Professor Brian Cox’s Twitter bio reads, “I think the world needs more experts.” I agree with this sentiment. We are cursed by generalists who think they can apply generic skills they learnt in one area to solving problems in a quite different area. However, generic skills of this kind don’t really exist. Instead, you need domain specific knowledge.
That’s why it was odd to see Cox in The Sunday Times come out with a half-baked prescription for education. Cox does not appear to have studied education or the learning sciences. He does teach a highly select group of students at university level, but you can hardly extrapolate from that experience to make claims about schools, so I called him out.
I was on the way to the Hope Show in Derbyshire with my family for the bank holiday and, once Cox had replied to me, my Twitter notifications rocketed. It was mostly fans of Cox calling me names, telling me that he cannot be an amateur because he is a professor or suggesting I was trying to promote my book. I couldn’t keep track of all of it. However, I did agree to detail why Cox is wrong. So here it is.
Firstly, the article says that Cox, “…criticised the effect of schools when they drill teenagers for tests”. I’m not sure whether these are Cox’s exact words but they represent one of the worst cliches in education. For over a hundred years, people have been having a go at drilling, often adding ‘rote knowledge’ or ‘facts’ to the description.
It is based on a naturalistic view of learning that suggests that learning should be fun and relatively effortless. Many educationalists (eg here) have explicitly made the comparison with learning your mother tongue – nobody does this through drilling and rote repetition so why teach school subjects this way?
David C Geary has an answer: evolution has had time to affect our ability to learn to speak and listen. We are primed to learn these abilities. Writing, and all other academic subjects, are relatively young, with mass literacy only being around for about 150 years. Learning these subjects is not natural and is necessarily effortful, requiring a lot of not particularly enjoyable deliberate practice.
Why is this? According to Cognitive Load Theory, learning new academic content in this way requires the use of an extremely limited working memory. It is limited for a reason – if not, our long term memories would be a riot of chaotic change. We can only attend to a few items at a time in working memory. However, we can boost this by drawing on knowledge held in long term memory in a process known as ‘chunking’. If we simply know that 7 x 8 = 56, we don’t have to work this out in working memory and so we free up working memory resources to attend to other aspects of the problem. Drilling and testing are ideal ways of ensuring the storage of this knowledge in long term memory in networks of relationships or ‘schemas’. Drilling and testing therefore serve a critical purpose.
Cox carries on with this theme, creating a false choice between students who ‘develop a real understanding of their studies’ and those who are merely ‘exam-passing machines’. In reality, these two factors are highly correlated. This downer on exams is fashionable, but I worry about the consequences. Exams are not perfect, but they are still the fairest way of selecting students for university and careers. If you replace them with portfolio assessments or extra-curricular checklists, you create a system that is far easier to game by the privileged.
Instead of focusing on exams, students should focus on ‘big questions’ such as ‘how did the universe begin?’ What does Cox imagine this would look like? Are school students simply to speculate and debate in the absence of knowledge? Perhaps they are to look up stuff on the internet and cut and paste it into posters which they don’t understand (because they lack schema in long term memory)? Or maybe watch a video? Or perhaps we explicitly teach them about red shift, cosmic microwave background radiation and the Big Bang, with lots of questioning and practice? If it’s the latter then that’s what we do already and that’s what is assessed in exams.
Cox links exams to a rise in mental health issues. I am not sure about the strength of the evidence for this, particularly since exams have been a constant of teenage life in Britain for many years. It is possible that other factors account for any rise in mental health issues, including greater awareness and a loss of taboo leading to greater diagnosis. I also don’t think it helps when children are given the explicit message that exams will stress them out rather than them being a normal part of life: no big deal. Cox’s comments are an example of such a message.
Perhaps the most clear cut sign that Cox is just talking off the top of his head is his call for money to be spent on lowering class sizes. It seems like an obvious good thing. It’s truthy. And yet it is very well known in education research that the evidence for such a proposal is mixed, at best. If Cox knew this then he would at least preface his comments with ‘despite the lack of evidence at present, I still think…’. But he uses no such caveat.
Why are smaller classes not such an obvious win? Firstly, you can spend a lot of money reducing classes from 27 to 25 and yet this is unlikely to change anyone’s experience very much. You also need to recruit more teachers and ensure they are of the same quality as the current ones and this is not trivial. In some of the highest performing education systems, schools tend towards the opposite approach, teaching larger classes but giving more spare periods to teachers for planning and collaboration. Lowering class sizes is a classic example of the kind of suggestion you would get from a non-expert operating outside of their field.
Brian Cox is right that we do need more experts, particularly when it comes to ideas for improving education. He should heed his own advice.