The False Dichotomy
There is a modish crowd abroad who believe that psychology is the cloth of gold from which pedagogy is to be spun and tailored. While it is true that psychology informs good pedagogy, wanton appeal to it as a cover for self-promotion, private consultancy and pedagogical reform should not go unchallenged.
To give an opening example, decades worth of very significant research by leading psychologists into the role of memory in learning processes has been used to persuade hundreds of people teaching thousands of pupils across the country that a flashcard scaled to A4, laminated and called a “knowledge organiser” is the ultimate product of cutting edge cognitive science and every pupil’s passport to Oxbridge. Persuaded of this, you are claimed as a “traditionalist“, a champion of knowledge and all-round good sort. Sceptical and you are damned as a “progressive“, brainwashed by Marxist constructionist ITT mandarins you abjure knowledge in favour of discovery learning and “21st Century skills” (21CS). It’s a false dichotomy, obviously, but it’s central to the “traditionalist” message and evident in their writing.
I have not looked to see when the phrase 21CS entered currency but as this government policy document shows (DfES, 2003) it was originally a much more sophisticated set of ideas than that which is now marketed by some consultants and ed-tech companies so that when people hear the phrase today they primarily think of those items I have highlighted in the excerpt below:
Some people will have an instinctive reaction against the idea that these things may be taught in any meaningful way but when we unpack them they reduce to training in good manners and productive habits. If you work as a teacher then you will have corrected pupils’ behaviour and taught them how to organise their thoughts, materials & equipment prior to study or exercise. This, inter alia, makes you are a teacher of skills as well as of knowledge. Unless we expect every classroom to be a lecture theatre and every teacher to be the narrator for a Powerpoint then nobody could reasonably object to teaching children good manners and productive habits, especially now when society has been changed to such an extent that it can no longer be taken for granted that these things will be transmitted down generations within families and communities. These skills have been lumbered with the label “21st Century” for this very reason. The chain of their transmission was broken so violently by recent social & economic reforms that they seem new, and it serves consultants and companies to emphasise this faux novelty while selling whatever gee-gaws and pamphlets they happen to have in their lock-ups.
As there is financial opportunity in the promotion of 21CS so it also lays in its opposition. Some people believe that skills education is a challenge to their own “traditionalist” practice, and some of these want you to feel threatened by it that you will buy whatever they have in their own lock-ups. If these merchants cannot make you afraid then they will pull the Emperors-New-Clothes move, attempting to flatter you for your collusion in their absent arguments while ridiculing genuinely thoughtful people who point to the reality of things.
David Didau’s attack on Professor Rose Luckin and skills education
In this post from October 2016 David Didau attempts to excuse teachers from any obligation to teach skills conducive to collaboration, creativity & problem-solving (CCP), not incidentally picking a fight with Professor Rose Luckin of University College London via a Guardian article on a report from the UK Science & Technology Committee into Robotics & artificial intelligence:
Prof Rose Luckin, an expert on AI and education at University College London who gave evidence to the committee, said that the school curriculum needs to be brought up to date to reflect that we now live in a world where problem-solving and creativity are becoming more important assets. “Regurgitating knowledge is something that you can automate very easily,” she said. “That doesn’t prepare children for the modern workforce.“
“Instead, she said pupils should be spending more time working on problems collaboratively, because in future many professionals will be required to collaborate with robots.
Neither the Committee’s report nor Luckin’s formal written evidence contain the quotations directly attributed to her by The Guardian, they were edited from an ad hoc conversation initiated by their journalist and, because we do not know what questions she was asked, Luckin’s intent is unclear. What is clear is that Luckin is not calling for the abolition of traditional subject knowledge in favour of an endless playtime of discovery learning but is only pointing out what everyone knows, that the literal rehearsal of knowledge is easy. She does not present the position against which Didau argues, that learning itself is as easy. These things are irrelevant to Didau for whom Luckin would appear to be a conveniently distal proxy for all things educational with which he disagrees. These two paragraphs, then, are the lectern of his bad pedagogy.
Didau takes as his sermon a theoretical behavioural taxonomy from Professor David C. Geary (2007). As evolutionary psychology goes it’s a powerful thesis. Despite that it gives shade to some wacky Just-so stories, unless we believe that our brains were created intact then the central thesis of evolutionary psychology must be true, that our minds are structurally disposed to behave in ways which were advantageous to survival in our ancestral environments. This might have significant implications for understanding how we might best learn and best teach yet we should always remember that we cannot draw an ought from every is.
We will interrogate Geary’s ideas in detail shortly but I will begin by showing that Didau’s appropriation of Geary’s ideas fails from the outset when he scornfully dismisses Luckin’s core premise:
To say “we now live in a world where problem-solving and creativity are becoming more important assets” is fatuous indeed.
Consider the above in the light of the following, from Geary’s Conclusion:
One of the changes that has emerged in these cultures is an accompanying need for other formal institutions, especially schools, that function to prepare children for the evolutionarily novel demands of living and succeeding in these societies. In fact, the need to educate children for these demands is going to accelerate, because more and more institutions of knowledge generation are likely to emerge in coming decades and will result in an exponential increase in secondary knowledge.
Is it Didau’s position that Geary is also “fatuous“? It should be, given this topical alignment of Geary and Luckin. I agree with their position and it’s unclear to me why anyone who has read Geary would cite him in a flawed attempt to lambaste someone else making the same point.
Before further contrasting Didau’s views with Geary’s it will be useful to sketch the ideas which Didau attempts to borrow from Geary.
Geary’s Conceptual Foundations for an Evolutionary Educational Psychology
While we could not expect a full rehearsal of them in a single blog post Geary’s ideas are, to a point, superficially as Didau waves at them but here is their summary:
- Modern human behaviour is biologically predisposed by evolutionary selection to inferences and activities that represent and recreate socially, biologically & physically the preferential circumstances of the ancestral environment in which they were selected. Geary classes these heuristics and biases as biologically primary and refers to their content as folk knowledge (K1).
- Biologically secondary knowledge & behaviour (K2) are those which permit humans to adapt their K1 to changing circumstances and to communicate these adaptations to others.
To give a facile example, K1 may be readily observed in the speed with which very young children will learn to recognise speech and attempt its use while K2 is their eventual skill at encoding & decoding that speech graphically as writing & reading respectively. Here is how Didau applies these ideas to his assault upon the teaching & enabling of CCP as he divines them in Luckin’s thirty-nine words:
To say “we now live in a world where problem-solving and creativity are becoming more important assets” is fatuous indeed. When have human beings ever lived in a world where they didn’t need to solve problems and be creative?
The answer is never. Creativity, collaboration and problem solving have always been vital for the survival of the species, so much so that we have evolved an innate capacity for developing these skills. Every child naturally learns to collaborate, solve problems and be creative without recourse to explicit instruction.
Of course, that is not to say that every child is equally creative or that we all share the same capacity for successful collaboration; as with every human characteristic there will be a normal distribution of ability. But it does mean that everyone has a natural ability to solve problems. Otherwise some people would never work out how to get out of bed and put their trousers on!
Because these skills are innate, schools don’t need to waste much time teaching them, and certainly not as generic, “transferable” skills.
However challenging Didau finds his daily dressing it is trivially true of him to say “Creativity, collaboration and problem solving have always been vital for the survival of the species“. He is very wrong to suppose that the problems children face today, in societies heavy in K2, are identical in character to those faced by our prehistoric ancestors such that K1 attendant to CCP in the ancestral environment is directly applicable to the CCP required to succeed in the evolutionary novel environments of formal schooling, the modern workplace and society at large. He is therefore wrong to suppose that children require no instruction in CCP. Reference to Geary under Inhibition of Folk Biases demonstrates Didau’s error in asserting the sufficiency of K1:
One of the principles of evolutionary educational psychology (see Table 1.1) states that children are biased to engage in activities that will adapt folk knowledge to local conditions, and these biases will often conflict with the need to engage in the activities needed for secondary learning. The principle follows from the rapid (and accelerating) cross-generational accumulation of secondary knowledge over the past several millennia. One implication is that evolved folk attributional (e.g., the folk physical concept of “impetus,” as I described earlier) and behavioral (e.g., preference for peer activities over mathematics homework) biases will often need to be inhibited before secondary learning will occur. r. Indeed, educational research supports the importance of inhibitory control for school-based learning (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005; Fabes, Martin, Hanish, Anders, & Madden-Derdich, 2003) and is consistent with empirical research on the cognitive components of gF; specifically, attentional focus and an ability to inhibit irrelevant information from entering working memory (Engle, 2002; Engle et al., 1999; Kane & Engle, 2002).
Engagement of these inhibitory mechanisms is predicted to be effortful and to occur in evolutionarily novel contexts and for information the individual explicitly determines to be useful in terms of meeting control-related goals. In the case of schooling and culturally evolving secondary knowledge, however, it cannot be expected that children will understand which forms of secondary knowledge will be necessary for successful living as an adult.. For that matter, in cultures with rapid changes in secondary knowledge, educators cannot fully know what is necessary for their students’ long-term employment and cultural needs. Even in these cultures there are core skills (e.g., reading) that must be taught and learned, and it is adults, not children, who must determine these core skills and what is culturally-important knowledge.
Geary makes clear that it is one of the functions of schooling to inhibit K1. While his terms may be new to many of us, we all know this to be true. If teachers acted in accord with Didau’s trust in children’s ability to organise themselves and solve problems according to their instincts then schooling would be impossible. We’ve seen what happens when teachers abrogate their responsibility for maintaining order in schools and we know it does not work. As Geary says, adults must determine the K2 skills in which children are to be schooled, numbered among which are CCP. We cannot teach the 3Rs if children are living Lord of the Flies.
For Didau to say blankly “we have evolved an innate capacity for developing these skills” without expanding his argument beyond the modular domains of K1 is hand-waving at its most audacious, akin to saying “cars move quickly because speed” It is preposterous to suppose that the K1 which evolved to be merely sufficient to the management of native & fictive kinship networks in the ancestral environment, for the group goal of securing existential resources within a natural ecology, is today felicitously efficient at anticipating the need to teach children how to collaborate with their peers in formal schooling, modern workplaces and wider society where goals are individualised, artificial and arbitrary. Rather than six million years of human evolution it would be an act of Intelligent Design which produced an individual as immediately psychologically congruent to the life of a hunter-gatherer as they are to that of a modern schoolchild or their teacher. Geary, contrary to Didau, acknowledges this disjoint and its effect upon pedagogical discourse:
Because formal schooling and the need to teach recent cultural innovations to children are themselves evolutionarily novel, adults are not expected to intuitively understand how to best proceed with this endeavor (Geary, 1995). As part of their folk psychological repertoire, adults may intuitively know how to use stories and modeling to impart to children knowledge and competencies that have been useful in more natural environments and in kin-based social groups. But, this intuitive repertoire is no longer sufficient and because of this, considerable confusion, conflict, and derision among competing educational approaches is predicted and found (e.g., Hirsch, 1996; Loveless, 2001; Egan, 2003).
We can conclude by reference to Geary that collaboration within our context is not an innate modular skill and, given that society is becoming more complex as K2 expands, we should acknowledge the necessity for children to be appropriately instructed in it.
Creativity & Problem-solving
Didau does not define creativity or problem-solving but reference to Geary yields the following under the heading of General Fluid Intelligence (gF):
the generation of cognitive and behavior novelty and adaptation to variation in social and ecological conditions within the life span
This is a good working definition of what it is to be creative, to solve problems, and it’s fair to suppose that in referencing Geary this is what Didau should mean by these things when he attempts to locate them within Geary’s ideas as K1. Geary himself, when discussing the traits associated with creativity and problem-solving, invalidates Didau’s move by stating that they are not located in his model as K1:
These components of exceptional accomplishment can be used to illustrate the interplay between folk knowledge, fluid intelligence, motivation, and the generation of secondary knowledge, and to illustrate why children’s intuitive folk knowledge and learning biases are not sufficient for secondary learning
Nor are innate each of the components Geary lists. K1 yes and, to an extent, gF but motivation is accidental to environment, as are the form and content of K2 generated by acts of creativity and problem-solving.
We can conclude by reference to Geary that creativity and problem-solving within our context are not innate modular skills and, given that society is becoming more complex as K2 expands, we should acknowledge the necessity for children to be appropriately instructed in them.
Thanks for reading
There are many people on the edu-salon circuit and on social media who assume unearned expertise in all kinds of things directly or tangentially related to education and consequently there are many well-meaning but unsuspecting teachers who fall under their influence. Where these faux experts are obviously wrong those who may correct their errors should speak up on behalf of pupils, the ultimate recipients of pedagogy. Skills education is not an alternative to “traditional” education, rather both are part of the whole package, what we once simply called teaching. and we should resist any attempt to cynically divide us by false claims of a “debate“. We teach children facts about themselves and our shared world and we teach them how to act in the world to best effect. If there are teachers who wish to teach only one or the other or are incapable of teaching both then they should reconsider their career.
I will close with a final quote from Didau upon which some people might wish to reflect, whether they blag their way as experts in psychology or anything else:
I fervently wish she and others like her would be content to stick to their areas of expertise.
Department for Education & Skills (2003). “21st Century Skills Realising Our Potential: Individuals, Employers, Nation”. The Stationary Office, London.
Devlin, H. (2016). “Schools not preparing children to succeed in an AI future, MPs warn”. In TheGuardian.com. Guardian News & Media Ltd, London.
Didau, D. (2016). “Robots, evolution and why schools shouldn’t worry about innate skills”. In LearningSpy.co.uk.
Geary, D. C. (2007). “Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology”. In J. S. Carlson & J. R. Levin (Eds.), Educating the evolved mind (pp. 1-99, Vol. 2, Psychological perspectives on contemporary educational issues). Information Age, Greenwich CT.