The Knowledge

“So, you’re wanting to be a London cabbie, then? Hope you’re prepared to put in all the hard work it takes to do the job? All the study?” asked the slightly gruff, porcine man.

“Er, yes. I’ve just got the Blue Book, and I’ve started trying to learn the roads and runs and that…” replied the enthusiastic young man.

“The what? Oh, yeh, you won’t be needing that. The Blue Book, I mean. We don’t really use that anymore for studying to be a cabbie.”

“You don’t… I mean, I don’t need the Blue Book? But it’s got all the runs and routes in it? The ones I… I mean, I thought the Blue Book was the main source of, you know… The Knowledge.”

The gruff man snorted. “‘The Knowledge’? Yeh, we don’t call it that anymore.”

The young man knotted his brow. “Huh? What do you mean? Why don’t you…?”

“Yeh, we don’t call it The Knowledge anymore. I mean knowledge is important, of course. But the people at Transport for London realised that it was more important to have higher order skills. They decided that we need cabbies who can analyse the routes, evaluate them and create new runs. No good just knowing the runs. Here, it’s all based on this.” The gruff man pointed to a poster on his wall:


“See?” he continued. “These things are much more important than the knowledge itself, so we focus on those instead.”

“Oh, right.” said the young man, perplexed. ” So how would I go about learning the… erm…”

“We now call it The Skills. As I say, The Knowledge isn’t really a thing anymore.”

“Right. So… how would I go about learning, The, er, Skills? I mean, I suppose I still need to learn the routes and runs first, right? I’d have to know that stuff first, wouldn’t I?”

“Hey, I’m not saying knowledge isn’t important. We all know it’s the foundation on which the higher order skills are built. We’re not that stupid.”

“Okay. I was a little worried then that I wouldn’t get the chance to do  The Knowledge…”

“We don’t call it that…”

“Yeh, of course. I mean, I was worried I wouldn’t get to learn all the routes and runs. My old man was a cabbie and he prided himself on learning The Kno… on knowing his way around London. I’d like to follow in his footsteps. So how do I go about learning the runs? What sort of time frame are we talking about?”

“I tell you what: you take your Blue Book out into the lobby and sit and read it for a bit. When you’ve got an idea of some of the runs, we’ll get you started on The Skills; the higher order stuff. I’m going for a coffee and a fag. Shall we say half an hour?”

“Half an hour?” The young man’s mouth hung open for a few seconds, before he snapped it shut and composed himself. “Doesn’t it take years to really know this stuff? I thought you said knowledge is the foundation…”

“Oh, it is. It is. We’d be stupid if we said it wasn’t. But it’s also really important to make sure that you are able to do the higher order stuff too. You go and get some of your knowledge and then when I’m back, we’ll sort out your tickets for your trip to Mumbai. I take it you are available to fly this week?”

“Yes, I’m… wait… what? Fly…? Mumbai…? This week…?”

“Yeh. Mumbai’s the best place, usually. But if you’d rather do Shanghai, we can…”

“Why would I need to go to Mumbai?” The young man was utterly perplexed. “I want to be a cabbie in London. I want to… I want to…”

“You need to do a placement overseas in order to learn The Skills. You’ll basically need to apply your knowledge to the streets of Mumbai. You’ll go there and learn how to evaluate and analyse and to be creative. Then you can come back to London and apply those skills so you can drive around better. Honestly, you’ll like Mumbai. Or Shanghai. Whichever you choose. I mean, if either of those are really a problem for you, I suppose we could send you to New York…”

“I don’t have a problem with those places… I mean, I do have a problem with them in that they aren’t London! It’s not the places themselves. I just want to be cabbie in London so I need to learn about London streets! Why would I…?”

“The Skills, son. You’ll need to learn The Skills. As I said before, you’ll need to learn how to create new routes. You’ll need to learn how to evaluate which route to take in rush hour or where to divert if there’s been an accident. You’ll need to analyse traffic reports in order to ensure you have all the details. Those things are really important. Higher order, innit?”

“But won’t it be better if I just learn The Knowledge…”

“We don’t use that…” the gruff man insisted.

“If I just learned… The Knowledge,” the young man darted a forceful look at his interlocutor as he mouthed the words, “I could just apply that knowledge to what I needed to do. The Knowledge would ensure that I’d know what routes to take at certain times. The Knowledge would mean that analysis and evaluation and creation would be more-or-less automatic: I’d be able to make quick decisions of analysis and evaluation and change my route using the knowledge I’d have of the runs. I’d be able to create new runs without really thinking too hard. Why do I need to learn these skills in a different place and then try and apply those skills to the place where I actually need to use them? It doesn’t make sense. I understand that creativity and evaluation and analysis are important to a cabbie, but these are things that just spring forth from a sound understanding of The Knowledge. I don’t need to learn creativity as a discrete skill. It’s nonsense.” The young man sunk back into his seat.

“Right. I see.” The gruff man looked thoughtful, but not entirely dejected. Then he smiled, and spoke again. “You have a problem with the Bloom’s taxonomy approach to cabbie training? I understand that. It’s not the way you like to learn things. You don’t think you need to learn creativity. That’s okay.”

The young man looked on, breathless. The gruff man continued. “There is another approach to cabbie training we could use. You’ll like this one.”

He pointed to another poster, this time on the adjoining wall.

“Now, at the moment, you are at the SOLO Prestructural stage. But what if we got you thinking about driving a cab in an Extended Abstract way….”

Activities: the devil will find work for idle hands to do

Some years ago, when I was still held firmly within the gravitational pull of my initial teacher training, I wrote a blog about praxis.

Not praxis as seen through the work of Paulo Freire. Rather, I came to praxis through the words of Anthony H. Wilson. That’s Tony Wilson to you and I: former TV presenter and record label impresario. As co-founder of the legendary Factory Records in Manchester, Wilson nurtured pioneering bands such as Joy Division, New Order, and Happy Mondays; he also gave the world the fabled Haçienda nightclub –  the spiritual home of rave culture in the late 80s and early 90s. Oh, and he lost lots of money doing all of these things. Whenever he is asked about the reasoning behind these creative pursuits, he always referred to praxis. Here’s what the had to say about it:

So praxis for Wilson was post-rationalisation: he did things that he wanted to, and then he decided on the reasons for doing them afterwards.

In my rookie blogpost on the subject, I advocated this form of praxis to underpin classroom teaching. I was foolish. I thought that getting children to do activities in the classroom and then finding out what was learned afterwards was actually a reasonable idea. But then so did many other people: the post was rather well received.

The reason it was well received is because it followed a creed that was certainly dominant at the time of my training, and is still prevalent now: it prioritised the ‘how’ before the ‘what’. In essence, this is the approach of putting the designing of an activity before the most important thing: deciding what it is that we actually want children to learn.

Some time after I wrote about praxis, I read (and rather enjoyed) Phil Beadle’s book ‘Dancing About Architecture’. Like Tony Wilson, Beadle advocated this post-rationalisation:

“What fascinates me here is the infinity of potential in having the outcome completely led by process. If we take Gardner’s intelligences as being a guiding structure and run them back to front, the lesson outcome would be a thought: a thought about speech about an image of a piece of music, which is written about numbers that have been obtained by a literary text.”

Whilst this resonated with me at the time, I find myself opposed to it as an idea now. However, Beadle’s prophecy was fulfilled this week when David Didau tweeted an image of a grid that used Gardner’s multiple intelligences and Bloom’s taxonomy to suggest lesson activities:

Like praxis, this grid prioritises the undertaking of activities over why they are doing them. There seem to be no discernible objectives behind these tasks: what specifically is it that the teacher wants pupils to learn?

I have a similar issue with ‘takeaway homework’ menus. Both the Bloom’s/MI grid and takeaway homeworks seem to suffer under the same premise: pupils can choose what they want to do and that will differ in both activity and outcome for each pupil. And that is where I see problems: if pupils can undertake just one task from a choice of, say, 9 tasks, how valuable and purposeful are those tasks if pupils don’t have to do 8 of them? If the tasks have different learning outcomes, are teachers saying that 8 of those outcomes are unnecessary? Because if they are saying 8 of them are unnecessary, it means that all 9 of them are. This criticism may seem harsh, but such approaches have an underlying, unspoken principle: it doesn’t matter what the pupil does as long as they are doing something.

This is the cult of activity: an unconscious belief that occupying pupils with something is the most important part of lesson or homework planning, over and above deciding what it is that we want pupils to learn.

I say that it is an unconscious belief, because it really is for the majority of us. Most of us that have been in its thrall were indoctrinated by teacher training or by observation cultures that prioritise activities as the first concern.

Of course, whilst it’s true that faith in the cult of activity has been unconscious for most of us, some were knowingly performing and promoting its rituals. And those people should be utterly ashamed of themselves. Who are these contemptible, immoral people? I’ll tell you: they were the sort of people who were writing blogposts advocating praxis as an approach to teaching, that’s who. I hope they are suitably embarrassed.

What if everything David Didau thinks about education is right?

David Didau‘s new book, ‘What if everything you knew about education was wrong?’, is potentially a difficult read.

It’s not difficult because of convoluted jargon or purple prose. In fact, one of Didau’s great skills is in his ability to present complex ideas in an accessible and enjoyable way.

It’s not difficult because it’s uninteresting or monotonous (many education books take a straightforward theory or premise and overextend it so it meets the 100,000 word count). In fact, Didau’s book is utterly compelling from start to finish; there isn’t a superfluous word in it.

Didau’s book is potentially difficult because it confronts the reader – which we’ll assume to be largely teachers – with a series of challenges to some of the longest held and strongest held beliefs in education. As the author points out in his book, having our beliefs challenged is at best troublesome and at worst an act of heresy.

Yet this potential difficulty is soothed away by the author. Whilst knowingly presenting the reader with the eddying experience of cognitive dissonance, Didau holds our hand and explains that he is just as susceptible as us mere mortals.

Whereas some tomes in the recent rise of edu-mythbusting have been difficult to swallow for many and have often been divisive, Didau’s charming and avuncular style mean that this book will perhaps reconcile the divide where other books in the tradition have maybe struggled.

Indeed, his self-deprecation and affability means that we nod along when he presents us with potentially abrasive truths such as this one: “If your beliefs won’t bear up under close critical evaluation then maybe, just maybe, you believe something silly.”

And it is truth that is at the heart of this book. One gets the sense that this book has been a personal quest for the author. A quest in which he has had to challenge his own assumptions and beliefs. Didau could quite easily present this book as an assertive reportage of his findings, but thanks to his convivial approach, it feels like we are on that quest with him.

This quest sees him taking on the full scope of current edu-discourse, and the journey through cognitive science that takes us through the central part of the book is absolute gold. Along the way he confronts the gamut of topics,  from sacred cows such as group work (“A class of 30 individuals working in silence on a controlled assessment is still a group”) to recent fads like SOLO taxonomy (“Suffice it to say that I quietly took down my SOLO displays, put away the hexagons and went back to teaching pupils how to get better at reading and writing”), and this might cause some readers to turn on our hero. But it is the incredible depth and breadth of the author’s own reading that gives us faith in the pursuit. Didau has clearly done his homework. What is more, he’s done ours for us as well, the blooming swot. He’s even deferred to experts in their field – Jack Marwood and Andrew Sabisky – to contribute extensively on the topics of data and educational psychology respectively.

Where Didau has littered his book with references, I realise this review is found wanting. Normally when reviewing a book, I’d make references to the highlights and point out the parts that I found troubling. Yet what I found troubling about this book is that on every page is a highlight. I made notes and marked pages as I read it, thinking about what I’d like to share with colleagues. It was a pointless task: I could only conclude that I want to share it all (although ‘Chapter 21: Why observing lessons doesn’t work’ in particular will definitely be finding its way to senior colleagues). In short, I urge people: read it.

This book could change hearts and minds. It should change hearts and minds. It may be ironic then – in the Morissette sense of the word – that a reason some minds might remain unchanged will be due to one of the biases that Didau identifies early on in the book – the backfire effect. I hope that the author has done enough to pierce this common yet pernicious barrier. As he warns us:

“Despite what we may think, most of our beliefs are founded on faith not logic. We have faith in what we believe because it’s what we believe. To have our most deeply held convictions attacked is intolerable and it forces us into a corner. You cannot sway someone’s faith with evidence and we rarely win arguments with logic.”

The reason this book ultimately succeeds, though, is because David never actually asserts that he is right. What he does is present very convincing – and often indisputable – reasons why we might be wrong. It leaves the reader thinking: but what if everything David Didau thinks about education is right? And that can only be a good thing.

The impression that I get: Sir Ken at #EducationFest

Okay, I wasn’t there. It was a Friday so I was, you know, teaching lessons and that. Therefore, what follows is just an impression I have from Sir Ken Robinson’s speech at The Sunday Times Festival of Education 2015. The impression I get is from comments on Twitter. Comments such as these:

So what is the impression I get from Sir Ken’s speech? Well, it’s that he is charming and clever and has the crowd in the palm of his hands. But it’s also that he seems to avoid committing to saying anything concrete, anything substantial. I’m not sure that he confronts any scrutiny or challenge to his ideas. The impression that I get is basically this:

Oh, and apparently he also said this:

Oops. Naughty me.

But he’s right. This is an ad hominem. And I’m happy to be corrected on my impression. Please comment and put me right.

Knowledge is obsolete! Unburden yourself here…

I have been following the tweets from Northern Rocks with interest. As always with education conferences, there are some really smart ideas tossed out and hashtagged for posterity. But every now and again one of these edu-summits spews out a thought that is a real game changer.

I think this may be that very thought:

Yep: Knowledge is becoming obsolete. It’s over. It’s done for. It’ll soon be pushing up the daisies. This is brilliant news.

Think of everything we could do without knowledge cluttering up our brains? Actually… don’t think of everything we could do! The beauty of knowledge obsolescence is that you don’t have to think at all.

So what should we do with all this knowledge we’ve already accumulated? If knowledge is truly becoming obsolete, we could unburden ourselves of the knowledge we have already acquired and free our brains up for other, more important stuff.

I’m sold on this. It’s the way forward. So I have a proposition. A proposition for others, like me, who believe that knowledge is obsolete. We can just look up stuff we need now, so we don’t need to really know anything. Let’s put our money where our mouths are. Let’s show everyone exactly how obsolete knowledge is. This is it. This is what I propose we do:

Let’s have our minds wiped. Let’s do it. Let’s get rid of everything we know. Let’s unburden ourselves of all of the knowledge that we have amassed over our lives. Let’s do this so that we can move forward in a world where we can live freely and achieve great things without the heavy burden of dusty old knowledge littering up our noggins.

If, like me, you truly believe that knowledge is becoming obsolete, this is a sign of our commitment to that belief.

Who’s in? I’ll fire up the neuralyzers…

You Can Do Anything!

I’ve just read this article on TES, entitled ‘Why education needs more fuzzy thinking’. In the article, Ewan McIntosh proposes a “fuzzy world” of education where there are “activities that help students to learn for themselves, synthesise complex information, generate large numbers of ambitious ideas and build prototypes”. It is also an education where there is “almost no content”.

I’ll ignore the fear mongering attempted with his entirely irrelevant reference to terrorism, but McIntosh finishes by telling us: “We don’t need people who know about history; we need people who can think like historians to help us prevent future conflicts.”

How does he think historians think like historians? Does he really assume they can think the way they do without knowing about history?

These sorts of suggestions from experts make me cross. They make me cross because the expert seems to have spectacular amnesia about the content that they have consumed and the knowledge that they have built up over the many years that has led them to their expertise. As such, they seem to assume that they are just innately skilled and so further assume that such innate skill can just be brought out of children, and the passing on of knowledge is entirely absent in the process. This is not only wrong, it’s selfish. It says: I’ve had a good education which has put me in the position I am in, but I’m not going to offer you the same standards of education I had.

Anyway, I couldn’t help reading that article without thinking of this brilliant Saturday Night Live sketch:

McIntosh’s article is just missing these lines:

Now, thanks to technology… it doesn’t matter if you have skills or training or years of experience: you can do it! You can do anything!

The world needs more singer-songwriters and fewer doctors and engineers.

If you think you’re talented, then you are.

I await the revised version of the article.

Schools: the egg-laying, wool and milk-giving sow

Originally posted on Labour Teachers, June 1st, 2015. If you haven’t read the posts on Labour Teachers, you really should. Even if you aren’t a Labour supporter, or even a UK teacher. The blog – contributed to by a variety of educators (not all Labourites) – articulates many of the concerns and hopes of people working in education today.

Einst fiel einem Züchter ein,
Wie die Tierwelt würde sein,
Wenn man durch geschicktes Paaren
Fische schüf’ mit krausen Haaren.
Die könnt’ man wie Pudel scheren
Und die Arten sonst vermehren…

…Was wir brauchen, ist ein Schwein,
Das Merinowolle trägt
Und dazu noch Eier legt.
Das soll Ihre Züchtung sein!

(One day a breeder thought he’d see,
Imagining how the world might be,
If you carefully chose the pair,
Fish could be made with curly hair,
Which could be sheared and bred for more…

…What we need is a pig,
that grows merino wool and lays eggs
That is what you should breed!)

A German poem, ‘Der Kampf um das eierlegende Wollschwein’ (‘The Fight for the Egg-laying, Wool-Pig’), translation from this site.

When I was eleven, I got a Swiss Army knife for Christmas.

I’d wanted one for what seemed like my whole life, though in reality it was probably only a few months. But during those few months, I dreamt of how, with this compact gizmo in my pocket, I would be able to do ANYTHING and EVERYTHING. With that little red Sampo, I would conquer worlds, defeat fearsome beasts and build fortresses. And when I’d finished all of these things, I could give myself a manicure and kick back with a freshly opened tin of baked beans.

The thought that I wouldn’t need to have separate utensils for everything was enticing. No longer would I need a set of screwdrivers or an individual pair of scissors. Gone would be the necessity to own a corkscrew (to be honest, I hadn’t needed one up until that point in my life, but I knew it would come in handy for the post-battle toasts during all of the world-conquering). And never again would I have to wield a cumbersome full-size wood saw.

Except the reality of a Swiss Army knife is that it performs none of the roles it purports to anywhere nearly as adequately as the individual tools it mimics. When I received the gift, I showed it off as much as I could. But when it came to performing functions such as sawing, cutting, tightening screws and opening tins, I shunned the various limbs of that little MacGuffin in favour of proper tools – tools that were designed to do their one job well.

Policymakers seem to want to turn schools into Swiss Army knives. Rather than wanting schools to be charged with doing the one thing they need to do well – educate young people across a range of subjects, politicians from all sides seem to want schools to do everything from babysitting to building character to teaching Britishness. The problem is, like the Swiss Army knife, if schools are spread too thinly on what they are asked to do, they will do all of those things badly.

It seems that, whenever society is presented with a problem, it is down to schools to solve it. In the eyes of politicians, schools have become what the Germans would call die eierlegende Wollmilchsau: the egg-laying, wool and milk-giving sow. Plainly put, this is the name given to an all-in-one entity that can – or at least attempts to – do the work of several specialised tools.

The idea of a single animal that lays eggs, produces milk, gives wool and then provides you with a side of bacon when it’s done is indeed an enticing one. But, of course, it is a mythical beast. Nobody believes in it. Nobody except politicians, that is.

For when society throws up a concern, politicians know that schools can add the solving of that concern to their ever-burgeoning to-do-lists. They think that schools will give society milk, eggs, wool and bacon on demand. The problem is that schools won’t be able to do that, but what they will do is try. And in trying to feed and clothe everyone, they’ll end up falling short on all counts.

What politicians needs to realise is that anything they scrawl on the schools to-do-list will diminish our ability to do everything else well. Just like the Swiss Army knife, when given lots of things to do, schools will do most of those things badly.

What we need right now is the direction to do one thing well – teach our subjects. Anything else is making an egg-laying, wool and milk-giving pig’s ear of education.