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.

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