Book title: Seven Myths About Education
Author: Daisy Christodoulou
Publication date: 2014
1. What is your overall impression of the book?
'I was angry. I felt as though I had been misled. I had been working furiously for three years, teaching hundreds of lessons, and much information that would have made my life a whole lot easier and would have helped my pupils immeasurably had just never been introduced to me.'
Christodoulou is clever to put this autobiographical statement at the very beginning of her book. It brought me on-side immediately – I had also been teaching for three years, and was ready to be very angry with her for telling me I was doing it wrong.
In Seven Myths about Education, Christodoulou explores how as a new, young teacher she was given a toolkit which she was told would ensure children’s progress and, even better, their love of learning. She became deeply stressed when these approaches did not work. Christodoulou could have been describing my own early practice, particularly my teacher training, which demonised the ‘sage on the stage’ figure to a level approaching parody.
While Christodoulou presents seven myths to debunk, they really boil down to three as far as I can see:
- Teaching factual knowledge, especially using memorisation, will turn children into mindless grey drones
- It is possible to teach children skills without teaching them any facts
- It is possible to get children doing group projects and letting them teach themselves.
Christodoulou presents a pedagogical compromise between grey-drone-creating rote memorisation, and airy-fairy group work. She advocates direct instruction, as studied in detail by John Hattie. Its pattern of teacher-set goals, modelling, feedback and supervision sounds like common sense (and is probably what most of our lessons now look like) but, as she sets out in the book, it has not always been recognised or celebrated.
2. Who do you think would benefit most from reading the book? What will they learn?
This is a book directed squarely at frontline practitioners who are struggling with the culture of trying to talk less and let the children find things out for themselves. While the book has been dated considerably by the introduction of the new, ‘knowledge based’ curriculum, I feel that my fellow teachers will still benefit from Christodoulou’s ideas.
Some teachers may come away from the book feeling vindicated that their ‘traditional’ approaches are backed up by research; others may feel attacked, and a victim of an ad hominem diatribe; some, like me, will have their eyes opened to a ‘new’ way of doing things.
3. What did you think about the quality of the writing? Please consider the tone, structure and ideas. Does it suit the audience?
Christodoulou knows her work is controversial – nay, a match in a fireworks factory – so she prefaces the book and each chapter with a section proving that the ‘myths’ she describes are really out there.
Nor does she set up straw men; she explores the logic, influences, organisations, studies and philosophies behind each ‘myth’ and calls them out by name. This structure, while repetitive, engages the reader and makes her argument feel persuasive and complete.
The tone of her writing can be almost aggressively sarcastic at times, which as a lifelong cynic I enjoyed, but could put off others. However much you may dislike the authorial voice, the research and deconstruction of the myths presented are compelling.
4. Please discuss the research used to underpin the ideas. What evidence does the author use? Is it robust and up-to-date?
Each chapter is bookended with its own set of references. The research Christodoulou cites to support her own ideas is outnumbered by references to the practice of the ‘myths’, though this is to be expected as she proposes one solution to seven different problems.
Her favoured studies are a robust and compelling collection of works on how humans learn from the 1970s right up to the late 2010s. As she points out, none of her ideas – or the competing, ‘progressive’ ideas – are new; the conflict between ‘Gradgrindian knowledge stuffing’ and ‘experiential learning’ has been going on for generations. This results in some of the references going back to Rousseau in the 1920s, whose theories have been more influential on how we teach than many teachers may realise.
5. What did you learn from reading the book? What ideas/approaches/practice will you change or adopt as a result of reading this book?
This book came at just the right time for me. Since the new primary English curriculum was released, my colleagues and I had struggled to fit the grammar content into the usual ‘big write’ planning structure. A twenty-minute ‘SPAG’ slot on the timetable just wasn’t cutting it – our students were never going to use adverbial phrases by year 4 and had never really been taught what a sentence actually is.
Now, short, daily practice and recitation of key facts is going to be a pillar of my pedagogy. I was always one of the talkier teachers in my ITT programme too, so I now feel free to spend 10 minutes telling children things because they want to know more about them.
One of the most heart-stopping points that Christodoulou makes is that, far from being egalitarian, pedagogical methods such as independent internet research tasks actually privilege those from the most advantaged backgrounds. You might assume that letting children choose their own learning path empowers them, however students with more general knowledge from home or better reading skills will be able to complete such open-ended tasks much more easily compared with those without this advantage. It is up to us, as teachers, to fill children with knowledge about things that they do not have the opportunity to find out for themselves at home.
6. Could you share a quote from the book that particularly resonated with you?
‘It is a baffling overreaction: to move from legitimate criticism of mindless rote learning to the complete denial of any kind of teacher-led activity. The solution to mindless rote-learning is not less teacher instruction; it is different and better teacher instruction.'
On Thursday 7 December 2017 Daisy Christodoulou will join our online book club to discuss her other book, Making Good Progress? You can join in using #CCTbookclub on Twitter.