The 5 worst education arguments by graphics

Below are the graphics and images that we see trotted out time and again to support various arguments in education. And all of those arguments, if based on these graphics as evidence, are most likely bad arguments. I’m not the first to point out how these have been debunked, and I’m sure I won’t be the last.

1. This cartoon as an argument against an academic curriculum:5232012052424iwsmt

In an age where almost everyone in education is against the looming government policy of expanding the grammar school programme, there exists a cognitive dissonance whereby many of the same anti-selection advocates also embrace the idea that pupils should be assessed differently/be given a vocational education up to the age of 16 because ‘not every child is academic’. Michael Fordham skewers the argument for introducing a vocational education earlier far better than I can here, but suffice to say, this seems like just another form of academic selection to me. One of the other troubling things about this image is that it equates children with different classes of animal. I think that children have more in common with each other than they do differences, and certainly not differences of such extremes represented by this image. Of course, there will always be a minority of pupils who do have more extreme physical or educational needs, and we should meet those needs, but this doesn’t involve changing the approach to education for the majority of pupils and holding these pupils to different standards by shutting them off from an education they might later wish they’d had the opportunity to acquire.

And if you see the related quotation, ‘Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.’ attributed to Albert Einstein, you might want to point out that they are misattributing it.

A good counter for this argument is – and this is something Einstein did actually say – a speech given to the State University of New York in 1931, ‘On Education’:

“I want to oppose the idea that the school has to teach directly that special knowledge and those accomplishments which one has to use later directly in life. The demands of life are much too manifold to let such a specialized training in school appear possible […] The school should always have as its aim that the young man leave it as a harmonious personality, not as a specialist. This in my opinion is true in a certain sense even for technical schools, whose students will devote themselves to a quite definite profession. The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgement should always be placed foremost, not the acquisition of special knowledge. If a person masters the fundamentals of his subject and has learned to think and work independently, he will surely find his way and besides will better be able to adapt himself to progress and changes than the person whose training principally consists in the acquiring the detailed knowledge.”

Oh, and all this is compounded by the fact that, if it weren’t for fish getting out of the sea and climbing trees, we probably wouldn’t have evolved to be here now, arguing about a silly cartoon. Good job fish! A* in that exam!

2. This graphic as an argument against teaching systematic synthetic phonics:blog

In fact, this is a good argument for teaching phonics. It shows that there are clear correspondences between graphemes and phonemes and it highlights that there are rules for these correspondences – rules which the graphic ignores. One of the rules, for example, is that gh is never pronounced ‘f’ at the beginning of a word. Likewise, we’d never pronounce the grapheme ti as ‘sh’ at the end of a word. So if you see someone using this as an argument that English isn’t a language that can be taught through phonics, tell them that it proves just the opposite. You just have to know the rules.

(And if they attribute the ghoti/fish idea to George Bernard Shaw, you can tell them that they are doubly wrong.)

3. This graphic as an argument against direct instruction:2882821_orig

Pyramids are like catnip to teachers. Present anything in a pyramid and we are sold. If you don’t believe me, put a Toblerone and a bar of Dairy Milk in the staffroom on Monday and see which gets finished first. This particular pyramid – often referred to as Dale’s cone – is made even more enticing as it has lovely numbers and abstract concepts spewed all over it. And it often has a nice citation of its source at the bottom: National Training Laboratories. Mmmm, laboratories. It’s all just so… sciencey. But it really isn’t.

Before I get on to provenance, the first thing one should notice is the numbers. Such perfectly rounded numbers going up in such neat increments. When was the last time you saw some research produce numbers like this?

Yes, Dale’s cone is pretty much made up. It began life as a simple idea from the American educator Edgar Dale in 1946, as an intuitive model of how different media effect us. This original model didn’t include any numbers, and Dale himself even warned people not to take the cone too seriously.

The numbers were later added by an employee of the Mobil oil company, in a (non-academic) article he had written.

And as for the National Training Laboratories? Well, when they were asked about its provenance, the reply came back that “we no any longer have – nor can we find – the original research that supports the numbers.” Harumph.

Don’t listen to anyone using this as evidence for anything. Well, anything other than evidence for how much we all love pyramids. And even then, I’d always go with a tray piled high with Ferrero Rocher instead.

4. This comparison as an argument for education reform:

This is often used to point out that the structures and rules of schools are wrong. The problem is that all institutions have structures and rules. Hospitals have dress codes and, the last time I was in one, I was glad the doctors didn’t defer any decision making to me. I trusted them with my health. And I was glad of the silence and order too. I was glad that they had set times for visiting hours and people didn’t wander in and out as they pleased. You know, like a prison.

You see, we could easily draw attention to similarities between all sorts of institutions based on these structures and rules. If you worked at the Magic Kingdom in Disney World, you’d find much of those lists above structuring the way the place is run. Are we suggesting there should be reform there? Unless you want chaos in the park, a lack of safety on the rides and the guy in the Mickey Mouse suit turning up to work drunk, then you are going to need those rules and structures strictly adhered to. Is Magic Kingdom like a prison? No. And neither are schools. Schools have many other things that prisons don’t have, such as gates that kids can walk out of once their relatively short day stuffed full of learning and wonder is over.

This is a daft argument and is not the basis for school reform. I’m happy to listen to arguments for school reform, but this isn’t it. This is an argument that the Texas sharpshooter fallacy is alive and well.

5. Contextless EEG images of brain activity to claim positive effects of an intervention or activity:

I don’t know much about neuroscience, and I’d never claim to. The thing is, neither do neuroscientists. Of course, they actually know staggering amounts about the brain, but what I really mean is that neuroscience is such a developing science that we (them, not me) are only just beginning to understand about the brain.

Unless these sorts of images above are being used by a neuroscientist, I’d be extremely skeptical of what that person is saying with them. As suggested on the excellent Neurobollocks blog here, these sorts of images need more than just a picture of two brains with different colours on them. EEGs can measure lots of different types of brain activity and unless they tell you what it is measuring, the image is pretty useless. What’s more, you’ll also need to know what the colours represent to understand what it is suggesting. I think these images largely play on our instinct that ‘more red is good’, whether it is or not. This is not to say that the original EEG didn’t have meaning. But if it is presented without this important information, that meaning is lost.

These sorts of images are mainly used to tell us that something (the thing someone is ‘selling’ us) makes our synapses ‘fire’. The problem here is that everything causes synaptic activity. Your synapses are firing reading this. But that doesn’t stop even top academics misunderstanding or misusing such images.

I’d steer clear of laypeople using these sorts of images to present an argument. Or at the very least, ask them a couple of questions. Ask them exactly what the images are representing: what particular brain activity is being measured and what the colours represent. And for further help, you could draw it to the attention of public skeptics of pseudo-neuroscience such as @neurobollocks.

By the way, the brain on the right in those images is actually an EEG of your brain when you read my blogs. I took the image through your webcam just now. Honest. Why would I lie to you?

Gibberish sprinkled with question marks: in nonsense is strength

Early on in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, the narration turns to the setting of the story: the United States of America. Vonnegut transcribes the first verse of the national anthem and concludes of America:

“There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but [America] was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.”

Vonnegut goes on to say (of the national anthem as well as various other symbols of the country):

“Not even the President of the United States knew what that was all about. It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, ‘In nonsense is strength.‘”

In nonsense is strength. It’s a motto that can be applied to some of the casual commentaries on education that spring up every now and again in the national press. By casual commentaries, I mean those statements of address on the state (or future) of education from those outside of the education sector. Such commentaries are often from writers who have a weekly column to fill, but are sometimes from business leaders or entrepreneurs who have chosen to enlighten us with their unevidenced assumptions (see: TED talks).

One such example of the former is George Monbiot’s recent article in the Guardian, ‘In the age of robots, schools are teaching our children to be redundant’, which opens with this rhetorical flush:

“In the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled. So why are children being taught to behave like machines?

Children learn best when teaching aligns with their natural exuberance, energy and curiosity. So why are they dragooned into rows and made to sit still while they are stuffed with facts?

We succeed in adulthood through collaboration. So why is collaboration in tests and exams called cheating?

Governments claim to want to reduce the number of children being excluded from school. So why are their curriculums and tests so narrow that they alienate any child whose mind does not work in a particular way?”

To borrow from Vonnegut, this is “gibberish sprinkled with question marks”. People have been making claims that jobs in the future are going to be so radically different to today for decades. If we’d have listened to the futurists of 1900, we’d have stopped training people to cut and style hair as, according to those futurists, hairdressers wouldn’t be needed by the year 2000:

Indeed, Monbiot is adding himself to the list of futurists claiming that the 21st century job is somehow peculiar to jobs of the past and present in needing “creative, critical and socially skilled” people. Even when I worked in fast food restaurants, I worked with people who needed and used those skills. (They also needed to be literate and numerate, despite what many people might think.) Quite why Monbiot thinks being creative, critical and socially skilled belongs exclusively to the future is beyond me.

Monbiot goes on to make other claims which simply don’t stand up under scrutiny, repeating the same old unsubstantiated assertions that commentators have been throwing out since the Romantic period: allusion to factory models, teachers ‘stuffing’ kids with facts, children learn in different ways, etc. These complaints are all answered with the same ideas that have echoed through time: let kids choose what they should learn, children’s brains are different so they shouldn’t have to learn the same things as each other, and that old classic: why can’t they just Google it?

Today, Caitlin Moran gave us her own cover version of this old standard in a Times column titled, ‘Why I should run our schools’ (£). For Moran, “jobs of the future require flexibility and self-motivation”. Again, how does that differ from jobs today? She iterates “two facts: (1) the 21st century job market requires basically nothing of what is taught in schools, and (2) everyone has a smartphone.” Of course, (1) is nonsense and (2) is another claim that we can just Google it. Monbiot and Moran both overlook the evidence that, as E.D. Hirsch says in summarising cognitive psychologist George Miller’s research, “to be able to use [Google] information – to absorb it, to add to our knowledge – we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge.” Daisy Christodoulou explains in detail why just you can’t just Google it, here.

Monbiot and Moran are both hugely intelligent people (I’ve enjoyed much of their writing on a myriad of topics), but they fall into the same trap as many amateur commentators on education in repeating the same old “gibberish sprinkled with question marks”, gibberish that appeals to and seduces casual observers of education. They certainly aren’t the first to do so, and they definitely won’t be the last. Because in nonsense is strength.

Assessment Objectives: An Ofqual concern for Ofqual people; there is nothing for you here!

I’d turned over on my ankle and it had already ballooned up by the time I’d reached the doctor’s office. After a bit of prodding and nodding, he spoke. “Yes, looks nasty. Bit swollen. But it’ll be pretty straightforward to make you feel better.”

“Great. Give it to me. Er, please.” I replied.

“As I say, it’s straightforward. You need to stop your cells from producing prostaglandins.”


“Prostaglandins. They are a group of lipids. When your cells are damaged they release them. You need to stop your cells from producing these prostaglandins.”

“I’m sorry, I’ve still no…”

“Listen, Mr Theo, you want to feel better don’t you?”

“Yes, I…”

“Well then, you need to stop producing prostaglandins. That’s why you are in pain. The nerve endings are picking up on them and transmitting the pain to your brain. You stop them, you stop the pain.”

“Right, so… how do I…”

“Well, to stop these prostaglandins, you just need to, er…”

The doctor paused, looking around him as if he’d lost something.

“Quick, this is really hurting. Please.”

“As I was saying, you just need to…” A look of realisation came over the doctor’s face and he immediately spun around to face his desk. He opened his drawer, pulled out a notepad and started scribbling away. After he’d scratched a few hieroglyphs on the page, he ripped it off the notepad and handed it over to me. “…take two of these every four hours, no more than three times in a 24 hour period. That should sort you out until the swelling goes down.”

I took the sheet of paper and read it. “But this just says ‘Ibuprofen’? Is that it? You could have just told me this straight away. I have some Ibuprofen in my pocket. What was all the stuff about pronto… procti…”

“Prostaglandins. Yes, it’s important that you know the objective of the treatment.”

Of course, it didn’t go like that at all. The doctor just told me that it was nothing serious, just a little tissue damage, and that I should go home and take some painkillers. He said that Ibuprofen would take away the pain until the injury settles down. I didn’t need to know the stuff about prostaglandins. I just needed to know specifically what to do to make me feel better.

This is how I feel when I see resources that explicitly discuss Assessment Objectives with pupils. I have no idea why pupils need to know about Assessment Objectives. They aren’t meant for pupils. Heck, they are barely of use to teachers.

Assessment Objectives (AOs) are produced by Ofqual so that exam boards can be held to account when putting together their qualifications. They are just an accountability tool for exam boards:

“Assessment objectives are part of the assessment arrangements for these qualifications. We adopt the assessment objectives set out in the attached document into our regulatory framework through the subject-specific conditions that exam boards must comply with when designing their specifications.” (Ofqual, 2014)

Because they are an overview of the conditions that exam boards need to comply with, they are vague: they mean very little as they are and it is up to exam boards to interpret them and use these interpretations to determine more distinct requirements for pupils.

Take a look at the AOs for the new English Language and English Literature GCSEs:

Current Assessment Objectives for GCSE English Language (Published by DfE, 2013)
Current Assessment Objectives for GCSE English Literature (Published by DfE, 2013)

As you can see, these don’t tell pupils anything they need to know other than a vague catch-all concepts: ‘select and synthesise evidence from different texts’ is such an imprecise phrase that one could successfully meet this ‘objective’ as it is written here with either one sentence or a ten-page essay.

To know what success would look like under each of the AOs, one might find it more useful to look at the mark schemes written by the exam boards. Level descriptors are exam boards’ interpretations of the assessment objectives, and are at least produced to detail what constitutes success in pupils’ writing.

Yet even these exam boards’ interpretations of the AOs into level descriptors are problematic. As Daisy Christodoulou has written in blogs and in her must-read book on assessment, even descriptors are inaccurate. She will tell us that they are far from ‘precise and detailed’:

So if the performance descriptors are imprecise, what hope is there for Assessment Objectives? Pupils have enough things to remember in preparing for their exams without having to contend with vague statements such as these. Much better to spend time teaching pupils how to respond rather than listing for them Ofqual’s requirements for exam boards.

Assessment Objectives are an Ofqual concern for Ofqual people*. There is nothing for pupils here.

*Ofqual, exam boards, examiners.

Be more Goose: a school shouldn’t rely on Mavericks

Reading, in Berkshire, is a typical British town. In fact, it was once considered by some to be the most typical town in the country. In the years following the Second World War, its typicality was of great use to a nation rebuilding itself: it was used as a sample to gauge the morale of Britons on the whole. How the people of Reading felt, it was assumed, was exactly how the country felt.

Town planners noted the town’s typicality and sought to utilise it further. Thus, whenever it came to introducing new traffic systems, the planners thought that Reading, as the most typical town, would be the best place to trial them. If the new systems worked there, they should be able to work in most places.

This, however, had an affect on the town that the planners hadn’t taken into consideration. Reading – with all of its new-fangled roundabouts, unique traffic lights and unusual road systems – soon was like no other town in Britain. They turned Reading from the most typical in the country into the most atypical town.

When we train as teachers, we are encouraged to observe other practitioners in order to hone our craft. This is great advice. We learn so much about how to teach by seeing how others do it. In many ways, we are looking for typicality: we are trying to understand the norms of a good classroom. One of the most frequent focuses of this search for typicality is behaviour management. We are advised to go and dutifully observe a particular teacher to learn strategies to manage the behaviour in our classroom.

This seems sensible enough: if a trainee teacher can walk into a number of classrooms in a school and come away with an understanding of the typical approaches to behaviour management in the school, they will be able to work on assuming those approaches in their own classroom.

But if trainees are advised to observe specifically-identified teachers, with advice that ‘this particular teacher is good at behaviour management’, this might be a sign that such teachers are atypical of the school’s general management of behaviour. This might tell us that teachers in that school work in relative isolation to establish the culture of behaviour in their classroom. Whilst we send trainees to observe these teachers thinking they will see typical behaviour management, there’s a chance they are seeing the opposite. As with Reading, our ideas might have backfired.

I think that the domain of behaviour management has, in the past, valorised the maverick. We have lauded individuals who have developed a gift in handling difficult behaviour. And whilst we may have much to learn from them, often we have been presented with arcane wizardry beyond our mortal comprehension.

I can remember doing a placement in a school with a challenging cohort and being told to visit two teachers in particular: one, an imposing 6ft-plus  ex-army officer, who conducted the behavioural movements of the classroom like a symphony conductor, demanding discipline through the very cadences of his voice; the other, a tough, maternal teacher who seemed at once gentle and brutal, a bulwark made of feathers, magically providing a defence against the tempests of poor behaviour. I walked away from both observations with no idea how they did it and no clue how to replicate what they did in my classroom. Both of their behaviour management styles were inseparable from their very personalities; they had osmosed a lifetime of interactions in different domains into the subtle tics and acts of legerdemain: their behaviour management style was simply who they were. Sure, there were some things that I could take away, but in general, I left with more of a feeling of my own inadequacy than one of empowerment.

Now such mavericks have a very important place in schools. They encourage and enthuse pupils about education. We should seek them out and celebrate them. But we shouldn’t valorise the atypical at the cost of the typical. It is the systems and culture – and the teachers who follow and promote those systems and that culture – that make a school. In particular, we should venerate the systems and cultures of a school that allow a trainee can go into any classroom in a school and come away with an understanding of how to manage behaviour. We should seek out the typical rather than the atypical. And if the typical isn’t good enough, we should look to improve that, rather than look to the atypical for help.

With the publication this week of his behaviour report, ‘Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour’, it’s author Tom Bennett addresses exactly the importance of the culture of a school. It is interesting to note that all of the cases studies Bennett refers to are focused on what good schools do, not what good teachers do.

An example Case Study from ‘Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour’ (2017), Tom Bennett’s independent review of behaviour in schools.


As Bennett explains, “The school ethos, its vision, and the strategies used to achieve it, must be consistent with one another, and must be consistently demonstrated. Rules and values that fluctuate too much confuse what the school stands for.”

Fluctuation is the state in which mavericks thrive. In order for typical teachers to survive, we should take Bennett’s advice and establish typicality:

“Any area of general behaviour that can be sensibly translated into a routine should be done so explicitly. This removes uncertainty about school expectations from mundane areas of school life, which reduces anxiety, creates a framework of social norms, and reduces the need for reflection and reinvention of what is and is not acceptable conduct. This in turn saves time and effort that would otherwise be expended in repetitive instruction. These routines should be seen as the aspiration of all members of the school community whenever possible.”

By establishing typicality, we allow “all members of the school community” to thrive. Even the mavericks.

As a young boy, my first encounter with the concept of mavericks was in the movie Top Gun. Indeed, Tom Cruise’s protagonist was so maverick that they named him, erm, Maverick. But I always felt more investment in his co-pilot, Goose. Maverick was one-of-a-kind: a success in the skies, in love, and on the beach volleyball court. What’s more he had the self-confidence to pick up a microphone and belt out an impromptu blue-eyed soul tune in a packed bar. Let’s face it, you’d have hated him if he was a real person. But Goose was the level-headed, regular guy. Goose was the standard; the average; the typical. He followed the rules and would have made it to the end of the film if it hadn’t been for Maverick’s folly (yeh, I know, the investigation panel clears him of any fault). If I was choosing a wingman in a school, it would be Goose. Schools need Gooses more than Mavericks.

Teachers: be more Goose. And schools: establish the conditions and culture in which Goose can make it to the end of the film. I feel the need… the need to make behaviour a whole-school focus with attention to detail, consistent practices, visible leaders and clarity of culture. Yee-haw.


The variable obscenity of knowledge

“Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”

This was the question famously asked by prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones to the Old Bailey jury at the obscenity trial for Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Griffith-Jones’ implication was that the book should be available for the pleasure of men of a certain class. But he was at pains to suggest that the morally vulnerable working class and the equally “intellectually and morally fragile” female readers should be protected from being exposed to the novel. The jury laughed: three of them were women and most of them were working class men who would have found the idea of having live-in servants extraordinary.

Griffith-Jones’ question has lived on in infamy, but it was the only time during the trial that he actually mentioned wives and servants. Much of his case relied on the fear that the book would make it into the hands of working-class boys. It is clear that the prosecution was targeting the already marginalised members of society.

The principle that the authorities would wish to ban publication of a text for a mass audience that it would happily allow for a privileged readership has since been given the term ‘variable obscenity’ (Hunter et al. 1993): it is obscene for the poor, but not for the privileged.

We can see the same principle of variability in some attitudes towards pupils receiving a knowledge-rich education. It is often the case that such attitudes are displayed by people privileged enough to be rich with knowledge themselves.

Take for example, this letter to Michael Gove, signed by 100 education academics, urging him to change his proposed knowledge-rich curriculum to one of “problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity”. Such academics have achieved their status through an accumulation of knowledge within their field: their ability to problem solve, think critically and be creative is a function of that wealth of knowledge, as Daniel Willingham suggests here.

Or when this headteacher decried how he “suffered” a grammar school education “constricted by academic content” and, elsewhere, complained that an “emphasis on content and knowledge over creativity and enjoyment” gives us a curriculum that “both pupils and teachers are bored with”.  One can’t help but notice that such an academic education set him up on his path to be a successful headteacher and writer. Why is this content-rich curriculum not desirable for our pupils too?

Or what about earlier this month when a Stanford professor told us that education isn’t about knowing things because “in today’s world, when information is at our fingertips, we don’t need to go to school to learn facts and figures — a quick Google search, a glance at Wikipedia, or a question posed to Siri will usually result in answers to specific questions.” Do you get to be a Stanford professor with Google, Wikipedia and Siri, or is that just an education reserved for the rest of us?

You don’t have to look very far to find successful people privileged with deep and broad knowledge in their domains telling us that kids should prioritise soft skills like creativity over knowledge.

In such a way, they seem to echo the attitude of Griffith-Jones and the idea that a work of literature is of variable obscenity. Just as society’s privileged back then suggested that the book in question was acceptable for them but not for the general public, so the academically privileged seem to suggest that a rich knowledge is something they can cope with, but is detrimental to the young.

I’d even suggest that not only have such people coped with learning an abundance of knowledge, this beautiful, rich knowledge has been the key to their success.

Next time a successful educationalist decries a focus on domain knowledge and extols the virtues of soft skills in its place, ask yourself: how much knowledge did they need to build to get where they are today? What facts did they need to learn? What knowledge did they need to commit to memory? How much repetition and revisiting did they need to undertake in order to remember, manipulate and apply this knowledge? How much content did they need to study? How many books did they need to read? And are any of those books ones that you would wish your pupils to read? Or should we hold our pupils to a variable standard?

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