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Teacher training’s war on science

There’s an increasing amount of evidence about how we learn.But you won’t hear about it at teacher training college

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

When I trained as a teacher, seven years ago, these are some of the things I was taught: it’s better for pupils to discover a fact than to be told it. Children learn best working on authentic, real-world projects. Schools and traditional subject boundaries are silos which stifle the natural creativity we all have within us. And this last fact especially: there is no point teaching a body of knowledge, because within a few years it will be outdated and useless. Don’t teach the what, teach the how. ‘Drill and kill’ and ‘chalk and talk’ will lead to passive and unhappy pupils.

This, to a large degree, is still what most teachers are taught. So it’s unfortunate that these ideas are deeply flawed. There’s solid evidence that mostly, the exact opposite is true. Discovery learning is hugely inefficient and ineffective. Authentic projects overload working memory and confuse pupils. Skills are domain-specific and depend on a well-organised body of knowledge securely committed to long-term memory. Deliberate practice — what might be called ‘drill’ — is necessary for mastery. Here’s the real truth: direct teacher instruction is good for pupils’ academic achievement and their self-esteem.

Over the past 50 or so years, scientists have discovered more about how the brain learns than ever before. Their findings have profound implications for education, but too few of these are known or taught within English education.

One of the interesting things about the prevailing myths of teacher training is that they are not new. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was pushing them in the 18th century. Since then, despite a consistent lack of success, they’ve persisted, under different names and with different justifications.

For example, one popular buzzword at the moment is ‘21st-century skills’, which sounds about as cutting-edge and modern as it gets. It’s often defined in terms of modern technology and the demands of the modern economy. Generally, it tends to mean not burdening pupils with knowledge, because facts are so easy to look up on the internet and now change so fast. But a similar case was made at the start of the 20th century. In 1911, a prominent US educationalist criticised the way that schools taught pupils ‘a mass of knowledge that can have little application for the lives which most of them must inevitably lead’. Today we also hear a lot about the importance of ‘innovative’ project- and activity-based learning. But in England in the 1930s, the Hadow Report into primary education counselled that the curriculum should be thought of ‘in terms of activity and experience rather than knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored’. We’ve been trying these ideas, and failing with them, for a very long time.

So how have the myths survived? One reason may be that they tell us something that we want to hear. They sell a vision of a world in which we all have fantastic talent just waiting to be unleashed; in which learning is as natural and as inevitable as growing up. Education, the myth-peddlers will tell you, means ‘drawing out’. In fact, that’s not the word’s real etymology — and what is ‘put in’ is vitally important.

Compared to the myths, the reality can sound a bit depressing. While we learn to speak and to understand speech naturally, most of the other things we want our pupils to learn — including reading and writing — will always require effort, and there are few shortcuts. However, there are also some encouraging aspects of this research. Because learning is about hard work and quality of instruction more than it is about innate genius, all pupils are capable of achieving academically. There will always be differences in innate talent, of course, but we have more in common than we have apart, and so it is possible to identify teaching methods that will succeed for most pupils.

And just because learning is hard work doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. Quite the contrary: often we derive the most satisfaction when we put in the most effort. We also derive satisfaction from success. That’s why ‘direct instruction’ teaching has been shown not only to result in more academic success than other methods, but also in pupils having more self-esteem.

One other reason why these myths have proved so pervasive is because, unfortunately, so much of the research evidence to the contrary is not part of teacher training in the UK or the US. Some of the scientists who did the research have noticed this, and protested. Take Herbert Simon. Simon is one of the major intellectual figures of the 20th century. He was a pioneer of artificial intelligence, and won a Nobel prize for his work on decision-making. His research into memory forms the basis of much of the evidence I’ve summarised above, and he was deeply concerned about the failure of the American educational establishment to consider his findings. Together with two colleagues, he wrote an article challenging what he called some of the ‘frightening’ misconceptions of modern education.

Likewise, the reading researcher Keith Stanovich has argued that ‘education has suffered because its dominant model for adjudicating disputes is political rather than scientific’. In his view, this has left education susceptible to romantic fads such as whole language reading methods.

Since I put out an ebook on education myths last summer — it is now published in print — I’ve heard from teachers saying how grateful they are to have evidence for the ideas they’d suspected were right but had always been told were wrong. But there’s also been a lot of criticism. For some readers, direct instruction, teaching knowledge and memorisation are simply beyond the pale.

Given the history, that doesn’t surprise me. The evidence I gather challenges the status quo of English education, and challenges to the status quo are rarely met with equanimity. But my impression is that we are at a turning point in education. More and more teachers are realising the gap between the theory they are taught and their practical experience. More and more books are being published which explain the insights of cognitive science and the implications they have for classroom teachers. Instead of the warmed-through fads of the past century, I think the next few years will see evidence-based reforms that lead to genuine educational improvements.

Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths about Education was published last week by Routledge.

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