A British schoolteacher, Daisy Christodoulou, has just published a short, pungent e-book called Seven Myths about Education. It’s a must-read for anyone in a position to influence our low-performing public school system. The book’s focus is on British education, but it deserves to be nominated as a “best book of 2013″ on American education, because there’s not a farthing’s worth of difference in how the British and American educational systems are being hindered by a slogan-monopoly of high-sounding ideas—brilliantly deconstructed in this book.
There's not a farthing's worth of difference in how the British and American educational systems are being hindered by a slogan-monopoly of high-sounding ideas.
Ms. Christodoulou has unusual credentials. She’s an experienced classroom teacher, she currently directs a nonprofit educational foundation in London, and she is a scholar of impressive powers who has mastered the relevant research literature in educational history and cognitive psychology. Her writing is clear and effective. Speaking as a teacher to teachers, she may be able to change their minds. As an expert scholar and writer, she also has a good chance of enlightening administrators, legislators, and concerned citizens.
Ms. Christodoulou believes that such enlightenment is the great practical need these days, because the chief barriers to effective school reform are not the usual accused: bad teacher unions, low teacher quality, burdensome government dictates. Many a charter school in the U.S. has been able to bypass those barriers without being able to produce better results than the regular public schools they were meant to replace. No wonder. Many of these failed charter schools were conceived under the very myths that Ms. Christodoulou exposes. It wasn’t the teacher unions after all! Ms. Christodoulou argues convincingly that what has chiefly held back school achievement and equity in the English-speaking world for the past half-century is a set of seductive but mistaken ideas.
She’s right straight down the line. Take the issue of teacher quality. The author gives evidence from her own experience of the ways in which potentially effective teachers have been made ineffective because they are dutifully following the ideas instilled in them by their training institutes. These colleges of education have not only perpetuated wrong ideas about skills and knowledge, but in their scorn for “mere facts,” they have also deprived these potentially good teachers of the knowledge they need to be effective teachers of subject matter. Teachers who are only moderately talented teacher can be highly effective if they follow sound teaching principles and a sound curriculum within a school environment where knowledge builds cumulatively from year to year.
Here are Ms. Christodoulou’s seven myths:
1 – Facts prevent understanding
2 – Teacher-led instruction is passive
3 – The 21st century fundamentally changes everything
4 – You can always just look it up
5 – We should teach transferable skills
6 – Projects and activities are the best way to learn
7 – Teaching knowledge is indoctrination
Each chapter follows the following straightforward and highly effective pattern. The “myth” is set forth through full, direct quotations from recognized authorities. There’s no slanting of the evidence or the rhetoric. Then, the author describes concretely from direct experience how the idea has actually worked out in practice. And finally, she presents a clear account of the relevant research in cognitive psychology, which overwhelmingly debunks the myth. Ms. Christodoulou writes: “For every myth I have identified, I have found concrete and robust examples of how this myth has influenced classroom practice across England. Only then do I go on to show why it is a myth and why it is so damaging.”
This straightforward organization turns out to be highly absorbing and engaging. Ms. Christodoulou is a strong writer, and for all her scientific punctilio, a passionate one. She is learned in educational history, showing how “twenty-first-century” ideas that invoke Google and the Internet are actually re-bottled versions of the late nineteenth-century ideas that came to dominate British and American schools by the mid-twentieth century. What educators purvey as brave, such as “critical-thinking skills” and “you can always look it up,” are actually shopworn and discredited by cognitive science. That’s the characteristic turn of her chapters, done especially effectively in her conclusion when she discusses the high-sounding education-school theme of hegemony:
I discussed the way that many educational theorists used the concept of hegemony to explain the way that certain ideas and practices become accepted by people within an institution. Hegemony is a useful concept. I would argue that the myths I have discussed here are hegemonic within the education system. It is hard to have a discussion about education without sooner or later hitting one of these myths. As theorists of hegemony realise, the most powerful thing about hegemonic ideas is that they seem to be natural common sense. They are just a normal part of everyday life. This makes them exceptionally difficult to challenge, because it does not seem as if there is anything there to challenge. However, as the theorists of hegemony also realised, hegemonic ideas depend on certain unseen processes. One tactic is the suppression of all evidence that contradicts them. I trained as a teacher, taught for three years, attended numerous in-service training days, wrote several essays about education and followed educational policy closely without ever even encountering any of the evidence about knowledge I speak of here, let alone actually hearing anyone advocate it. … For three years I struggled to improve my pupils’ education without ever knowing that I could be using hugely more effective methods. I would spend entire lessons quietly observing my pupils chatting away in groups about complete misconceptions and I would think that the problem in the lesson was that I had been too prescriptive. We need to reform the main teacher training and inspection agencies so that they stop promoting completely discredited ideas and give more space to theories with much greater scientific backing.
The book has great relevance to our current moment, when a majority of states have signed up to follow new Common Core Standards, comparable in scope to the recent experiment named No Child Left Behind, which is widely deemed a failure. If we wish to avoid another one, we will need to heed this book’s message. The failure of NCLB wasn’t in the law’s key provisions that Adequate Yearly Progress in math and reading should occur among all groups, including low-performing ones. The result has been some improvement in math, especially in the early grades, but stasis in most reading scores. In addition, the emphasis on reading tests has caused a neglect of history, civics, science, and the arts.
Ms. Christodoulou’s book indirectly explains these tragic, unintended consequences of NCLB, especially the poor results in reading. It was primarily the way that educators responded to the accountability provisions of NCLB that induced the failure. American educators, dutifully following the seven myths, regard reading as a skill that could be employed without relevant knowledge; in preparation for the tests, they spent many wasted school days on ad-hoc content and instruction in “strategies.” If educators had been less captivated by anti-knowledge myths, they could have met the requirements of NCLB, and made adequate yearly progress for all groups. The failure was not in the law but in the myths.
Our educators now stand ready to commit the same mistakes with the Common Core State Standards. Distressed teachers are saying that they are being compelled to engage in the same superficial, content-indifferent activities, given new labels like “text complexity” and “reading strategies.” In short, educators are preparing to apply the same skills-based notions about reading that have failed for several decades.
Of course! They are boxed in by what Ms. Christodoulou calls a “hegemonic” thought system. If our hardworking teachers and principals had known what to do for NCLB—if they had been uninfected by the seven myths—they would have long ago done what is necessary to raise the competencies of all students, and there would not have been a need for NCLB. If the Common Core standards fail as NCLB did, it will not be because the standards themselves are defective. It will be because our schools are completely dominated by the seven myths analyzed by Daisy Christodoulou. This splendid, disinfecting book needs to be distributed gratis to every teacher, administrator, and college of education professor in the U.S.
This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post on June 27, 2013.
E. D. Hirsch, Jr., is the founder and chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation and professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia. He is the author of several acclaimed books on education issues, including the bestseller Cultural Literacy.