The real problem with Gove

Roger Titcombe's picture
Learning Intelligence’ (Open University Press) edited by Michael Shayer and Philip Adey is a series of accounts from teacher practitioners of the application of the principles of 'cognitive acceleration', a continuing three decade project by Shayer and Adey (sadly recently deceased) into how children's cognitive development in Piagetian terms can be developed. It is based on the principle of plastic general intelligence. This recognises that general intelligence as measured for example by Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) is strongly correlated with academic success and claims that such intelligence is developmental in its acquisition (Piaget) and can be effectively promoted through specific approaches to teaching based on social and co-operative learning (Vygotsky).

I believe Shayer and Adey are right and that good education should promote general cognitive development alongside specific knowledge and understanding. On this principle some lessons could be focused primarily on knowledge and understanding, some on the development of general intelligence and some on both simultaneously. Any pedagogy that leaves out either major element is likely to be relatively impoverished in its effectiveness. I believe that these principles apply to all learning from pre-school to the 'third age' (where unfortunately I now find myself). Where learners become cleverer and wiser in the process of gaining knowledge this is 'education'. Where they don't it is mere 'training'.

In Chapter 3 of ‘Learning Intelligence’, an example is given of a KS1, Y1 (age 5) lesson in which children (in groups of 6) were asked to sort plastic animal models.

I referred to this lesson in an earlier post.

There were only dinosaurs and mammoths. All the dinosaurs were green but the mammoths were of different colours except for one that was also green. The teacher provided each group with two wooden hoops into which to divide and classify the animals. The children readily agreed that all the green dinosaurs should go in the same hoop. The problem was with the mammoths and in particular the green mammoth. Which hoop should the green mammoth go into; with the green dinosaurs or with the mammoths? This is a rich learning scenario that spontaneously encourages much peer to peer discussion and argument. Here the skill of the teacher comes in to provide the essential ‘scaffolding’ and order into the discussions. In the actual lesson many suggestions came forward from the children:

  • Getting some more green mammoths so the green mammoth wouldn’t be on its own in the mammoth hoop.

  • Putting the green mammoth on its own outside both hoops.

  • Putting the green mammoth in the gap between the two hoops.

  • Putting the green mammoth in both hoops by making the hoops touch and balancing the green mammoth on the boundary where they touched.

  • Overlapping the hoops and putting the green mammoth on its own in the overlapping part.

Now the green mammoth is with the other mammoths and its green dinosaur friends. Problem solved!

Such a lesson could well take a long time, in fact the longer the better, so long as all the children remain engaged and this depends on the skill of the teacher.

Adey and Shayer argue that this was a cognitively developmental lesson to be valued as such in its own right. The primary aim was not to learn any facts about dinosaurs or mammoths or to teach 5 year-olds about Venn diagrams. My only criticism would be the choice of mammoths and dinosaurs that might imply that mammoths are a kind of dinosaur or that they lived at the same time, but I think this is a problem for my science teacher mind not the children! I have used a version of this with much older children but using Lego bricks.

For me, this also follows from the teaching of economist Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Slow Thinking’. I might be one of the first to recognise the profound pedagogic implications of Kahneman’s work.

I believe that this Y1 example has particular relevance to the extended discussion on this site about Gove's primary curriculum proposals, which appears to me to have been unnecessarily polarised. Is this 'knowledge free' lesson to be deplored or celebrated? No-one is suggesting that ALL lessons should be content free. 'Cognitive Acceleration' lessons are usually much more knowledge rich.

No doubt the usual respondents will divide again in their reaction to this post. My main point, however, is that teachers should be encouraged to debate these arguments in their own schools and should be given the lesson time and the confidence to experiment. The worst thing about Gove's curriculum recipe is not so much its content but its appalling authoritarianism.
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