Seven Myths about Education–A Review of a Book and Methods of Teaching


I am in the process of finishing up my PhD thesis in physics education (hoping to defend it this August), but I have been continuing to search the literature for insights or contrary results to what I had come to expect. That makes for plenty of work, but it is rewarding, adding information to the mind as well as analyzing it into a better understanding that was there before.

So in the process of reading blogs I discovered a new book that touched upon some of the very things I had researched and put into my masters thesis paper, but perhaps not as I understood it. That book was Seven Myths about Education (UKamz) by Daisy Christodoulou, which only came out a couple of weeks ago (as an eBook). Christodoulou is a teacher from England who was in the classroom for three years before becoming a researcher into educational pedagogy. Her book, along with the non-profit she is involved with on how to teach, are the product of that research. Focusing on cognitive research, her own experiences, and the methods expounded upon by other education researchers in both the United States and the United Kingdom, she has argued that there are these seven (in particular) ideas that are inter-connected yet detrimental to how to teach effectively.

The structure of the book is to lay out what she considers a myth, its theoretical or historical backing, its use in modern (usually English) teaching, and why it is a myth. Her list of seven is:

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

The titles for each chapter come from these myths, so let’s unpack them. “Facts prevent understanding” is a rather condensed way of saying that the method of presenting information for students to memorize is not effective, and instead we need to teach how to learn. “Teacher-led instruction is passive” is about how if a teacher says it, then it must be the case that students are just sitting there; students need to lead the instruction. “21st century education” is about how the knowledge that worked in the old days is not terribly relevant today and we can Google information when needed, which leads into “you can always just look it up.” Teach transferable skills” is about focusing on making students have skills that can work in unique, not-before-seen contexts, apparently without the content knowledge. “Project and activities are the best way to learn” is about inquiry-based activities and crafts that are, again, primarily student-run with minimal guidance from the teacher. Lastly, “teaching knowledge is indoctrination” is about post-modern critiques of knowledge and social order via the indoctrination of facts.

In each chapter, Christodoulou is able to point to good psychological or cognitive science that illustrates what the problems each of these myths have. In particular, Christodoulou brings up the issue of working memory vs. long-term memory. The primary issue is that when you need or interpret something, you already need to have a lot of content knowledge to work with. If too many things are unknown, your working memory is overwhelmed (you can’t consciously think about too many things at once) and it’s nearly impossible to understand or analyze. One poignant example presented concerned reading: when looking at students who are given various reading strategies for dealing with an unknown document or piece of text, pupils who had a wide knowledge base (and not necessarily very knowledgeable about anything in particular) did better even if they did not have such reading strategies. That is, a good knowledge base was more important than reading skills.

Christodoulou also brings up the work of E. D. Hirsh and his work on core knowledge and cultural literacy, as well as the method of direct instruction by Siegfried Engelmann; most of the focus is on Hirsh, perhaps largely because his work was in English and reading, and Christodoulou also seems to have this as her background. Key though are the results that showed that the methods described by Hirsh and Engelmann were effective, and more-so that the minimal-guidance methods that teachers were use (Myths 2, 6 esp.)

So far, the book has gotten some considerable praise by one education researcher in the HuffPo, and Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker also seems to approve of it (at least he tweeted the HuffPo piece). In other avenues there has been a negative response, sometimes even mean-spirited, so everyone is not glowing because of the book. However, there is a good case made here about how not to teach, but there are issues that make it difficult to give a full endorsement. There is some need for supplementation and contextualization to provide a fuller picture and a better way to think about teaching pedagogy. This is needed in part because the book attacks ways of teaching that, though not uncommon, are also an extreme interpretation of educational theory, which itself often supports itself by attacking extreme forms of “Victorian” or “Prussian” education; with the extremes fighting, you end up getting a cycle of what is “in” for teaching, and that cycle seems to be about 40 years long. Progress can be made, but the full spectrum must be before us. And I pretty much have to think that because I find my research and work to be somewhere in the middle of things.

First off, though, there is a lot of agreement between myself and Christodoulou. Her points about teaching facts are indoctrination (Myth 7) are very much on the mark. I have no love for post-modern philosophy, and the wish to avoid teaching facts because they are facts important to elites isn’t a valid way to go about things. Heck, the best way to make class distinctions and barriers is to have one group be disconnected from the other. Cutting the lines of communication is just an odd way to have anything that is egalitarian. To what extent this is actually in practice in the classroom I cannot say, but the only point that it has to consider is that some facts or ideas that are not privileged by social elites (and by this, we are talking primarily about what white, upper-class men have valued in the West) that should have some acknowledgement as well. It seems plenty important to learn about Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean modern poets or musicians of less renown from other segments of the broader culture should be left aside. If we want to avoid hegemony of facts in the classroom, that means we need to learn more, not less, facts.

Christodoulou is also correct in her analysis and research when it comes to minimally-guided lessons, activities, and projects. However, the key word or phrase here is “minimal guidance”, and this is a point that I think causes the most cleavage between my views and hers at the moment. When Christodoulou criticizes the inquiry-based approaches to learning, she is going after something I have been exploring a fair bit, including in my current thesis work. My masters paper on project-based learning is also based on inquiry-based approaches to education, so it’s an area I have come to know pretty well. Moreover, the points I have to make can help illustrate rather well how teaching should be done to maximize effectiveness.

Now, the key research that Christodoulou is dependent upon for attacking inquiry-based learning is the analysis by Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark (2006), which did a good job at showing the problems with efforts like discovery learning–a form of inquiry-based learning that has minimal input from the instructor. However, the paper in question grouped together a diverse area of methods into one attack, so Kirschner et al. also think they undermined the entire teaching theory of constructivism. This would only be true of inquiry-based was synonymous with minimal guidance, but it is not. In fact, the best work in the area works on a particular way of how an instructor does guide a student: scaffolding. Unfortunately, this is a term not used by Kirschner et al. nor Christodoulou in her book, at least outside of quotations or otherwise just not considered with any depth. However, a good inquiry-based problem or project is supposed to have technologies involved that provide some guidance to the student, but only as much that is needed.

The concept of scaffolding is much like that in construction of buildings. A scaffold is a temporary structure, there initially for putting up the more permanent structure of the building. As that tower comes together, the scaffolding is removed as it is no longer needed. You use only as much scaffolding as is called for, but enough to get the job done. The same with educational scaffolding: you use this tool to help in the early construction of knowledge structures, and you take away scaffolding as it no longer helps the student. Scaffolding can come in the form of instructions, limitations on what things to explore, what questions are asked to prime the student to think in the right direction, etc. As the response to Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark (2006)  noted, when one has such inquiry-based activities, such as projects or ill-formed problems, but scaffolding/guidance is provided by the instructor or teaching tool (such as a computer-based lesson), then one can see significant positive learning results (Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, & Chinn 2007).

One of the key features of good scaffolding is that it provides feedback to the students. Somehow there needs to be an indication that something is wrong. As Christodoulou herself noted in chapter 2, one of the most important teaching factors, even more than direct instruction, is feedback. In chapter 6, Christodoulou provides an example that is currently used in English schools, a Black Death simulator. This software package provides an (inter-)active learning exercise that has questions along the way to see if the student is learning. The user of the software has to answer multiple choice questions, and they are told if they are right or wrong. Christodoulou brings up this simulation as a key piece of evidence that teachers fall for the myth that projects and activities are the way to go, but she doesn’t show that the simulation is ineffective in teaching students about the subject (the terror that was the bubonic plague in medieval Europe). Besides, the tool does what Christodoulou wants it to do: teach facts about the subject in question.

Now, I don’t think Christodoulou means to say activities or projects are not useful for teaching. Rather, her problem with them is that they seem to require the students to act like experts in solving a problem or completing a project when they don’t have the requisite background knowledge. This is a fair point, and one that can, at least in part, be understood with the Dunning-Kruger effect. This phenomenon is well-known, but part of it is worth repeating: the more ignorant you are of a subject, the more you overestimate your understanding and competence. When it comes to students, without the needed background knowledge that an expert would have, they don’t know that they don’t know all the needed information to answer the question/complete the project/do what is asked of them. So I agree fully that we can’t just get rid of instructions from the teacher and replace it with projects. However, that should not make us swing in the opposite direction and just go with complete direct instruction.

What some researchers have noted for a good mix is when there is an inquiry-based or project-based activity along with just-in-time or previously lectured material that is needed for working on the project (Helle, Tynjälä, & Olkinoura 2006). This has the excellent combination that the facts are provided for the students, and only the sorts of facts students will need (avoiding the infinity of distractors that one will need to traverse using the Internet), while the project will cause the students to make meaningful sense of those facts, integrating them into his or her understanding and having actual meaning to them. Basically, it is trying to do the best of constructivist theory.

Speaking of which, this is something else that was completely absent from Christodoulou’s book: constructivism, along with its most important founding intellectual force, Jean Piaget. This is unfortunate because, even though constructivism underlies a number of the myths that Christodoulou wants to combat, discussion of constructivism could have helped give additional precision to her arguments. According to Piaget’s constructivism, learning is done not by rote memorization, but by organizing prior beliefs and experiences into mental models or constructs to explain what they experience. New knowledge constructs rely on old ones, and if need be old ones can be reconstructed if found to be wanting, perhaps due to new observations or facts (though this is not easy). What this would mean in Christodoulou’s case is that it would be nearly impossible for a pupil to absorb new knowledge from a project if they do not already have experiences or other facts in their mind which can help to complete the activity. After all, you really can’t do calculus before you can do algebra (or geometry if you want to do it like the Greeks). You need some basis of understanding before you can jump further on. This idea is summed up in Leo Zygotsky’s notion of zone of proximal learning/development. On the other hand, if you just memorize facts without something to link them together or to beliefs or experiences you care about, they will form non-interlocking mental constructs and you won’t be so able to recall a fact or experience to help you in a new experience. It would be like having a computer filing system with few or no pointers, no way of connecting one fact to another except in a small domain (perhaps just the domain of “what I need to pass the test”).

So, if we wanted to create an activity that has scaffolding, has feedback, has the sorts of steps to help build knowledge constructs, what might that look like? To make it more concrete, I must plug my own work, a curriculum that I helped develop with several good colleagues. Currently this isn’t published yet, but when it is, it ought to be pretty useful. To teach some of the basics of Newtonian physics, my colleagues and I (along with my professor) developed a roller coaster project/series of labs. The first sessions would have the students work on some basic roller coaster tracks, having them predict what would happen and account for forces and energy. If their predictions were wrong (i.e. the ball was going too slow, the ball left the track), they would get instant feedback and realize something isn’t right. Perhaps they didn’t account for both linear and rotational energy, for example. There are activities along the way to help with some of the concepts, providing some scaffolding. Also, this project is in addition to, not a replacement of, the physics instruction the students normally receive. They will not have to encounter the concept of the normal force for the first time, but they will have to clearly see that it isn’t always just the weight of the object on a surface (a common mistake by students).

Poster presented at the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) meeting, Summer 2012.

There are more details about how to teach this, which will go into the instructor’s notes, but that will have to wait until we can get this published. But to be fair, this curriculum has not yet been tested for effectiveness. However, it is the sort of curriculum you should want to have that considers scaffolding, feedback to the students, etc. Perhaps this isn’t easy to do in other subjects (with a writing assignment, it isn’t obvious how to produce instant feedback as a ball falling off of a track does), but this is the Platonic form that we should be considering.

And let’s also not forget about the science. The evidence for the utility of project-based or inquiry-based approaches is pretty good; I review a number of studies and meta-analyses in my paper (here). The key results are that project-based learning is just about as good for short-term fact retention as traditional methods, better for long-term retention, and better for transferring that knowledge into new contexts, perhaps one of the most important goals for educators.

Again, this is not to say there is no place for lectures or directly providing information. And there definitely needs to be guidance by the instructor. This can become rather apparent when comparing different countries. In a recent talk I attended, Prof. Sachiko Tosa compared the sort of teaching done in elementary school students in the United States with that done in Japan. In test results, young Japanese students are slightly ahead of their American counterparts, but once middle and high school is reached the gap widens and widens. I asked Dr. Tosa why the gap widened, especially because in Japan a good number of the teachers after elementary school have not had formal teacher training (while American teachers have had it); her understanding was that the small advance that Japanese children had gave them the running start and knowledge base to succeed in later schooling. Dr. Tosa also noted how Japanese elementary teachers (who have had teacher training) tended to provide a lot of direct instruction, while American teachers were more focused on discovery. This is nicely consistent with Christodoulou’s thesis, but it isn’t the whole story.

Japan, like many other nations that has been doing well in educating its populace, has used a lot of inquiry-based teaching. The Japanese are not like stereotypical nuns walking around with rulers and slapping wrists when questions are answered incorrectly, though Dr. Tosa also indicated they may not be completely comfortable with inquiry activities. This runs into an oddity with Christodoulou’s book when she says that countries like Finland and South Korea have “Victorian middle-class schools curricul[a]” (chapter 7, but without a citation to back thisup). Both countries have been doing quite a bit of innovative, inquiry-based teaching (Helle et al. 2006, for example, is a Finish research group into project-based learning). As have other countries that scored well in PISA, a international assessment of education in reading, math, and science. You can look at the most recent results of PISA here. You can see one of the top countries in every category is Finland, another is Singapore. Germany,* Japan, and South Korea are there as well. And they all do inquiry-based learning. Germany has been a world-leader in researching project-based learning since the second half of the 20th century. In fact, the group that ran PISA put this video together about Singapore, a nation that, when it became independent in 1965 had near 50% illiteracy and now is one of the top educated populaces in the world

If you watched, you will notice that teachers are pushed away from just giving students answers and instead go for a more Socratic approach to teaching: asking probing questions, encouraging the students to figure things out on their own, etc. There still are direct provisions of information by the teacher as appears in the video, but so does a lot of the best techniques of constructivist approaches. Students are doing projects, answering ill-formed questions, working in groups… the classroom has become more student-centered and not teacher-centered.

And this has worked in my area of expertise as well. One of the seminal papers in physics education research was about how effective student-centered approaches to teaching were effective compared to traditional lectures. In fact, student-centered approaches to physics produced twice the gains in knowledge as did traditional methods (Hake 1998). Yes, twice as good as directly telling students the facts. Drilling and doing lots of problems isn’t going to cut it either; another important study found that even doing 1000 homework problems would not make a student all that more able to overcome conceptual difficulties (Kim & Pak 2002). This is also related to my thesis in which my advisor when he taught physics last year had a more student-centered approach than the other sections at the same time. I will have the results in my paper, but in the mean time I can say it is favorable to the student-centered approach, though it is worth repeating that there was still plenty of lecturing by the professor, not to mention from the teaching assistants who were not likely to know what the fashionable teaching pedagogies are.

Overall, though, I think Christodoulou and I are on the same page. We both agree that teaching skills without content is not useful and that future students need skills and knowledge at their disposal. Google is a tool, not a solution, for getting information (besides, you need to be real critical of what hits Google brings up). But her rhetoric may make it seem that skills are not so important to teach, that you need to just focus on the factual knowledge a student needs, or perhaps skills are something that can also be memorized. So let me emphasize here the need to have good thinking skills, because those will help you learn the knowledge needed and concepts taught, even in a traditional classroom setting. For example, Lawson & Weser (1990) showed that good reasoners (specifically in scientific reasoning) after taking a biology class were more likely to drop pseudo-scientific beliefs (such as vitalism) than those that were poorer reasoners. In other words, making students that think more like scientists will make students better able to understand and accept science. So, we do need to teach content knowledge and skills, probably in tandem to be effective.

Now, there is a lot of work to be done to figure out what will be the best curricula for students, when should they be introduced to subjects, how quickly can they pick up the needed content to move on, and teaching techniques are good for what subjects, and so on. I do believe that Christodoulou does well in showing what we ought not to do and gives good, scientific reasons to avoid them, at least when it comes to the myths in their extreme form. I don’t really know how prevalent these myths are in teaching in the US or UK (and as one reviewer noted, the examples cited by Christodoulou did not provide the context to really know if content knowledge was or was not being included in lessons), but things like discovery learning have not gone away. Books like Christodoulou’s should help us avoid these extreme mythical beasts, but we shouldn’t run from them without at least looking back as well. The myths are not those of Orpheus and Eurydice or Lot’s wife; if anything, think of them more as the weeping angels. Don’t blink, or else these bad ideas will creep back into education again when we get sick of lecture-based instruction (again) and send you back in time.

Now, back to my own writing. I only hope to develop prose half as good as Christodoulou’s.

References

  • Hake, R. (1998). Interactive-Engagement versus Traditional Methods: A Six-Thousand-Student Survey of Mechanics Test Data for Introductory Physics Courses. American Journal of Physics, 66(1), 64-74.
  • Helle, L., Tynjälä, P., & Olkinoura, E. (2006). Project-Based Learning in Post-Secondary Education – Theory, Practice and Rubber Sling Shots. Higher Education, 51, 287-314.
  • Hmelo-Silver, C. E., Duncan, R. G., & Chinn, C. A. (2007). Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark. Edu-cational Psychologist, 42, 99-107.
  • Kim, E., & Pak, S. (2002). Students do not overcome conceptual difficulties after solving 1000 traditional problems. American Journal of Physics, 70, 759-765.
  • Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41, 75-86.
  • Lawson, A., & Weser J. (1990). The rejection of nonscientific beliefs about life: Effects of instruction and reasoning skills. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 27, 589-606.

* Note: Germany had done less well in 2000 in PISA, and this was likely figured to be an effect from various administrative problems. There wasn’t a federal education curriculum (cf. USA) but instead each state set its rules. Also, Germany has had a three-tiered school system which divide good, okay, and not okay students into different education tracks at age 10 (!). This caused a good number of Germans, especially immigrants, to be functionally illiterate and create a divided society. Recently the system has become more uniform and more equitable and PISA scores have shot up. So it seems Germany has had more administrative problems that pedagogical problems.

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