To whom Oak may concern

I have written before about Oak National Academy in the UK, a virtual school proposed by teachers as a response to COVID-19 and remote learning and then given government funding. In short, it has infuriated all the right people. Tin foil hats have been donned to ask why the government did not put this out to competitive tender – ignoring the fact that it wasn’t the government’s idea and that such a procurement process would have resulted in a product just in time for the next global pandemic. However, it is not hard to see what is at the root of this. Oak use the wrong kind of teaching methods, relying on lecture and quizzing.

While such methods are about as good as you can hope for in the absence of live teaching, they are the antithesis of progressivist educational ideology and the ideologues don’t like it.

The latest example of a broadside fired at Oak comes from a Dr Pam Jarvis, a UK academic. It follows predictable lines. Quizzing is apparently inappropriate and instead, students unable to attend school should be engaged in project-based learning because, “Children’s work would be more flexible and a topic could be continued at home with parental support.” I am aware of little evidence for the effectiveness of project-based learning in regular classrooms – it is likely to overload working memory – and the idea that parents will be on tap to support projects from home strikes me as unconstrained by the realities facing many families. Jarvis also criticises the lesson completion rate, even though the source she points to for this suggests the 60% completion rates are ‘seriously impressive’ compared to other online resources.

Perhaps the best evidence that there is an impulse to find fault with Oak comes from a section where Jarvis criticises one of the questions posed in an Oak quiz. I have had a look at the Oak site but cannot find the source and Jarvis provides no link, so it is hard to appreciate the context. The question presents students with four rulers of England and asks them to choose which was the earliest ruler of the four.


I am not a history teacher and so I will take the advice of those more expert than me on whether this is a good question or not. I am inclined favourably towards it because it seems to be assessing chronology, something largely absent from my own school history lessons in which we jumped around from one period to the next, ‘analysing sources’ and were left completely baffled as to how one series of events sat in relation to another. However, maybe there are better ways of assessing this. I don’t know.

An important point to note is that these questions are used by the Oak website as a form of interaction that can take place prior to, or after, a lesson. They are not weighty summative assessments, but a trigger to recall or engagement with prior knowledge. Nevertheless, Jarvis suggests this question demonstrates an issue with the ‘accuracy of the content’. Having consulted the authoritative GCSE BBC Bitesize website, Jarvis declares that Athelstan was the very first King of all England.

Well, that may be true, but it’s not what the question is asking. Athelstan was not on the list and the question is asking which of the people on the list was the earliest ruler of England. Of the four, William I was the earliest ruler. There is no accuracy problem here.

Let’s set aside the idea that it is impolite, to say the least, to pick on an individual teacher’s question in this way – we all make mistakes when writing curriculum material and I am no exception.  If I had put hours into producing an online resource for use by students in lockdown and someone then ungraciously scoured my work to find and highlight one of my inevitable errors, I would feel somewhat indignant. Even so, there is no mistake here. In her eagerness to find a smoking gun, Jarvis has confused herself.

And confusion multiplied.


Tim Taylor, also keen to condemn the Oak enemy, issued his own critique of this single question, but he managed to criticise it for using the word ‘whom’ incorrectly. The question does not use the word ‘whom’ incorrectly. It is Jarvis who uses ‘whom’ incorrectly when discussing the question – something that has now been corrected in the original article.

So why am I bothering to highlight all of this absurdity?

Educationalists and academics have lately taken to denying there is any real divide in education. Everyone uses a range of teaching methods, they claim. We should avoid false dichotomies, they urge. Yet put together something that uses an explicit teaching approach and they will rush headlong to condemn you without pausing long enough to figure out if their criticisms are valid.


8 thoughts on “To whom Oak may concern

  1. Tim Taylor says:

    The one wearing the tin hat is you, Greg. My rather exacerbated tweet (I regret my use of the word crap) was in response to a poorly constructed question about a subject you admit you are not qualified to comment, and that’s it. I’ve said nothing critical about Oak, ever, and you are welcome to search my Twitter feed, Facebook and blog to provide evidence to the contrary. This is about you making a mountain out of a mole hill and doing you best to cozy up to your mates in the UK. A bit sad really,

    • Thanks for the analysis. The question was originally posted in an article criticising Oak. It was a question from the Oak program and the author of the article posted it as an example of something she disliked about the Oak program. You then joined in and criticised the question. In this context, it seems odd to claim that you were not criticising Oak. However, I guess people can read this post and your comment and make up their own minds.

    • Tim Taylor says:

      I haven’t criticised Oak. In fact, if Greg had bothered to ask, I am broadly supportive of the project. This doesn’t mean of course that their content is above criticism. Which is what I was doing in my tweet. If Greg thinks I’m anti-Oak he will have to provide actual evidence or take down the allegation.

  2. Michael Selig says:

    I am not an expert history teacher, however I thought the question was poorly phrased. Also asking other people who are history teachers, they worry about how:
    – it reinforces a common misconception that William I was the first ruler of England full stop;
    – it doesn’t really test anything useful.

    It may not be inaccurate, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a bad question.

    Just because it’s a poor question doesn’t make the rest of the lesson, or indeed the whole project poor. I found Pam Jarvis’s entire argument pretty incoherent (indeed I’m not even sure what the main argument was).

    This whole episode has illustrated how ridiculously polarised some of the education debates have become. It seems increasingly impossible for people to accept that anyone on “their side” could do anything wrong. This is equally true of those contorting themselves to defend everything about Oak (such a huge project won’t be perfect) as those contorting themselves to criticise everything about it, whilst defending every critique of it, no matter how poor or unreasonable (thus loads of progressives jumping in on anyone critiquing Pam’s post). Whenever a “twitter name” from either side makes a point, their supporters seem to feel they have to jump on that bandwagon. Sometimes this leads to ridiculous levels of hypocrisy. To my view this is silly.

    What those “working” (in inverted commas as they may not be employed or getting paid) for and with Oak have achieved is simply remarkable in such a short space of time. It has been of tremendous help to a vast number of teachers out there (16% is a huge number for what it’s worth, although the teacher tapp survey may not be representative). That doesn’t mean it can’t be criticised: I found some of the earlier sequencing poor, and a few of the very early Maths lessons had mistakes (and I thought some dodgy explanations).

    However what I’ve really impressed about by Oak is their willingness to listen and take on board advice, and respond to feedback and questions (the new curriculum mapping thing is remarkable e.g.). Perhaps some of their supporters should take note.

  3. David F says:

    I’m a history teacher in the US and teach AP European History and World History to secondary students. The question is OK, depending on the grade level. A better way to do that might have been having the students place them in the right order as opposed to selecting just one.

    Chronology is a big issue in history education, so it’s entirely appropriate to ask students to know which came first. In my own experience, students often have no idea when events occurred relative to others for anything that happened longer than three or four years ago. The past becomes an amorphous mass of stuff that predates their own existence in their minds.

    And, for the record, the American Historical Association has a listing of key skills students at all levels should be working towards. One of those is: “Develop a body of historical knowledge with breadth of time and place—as well as depth of detail—in order to discern context.” Chronology is important to that….

  4. Jojo says:

    Hi Greg – a great fan of yours and a Black Country girl too – fully agree with your ‘chains’ comments. Please remember that The OAK N A was created quickly in response to a nation emergency with the good will of teachers and educators. The Govnt – as you say- we’re not involved. Had they have been, we’d still be waiting – they have been dreadfully slow in every respect. There are many good educators involved and there is some really good stuff. There are some celeb presenters too – they helped with the promotion through media who happily interviewed the likes of Brian Cox. Please remember too the state of funding in education in the UK. Many teachers have to supply their own IT equipment. Today, I have taken an Amazon delivery of folders and pens that I have paid for myself in order to teach next year. None of our staff had ever heard of MS TEAMS before this – many don’t have self purchased laptops good enough to deliver live lessons. Schools fully reopen in Sept and the gov guidance says we must supply remote education immediately for children abs for COVID related reasons. We need all the help we can get as we are stretched beyond our elastic limit. We are grateful for any additional help so we are grateful that the OAK N A is there. They have done a good job in impossible circumstances – please give them a chance.

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