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.