Knowledge or Progressive based education?

Neo-progressivism and the Alt-right

by David Didau

Like most people involved in education, I believe in social justice. I want all children, no matter their backgrounds or starting points, to have the best chance of achieving well. I want young people to be creative. I want them to be skilled at collaborating with others to solve problems. I want them to be able to clearly and critically communicate their thoughts. I want them to take on challenges and persist in the face of set backs. I want them to be prepared for an uncertain future. And, of course, I want them to be tolerant, compassionate, open-minded, curious, cooperative and to help leave the world in a better condition than that in which they found it. Who wouldn’t?

Where I disagree with some people is on how we can best achieve these aims. As I explained in my taxonomy, knowledge underpins all of those attributes we consider desirable. No one is born with the knowledge required to think critically about important issues and solve pressing problems in the world; we acquire this over time. But some children do start life with advantages over others.

One advantage is to be born with a higher fluid intelligence and a greater than average working memory capacity. This is a massive head start as raw reasoning ability and the ability to hold more things in mind at once means that you will find understanding new information easier than those without these advantages. You’ll learn more quickly.

A second advantage is to be born into an environment that provides richer stimuli. If your parents have the education, the time and the freedom conferred by being wealthier, you’re likely to have opportunities other, less advantaged children won’t get. You’re likely to be read more stories, encounter more vocabulary, have more interesting dinner table conversations and access to a realm of ideas of increasing sophistication. When you start school, what you know will be like intellectual velcro; the new stuff you encounter in school will stick to it more easily.

If our approach to education is ‘child-centred’, we’re likely to value allowing children to choose what they’re interested in rather than ensuring they study what we think is more important. We’re more likely to give them freedoms instead of clear boundaries and firm discipline. If we make excuses as to why some children cannot be expected to behave, focus on generic skills rather than building the knowledge base which makes such skills possible and prioritise a curriculum that’s fun, relevant and non-academic, then we’re helping to ensure that the gap between those who start education with the advantage of a higher fluid intelligence or greater access to cultural capital and those without these advantages grows ever greater.

In the past, the aims of progressive education made a certain kind of intuitive sense. Against the backdrop of the cruelties of corporal punishment and the casual barbarism endemic in early and pre 20th century schooling I can see why anyone decent might have concluded that a change was needed. In the absence of the clear evidence that has emerged from cognitive science in the last couple of decades such choices could be understood and forgiven. The aims of the 21st century skills lobby would be utterly unrecognisable to them; progressivism has changed.

The neo-progressive knows about the limitations of working memory, the transformational power of rich background knowledge, and the tendency of children to be more motivated to engage in biologically primary evolutionary adaptations rather than focus on the hard task of mastering new biologically secondary modules. The neo-progressive ignores this information in favour of what they prefer to be true. Such a stance wilfully and deliberately increases societal inequities. Anyone who disingenuously argues that there is ‘no best way’ to teach, that child-centred approaches are equally as valid as explicit instruction, is responsible for poorer children from less advantaged backgrounds being further squeezed out the best universities and best-paid jobs. You are, whether you want to admit it or not, pursuing the same aims as the libertarian alt-right, wherein no one gets a hand up or hand out; survival of the fittest and the devil take the hindmost.

If, like me, you want to see an end to social injustice, abandon the ideological dependence on out-worn, bankrupt theories of how we’d like to children to learn and start taking note of what science is revealing about how children actually learn.

Taxonomy – David Didau

Didau’s Taxonomy

Taxonomy is the science of classification. As such it’s useful for ordering items within a domain into different categories. Contrary to popular understanding, although taxonomies can be hierarchical, they don’t have to be so. In education, the word ‘taxonomy’ is most closely associated with the prefix, ‘Bloom’s’. As every teacher knows, Bloom’s Taxonomy is a triangle with ‘knowledge’ at its base and ‘evaluation’ or ‘creativity’ at its apex. In fact, Bloom’s Taxonomy is not just a triangular diagram, it’s actually an attempt to classify different thinking skills. The triangle has simply come to represent the taxonomy.

The educational psychologist, Benjamin Bloom, who developed the first iteration of his taxonomy in 1956, saw knowledge as the basis, the foundation, of all thinking, not as a category of thinking skill but as “the necessary precondition for putting these skills and abilities into practice.” This is presumably why, in the diagram it is placed at the base of the triangle and given an areas larger than all the other areas.

The problem is that when we see a triangle, a trick of the brain forces us to see the apex as representing something higher and more sought after than the base. This fallacious understanding has led educationalists to conceive of those skills at the bottom of the triangle to represent ‘lower order’ thinking whereas those at the top are seen as ‘higher order’. The consequences of the misapprehension have been dire.

Over the past six decades, ‘mere’ knowledge has been denigrated as something to be rushed past and superseded as soon as possible, and analysis, synthesis, evaluation and creativity have been lauded as the aims of any right-thinking educator. While this was no doubt well-intentioned, the rush to develop students’ analytic and creative skills has had the unintended consequence of making them less knowledgeable. The problem is that thinking skills cannot be meaningful practised in the absence of something to think about.

My contention is this: You cannot think about something you don’t know and the more you know, the better you can think. It’s certainly true that raw reasoning ability – sometimes referred to as fluid intelligence – exists without prior knowledge. As such, we can apply our fluid intelligence to problems in the environment about which we have no knowledge. But, the ability to apply what we know – or crystallised intelligence – trumps fluid intelligence.

Let’s consider an example. Consider two individuals: Sarah has high fluid intelligence but knows nothing about quantum physics and Tony has lower fluid intelligence but knows a lot about quantum physics. If we were to expect Sarah to analyse or synthesise different aspects of the quantum physics she would have to rely on her working memory to hold all the new information in mind while simultaneously trying to think about it. There’s no doubt that Sarah would be able to process new information more quickly that Tony if they were more equally ignorant of the subject, but because Tony knows a lot about this particular subject he can access long-term memories to overcome the limits of working memory which will mean he has more room in his consciousness to think analytically and creatively. If both Tony and Sarah were given the same task, Tony’s performance would be superior.

Because thinking skills require knowledge, they don’t exist generically. There’s no such thing as the generic ability to be analytical or creative; you can only analyse some thing or be creative in a particular filed. It therefore makes sense to re-imagine Bloom’s taxonomy so that it better represents the types of thinking we might want our students to be able to perform.

I read Doug Lemov’s post on the problems with the way Bloom’s taxonomy is perceived and saw he’d proposed a new way of representing the taxonomy.

Inspired, I thought I’d have a go at formulating my own post-Bloom taxonomy, taking in some of what we’ve learned from cognitive science in the intervening decades:

Long-term memory contains what we know. I’ve separated this into things we know we know – declarative knowledge – and things we don’t know we know – non-declarative knowledge. The ‘pillars’ flowing between long-term and working memory represent our different cognitive abilities. They’re also, you may have noticed, the trendy 21st century skills we here so much about. Blue pillars are – I think – mostly declarative, while the green are mostly non-declarative. The turquoise pillars are either a bit of both, or ones I wasn’t sure about. Working memory – our capacity to hold new information from the environment and process it with information retrieved from long-term memory – is the point of the triangle because, well, working memory capacity is constrained. It also suggests that this is the point at which we act on the world. Long-term memory is the inverted base of the triangle to reflect the idea that long-term memory – and with it our crystalised intelligence – expands as we know more. No doubt this needs some work, and I’m certain it won’t please everyone, but I think it might be a small improvement on the triangle. At the very least it clearly represents how different ways of thinking interact with what we know.

Even if you think this diagram has descriptive power, please, please resist the temptation to put it in a lesson plan. This sort of thing should never be prescriptive.

Knowledge organisers

There has been lots in the ‘twittersphere’ recently about the use of knowledge organisers, how these link to homework, revision and low stakes testing. As a result I have put some examples and guidance below as the approach can reduce teacher workload and improve student outcomes:

Joe Kirby writes about his use of KOs at

James Theobald has created a collection of ready-made KOs at

Shaun Allison writes about his use of KOs at

Knowledge Organisers HOW TO

Knowledge organiser GCSE Weimar Germany

Knowledge organiser GCSE Arab-Israeli

AS Henry VII

KS3 Ancient World knowledge organiser

Thanks to Toby French at Torquay Academy for the above examples – he can be found on Twitter as @MrHistoire and is a great source of information and knowledge!

How to create a knowledge organiser

Knowledge organisers – could be really useful across all subjects so keen to hear your thoughts…

This post follows the huge interest in my last, How to use a knowledge organiser. It is deliberately generic, and so I will write a further post on how I began to create KOs for history.

At Torquay Academy we’re now looking at how to improve our KOs after introducing them school-wide in September. The advice below is what I have suggested to our staff.

Making a knowledge organiser

The KO is like a scheme of work, but simpler and more effective. It doesn’t need ‘Do Nows’ and chunked activities; it doesn’t need to be differentiated; it doesn’t need lots of detail. It is a whole course and a two-minute quiz, a revision timetable and a cover lesson.

It is not a bolt-on. The only thing that should come before it is what we want children to learn. It should underpin every single thing we do in every…

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Questioning – the collection.

A great collection on questioning from Alex Quigley:

Happily, I have written a lot of blogs to capture, distill and codify my thinking into practical strategies for classroom talk and questioning. Here is my collection:

Questioning – Top Ten Strategies. This 2012 post is my most popular all-time post by a long way. It holds its power I think – for the Paxman interview if nothing else!

Questioning and Feedback: Top Ten Strategies. This 2014 post pairs up the yin and yang of classroom practice, once more sharing a series of teaching ideas.

Inclusive questioning. This 2013 is a personal favourite that charts the subtle steps of classroom talk and successful questioning.

Conducting Classroom Talk. This post from 2014 provides a clear guide to the integral process of classroom talk and questioning.

‘Question Time’ and Asking Why. This 2013 post takes a look at the research that attends questioning in the classroom and focusing on the crucial importance of ‘why’ questions.

Confidence Tests and Exam Wrappers. This 2016 post shares two of my favourite recent teaching strategies, with ‘confidence tests’ providing an update on multiple choice questions.

Supporting Shy Students. This 2015 pays particular heed to shy students, offering strategies to make classroom questioning a safer, easier process for shy students.

Multiple Choice Questions: A) Use Regularly B) Don’t Use. This 2014 post offers a critique of multiple choice questions. My view has softened, but they still prove tricky to devise!

Curiosity killed by class? This 2014 post takes on the interesting socio-economic differences that can seemingly influence student questioning in the classroom.

‘Disciplined Discussion’: As Easy as ABC. This 2013 post takes on the crucial topic of classroom talk, offering links to Doug Lemov and some strategies of my own.

Looking back over this array of blogs has made me mindful of how seemingly simple questioning is – we simply ask so many in our classrooms – but how complex it can prove to get it right.


Tom Bennett – a refreshing repost for a Friday!

Thursday, 16 March 2017

I just countersued- Prince Ea: the same old arguments in a shiny new video

Judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree and it’ll spend a lifetime thinking it’s stupidAlbert Einstein

You’ll see this quote everywhere. Its memorable and tidy and superficially convincing. It’s often accompanied by the cartoon at the top of this post (in which the goldfish is in a bowl on top of a tree stump, which makes me think damn that goldfish is a really good climber already).

Except Einstein never said it. It’s a perfect example of how the Internet has resurrected the principle that a lie can get half way around the world before the truth can get its boots on. A glib, seductive claim untroubled by veracity or evidence. This is how the video ‘I just sued the school’ starts. It’s also very much how it continues.

Fans of 19th century educational clichés dressed as slick, radical innovation are in for a treat, in a short film/ advert/ performance by hip-hop inspirational speaker Prince Ea called ‘I just sued the School System’ released in 2016. (It’s already had over 5 million views. I can only imagine how many staff meetings and assemblies have already pored over it.)

To be honest fans of these ideas are rarely not in for a treat, as such proclamations are common as pigeons and as old as coal. Did you see Ken Robinson’s magnum opus in this area? I’d be more surprised if you didn’t. His TED talk ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ (12 million views) is currently the industry standard in this territory. And a few years ago a keen young rapper called Boyinaband took up the torch with his viral ‘Don’t stay in school.’ (14 million views) As you might gather, they think schools are rubbish.

I’ve made hay out of both of these before. See here for my review of Ken Robinson’s oeuvre and here for my thoughts on Boyinaband. They position themselves as radicals, innovators and disruptors of ancient paradigms. But their arguments are straight out of the 19th century and the first wave of romanticism and progressive education. Their arguments are thin at best, and rely more on an appeal to the emotions than fact. But the problem with ghosts and wraiths is that you can’t knock them out with the biggest haymaker. It’s hard to put gas in a box. ‘What is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence’, as the clever Hitchens brother once said. But what if they won’t be dismissed? What if people still believe? What if they prefer the ghost?
The People vs The School System

Let’s look at the video. For a start you notice the production values. This is well designed, scored, cast and performed. Prince Ea is sincere, convincing and convinced. The rhetorical dimension is beautifully executed. Set in that Neverland trope, a mythical court of truth and goodness, he plays a young Atticus Finch/ Torquemada, holding the school system to account for its many crimes- here gamely represented by a sneering, old white man. Righteous vigour versus infirmity and privilege. Which is great because for a minute I thought he was going to play the obvious rhetorical tropes.

Over 6 minutes we’re treated to a shopping list of every educational cliché: schools are no longer fit for purpose; schools haven’t changed in 150 years whereas cars and telephones are unrecognisable, and so on. Some of the charges laid are quite remarkable. Apparently schools:

  • Kill creativity
  • Kill individuality
  • Are intellectually abusive
  • Turn millions of people into robots
  • Are guilty of malpractice

These kinds of allegations stagger me with their casual vilification of educators. Millions of people work in the systems he describes, grafting and straining and giving every damn they can, only to be told by an incredibly successful product of that system (Magna Cum Laude in anthropology, University of Missouri) that they are ‘abusive’. It pretends to make a distinction between attacking ‘the system’ and the people who inhabit it. ‘They’re not the problem. They work in a system.’ This is the rhetorical equivalent of someone in a pub saying ‘No offence, but’ before telling you your kids are ugly. ‘The system’ isn’t just some administrative miasma or dystopian fantasy bureaucracy like HYDRA or SMERSH. It’s composed of the people within it, many of whom may disagree with this policy or that, but who for the most part give far more of a damn about making it work than…well, someone who has time to make inspirational videos for a living.


No corpse of an idea is too ripe to have lipstick applied and paraded: ‘I did a background check. You were made to train people for factories. Straight rows. Short breaks.’ No, no it wasn’t. For a thorough deboning of this myth, see here. This misunderstanding of how and why public schooling was created is indicative of the quality of analysis throughout. And besides, does anyone really think that contemporary schooling is designed to create factory workers? How many factories have counsellors, art and drama, Glee and chess clubs? You didn’t do a background check. You just read Ken Robinson with a highlighter pen.

You might as well claim that redcurrants and White Christmases were the same thing because they were both colours. Could it be that rows are an efficient way to seat students to see what the teacher is doing? Could it be periods of work followed by brief spells of rest are a pretty sound way to get things done? No, obviously they are instruments of tyranny. ‘We all have a past,’ he tells us. ‘I myself am no Gandhi.’ You got that right. Gandhi was informed.
Fashionable in the 80s

The video is peppered with unintentional hilarious goofball moments. ‘Scientists tell us no two brains are the same.’ Cue a scientist in the stand holding a plastic brain. Conceivably this alludes to the theories of multiple intelligences or perhaps even learning styles like VAK which have been so comprehensively blown up by contemporary neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Such ideas are common tropes in pseudo science, and used to justify multiple sins in classrooms. Of course our brains aren’t identical- otherwise we’d be the same person- but they work pretty much the same way, aberrations notwithstanding.
The process by which we all learn is remarkably similar in function and execution. The drive for entirely personalised learning, like so much of this video, was hip about ten years ago, but has been challenged repeatedly since. Teachers are actually pretty good at spotting where students are with their baseline knowledge, and working out what to teach them next. Neuroscience doesn’t teach us that- classroom experience and solid subject familiarity does. I don’t fret about what kind of brain little Jessica or Jasmine has; I ask myself what do they need to learn next. While the narrator is fretting about cookie-cutter education and ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ (does it ever?) paradigms, teachers are getting on with the job. He seems to think we stand there and lecture for an hours to our students and the devil take the hindmost. Which ignores all of the questioning, feedback, and discussions that take place.

To the narrator, it’s ‘educational malpractice’ for one teacher to stand in front of twenty children . Meanwhile I’m thinking ‘Man, that’s a pretty good ratio, I wish all my classes were that small.’ He calls it ‘horrific.’ He says it’s ‘the worst criminal offence ever.’ Perspective, reason, evidence, propriety all self-immolate in a gas station conflagration of hyperbole. I can only guess how he describes murder.

Teachers are underpaid, he claims, apparently walking back the charge that we are worse than carpet bombers, which is nice of him. ‘Doctors can perform heart surgery,’ he says. ‘But teachers can reach the heart of children.’ And I’m reminded of Owen Wilson’s con artist in Wedding Crashers. ‘You know how they say we only use 10 percent of our brains? I think we only use 10 percent of our hearts.’ It makes a decent inspirational coaster, but as an argument it lacks something.

And ‘Curriuclums are created by policy makers who have never taught a day in their lives.’ For a man who sells inspirational mugs, this is pretty brave stuff. And ignores the obvious mechanisms that curriculums usually go through before they ever see a classroom, which involves substantial input or design by teachers. But, y’know, facts.
Bullsh*t Bingo

If you had ‘Uses Finland as an argument’ in the sweep stake then prepare to collect your winnings, as he does indeed, go there like the SAS. ‘They have shorter school days, good wages, and focus on collaboration instead of competition.’ They also have a population of five and a half million and a winter 100 days long. Plus they’ve started to fall down the international league tables despite still having all of these things. And many have argued that their prior dominance was founded on existing cultural factors.  Education tourism is a sin, or as Prince Ea might put it ‘the greatest tragedy known to humanity ever including the great flood.’ Probably. And besides, Singapore does pretty well too, despite it representing a system closer to the human power cells of the Matrix than the antediluvian Eden of Scandinavia. Oddly, he does mention Singapore but doesn’t develop this apparently argument-shredding counter example.

By now he’s going full pelt and the clichés are like buckshot. He mentions Montessori schools as a shining example of what he sees as a solution, despite the fact that nobody can seem to get that child centred model to work on anything apart from very tiny children- probably for the very good reason that child-led enquiry is perfectly natural and useful in the infant stage, but pretty terrible as a way to accrue second-order propositional knowledge, ie academic subjects. He name checks the Khan Academy, because it’s apparently against the law to be a groovy thought leader in education without advocating flipped learning, despite the enormous chasm of any substantial evidence that teaching yourself academic subjects is of any use to any but the most motivated, mature, and crucially, already able. Try getting that to scale up to ‘most kids in general.’

Summing up

The framing device here is a courtroom, so allow me the same conceit: J’accuse. His solutions aren’t real world solutions. The children he talks about aren’t your average kid from your average home. His solutions suit the wealthy, the middle class, the children of supportive and culturally literate homes. His crepuscular arguments are delivered with passion and intensity, so allow me an equivalent intensity: the solutions he proposes are divisive, unrealistic, costly, and promote social immobility, illiteracy and the disenfranchisement of children- particularly those from backgrounds of social and economic disadvantage. They signal boost the already privileged at the expense of those children who happened to be born in the wrong neighbourhood, the wrong family, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong tax bracket. They are well-meant, no doubt. But so are people who promote the boycott of vaccines.

This kind of muddled, goofy optimism, these charming and harmful nod-along singsong aphorisms should be resisted at every opportunity. Education is far from perfect. In fact, it’s in a bit of a pickle. But that doesn’t mean chaos is preferable to the hot mess we’re in. There are solutions. But they won’t be found in this Hallmark Card, Silicon Valley, cartoon fantasy where schools are villains and every child is a butterfly. We cannot Eat, Pray, Love our way out of our problems. It’s going to take a lot more than reheated leftovers from a brainstorming session out of an advertising agency.

Why do you hate children?
You want children to be creative? Great; so do I, and just about every other teaching professional. The way to make that happen is to stop pretending that creativity is some kind of magic, mysterious thing that happens when you put children on bean bags and get them to design a poster, and realise that humans are naturally creative and the way to encourage the expression of that faculty in a developed and mature way is by teaching them. Teaching them bags of beautiful, fascinating domain specific knowledge and skills, the scales and arpeggios of creation. Mozart and Shakespeare mastered their classics and chords long before they wrote operas and sonnets.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury I put it to you that education is unwell, but it needs medicine, not homoeopathy and voodoo magic. But as Abraham Lincoln once said, ’Don’t believe everything you see on Youtube.’

Case dismissed.