This short article in the Guardian (29 Dec
) is about the profound dangers of Gove's educational ignorance.
The most telling sections are a quote from Gove insisting that pupils must, "first have a sufficient grasp of the basic subject, something best achieved by repeated drilling."
Further clarification is provided by 'a DfE spokeswoman' who speaks of the need to, "hold student's attention and fix concepts in their minds."
In my New Statesman article
I refer to the following well known quotation from Vygotsky.
"a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level"
Gove's statement and that of the DfE, with its notion of 'fixing a concept in the mind' are pure Skinner behaviourism, long discredited by mainstream learning theorists. And there lie the deep roots of what is wrong with the English education system. Those in control have too much power over schools and no understanding or interest in how children learn. To Gove and his forebears, Balls, Blunkett, Blair, Baker and Thatcher it is all straightforward common sense.
As a science teacher in the early1980s the science department staff workroom of my comprehensive school would routinely be alive with discussions about how to get students to understand difficult concepts in science and all the teachers were familiar with the learning theories of the time. There was (and still is on the increasingly rare occasions such debate takes place) consensus about the developmental nature of cognition in the learner and the stage nature of its growth. From Piaget we get a combination of age related growth of cognitive sophistication combined with further growth resulting from the experiences of learning and the cognitive dissonance arising in the learner as a result of subconsciously matching personal mental schema against real world phenomena and problems. Our science storerooms were packed with the brilliantly designed practical paraphernalia of Nuffield science all designed to confront students with profoundly counter-intuitive personal experiences of (for example) Newton's Laws of Motion. As teachers we knew from years of classroom experience and debate with colleagues the truth of Vygotsky's statement about concept formation and the futility of trying to 'fix a concept in the mind' of a learner' if the cognitive processes of that mind are insufficiently developed to be able to make sense of any concept at that developmental level.
Vygotsky gave us teaching methods for enhancing the cognitive development of learners through structured talk, primarily with peers but also with the teacher. He established the key role of social interaction at a personal level in such cognitive development. Mortimer and Scott further developed this approach at Leeds University as set out in their book, 'Meaning Making in Secondary Science Classrooms'
, Open University Press 2003.
Of course facts can be 'learned' by drilling but concepts cannot be 'fixed in the mind' by such methods. Familiarity with key facts is of course essential but this is a natural outcome of effective learning not a prerequisite for it. It takes a deeply corrupted exam system to fail to discriminate between shallow and deep learning.
The chief theorists and practitioners in all this are Philip Adey and Michael Shayer (Kings College, London), famous for their 'Cognitive Acceleration' teaching strategies developed through more than 30 years of outstanding work, all largely ignored by successive governments as 'barmy theories' or 'complicated nonsense'. The result in 2012 is, bad education captured by international tests like PISA and others, and the title of the new book by Philip Adey and Justin Dillon (Ed), Open University Press 2012. This really is a brilliant and highly recommended read.
And the point of this post? To bemoan the substitution of debate about how to develop concept formation and enable students to comprehend and manipulate difficult ideas, with 101 variations of 'business-and-management-babble' given credence by the stupid imposition of a statistically nonsensical league table driven competitive market onto the English education system.
I make no apologies for my science teacher background, but as Adey and Shayer showed throughout their careers and as described in their book, 'Learning Intelligence', Open University Press 2002
, developmental approaches work and are applicable to all subjects and to students of all abilities. We can and should argue the technicalities and contributions of other learning theorists but what I have set out here is foundation, mainstream learning theory, increasing rarely surfacing in English education politics, but clearly understood in the countries whose education systems are leaving ours behind as we drown in the tedium of reinvented drill and practise behaviourism.
An appreciation of the Principle of Archimedes, although also profoundly counter-intuitive and widely misunderstood, is essential to the design of iron ships, so why is it OK for Gove and his like to redesign our education system from the standpoint of free market dogma and the comparable educational ignorance bequeathed by New Labour?