Are knowledge and facts no longer relevant?

Printed from:

Review of “Seven Myths about Education,” by Daisy Christodoulou (London: The Curriculum Centre, 2013; 978-0-9575919-0-5; available from Amazon in Hardcover, $147.25; Paperback, $23.24; and Kindle edition, $14.55).

In her first book, Daisy Christodoulou argues that much of what teachers are taught about education is wrong and that they are encouraged to teach in ineffective ways. Her arguments are based on her experience teaching English in a secondary school in London; on an examination of education research, especially in cognitive science; on education philosophy (e.g., Rousseau, Dewey, Freire); and on publications put out by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) to advise teachers. Her book is as relevant to an understanding of the educational issues currently roiling the U.S. as it is to current educational issues in England.

From an immigrant family that had not had the opportunity for the kind of education that she was able to have, Christodoulou became concerned about the low levels of basic skills and knowledge of the students graduating from the “deeply flawed education system” she taught in for three years. The central problem, she concluded, is its approach to academic content — to the worth of knowledge itself. Structural issues regarding school governance and management are not the major sources of the damage to the education of poor or “working-class” children in England. Chief sources in her view are the evidence-less pedagogical ideas conveyed to prospective and practicing teachers by education schools and the many professional publications issued by Ofsted.

Her book is organized around the seven “most damaging myths” in education:

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

American parents who have become familiar with the teaching approaches and classroom activities being used to implement Common Core’s standards will recognize most of these “ideas” (especially the unwarranted stress on project-based learning). For each myth, Christodoulou first shows many examples of its influence on classroom practice. She then explains why it is a myth and why it is so damaging. For “theoretical” evidence of the existence of the myth, she traces the philosophical roots of the myth, citing ancient and contemporary theorists. For “practical” evidence of the prevalence of the myth, she draws on government publications that illustrate the power of evidence-free theories. As in the U.S., teachers who want high ratings for “effectiveness” quickly learn the practices they should display for visits by pedagogical evaluators. For empirical evidence supporting her conclusion about the ineffectiveness of the myth (i.e., why it is a myth), Christodoulou brings in the results of recent research, especially in cognitive science.

Christodoulou believes that the intellectual trend underpinning these seven myths is postmodernism, not progressivism, because at the heart of most of them is a profound skepticism about the value of knowledge—not a characteristic of “progressive” thought, including that of John Dewey. Yet, as in the U.S., there is a widespread emphasis on the goal of developing “critical thinking” in K to 12. Making evaluative judgments about a topic or issue requires knowledge of cultural context, historical antecedents, and comparison of multiple perspectives, and as Christodoulou points out, such judgments cannot be exercised easily or readily by intellectually vacant minds.

Indeed, in the U.S., there is an unshakable belief that Common Core will deliver on its promise to develop critical thinking skills, although there is nothing in its English language arts (ELA) standards or the many published lessons based on them to suggest how teachers can develop critical thinking when addressing lists of empty skills (i.e., Common Core’s ELA standards).

Unsurprisingly, the two testing consortia funded by the USDE to develop common tests based on Common Core’s standards say nothing about literary, historical, or other academic content in their test specifications for ELA. No criteria for the design of test items address the content students should be expected to acquire over 12 years of public education even though their reading and English teachers are to spend half of their reading instructional time on “informational” texts at every grade level.

So, how are 21st century students to acquire the capacity to think critically if the emphasis in their curriculum and on their tests is skills development, peer consensus, or personal discovery, not academic concepts and the facts that illustrate them? Unfortunately, Christodoulou doesn’t have anything to offer action-seeking readers at the end of her thought-provoking, well-reasoned, and well-researched book. What can parents and others do if their children’s teachers are trained to use ineffective pedagogical approaches and to hold philosophical ideas that damage students’ ability to learn but are, nevertheless, to be held accountable for their intellectual growth? What should teachers themselves do about this situation? Perhaps an American publisher can ask her to offer her ideas on this problem in another book?

Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky is professor emerita, University of Arkansas and a member of Common Core’s Validation Committee (2009-2010). Read her past columns here. This review first appeared in the Journal of School Choice: International Research and Reform, Volume 8, Issue 3, 2014. Permission to reprint has been granted by Taylor & Francis Group, LLC