The Blob has morphed – it’s now an Amoeba

Janet Downs's picture
We’ve been here before. Last month it was Allison Pearson in the Telegraph describing how a Michael Gove in brightly-coloured hosen was fighting the Blob. Today, Toby Young reprises his earlier attack on Blobbery.

Only the Blob has morphed into an amoeba.

The headline hovers over a picture of Education Secretary Michael Gove (is he performing the “vanilla rap” getting down wiv da kids, do you think?). But the article trudges familiar ground: UK pupils have slumped in PISA tests since 2000; “A fifth of British children now leave school unable to read or write”…

But the 2000 PISA figures are Zombie stats… they should have been killed stone dead by the OECD warning they were flawed and shouldn’t be used for comparison. But up they pop justified, apparently, because OECD’s Andreas Schleicher once told the Guardian there’d been a “relative decline” in UK position in PISA tables since 2000.

I’ve no idea why Schleicher should have ignored the warning of this own organisation. But the warning still stands – the 2000 PISA figures for the UK should not be used for comparison. Despite this caveat, Schleicher again made the comparison with 2000 in this video. But he actually says there’s been “very little change” in England’s performance in the ten years. “Very little change” is not “decline”.

In any case “relative decline” means a fall in standing relative to other countries. That happens to be true when measured from 2006 – the first year of reliable PISA test scores for the UK. But UK scores remained more-or-less the same.

The facts don’t support the statement that one-fifth of UK children leave school illiterate and innumerate. The Office of National Statistics defines the threshold for literacy as a Level One qualification. According to School Performance Tables 95.3% of the 2013 GCSE cohort in England gained at least Level One in English and Maths. The difference between 100% and 95.3% is not 20% (or one-in-five, or a fifth).

So, what caused Young’s ire? It was the decision by PISA to test “collaborative problem solving” in the next round of PISA tests. It’s these kinds of woolly “skills” that are causing “social apartheid” because poor children aren’t allowed access to “knowledge”, according to Young. He’s written a pamphlet about it*.

Young’s argument is tired and wrong. It constructs a false dichotomy between knowledge and skills when both are needed. It’s not a question of “either or” but “both and”. Or, in the words of Young’s guru, E D Hirsch, knowledge and skills are like scrambled egg – they can’t be unscrambled.

*available free from Civitas, purveyors of the Core Knowledge Curriculum, inspired by E D Hirsch, rehashed for the UK market by, among others, the short-lived head of Pimlico free school, Annaliese Briggs, and promoted by Gove and his junior minister Elizabeth Truss.

CORRECTION 30 March 2014. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a critique of someone else's argument will contain at least one howler. And so it was when I wrote "It's these kinds of skills that is causing...". This has now been corrected.
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Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 29/03/2014 - 17:07

I don't think it is knowledge v skills. Skills, like remembered 'facts', can be acquired just through repetition and practise. The potential apparent dichotomy that Toby Young misunderstands is between knowledge and understanding, the latter being necessary in order to be able to make use of knowledge and knowledge-based concepts in order to tackle novel problems in contexts where initial knowledge may be very limited.

This is where development comes in. Logical problem solving ability is acquired by children developmentally. Some of this is age-related 'unfolding'. All parents know this from observing the mental development of their own children. Piaget believed that there are clearly identifiable stages in cognitive development. In other words cognitive development is not smooth and just age related, but is punctuated by specific hurdles at which children can become stuck.

Others dispute the stages that Piaget identifies, or even argue that developing cognitive ability is just the growth of 'working memory'. This is discussed in my post, which is sidetracked by the introduction of this 'working memory' issue. Even if you go down this line then greater 'working memory' can still only be acquired developmentally.

Where Vygotsky comes in is with the internalisation of knowledge by an individual learner so that it makes sense in terms of the knowledge already possessed. Vygotsky argues that this essential internalisation can be enhanced and facilitated by social interaction and collaborative problem solving based on the verbalisation and communication of problems and how they might be solved and overcome.

If PISA is to move into this area then this is very welcome because it will help define learning outcomes in ways that promote effective developmental learning. Toby Young is right to be concerned because his pupils taught just by filling their heads with knowledge will not do well on the new collaborative problem solving tests.

Of course Janet is right. The currency of cognitive development is indeed knowledge but knowledge not organised onto a personal conceptual framework will just lead to mental flapping about and frustration.

Effective teaching is about helping learners acquire knowledge and through this process further helping them to develop their personal conceptual frameworks so that the knowledge makes sense to them. Only then is the knowledge useful to the learner.

So cognitive development is a vital component of learning for understanding.

This might seem to be a lot of highbrow waffle but different approaches will have different outcomes, some better than others. It might be 'blobbery' but it is 'blobbery' that matters.

Chris Manners's picture
Sat, 29/03/2014 - 20:43

I'm thinking of studying Education at post grad level.

But not worth it. Young and all will get what they want anyway.

John Mountford's picture
Sat, 29/03/2014 - 21:59

I don't know where I came across this OECD report about the Finnish system but it makes for very interesting reading. (Probably Janet or Roger!!)

I wonder if Toby Young ever stops churning out the same old claptrap long enough to actually THINK? Like Michael Gove of course, he has no need of evidence to support his puerile attack on academia and education professionals more generally. The measure of Toby Young's folly is nicely summed up in his own banal words,

"we want children to be able to solve problems, don’t we? In fact, it’s a terrible idea. It’s precisely because our state schools have focused on teaching “skills” such as problem-solving, creativity and critical thinking at the expense of basic knowledge that a fifth of British children now leave school unable to read or write."

This quote covers all the elements of his deeply biased reporting, from his flawed understanding of what he regards as a 'progressive' approach to education to his misuse of dodgy data.

The point I would like to highlight about the Finnish system is that all the soft skills that Toby Young objects to have been helping that country to establish a world-class education system for many years: "It has consistently ranked in the very top tier of countries in all PISA assessments over the past decade, and its performance has been especially notable for its remarkable consistency across schools. No other country has so little variation in outcomes between schools, and the gap within schools between the top and bottom-achieving students is extraordinarily modest as well. Finnish schools seem to serve all students well, regardless of family background or socio-economic status." OECD

I am not suggesting that we should attempt to clone the Finnish system, nor that PISA assessments are a gold standard, but as anyone with a modicum of intelligence accepts, there may be lessons to be learned from the experiences of others. The present government certainly claims to aspire to do just this. Unfortunately, its efforts are driven by nothing more than political bias founded more on history than current reality.

This quote from the OECD report may illustrate my point in regard to the commitment of the Finish people to look to the future rather than dwell in the past. (A lesson we might do well to follow.)

"Finnish employers sent very strong signals to the schools about the kinds of knowledge, skills and dispositions young people needed in order to be successful in the new economy. Finnish industry leaders not only promoted the importance of mathematics, science and technology in the formal curriculum, but they also advocated for more attention to creativity, problem-solving, teamwork and cross-curricular projects in schools. In spite of some criticism in the 1990s, one example of the kind of message that corporate leaders were delivering to the schools is
this statement from a senior Nokia manager whom (Pasi) Sahlberg interviewed during this period in his role as chair of a task force on the national science curriculum:
If I hire a youngster who doesn’t know all the mathematics or physics that is needed to work here, I have colleagues here who can easily teach those things. But if I get somebody who doesn’t know how to work with other people, how to think differently or how to create original ideas and somebody who is afraid of making a mistake, there is nothing we can do here. Do what you have to do to keep our education system up-to-date but don’t take away [the] creativity and open-mindedness that we now have in our fine peruskoulu. (Sahlberg, forthcoming) "

Roger, you are right to identify what I regard as the most serious question in this whole debate, what good an education that does not primarily focus on 'learning for understanding'?

I'd rather be a blob than a real nob-head, what say you?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 30/03/2014 - 09:49

For me this is the key OECD judgement of the Finnish education system.

"No other country has so little variation in outcomes between schools, and the gap within schools between the top and bottom-achieving students is extraordinarily modest as well. Finnish schools seem to serve all students well, regardless of family background or socio-economic status.”

In all public services the greatest good is consistent excellent standards and uniformity of provision regardless of where you live, wealth, social class, gender, ethnicity etc.

Where this applies to education. It is both enabling and liberating. The high standards are enabling; the uniformity is liberating. Every child can happily and conveniently attend their local school. Parents are relieved of the stress and costs of school choice because all schools are equally good.

Markets never provide such systems. They require diversity and choice. Uniformity is the enemy of markets because it renders them inoperable. Markets in public services inflate costs to the taxpayer because where provision is uniform, diversity has to be created artificially by the state at a cost, and because markets require choice in order to operate, there must be over supply of provision, thus further screwing the taxpayer.

Competition between service providers escalates the cost to the taxpayer still more because of the costs of marketing and the apparent requirement for the addition of 'executive' in the titles of senior managers justifying the employment of those with 'business' qualifications rather than knowing anything about the job and further self-justifying grossly inflated salaries and bonuses. At the same time standards fall because co-operation is replaced by secrecy and competition.

There endeth Roger's first lesson on the economics of the providing for public service 'needs, which have little in common with the economics of consumer 'wants'.

Unfortunately it is a long time since we had a government or even a major political party that understands the difference.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 30/03/2014 - 10:29

A further currently topical example is the supply of gas and electricity. This too is an essential public service not a consumer choice. 'Ooh I really like the look and smell of EDF's gas compared to that boring Eon stuff'.

The energy supply companies all provide the same commodity, 'competing' only on price and service. They have to create confusion over prices by providing highly complex tariffs in order to stop it being easy to just buy the cheapest. 'Service' is escalated in importance from simply paying the bill, like council tax for instance, to create further choice in how difficult and expensive in premium rate phone calls it is to rectify mistakes in billing.

The government thinks the problem is insufficient competition, whereas it is in having competition at all. All the previous examples regarding inflation of costs to the bill payer apply, (hundreds of executive bonuses everywhere) plus the extra costs of profits and dividends to shareholders and the payment of commissions to 'price comparison sites' which are nothing of the sort. They are merely agents, whose own costs and profits are also paid by the shivering consumer.

I have to laugh when representatives of these price comparison sites come on TV saying how much money people can save by using their services to switch suppliers, while rubbing their hands together behind their backs anticipating all the profits that such switching generates for them, all paid by us in our energy bills.

As in education and all other public services the solution is uniform excellent provision by the state. Even in the mad world of global capitalism this benefits consumers because the nation state is a bigger and more reliable customer than individual private energy companies and so can get the best prices for us on the global market.

Of course we also need state control of power generation. Come back the Central Electricity Generating Board.

It might be thought that such nationalised state provision would be rejected by the public as left wing neo-communist madness. However when polled it is what people want by a huge majority.

If given the choice, the vast majority of parents would express the same view with regard to education on the Finnish model.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 30/03/2014 - 07:51

Thanks Roger and John for your thoughtful comments. You're right that education is more than knowledge and skills. It's knowledge + skills = understanding.

And thanks Chris for making me laugh. But don't be downhearted - those with the loudest voices don't always prevail.

Chris Manners's picture
Sun, 30/03/2014 - 15:40

"And thanks Chris for making me laugh. But don’t be downhearted – those with the loudest voices don’t always prevail"

Though I read that rather like "in the long run we're all dead".

agov's picture
Sun, 30/03/2014 - 16:24

In the long run the liblabcons are dead.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 06/04/2014 - 06:44

Debra Kidd annihilates Toby Young's attack on Blobbery in "Better a Blob than a Knob" here.

Beth's picture
Sun, 06/04/2014 - 07:11

This is all getting a bit childish.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 06/04/2014 - 07:15

Beth - don't be put off by the headline of the linked article - the contents are not "childish".

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