Which ideas are damaging education?


“Education must resolve the teacher-student contradiction, exchanging the role of depositor, prescriber, domesticator, for the role of student among students.

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1968


Education still hasn’t learned that poorly designed curricula generate poor performance in both teacher and students.”

Siegfried Engelmann, Academic Child Abuse, 1992



Confused cargo cult ideas are damaging education


In their early encounters with Westerners, Pacific islanders saw cargo being delivered to islands from the sky. What seemed to them to draw in cargo were headphones, handsignals and landing strips. To attract deliveries of goods, they set up ‘cargo cults’ to build crude imitation landing strips and mimic the handsignals they observed of the people operating them, using coconut shells as headphones. They were then puzzled when the goods failed to materialise.

Some time in the late 20th and turn of the 21st century, the educational establishment in England took a historic and disastrous wrong turn. Knowledge became mistrusted as limiting and elitist. Facts were branded as useless for the future economy and obsolete due to new technology. Teacher-led instruction was pilloried as passive, boring and ineffective. Subjects were denoted as oppressive constructs and arbitrary middle-class inventions that risked indoctrinating students, reproducing hegemonic values and entrenching social inequalities. So runs the argument of a new book published next week, Seven Myths about Education, which this blog post summarises and reviews.

The alternative recommended by educationalists, this book continues, was to teach transferable skills, ideally through independent projects. It traces these ideas back to admired education theorists John Dewey and Paulo Freire, all the way up to their modern-day inheritors Guy Claxton and Ken Robinson. Today, Freire’s books have sold 1 million copies, and Sir Ken Robinson’s videos on TED and Youtube have had over 30 million views. The RSA’s Opening Minds competency curriculum is inspired by this philosophy and is taught in over 200 schools in England. The influence of these ideas is unquestionable. The inheritors have seized the mantle of trailblazing progressives and announced themselves as pioneering innovators.

Given the history of education, all this seems like a puzzling historical accident: how had facts and knowledge become so tainted? For there is another tradition of egalitarian educationalists brought to light by this book, for whom knowledge was not indoctrination, but liberation. Marxist critic Antonio Gramsci wrote in 1923 that it was precisely a move away from knowledge-led instruction that would ‘perpetuate and crystallise social differences’. For labour leader Robert Tressell in 1910, knowledge was not middle-class:

Civilization – the accumulation of knowledge which has come down to us from our forefathers – is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil. It is not the result of the labour of the ancestors of any separate class of people who exist today, and therefore it is by right the common heritage of all.

The extraordinary working-class efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to gain knowledge through great literature documented by Jonathan Rose in his book, The Intellectual Lives of the British Working Classes, belie the notion that high culture somehow belongs to an elite.


Similarly, the little-known story of Siegfried Engelmann is of another egalitarian educationalist whose astonishingly effective method of instruction achieved excellent results for disadvantaged pupils, but whose ideas seem to have been systematically silenced by the educational establishment. Likewise, the story of E.D. Hirsch is revealing. Hirsch realised that knowledge builds on knowledge: the more pupils know, the more they learn, but poorer pupils lack the cultural capital to achieve academically. Motivated by a burning sense of injustice, Hirsch’s curriculum is built on the idea that ‘cultural literacy is the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children and combating educational inequality.’ The unprecedented success of the state inspired by his ideas, Massachusetts, shows that knowledge works. These egalitarians argue that knowledge isn’t elitist; what’s elitist is withholding it. Knowledge is liberating, and these educators working towards equality and progress know that.

So how have we got to the puzzling situation where many modern progressives have aligned themselves with ultra-elitists in restricting high culture to the elite? It’s too simplistic to laud ‘traditionalists’ and blame ‘progressives’. The puzzle of how knowledge became toxic is better explained like this: it’s postmodernism, with all its scepticism of the value of truth and knowledge, rather than progressivism, that is the culprit.

The author of this new book, Daisy Christodoulou, is fired up by the same egalitarian impulse as Gramsci, Engelmann and Hirsch. Far from being a crusty old traditionalist who yearns nostalgically for an elitist golden age, the author has spent her twenties teaching in inner-city comprehensive schools, working against educational inequality. Her book is essential reading for anyone in education who wants to fully understand what’s at stake in education reform today.


Much of the heated disagreement in education seems to be over structures. As the introduction points out, ‘both left and right prefer structural solutions to education problems’. Over a decade of reform has focused on governance. Instead, this book shines the spotlight on what matters most: what actually gets taught in classrooms, and how it gets taught. Amid all the red herrings in the educational thoughtworld, this focus on ideas rather than institutions is refreshing.

In its focus, this book recasts the debate on knowledge and skills, away from the resort of dismissing it as ‘false dichotomy’, or politicising it as a ‘Trojan horse’ for right-wing or left-wing ideology, to being a vital issue for education reformers tackling inequality. In this view, knowledge and skills cannot be separated, a bit like, in Hirsch’s analogy, scrambled eggs.


You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs

Over seven chapters, a powerful critique emerges of the educational status quo as it exists today. Hugely erudite and mercifully jargon-free, it’s a riveting attack on received wisdom. Lucid prose and sharp anecdotes reverberate with indignation:

‘After I’d been teaching for three years, I took a year out to do further study. I was shocked to stumble across an entire field of educational and scientific research which completely disproved so many of the theories I’d been taught when training and teaching. I wasn’t just shocked; I was angry. I felt as though I’d been led up the garden path. I had been working furiously for three years, teaching hundreds of lessons, and a whole lot of information which 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 which had absolutely no evidence backing them up had been presented to me as unquestionable axioms… My central argument is that much of what teachers are taught about education is wrong, and that they are encouraged to teach in ineffective ways’.

The book exposes the following ideas as pervasive but ineffective in our education system: that facts are unhelpful; that teacher-led instruction is passive; that the 21st century makes knowledge unnecessary; that technology makes memory obsolete; that we should teach transferable skills distinctly; that projects are more effective than subjects; and that knowledge is indoctrination. All share modes of thinking similar to the primitive cargo cults on Pacific islands. They look at how experts, scientists or historians learn, work or think, then try to replicate their transferable skills, independent thinking, and project-based approach. But this is about as effective as using coconut shells to get cargo from the skies:

‘I share the aims of many of the people whose methods I disagree with. But the methods we are currently using to achieve these aims simply do not work. The main reason why they do not work is because of a misguided, out-dated and pseudoscientific stigma against the teaching of knowledge’.


Taken together, these myths act as a seven-headed hydra, whose heads regenerate, rear themselves over decades of discussions over teaching, and according to the author, ‘damage the education of our pupils’. The logic builds its momentum to a striking crescendo:

‘The fundamental ideas of our education system are flawed. When one looks at the scientific evidence about how the brain learns and at the design of our educational system, one is forced to conclude that the system actively retards education’.

This upends the education debate. Seven Myths gathers the evidence from cutting-edge cognitive science about the vital importance of knowledge in memory and cognition to uproot an entrenched status quo and concludes: ‘there is nothing elitist about powerful knowledge: what is elitist is the suggestion that such knowledge belongs to an elite… It’s sometimes said that those who want to teach knowledge want to take us back to the 19th century. In fact the reverse is true. It’s those who don’t want to teach knowledge who want to take us back to the 19th century. For when we consider the 19th century, we see that for many of the elites at the time were extremely reluctant to teach knowledge to the masses, on the grounds that it would make them ‘refractory and seditious’. Combining historical analysis with modern scientific research, this should strike a resounding chord with anyone who wants to see education become more equitable.

The author is uncompromising in confronting the predictable challenges to this argument. But how do we decide what knowledge to teach? Why do pupils need it anyway? Who is to say which knowledge to teach? How do we ensure it’s not biased or unrepresentative? How do we decide which disciplines and which concepts pupils should learn? What about the concerns over facts that are inappropriate or irrelevant? These concerns are comprehensively rebutted in the final chapter, thoroughly debunking the notion that knowledge indoctrinates rather than liberates: ‘If we fail to teach knowledge, pupils fail to learn. Unless we place the powerful and liberating force of knowledge at the heart of our education system, our education system will continue to fail our pupils and to deepen inequality’.


Millennial madness: is the educational status quo entrenching inequality?

Just how sound is the research that this book is built on? It’s water-tight. Comprehensive, reliable and significant evidence of modern teaching practice across 228 lessons descriptions from the 9 most recent OFSTED subject reports in Maths, Science, Religious Education, Art, History, Geography, Modern Foreign Languages and English establishes a firm bedrock. The historical analysis of the long theoretical and practical pedigree of each myth is credible and authoritative. The synthesis of decades of scientific research is diligent and scrupulous. Great lengths have been taken to amass an impressive array of evidence that these myths, far from being straw men, are dominant, dangerous and damaging.


History is littered with unfulfilled prophecies. So it’s probably best to leave predicting the future to the soothsayers and crystal-ball gazers. I’m no futurologist, but I will go so far as to speculate that this book from Daisy Christodolou is likely to cause consternation in the educational establishment and change minds in the teaching profession over the next few decades. I’d be fascinated to hear from my colleagues who are ardent advocates of the skills agenda as to whether this book sets out a compelling enough case for them to consider taking up the cause of powerful knowledge in the curriculum.

Next week in this blog, I turn to this controversial area of the curriculum, and explore the implications of the importance of coherent, cumulative knowledge.




Seven Myths in Education is out on Tuesday 18th June on Amazon Kindle, and available via the free Kindle app on iPhones, ipads, Macs, PCs and android smartphones.

Daisy Christodoulou and Guy Claxton are speaking on the same panel on Friday 21st June at 2pm at the Wellington Festival of Education.

Seven Myths in brief

1. Facts prevent understanding

Myth: Facts are inert

Reality: Facts are foundations

2. Teacher-led instruction is passive

Myth: Directed instruction is counterproductive

Reality: Directed instruction is effective


3. The 21st century fundamentally changes everything

Myth: The future economy makes learning facts pointless

Reality: In a knowledge economy, knowledge is a prerequisite for innovation


4. You can just look it up

Myth: The Internet makes memory obsolete

Reality: Long-term memory is crucial for thinking well

5. We should teach transferable skills

Myth: Most skills transfer easily across subject content

Reality: Few skills transfer easily across subjects

6. Projects and activities are the best way to learn

Myth: Physical activity always enhances thinking and remembering

Reality: Physical activity often crowds out thought and memory

7. Knowledge is not indoctrination

Myth: Prescribing knowledge is a right wing ideology

Reality: Sequencing knowledge is crucial for critical thinking skills

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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31 Responses to Which ideas are damaging education?

  1. Joe Kirby says:

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber and commented:

    Is the educational status quo entrenching inequality?

  2. Reblogged this on Scenes From The Battleground and commented:
    Just in case you weren’t aware, there’s a book out that I would recommend highly.

  3. bt0558 says:

    “that facts are unhelpful; that teacher-led instruction is passive; that the 21st century makes knowledge unnecessary; that technology makes memory obsolete; that we should teach transferable skills distinctly; that projects are more effective than subjects; and that knowledge is indoctrination.”

    For me these are all extreme incarnations of positions that I personally have not seen during my teaching career (17 years).

    My main concern is that I have not met/worked with teachers who hold these sorts of extreme views. I have met/worked with SMT who in an attempt to lead and manage have taken up some of these types of approaches but some of these didn’t really believe.

    I will buy this book as the writer of this blog assures me that it is “water-tight. Comprehensive, reliable and significant evidence of modern teaching practice”.

    I will buy this book as a short cut to the evidence that each of these issues exists in reality and has an adverse effect on the education of people.

    In the old days it used to be easy to see who were the authors, publishers and marketeers. These days it is not so easy. These views are those one will hear around the Echo Chamber.

    I think most of the issues raised have been around for a very long time and will be around for a long time yet.

    I don’t actually see the 7 myths ststed above in these extreme forms (e.g. “The Internet makes memory obsolete”) so I will be very interested to see whether the existence of these myths is proved in the book with “watertight” research/evidence.

    Thanks for this well written and informative blogpost.

    • cunningfox says:

      I see them all the time, especially in the copious examples that Andrew presents in ‘scenes from the Battleground, which you have frequented for much longer than I have. Your statement therefore suggest that you are a) blind b) dishonest or c) in denial. Which is it?

      • bt0558 says:


        I was always trained to compose a reply and then read it 3 times before sending, which I did in this case, hence my measured reply.

        You will see, if you read it carefully that I went to a lot of effort to explain that I had not experienced these issues and I had not worked with/met teachers who had expressed the views described in the post.

        I said…..

        “that I personally have not seen”
        “I have met/worked with ”

        The internet provides you the freedom to suggest that I am “dishnoest”. The internet provides you the freedom to suggest that I am “in denial”. The internet provides you with the freedom to suggest that I am “blind”.

        I am not sure whether I should be flattered or afraid at the idea that you would have taken the time to look at how long I have frequented OA’s blog.

        That aside, I would repeat that I have not personally experienced/seen, met teachers who have told me that they have experienced/seen or worked with teachers who have told me they have experienced/seen seen the issues stated in the blogpost…..i.e.

        “that facts are unhelpful; that teacher-led instruction is passive; that the 21st century makes knowledge unnecessary; that technology makes memory obsolete; that we should teach transferable skills distinctly; that projects are more effective than subjects; and that knowledge is indoctrination.”

        Don’t get me wrong, I have often heard people say that with the internet/google, people have to remember less as they can look things up. I have seen (and have used the maxim) that sometimes learning via a project can be more effective than discrete subjects. I have heard it said that “learning a list of facts without context is of limited value”.

        I am not dishonest, in denial or blind cunnignfox. I have read OA’s blog for many years but I have never met OA and I have never worked with him. I have never seen OA teach.

        If you define “met” to include reading someones anonymous posts on the internet then I can see your confusion. I do not.

        Note also that it is not so much the sentiments of the statements made, more the extreme positions taken.

        For instance…

        6. Projects and activities are the best way to learn

        Myth: Physical activity always enhances thinking and remembering

        Reality: Physical activity often crowds out thought and memory

        I believe few would argue with the idea that sometimes projects are a very good way to achieve a learning objective.

        Quite how this then translates to “Physical activity always enhances thinking and remembering” I am not sure, but I think it very unliklely that many teachers believe this to be true.

        “Physical activity often crowds out thought and memory”, I would probably reword as ‘physical activity can easily lead to the crowding out of attention and therefore memory’

        I cannot imagine that many teachers would believe that project work is “the best way to learn”, but I am hoping that reading the book will convince me otherwise, with watertight evidence.

  4. persephone says:

    I don’t teach schoolchildren, I teach ESOL to adults, but I find all of these myths are pervasive in our field. Make lessons student-centred – let them discover things for themselves – blah, blah, blah. The consequences of this are that students are left to flounder around, confused and frustrated. Worse, they often leave lessons with half-formed, inaccurate ideas which then become the basis of other half-baked ideas – and you get a whole castle built out of cards, when a quarter of an hour of direct instruction would solve the problem far more effectively.

    I agree completely that cutting-edge psychological research should provide the basis for educational theory.

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  6. Linda Hutton says:

    It’s not just children being taught to fail these days. I’ve been studying with the Open Uni since 1998, I have a First Class Honours degree from them and most of a PGCE from the local Uni (I had to give up when I’d nearly finished due to being too ill to manage the full time teaching practice required) so I’m perfectly capable of independent learning. This year I did an OU module on Heritage – it was woolly, full of repetitive clichés plus they asked us to read whole World Heritage Charters and extremely heavy articles in the Course Reader without telling us why or what to look for. The Study Guide even said don’t worry about the detail, just try to grasp the concepts. The exam earlier with week was the worst exam experience I’ve ever had – the questions were vague and asked us to talk about themes we hadn’t been taught and to compare and contrast such disparate case studies as Eskimos and the Notting Hill Carnival. In preparation for next year’s module (yes, I’m a glutton for punishment, but it’s the last one ever that I’ll be able to afford now the fees have gone up) I bought the old course books from ebay. Arthur Marwick, now sadly deceased, used to lead the course and his introduction took up the whole first unit (a weeks work), it clearly laid out the aims of the course and what they would be requiring students to study and achieve. Given the non-existent structure of the Heritage module I’ve just finished, which was new just a few years ago, I dread to think what the OU people have done in the revamp of this history module, on which I will be a guinea pig in its first year. Surely history at least will have to have facts …

  7. auntiecod says:

    A significant point has been missed here. Critical Pedagogy (e.g. Friere) and others you have labelled as ‘progressive’ (whatever that means) do not dismiss knowledge – in fact knowledge (including facts) is at the heart of what their view of education is about. The issue they raise is that knowledge (including facts) always comes from a viewpoint; it is never value free, a-historical or context free. The same knowledge can mean different things in different times and different places (including scientific knowledge). The point they make is that we should be more democratic and socially just in the processes that determine whose viewpoint of knowledge is imposed upon whom and to what ends. Friere talks about groups of people engaging with knowledge and generating new knowledge in relation to their own needs and value choices – his point is about distributions of power and the role of knowledge in this. Anyone who is concerned about such things as social justice and oppression (which is the context in which Friere was working) or about social justice and democracy should consider this point. The idea that knowledge is value-freee is extremely dangerous. And in relation to points made above about the history curriculum, and by way of example, see http://eduthink.org/2013/05/23/why-are-we-teaching-history-anyway/

  8. KarlB says:

    Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. (Dewey)
    As someone who has been an engineer, teacher and now an HE ITT Lecturer I am constantly bemused at the comments about the transferability of knowledge or skills by teachers who have never experienced it beyond the classroom and/or lecture theatre.
    Dewey himself was just as contemptuous of those who proposed skills divorced from knowledge or vice versa (Experience and Education). But Dewey was theorising about his time, that of an expanding new nation rebuilding itself after a terrible civil war. Also at a time when philopsophy as well as education was seen as remote and detatched from the necessary realities of life as then lived. Paulo Friere was also a product of his time and envoronment, one of repression and disconnection of large groups of people from education.
    But as much as people like to use past theorists to beat up present practitioners, the reality is that pragmatists such as Dewey saw knowledge and skills as part of a continuum. The pedagogic principles behind how this continuum should be aquired was and still is the challenge and it doesn’t stop in the classroom.

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  10. What an eye-opener – although I have to say (somewhat from the outside of the professional teaching world, I’ll admit) that the experience of Daisy Christodoulou tends to confirm what many of the critics of professional educators and educational practice in recent decades have been able to say; namely that the politicisation of education has been to the enormous detriment to the profession, its members and hence to its students.
    Further to play Devils Advocate – what does it say about the quality of the teaching education that Daisy underwent, that she accepted what she was being told during her training, without question?
    I hope her book gains the wide circulation that it deserves.

  11. Pingback: Seven Myths about Education – available now | The Wing to Heaven

  12. Worrying. The reviewer and the author do a lot of work to create the idea of a skills-centred ideology that just does not exist. I was introduced to a range of ideas on pedagogy as part of my PGCE programme. I started my career with a vague notion of the sides if the debate, and have furthered my understanding as I have gone on. Nowhere have I encountered the consensus you imply dominates our education system. I think you conflate the condemnation of rote learning facts without knowledge with the teaching of knowledge – I don’t know a single teacher ever who would argue against the acquisition of knowledge. Further to this, project or skills based learning is not learning without knowledge – in fact it is the opposite – the simple difference is in how the need to acquire knowledge is constructed. A project designed to meet a communities need has a more urgent need for knowledge that learning knowlefge towards sitting a final exam. In my experience, the accumulation of knowledge and skills is not the difference between the two styles, the method of motivating the students to learn is. And like all teachers, the reality is at times my students learn in groups, at times they are drilled, some things I expect them to learn at home, some we do together. To pretend that our system is divided into skills or knowledge camps is disingenuous and only serves the authors aim as casting herself as a reactionary.

  13. Pip says:

    Anyone who doubts the currency of these ideas should read “Advent of Google means we must rethink our approach to education” by renowned educationalist, Professor Sugata Mitra, pubished in last Sunday’s Observer: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/jun/15/schools-teaching-curriculum-education-google, in which Mitra appears to espouse all seven myths.

  14. bt0558 says:

    Just wasted 10 minutes of my life reading this article. His main point seemed to me to be that in exams students can’t talk or use the internet but in the real life of work we can solves problems using both resources. He has something of a point but much of what he said was without substance.

    Wher PIP formed the idea that ” Mitra appears to espouse all seven myths.” I have no idea. Some great posts above.

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  17. I’m interested in your comment on the effect of postmodernism as an alternative to the progressive vs traditional argument – is this from the 7 myths book or your own research?

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  24. Concerned says:

    Mr Pragmatic Reform, the only issue I have with this book is chapter 2 – ‘Direct Instruction’. I am wary for a few reasons, reason 1 – ‘we remember and therefore learn what we think about’ – direct instruction is about questioning for ensuring that students have listened and listening is not actually thinking. Reason 2 – Direct Instruction increases short term performance, undeniably; however does it increase long term learning? As performance and learning are not the same thing, in fact performance retards long term learning. Reason 3 – We need to consider the importance of ‘desirable difficulties’ to learning, ‘direct instruction’ is built upon the idea of ‘flawless communication’, this has zero difficulties which means it makes it more difficult to learn this way?

    As you said we should base our teaching on research, reason 1 was talked about by Willingham (as I’m sure you are aware), reasons 2 and 3 are from Bjork’s ‘Learning and Forgetting Lab’

    PS I am generally very sceptical of anybody who has a ‘silver bullet’ and then decides to make money, lots of money, out of the idea.

  25. Reblogged this on teachaldenham and commented:
    Skills vs. Knowledge – book review of ‘Seven Myths in Education’

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