The dangers of common sense

Roger Titcombe's picture
It is ‘common sense’ that grouping children of similar ability will result in better teaching and learning. Similarly, that boys will learn better without the distraction of girls, and that girls will also benefit from single sex groups because this will free them from competition for the esteem of boys and allow them to learn without the disruption caused by the more boisterous sex.

Isn’t it obvious that children with Special Needs are best catered for in Special Schools, and mainstream children benefit from not having their time wasted by the extra attention needed by their less fortunate peers? And it goes without saying that children that are insufficiently able to get an A*-C grade in academic subjects like history, French, English literature and pure sciences are much better off, and will cause less trouble, doing easy vocational alternatives.

If school pupils are so badly behaved that they disrupt lessons and ignore their teachers then it is also obvious that more rigid discipline is needed with zero-tolerance punishments for the miscreants and more rewards for the compliant.

According to Michael Gove’s Free School model, all that is needed to improve schools is to take power from professionals and give it to parents demanding 'common sense' school policies.

This further strengthens the market-based approach and extends it to how subjects should be taught as well as to how pupils should be dressed, grouped and managed. By such means ‘common sense’ should reign supreme and standards will rise as a result of the universal power of market forces.

The 1977 Nobel laureate economist James Meade who died in 1995 wanted the following epitaph inscribed on his tombstone: “He tried to understand economics all his life but common sense kept getting in the way”. As for economics, so for education, and no more so than in England in the Michael Gove era.

There is no educational issue where this is truer than that of mixed ability teaching, which has been extensively researched over the last 40 years. There is no consensus on the effects of mixed ability grouping on the attainment of the most able, but there is conclusive evidence that all pupils benefit when taught alongside more able peers.

The Cognitive Acceleration approaches of Shayer and Adey and others stress the importance of the social context of learning, and especially peer-peer interactions. This does not rule out setting by ability but CA and other developmental approaches do not involve pupils sitting in silence, in isolated rows, absorbing information.

The English education system has for some time been in the grip of fear of indiscipline in schools, for which common sense dictates ever more severe punishments and authoritarian control. Early on in my headship school, when we abandoned a rigid disciplinary regime based on punishment and rewards, replacing it with a programme of planned teaching of the skills of inter-personal relationships, on the Bloom affective taxonomy model, behaviour improved and both fixed term and permanent exclusions dropped to zero. This was sustained over many years.

T H Huxley, ‘Darwin’s bulldog, that great Victorian defender and advocate of Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, believed that science was ‘merely the application of Common Sense’. No scientists believe this today. I like to think that Huxley was just confusing ‘common sense’ with logic. We now know that science teaches us that the truth is frequently profoundly counter-intuitive.

Lewis Wolpert’s excellent 1992 book ‘The Unnatural Nature of Science’, contains many examples of the ‘common sense’ fallacy, some of which feature in the following list.

If a piece of string was to be tightly fitted around the 25,000 mile circumference of a smooth globe the size of the earth and then lengthened by a yard, how far from the surface of the globe would the string then stand out? (Answer: about 6 inches).

What happens to the pressure in a balloon as you inflate it? (Answer: it gets less).

If you fire a bullet from a gun horizontally across a flat field and simultaneously drop an identical bullet from the same height, which will hit the ground first? (Answer: they will both hit the ground at the same time).

If you empty a glass of water into the sea and allow it to mix with all the oceans in the world then after this mixing has taken place, dip it in again to refill it what are the chances of retrieving some of your original molecules? (Answer: very high).

When you burn a piece of magnesium ribbon ending up with a pile of white ash how does the weight of the ash compare with the weight of the original piece of magnesium? (Answer: it is heavier).

If you toss a coin five times and it falls on heads each time what is the chance that it will fall on tails on the next toss? (Answer: 50:50)

If you add some ice cubes to a tumbler of water what happens to the water level in the tumbler as the ice melts? (Answer: it stays the same)

Adey and Dillon's 'Bad Education' (2012) contains many more examples on this theme. I fear that misplaced 'common sense' populism is threatening to do great damage to the English education system.
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