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.