Few books on the state of Education have created as much of a stir as Daisy Christodoulou’s 2014 treatise, Seven Myths About Education. When It first appeared in July of 2013 as a short, persuasive e-book, British and American educators hailed it as a potential “game-changer” from a British schoolteacher willing to present the accumulating research evidence that challenges the prevailing “progressive education” orthodoxy.
Since its re-publication in March of 2014, the book has dominated educational discourse everywhere but here in Canada and much of the United States. In the wake of the May 2, 2015 ResearchED New York conference, that’s likely to change. Daisy Christopoulou’s workshop presentation found a new North American audience, including a few Canadians like John Mighton, Robert Craigen, and me.
When Daisy Christodoulou started teaching in September 2007 in a South East London secondary school she was immediately struck by how little her students actually knew.. In one class of 15 and 16-year-olds, she discovered children who “were barely literate and numerate” grappling with books written for eight and nine-year-olds. “Many of the pupils I taught could not place London, their home city, on a map of Britain. Plenty thought Africa was a country,” she says.
Widely regarded as “Britain’s brightest student” before entering teaching, Daisy set out to find out why students’ content knowledge had slipped so dramatically in state schools. Her research only confirmed that her experiences weren’t atypical. She stumbled upon Susan Jacoby’s 2008 book, The Age of American Unreason, which reached similar conclusions about the appalling level of students’ understanding about the core principles and foundations of the American democratic system.
Little in her British teacher’s college training prepared her for this discovery and, only when she began to look wider afield, did she discover the research and writings of two American authorities, E.D. Hirsch Jr. and Daniel T. Willingham. “It was a great relief to read Hirsch and Willingham,” she now recalls, “and to realize that the intuitions I’d had about the importance of knowledge were backed up by solid evidence. But it was also extremely frustrating, because I just couldn’t believe that all this vitally important evidence about how pupils learn hadn’t been taught to me when I was training to be a teacher.”
Then Daisy Christodoulou began to connect all the dots. “Much of what teachers are taught about education is wrong… I was not just shocked, I was angry. I felt as though I had been misled.” She then added: “I had been working furiously for 3 years, teaching hundreds of lessons, and much information that would have made my life a whole lot easier and would have helped my pupils immeasurably had just never been introduced to me. Worse, ideas that had absolutely no evidence backing them up had been presented to me as unquestionable axioms.”
Awakened to that realization, Christodoulou proceeded to identify what she terms “Seven Myths About 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
Her book not only identifies, but documents, why these beliefs fly in the face of social-science research and the latest discoveries in cognitive psychology.
Much of the book exposes the ideological bias that informs far too much of what passes for educational discourse. “Too often, people think that teaching knowledge is somehow right wing and elitist,” Christodoulou wrote in the AFT magazine, American Educator. “But this isn’t the case. The kind of powerful knowledge that’s in the Core Knowledge† curriculum in the United States doesn’t “belong” to any class or culture. The great breakthroughs of civilization were made by a whole range of people from different classes and cultures, and if they belong to anyone, they belong to humanity. Teaching these insights to children isn’t elitist—not teaching them is!”
Christodoulou is particularly critical of British and American school systems for educating students who “lack knowledge of important fundamentals.” The education establishment, according to her, downplays the importance of knowledge. “There is general academic underachievement despite a multiplicity of reform efforts and relatively generous funding. Attention is paid to school structures over classroom practice.”
The British teacher-turned-author is difficult to label and discredit because of the soundness of her thinking and her impeccable research. Nor is she inclined to defend standardized student testing. ” The high-stakes, test-based accountability systems in both countries,” she says,” have, by and large, failed….when I advocate teaching knowledge, people assume I’m advocating high-stakes tests. That isn’t at all the case. In fact, I’d argue that a lot of the damaging test preparation we see in both systems is the result of the misconception that skills can be developed in the abstract.”
Christodoulou’s Seven Myths about Education is already one of the most talked-about books in British education over the past 20 years. A London Sunday Times book reviewer got it right in August 2013 when he commented that she had unleashed “a heat-seeking missile” at “the heart of the educational establishment” and her recent researchED Conference presentations have only enhanced her credibility among regular classroom teachers.
The book demonstrates the persuasive power of sound ideas and research-based approaches to education. “More and more teachers are realising the gap between the theory they are taught and their practical experience,” Christodoulou commented in The Spectator. “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.”
That realization is what fuels the latest rising phoenix – the British teacher-led ResearchED movement.
What explains the dominance of certain persistent “mythologies” in the world of contemporary education? How accurate was Daisy Christodoulou’s “heat-seeking missile”? Is there a danger in restoring “content knowledge,” that pedagocial approaches other than teacher-guided instruction will be similarly discarded or devalued? What can be done to transform teaching into the art and science of combining style with substance in today’s classrooms?