Educational Lysenkoism is blighting the English education system

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The cognitive development of individual pupils should become the key objective of the primary and secondary school curriculum and there should be no place in our schools for cognitively depressing and intellectually suffocating practices like early entry, teaching to the test and narrow behaviourist teaching focussed on maximising SAT L4s and GCSE C grade passes.

Teaching for cognitive development will and should result in pupil attainments covering the full range of grades from A*-G, or their equivalents on the new grade system, appropriately reflecting the bell curve distribution of cognitive ability in the general pupil population. Attaching school performance indicators to exam results that are not soundly related to the cognitive ability of individual pupils and their personal development is counter-productive for all concerned in the education system.

School league tables based on crude performance indicators are an invitation to ‘gaming’ and a disincentive for schools to adopt the developmental approaches to learning that lead to cognitive growth. They are also false indicators of school quality because their competitive nature precludes taking due account of the fact of continuously variable pupil cognitive ability and its heterogeneous post code distribution.

The 1988 Education Act will have to be repealed or drastically reformed. We are deep in an era of what I call ‘Educational Lysenkoism’, after the ideological Soviet theory of agriculture that became the compulsory orthodoxy under Stalin. I recommend two books that contain lengthy and well-researched analyses of this distortion of science and its terrible consequences.

The first is Matthew Syed’s ‘Black Box Thinking‘ and the second is, ‘Bad Ideas?‘ by Professor Robert Winston.

The parallels with the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) are strong. Lysenko deliberately and systematically corrupted the scientific studies driving agricultural improvement by politicising gene based work on crop improvement as ‘anti-socialist’, resulting in the persecution of the few scientists prepared to resist the ideological control of their studies. Lysenko promoted the (even then) long discredited theory of Lamark that suggested that acquired traits (eg the long neck of an individual giraffe allegedly ‘aquired’ from stretching to reach leaves in tall trees) could be inherited by the offspring of that animal.

Lamarkism appeared to correspond more closely to Marxist–Leninism than the ideologically unacceptable scientific studies of genetics. This pressed the right buttons with the poorly educated but ruthless Joseph Stalin and millions died of starvation as a result.

GERM is the post cold war war, ideologically inverse dogma, that is corrupting the education systems of the US and here in England. It is resulting in the denigration of the developmental learning theories of Piaget, Vygotsky and others as ‘dangerously progressive’ and their proponents as ‘The Blob’.

It is condemning our children to knowledge-based, behaviourist teaching that results in exam results focussed, shallow learning. The repeated failures that result (eg as shown in international PISA tests), just result in calls more rigorous implementation of the medicine. Think blood-letting. See the following.

What are schools for?

School Improvement is reducing social mobility

Why mistakes must be celebrated

Why do educational standards fall following marketisation?

Educational Lysenkoism will eventually be consigned to history as an essential lesson in how not to run a national education system.

This is not going to happen easily or quickly but a start has to be made. The first essential step is to challenge the fallacy of the denial of the role of cognitive ability in predicting and evaluating educational outcomes. The second is to promote the design of the curriculum for the cognitive growth of individual pupils, not the accumulation of high stakes, target-related qualifications for the school.

The centrally controlled initiative roll-outs of New Labour rarely achieved the desired outcome and the free market based Academy and Free School project promoted by the present (2016) Conservative government are unlikely to be any more successful. So long as there are competitive school league tables driven by high stakes testing, the education system will always be blighted and corrupted by perverse unintended outcomes arising from behaviourist incentives. Effective learning and national cognitive growth requires the liberation and encouragement of teachers and schools to investigate, discuss, devise and apply approaches designed to secure cognitive development at classroom and individual pupil levels.

Local Education Authorities should be re-established, liberated, educated, empowered and encouraged to promote cognitively stimulating learning in all their schools.  London Mayor Boris Johnson has stated he wants control of the London education system. He is right to recognise the need for locally administered schools. The Learning Trust in Hackney provides a better example of how this could be done.

The few remaining ex-LEA Education Department staff with knowledge and experience that have survived the era of ‘Children’s Services’ reorganisation and the current cull of public sector employees should be attached to local school consortia to facilitate such shared work with more such experts trained and recruited. The disbanding of the Academies and Free School Division of the DfE would result in a £multi-billion saving to the taxpayer that could be redirected for the support of locally managed school improvement within a reformed culture.

University Schools of Education should again take a leading role, informed by truly independent research. With competition between schools replaced by co-operation across schools, a start could be made on restoring the sadly lost professionalism of teachers, which must be rooted in an appropriate  degree of peer moderated classroom autonomy with regard to teaching methods, rather than ‘operative’ type ‘delivery’ of externally imposed initiatives. Only this, not performance related pay or ‘fast tracking’ will attract top graduates from the best universities back into a teaching profession that has the necessary restored status.

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