang activity. Newspapers and other commentators then choose to define this as an ‘African gang crisis’. In a sense, this cannot be refuted because the gang activity exists.

        So should we therefore accept the concept of an ‘African gang crisis’? I’m not sure. The concept is contested because a) South Sudanese refugees do not represent the whole of Africa b) The vast majority of Melbourne crimes are committed by groups other than South Sudanese gangs c) There is a feeling that the issue has been over-hyped and d) it takes no account of the alienating racism that these youths have experienced and, instead, appears to apportion all blame to their community.

        So the term ‘African gang crisis’, is, in my view, rightly contested.

    • Chester Draws says:

      The overwhelming view of those that practice acupuncture is that it works too.

      People who study race theory in modern academia are self selecting for a very particular view, not representative of the population at all.

      It’s a scale thing. Most people accept there is some racial privilege in our society, but don’t accept it is so over-riding that others don’t get a look in. That’s not the academic position, and I am quite happy to ignore the “lntersectionalists” regardless of how impassioned they are.

      I won’t deny white privilege exists to my students, but neither will I tell my darker ones that they are trapped in a system that denies them any ability to do well. That sets them up to fail even before they start. If that puts me at odds with academic race theory, then so be it.

      (To be fair, I don’t wander into this area much. I’m a Maths teacher and I try to stick to my job, which is to teach Maths, not proselytize.)

      • Stan says:

        Greg’s example of the bandaid is a great example of how our society is suits one colour of skin in small ways we might not notice. But we need to look the police and court systems to see that inequality is not just a cosmetic inconvenience. This is now 17 years old but is indicative

        The complaint about some academics should be that their insular and over confident view arms the worst of the opponents of equality and is loses them a large audience. But likewise when people appear to not notice that these issues are still very significant it bolsters rather than addresses that over confidence.

        Here I don’t think Greg is careful enough in his wording as it can easily be read that he is saying privilege and intersectionalism may not be factual at all rather than a complaint that people are creating something from the facts of these that is at best conjecture.

      • Stan says:

        dang I wish we could edit our posts after hitting post. All my wording errors seem to hide from me right up until I hit the post button.

      • panoptical says:

        “The overwhelming view of those that practice acupuncture is that it works too.”

        A view shared by the NHS ( and NIH (

        But let’s suppose you had given an example of a medical practice with no proven benefit whatsoever, like homeopathy, because I want to address the thrust of this argument.

        “The overwhelming view of those that practice [homeopathy] is that it works too.”

        Right, but there are relevant differences between practitioners and researchers. For one thing, sample size. And experimental design. And confirmation bias. Note that while the majority of homeopaths believe in homeopathy, the majority of medical researchers do not.

        When 28 studies ( done over the last 29 years find racial hiring discrimination in the US, and at least four separate teams have found that “resume whitening” increases callbacks (e.g., – and that’s just *one* aspect of *one* manifestation of white privilege – I think it’s unreasonable to compare the state of research into racial privilege with the state of research into alternative medicine.

        Decades of evidence from dozens of researchers at numerous prestigious universities piling up that race has an impact on job prospects. Zero evidence that homeopathic medicine does anything more than a sugar pill, after over 200 years of searching for it.

      • Job discrimination is certainly a problem. However, there are two questions that are relevant to this discussion. Is it reasonable to label this as an aspect of ‘white privilege’? In other words, to what extent is this due to some socially constructed notion of race, rather than it being a majority privilege or a class privilege? If we go back to the bandaids example, do the manufacturers prefer white skin tones or do they prefer majority skin tones?

        Secondly, is discriminatory hiring a uniform effect that applies in Australia, the country where the kids TV show was aired? According to a recent study, candidates were *more* likely to get shortlisted in Australia if application details clearly identified them as female or a member of a minority. The applications did not, of course, identify skin colour but it’s certainly an interesting result.

        Click to access BETA-report-going-blind-to-see-more%20clearly.pdf

      • panoptical says:

        If the question were about racism, I would say it would be unfair to call band-aid manufacturers racist for making white band-aids. However, the privileges that people get from being white still accrue to them whether the source is well-intentioned capitalists catering to the majority or mustache-twirling villains trying to keep minorities down.

        Clearly some of the cause of white privilege is that whites are in the majority in the places where white privilege occurs. We can call this “majority privilege” but I think we lose some information. I live in a majority straight cisgender white Orthodox Christian country. If I talk about “majority privilege” am I talking about white privilege, straight privilege, cisgender privilege, Orthodox privilege, or some other majority I haven’t mentioned? Plus white privilege may operate additionally or separately to majority privilege – for example, in Georgia, ethnic Armenians and ethnic Azeris are both minorities and lack the privilege of being the majority ethnic group, but Azeris are sometimes referred to as “black” and seem to have more problems integrating into Georgian society than ethnic Armenians. This might be down to skin tone, or to religion (Armenians are also Orthodox while Azeris are mostly Muslim). And of course this is where intersectionality comes in. Just describing the situation as “majority privilege” doesn’t really do it justice when there are all these intersecting identities that complicate how privileges and disadvantages are realized in practice.

        I really don’t know enough about Australian racial politics to speak authoritatively on this, but based on how things play out in other countries I’d guess there are also probably differential versions of privilege and disadvantage. As the study you shared pointed out, while there was affirmative action bias for upper level management in public service, a previous study ( found discrimination bias against minorities for entry-level positions at private companies – and also found that the discrimination varied systematically by ethnic group (indigenous, Italian, Chinese, Middle Eastern). So clearly, there is a complicated reality about hiring discrimination and how it manifests itself differently in different groups and at different levels of society. It’s the kind of situation that asks for more research, which is why I am dismayed by comments like Chester’s above, or teachwell’s, which dismiss any study into racial disparity as ideologically-motivated and therefore suspect.

        And honestly hiring discrimination isn’t even the strongest case for white privilege – it’s just one with a lot of numbers. Someone else claimed that social science is not “objective” and I admit that manifestations of white privilege like “I frequently see people who looks like me represented positively in the media” or “I have plenty of role models in the profession I am interested in” tend to be more difficult to measure, although no less real for that difficulty.

  10. panoptical says:

    I realize my last comment may have come off as overly negative and so I wanted to add that I wholeheartedly agree with the rest of your points in this post, and enjoy your blog overall.

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