Seven Myths about Education – Introduction

Posted on 11-06-2013

This is an introduction to my book, Seven Myths about Education. It will be published on March 5th 2014 by Routledge.  Click here to preorder if you are in the UK, and here if you are in the US.

My book is called Seven Myths about Education and it pretty much does what it says on the tin. There are seven chapters and each chapter discusses a different myth about education. I had the idea of structuring a book like this because so often in conversation about education I found that the discussion would end up being about one of these ideas. For example, I’d start to have a discussion about why knowledge was important, and before long the person I was talking to would suggest that knowledge wasn’t important because we all have smartphones now (that’s myth 4). Or I’d be talking about how important it was for pupils to learn subject content, and someone would suggest that what you really learnt from school wasn’t the subject content, but the transferable skills (myth 5). I have structured each chapter in the same way. First, I try to explain clearly the theoretical evidence behind this myth. Second, I show the practical implications of the myth, and I show that such practice is prevalent in English schools today. Third, I explain why it is a myth. In the days before publication I will be giving a short summary of each chapter. Here are all seven.

  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

Another of the reasons for structuring my book in this way was because I would so often hear two linked – and I think contradictory – criticisms. Very often, I’d give a brief outline of what I thought about education and explain what that meant in practical terms – for example, teaching discrete grammar lessons. I would then get two responses, often from the same person. First, the person would say that most schools do what I am asking already, so what I am proposing isn’t anything new – eg, they would say, all schools teach grammar anyway. Second, they would say that I was backward looking and wanted to take education back to the 19th century. Self-evidently, both these criticisms cannot be true. If all good schools already do what I am asking, then I can’t be advocating a return to the 19th century. If I am advocating a return to the 19th century, then schools can’t all be doing what I am asking.

In actual fact, both criticisms are wrong. Most schools don’t teach grammar the way I advocate and I don’t want to take them back to the 19th century. But the logical confusion of these two criticisms makes it quite hard to explain this.

Similar criticisms would emerge whenever I tried to give an example of something I thought was wrong. So, I might say that a lesson where pupils learnt about Romeo and Juliet through making puppets was not very effective. Again, I would get two criticisms: first, the person would say that I was attacking a straw man and that nobody really taught like that. Second, they would say that making puppets to teach Romeo and Juliet was very effective. Again, you can’t really make both criticisms. If you think that I am attacking a straw man, then you are implicitly conceding that teaching Romeo and Juliet through the use of puppets is not effective. So going on to argue that such a method is effective is contradictory. Again, both criticisms are wrong. Making puppets to teach Romeo and Juliet is not an example of a straw man; it is an example which has been cited as best practice. It is also, in actual fact, ineffective practice.

The message I took from these criticisms was that it wasn’t enough for me to prove that such practice was ineffective; I also had to prove that the lessons and practices I was criticising were in fact fairly widespread. So that is what this book attempts to do.