Project Follow Through was set up in the late 1960s and represents the largest educational experiment that has ever been conducted. It followed a ‘horse race’ design. Different groups of researchers developed programmes for early years education and these were then trialled with disadvantaged children. The concept was one of ‘planned variation’ and the aim was to find which programmes were the most effective.
Due to its size, the study was necessarily messy. So it does not suit an experimental purist and the results can, if you wish, be explained away. However, it did have one key element in its favour, what we might call ‘active controls’. In other words, different researchers were all motivated to demonstrate that their programme worked and they had resources available to give it their best shot. By contrast, much experimental work in education involves comparing a project that researchers are excited about with a business-as-usual approach that is hardly going to be as exciting and shiny as the new intervention. Any positive results may therefore be as a result of a placebo or hawthorne effect. This is why I have called for ABC randomised controlled trials where two competing interventions are compared with each other and a control, but I digress.
There was one clear winner of Project Follow Through – ‘Direct Instruction’ developed by Siegfried Engelmann and colleagues. Direct Instruction was characterised as a ‘basic skills’ approach in the Project Follow Through research because it focused on the acquisition of literacy and numeracy. Other, less effective, programmes were classed ‘affective’ or ‘cognitive’. The former focused on how children felt and their self-esteem, whereas the latter focused on supposedly ‘higher order’ skills such as problem-solving.
This way of classifying educational objectives is entirely wrong and deeply misleading.
David C Geary has proposed that we should think of two broad categories of abilities. The first category is ‘biologically primary’ knowledge and skills. We are not born with the ability to speak our native language but we do have an ability to learn how to do this with seemingly little effort. Similarly, we can learn basic maths skills in this way – children in societies across the world tend to count objects when playing.
These abilities provide a survival benefit and so have been shaped over many hundreds of thousands of years by the process of evolution. We are hard wired to not only learn this knowledge, but we are intrinsically motivated to do so. Learning through the process of play is enjoyable.
In contrast, ‘biologically secondary’ knowledge and skills arrived late in evolutionary terms. For most of human history, nobody read, wrote or completed even basic calculations, and so these abilities have not been acted on by evolution. Although qualitatively different to biologically primary knowledge and skills, there is a clear relationship in that biologically secondary abilities work by hacking biologically primary ones. Reading and writing sit on the back of speaking and listening abilities and mathematics deploys basic numerosity skills.
We are not intrinsically motivated to learn biologically secondary knowledge and skills and so we need to develop them through an effortful process of deliberate practice. Attempts to find a teaching method that will make learning to read as effortless as learning to speak are therefore likely to fail because they are based on a misunderstanding.
In this view, literacy and numeracy are not basic at all. They are, instead, sophisticated cultural products. It is these abilities that are ‘higher order’.
They also tend to be quite subject specific. General problems solving strategies such as ‘means ends analysis’ are biologically primary, whereas secondary problem solving strategies seem to be associated with specific classes of problems such as algebra or plumbing. This leads to the question that crops up most often in education: Why am I learning X if I will never need X in real life?
This is the question that motivates us to attempt to develop generic skills such as problem solving, collaboration or critical thinking. However, if there were such generic strategies that applied to many different contexts then it seems likely that they would confer an evolutionary advantage and so why have we not evolved to acquire these strategies alongside the rest of our biologically primary knowledge?
When we attempt to teach general problem solving, collaboration or critical thinking strategies, we are probably teaching biologically secondary, domain specific knowledge. We may think we are developing children’s collaborative skills but we are actually teaching children how to collaborate in a way that meets the norms and expectations of Mr Jones’s maths class. It is likely that little will transfer to the real-life situations that it is intended to support. It may be better to close schools and send kids out directly into society if we want them to learn norms that will be of practical use.
This makes sense if we have no clear idea of what an academic education is for. I believe there is a moral aspect to passing on these cultural fruits; that they are a good in their own right. However, there is also the possibility that academic knowledge succeeds where attempts to teaching generic skills fail in that it truly does offer us something that is transferable.
If we want students to ‘learn how to learn’ then the most effective method is to teach them to read because they can then learn through reading. But mastering the mechanic of reading, although vital, is just the start of learning to read. In order to comprehend text, we need rich background knowledge, the sort of knowledge of history, geography, science and literature that schools are designed to deliver.
learning this stuff is worth the effort, but it is definitely not basic.