…it is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives…

Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Aphorism, 1620

Cargo cults grew up on some of the South Sea islands during the first half of the 20th century. Amazed islanders watched as Europeans colonised their islands, built landing strips and then unloaded precious cargo from the aeroplanes which duly landed. That looks easy enough, some canny shaman must have reasoned, if we knock up a bamboo airport then the metal birds will come and lay their cargo eggs for us too. This is the same logic as the Kevin Costner film Filed of Dreams: build it and they will come. Needless to say, despite the islanders’ best efforts, no cargo arrived. Not only had they no understanding of global trade and western science, they’d fundamentally misunderstood the causal relationship between cargo and airports.

Physicist, Richard Feynman, famously appropriated the cargo cult metaphor to describe bad science. Feynman said,

This long history of learning how not to fool ourselves — of having utter scientific integrity — is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

Trying not to fool ourselves is the key. But this is much easier said than done. Feynman points out that this kind of thinking is common in education:

There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you’ll see the reading scores keep going down—or hardly going up—in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods.  There’s a witch doctor remedy that doesn’t work.  It ought to be looked into: how do they know that their method should work?… We obviously have made no progress—lots of theory, but no progress.

The Melanesian islanders had lots of theories about how to attract cargo but made very little progress. Feynman continues:

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call Cargo Cult Science.  In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people… They’re doing everything right.  The form is perfect.  It looks exactly the way it looked before.  But it doesn’t work.  No airplanes land.  So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

I’m pretty sure we get the same sort of thing going on at the chalkface. A few years ago I suggested AfL is a cargo cult with teachers perfectly replicating the form of something they don’t necessarily understand. Most cargo cults in the South Sea died out fairly quickly because no cargo arrived: it was really hard to continue fooling themselves. We don’t have this advantage in teaching because it’s so much easier to believe in the existence of cargo. After all, kids learn so what we’re doing must be working, right? All this shows is that learning is innate. We are always learning something, just not necessarily the right stuff.

We only improve in areas where we can get some sort of feedback on how well we’re doing. As teachers we quickly improve at behaviour management because the feedback is so clear: if what you do works, kids behave. If you make a mistake, they don’t. But we don’t always get better at teaching because not only go we get very poor feedback, we also fool ourselves into believing that we’re getting better because we mistake performance for learning. If we mark students’ work and in response they write an improved essay then, Hey presto: cargo! But if we’re improving short-term performance at the cost of flexibility and durability, then we might just be getting better at being worse. How would we know unless we specifically and explicitly tested ourselves and our students?

Fresh (if that’s the right word) from two days spent marking Year 10 mock exams, it’s clear that many students approach exams like cargo cultists. They know how to imitate the form and structure of a good responses but it doesn’t work. What they end up saying is meaningless gibberish:

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Here’s a student who’s been taught how to build bamboo airports with no understanding of geography or technology. They’ve knocked up something that looks like academic writing but it’s empty and worthless. I suspect this sort of thing might be down to well-intentioned cargo cult teaching.

Just as it’s easier to monitor books to see if teachers are marking than it is to evaluate the quality of students’ work, it’s much easier to teach proxies and formulas than it is to teach the underlying knowledge needed to be analytical. For most teachers, the knowledge of how to write well is tacit. If it’s something you can ‘just do’, then there’s a good chance you’ve never unpicked exactly what it is that you do. There may be all sort of excellent ways to make this tacit knowledge visible to students but the only one I know which works reliably is good, old-fashioned modelling.

Good modelling requires that we share not just the content of a piece of writing but the thinking which underpins it. A few years ago I decided to take some tennis lessons to improve me game after realising I was never going to improve by watching Wimbledon every year. The coach didn’t just show me how to play, he told me how to think. We don’t learn well from watch experts perform, we need to have their performance broken down and analysed. Although I could replicate the movements required to return a serve, I had no idea what I was doing until my coach taught me to watch my opponents shoulders instead of the ball. I’m still not much good at tennis because I don’t practice enough, but I’m a lot better at watching Wimbledon because I have an idea about how a tennis player thinks.

Deconstructing exemplars can be very useful, but possibly the most effective way to share both thinking and outcome is to write a live model in front of a class and speak your thoughts aloud as you go.

Here’s an example of an exemplar written in front of a class and then annotated later as a handout:

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By sharing the thinking and the outcome we can start to think about what exactly students might need to know in order to write really high-quality outcomes. Then, once students know enough, it might be useful to teach specific structures.