Seven Myths: The evidence base, part II

Posted on 16-02-2014

I have noticed that a common response to my book has been a) to deny the existence of the myths I’ve outlined and b) to claim that they are not myths after all.

This is not only rather illogical, it’s also something I anticipated prior to publication in this blog post.

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.

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.

Since I wrote that, I have come across a paper by the cognitive psychologist Greg Yates where he records getting exactly the same response to one of his early research findings. In his words,

At the seminar, various critics noted the findings as (a) obvious, and (b) in conflict with Piagetian theory. A strange thing for a young graduate’s findings to be seen simultaneously as obvious and at variance with one of the field’s major statements.

In order to try and forestall these types of criticism, I realised that what I needed to do was to show people not just that statement x, y and z were myths, but also that lots of people actually believed in statements x, y and z. Hence, the structure of my book. I am making two claims: one, that people believe in these myths; two, that they are indeed myths. Only once I have shown beyond doubt that people believe in a myth do I explain that it is a myth.

Gratifyingly, a number of people have said that they found this structure very useful in helping them to understand the way theory influences practice. However, despite structuring the book like this, I’ve still encountered the logical fallacy I outline at the start. First, my critics will deny that anyone believes in the myths I outline and attack the evidence I’ve used to show this. OK, fair enough – I disagree, of course, but so far so logical. But secondly, they then say that the myths I’ve outlined are not, in fact, myths.

That’s a bit like saying this. ‘Daisy, stop being stupid. No-one believes in statement x. Statement x is a straw man. You’ve created this straw man from your limited view of classroom practice. If you had more experience, you’d realise that no-one believed in statement X. Oh, and by the way, statement x is true! It must be, I read a book about it!’ On the one hand, my critics claim that I have a distorted view of the reality of classroom practice. In the next breath, they defend this exact same reality in the exact same terms as I have described it!

Here, for example, is Tom Sherrington. First, hardly anyone believes in statement x.
‘For me, the myths just don’t ring true as a general description of the state of our schooling or the issues with it.’
‘There are quite a few references to RSA’s Opening Minds and passing references to Guy Claxton. But their ideas are only used directly in a tiny sample of schools; they don’t represent the system in any way.’

Second, statement x is true.
‘I have to be open minded about the eventual outcomes [of projects].’
‘The example of Y4s talking about health and safety prior to going on a trip seemed perfectly reasonable.’
‘This Y9 History lesson, comparing bombing campaigns, sounds great to me.’

There are, obviously, some logical ways you can argue against my book, even if I think they are wrong. You can argue that my myths don’t exist – ie, that the evidence I produce to substantiate the myths isn’t strong enough, and the myths are not the problem that I claim. That is, not many people really do believe in statement x. I discuss the evidence that I use for this first claim and the criticism I’ve faced for it here.

Or, you can say that the myths are not myths after all. That is, they are sound and rational beliefs. In other words, people are right to believe in statement x because it is, after all, true.

You could also argue that I am wrong on both counts. In order to this, you’d have to say that hardly anyone believes in the myths I am outlining – which is a real shame, because they aren’t myths, they’re the best way to teach. Everyone should believe in them. In this case, the fact that you disagree with me on the first claim is actually of less importance. The disagreement over the second claim is more important.

But what you can’t do is to say that my depiction of the myths is a straw man – and then go on to say that they aren’t myths. That is, you can’t argue that statement x is a straw man AND that statement x is in fact true. You can’t claim I am attacking a straw man, before going on to show that the alleged ‘straw man’ is something you are in complete agreement with. If you do so, you are actually inadvertently giving me evidence for my first claim – that these myths really do exist – and proving that, after all, the alleged straw man is not so straw after all.

For me – and I think, in reality, for most of my critics – the really interesting claim is the second one. Even if you don’t think the myths are the systemic problem that I do, there is enough evidence to show that they are present in places. So it would be nice if we could at least agree on this, and then move on to the more interesting and educationally meaningful second claim – are the myths really myths? Are the types of lessons I criticise really deserving of criticism? That will be the subject of next week’s post.