On dichotomies

//On dichotomies

I seem to regularly find myself embroiled in various polarised debates, and invariably, at some point in the discussion, someone butts into to dismiss the entire exchange as a ‘false dichotomy’. (And hence, a waste of time.) The answer, they claim lies not at the margins but somewhere in the centre. In this way we can dispense with the futile bickering between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘progressives’, and those who champion either the teaching of knowledge or skills because they are both right. We just characterise our adversaries as occupying an extreme position but no one really believes something so diametrically oppositional. Do they?

Let’s first explore the idea of a false dichotomy. This is logical flaw committed when we present only two options when in fact there are others. Typically we would then go on to construct a straw man argument which demonstrates that anyone holding the ‘only other option’ is clearly delusional. Darren Chetty sent me this link which contains some nice examples of false dichotomies: 

Either you let me go to the Family Values Tour, or I’ll be miserable for the rest of my life. I know you don’t want me to be miserable for the rest of my life, so you should let me go to the concert.

Either you use Speed Stick deodorant, or you will stink to high heaven. You don’t want to stink, so you had better buy Speed Stick.

Either I keep smoking, or I’ll get fat. I don’t want to get fat, so I better keep smoking.

Either we keep Charles Manson in jail, or we release him, thus risking murder, carnage, and mayhem. We don’t want murder, carnage, or mayhem, so we had better keep him in jail.

Each of these propositions has been set up to in order to present only rational choice but in each case we can easily work out that there are various other possibilities which would not lead to the negative consequences we would rightly wish to avoid.

But, this is where I think lazily brushing aside someone’s considered opinion as being a false dichotomy is problematic. You see, some dichotomies are real. The positions taken by ‘progressive’ or traditionalist’ educators lead to all sorts of seemingly unrelated disputes and confusions. If I genuinely believe that the best way to educate is to be guided by the inclination of the child and to respond to their impulses as a supportive guide then it makes complete sense that I will recoil in horror from a word as loaded with authoritarian meaning as ‘obedience’. But equally, if I think the best way for children to learn is to be instructed by an expert then it’s obviously desirable for them to be obedient to that expert’s instructions.

The problem comes when we try to compromise. In the spirit of taking the best of both, many people believe are possibly of committing what I’ve come to think of as the ‘and fallacy’. But you can’t always eat your cake and have it. Some positions really are mutually exclusive: medicine and, say, faith healing. Or Christianity and atheism. You could attempt to argue that there’s a possible compromise between these positions but you’d be wrong. Medicine depends on the rigour of science whilst faith healing requires no such ‘proof’ to be considered efficacious – we just have to believe in it. It’s no good just to dismiss this dichotomy by saying that there’s a ‘time and place’ for both. There might well be a time and place for both but these times and places exclude each other. They do not overlap.

Likewise, a belief that you can cherry-pick the best of both from progressive and traditionalist ideology is flawed. If you believe that teaching  content-free, generic skills is impossible, then it never makes sense to teach them. But of course we’ve entered an age where ‘no one’ really believes that anymore, haven’t we? So instead we have people suggesting that it makes sense to do a bit of Direct Instruction here and a bit of discovery learning there. Now, obviously you can do this, but it isn’t really of coherent position. If you believe that DI is the most effective way to teach and that discovery learning is one of the most ineffective ways of teaching, why would you do it? You can only really hold this view if you think that one way of teaching is as good as another, or that variety is more important than efficiency.

But let’s return for a moment to the dichotomy between medicine and faith healing. I could claim that a patient might benefit from being treated with faith healing every now and then for sake or variety. Or maybe they will feel more motivated to get well if given a choice? Most of us are probably content to acknowledge this as nonsensical. Clearly we would expect to be treated in the way that was most likely to make us healthy as quickly and as efficiently as possible. If we believe faith healing is the best way, then why wouldn’t we always choose faith healing?

But that is, I think, the crux of the ‘and fallacy’: children will benefit by being taught by a variety of methods, or that they will be more motivated to learn if given a choice about how to learn. Now, I’m not arguing that one position is better than the other (although I think most readers will be aware of my biases) just that they are mutually exclusive. You can’t do child centred learning and teacher led instruction at the same time. You have to choose. Martin Robinson argues in Trivium 21c that ‘grammar’ or the teaching of knowledge is at odds with ‘dialectic’ or the questioning of knowledge. Can you teach that a thing is true and undermine the truth of it at the same time? Won’t things very quickly fall apart? The process of asking ‘why?’ is inherently destructive and ultimately reduces all knowledge to rubble. If you are choosing to do a ‘bit of both’ you’re failing to acknowledge that these positions are antithetical. You basically saying that sometimes it’s OK to do faith healing rather than medicine. And why would this be?

I think, and these are just my thoughts, that when push came to shove, if our lives were on the line, the overwhelming majority of us would choose medicine over faith healing and damn our principles! Few of us would have a deep enough conviction in faith healing to risk not being prescribed some scientifically tested medicine. The difference is, our lives aren’t on the line. It’s not us who will suffer if we do a bit of both.

The point, perhaps, is this: arguments polarise because the most interesting thinking often happens at the extremes. The middle ground is exactly that: the meeting of two competing principles. And compromise is, as I’ve said before, the refuge of the unprincipled. You can always choose to do both a AND z, but you will do neither well.

I look forward to having my flaws and failings pointed out below.

Related posts

Some dichotomies are real: the ‘and/or debate’
It’s not what you know… oh, hang on: it IS what you know!

2014-03-28T17:14:40+00:00March 27th, 2014|Featured|


  1. Stuart Lock (@StuartLock) March 27, 2014 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    Interesting post David. I agree with the thrust of it – that people are too quick to rush to compromise and hence lose something valuable by not exploring fully the implications of their positions.

    I also think being polemical is essential for a good debate – it allows one to ascertain the validity of argument far more effectively than when people twist counter-arguments via generic statements.

    However, I was interested in this:

    “You can’t teach that a thing is true and question the truth of it at the same time. Things will very quickly fall apart.”

    Though I agree with the thrust of your post, I’m not sure this is true. In fact, I think this is something like the process human knowledge has gone through over the years – of continually questioning truth at the same time as handing it down.

    I can teach that the sea is blue and question whether the sea is blue at the same time.
    I can teach that 10 = TEN and also question whether 10 = 2.

    In both my counterexamples, I suppose the point is that we are adding more knowledge to the situation when we start questioning the truth. However, I would also argue this is the point of dialectics, to clarify via questioning the truth. To do this, we must also be teaching a notion of the truth, while accepting it is the truth to the extent that we currently know it.

    And onfaith healing over medicine. I clearly reject faith healing, but I remember my stepdad giving his daughter coloured water as “medicine” when she had a headache at bedtime. The placebo effect – or something else – I can quite clearly choose the placebo effect while believing in medicine can’t I?

    • David Didau March 27, 2014 at 12:17 pm - Reply

      You can’t teach that it is fact that the sea is blue and then question it at the same time can you? The act of questioning undermines the teaching surely?

      The placebo effect is well documented within medicine, isn’t it? Clearly there is nothing mutually exclusive here.

      • Stuart Lock (@StuartLock) March 27, 2014 at 12:48 pm - Reply

        Why can’t you? I think that’s what we do all the time, because of the vagueness in the phrase “blue”. The sea is blue, and it also is not. The starting point for that discussion is partly that we know the sea is blue, but also that we know it isn’t. Maybe that’s not at the same time, but I think that’s something of a red herring here.

        If I teach you what a heap is, and then ask you how many grains makes a heap of grains (is 1 a heap? 2? 3? and so on), isn’t that teaching you and questioning it at the same time?

        I think you can teach something is true (in as far as we accept what truth is) and also question whether it is true. I think this is what human history has always done.

        • chemistrypoet March 27, 2014 at 8:52 pm - Reply

          I agree. In science we deal with models of the real world, but are aware that they are models. Some are more accurate than others, but still can be effectively used in many circumstances (all models are an approximation to the truth). Almost anything taught in science will be an approximation to the truth. Students need to be aware of this, but still treat the knowledge as truth. Scientists must always ask themselves ‘how true is this truth?’

          There is an ambiguity to the warp and weft of the world. However, revealing this may need to depend on the maturity of the students?

          • SurrealAnarchy March 28, 2014 at 9:10 pm

            To some extent this is where the knowledge is treated as conjecture, opening itself up to critique. Yet there is also the need to, on many occasions, not rush to the critique until we have an understanding of what we are critiquing…

      • Ian Lynch March 30, 2014 at 11:12 am - Reply

        Why do you think the sea is blue? The sea is not inherently any colour. Medicine is very different from education. If you don’t understand the scientific methods applied to medicine you are going to come to factually incorrect conclusions applying them to learning.

  2. Cazzwebbo March 27, 2014 at 12:41 pm - Reply

    I desperately want to respond to the stuff about medical science versus faith healing from an anthropological perspective. I did a whole half term module on medical anthropology at uni looking precisely at such stuff. But I’ve forgotten most of it. And I cleared out my lecture notes, seminar notes and essays on it a while ago. Damn. But, there is a lot more to it with that topic too. The biggest point I remember was our western fetishism with belief in science. Foucault has written on the care of the self and gone into a fabulous critique on this.

    • David Didau March 27, 2014 at 2:53 pm - Reply

      I’m not presenting medicine as inherently better than faith healing (I was going to use witch craft as my dichotomised example – would this be better?) just that a belief in the principles of medicine seem, to my uneducated eye, mutually exclusive with a belief in the principles of faith healing. But maybe that’s just me?

      • Cazzwebbo March 27, 2014 at 4:11 pm - Reply

        Hmmm, again, can’t respond very well due to having forgotten loads… But witchcraft not better, no, lol! Anthropology covered this too… 🙂 look at African cultures that use / believe in witchcraft / mangu in their social / cultural / legal systems to determine the outcomes of judicial cases. Fascinating 🙂 I would be very wary of proposing any of this kind of stuff as mutually exclusive… Anthropology tends to be a great leveller…

        • David Didau March 27, 2014 at 4:51 pm - Reply

          Even with caveat that the dichotomy exists with our culture?

          • Cazzwebbo March 27, 2014 at 5:04 pm

            But does it? Maybe it seems like it does, but intellectually it might be richly described with such great depth that actually there might not be any dichotomy at all…?

          • Ian Lynch April 1, 2014 at 12:32 am

            The dichotomy between alternative medicine and mainstream medicine is that alternative medicine that has a physiological basis and shows strong evidence of curing a specific condition is called mainstream medicine. The difference between medical evidence and education evidence is that medical remedies tend to be specific to an isolatable condition. Medical remedies that are cure alls tend to be associated with snake oil. In education the bulk of the debate is about cure alls, not specific actions in specific contexts where other variables have been eliminated.

  3. discreetteacher March 27, 2014 at 5:36 pm - Reply

    Isn’t there an inherent flaw in direct instruction though, David? If we agree that learning can’t be ‘rapid and sustained’ and ‘Direct Instruction’ is promising ‘rapid and sustained’ progress then something is clearly going to have to give, isn’t it? Where are the ‘desirable difficulties’?

    Clearly, there are some topics where a ‘Direct Instruction’ approach is the only way to teach them such as ‘The Mean, Median and Inter-quartile Range’ in mathematics, something that has been invented. However, in mathematics there are plenty of times that a discovery position can lead better long learning than Direct Instruction, for example ‘Circle Theorems’ well, in fact almost all of geometry.

    I also come to our Dutch brethren whom have turned their collective backs on Direct Instruction and look at the Realistic Mathematical Education approach which using a much more constructivist approach which somehow manages to churn out excellent PISA results every few years.

    I am extremely sorry for using a lot of mathematical examples, however it is my field of specialism and I promise you, I am far more lost than anybody, I merely want to do my very best, but I don’t know who to listen to!

    • David Didau March 27, 2014 at 6:42 pm - Reply

      This post is not an argument for direct instruction – I merely point out that it is incompatible with a “much more constructivist approach”. However, I don’t think DI is in necessarily in conflict with desirable difficulties as they aren’t mutually exclusive methods of instruction – I’d hazard that they exist on separate continuums.

      Not heard anything abotu the comparative success of Dutch education or RME, but I think there would be plenty of mathematicians who might disagree that discovery learning might be best for certain types of curriculum content.

      • discreetteacher March 31, 2014 at 9:26 pm - Reply

        Right, David, I have reread your initial comment and I seem to be misunderstanding something. It seems that the dichotomy that you set up is the ‘student-centered learning’ versus the ‘teacher-led learning’. I thought that ‘discovery’ teaching was setting up a problem that would very precisely lead to a certain result. For example, measuring angles in a circle theorem problem, to ‘derive’ the angle at the circumference, angle at the centre rule. Clearly, this isn’t a student-led lesson, and I have an exact endpoint that I have in mind.

        Is this progressive, as I am using ‘discovery learning’ or is it traditional as I have decided the lesson content to deliver an exact result. As for the problems with the short term memory the skills they use are imbedded – drawing circles, drawing lines, measuring angles – so I don’t overload that.

        As for if you’d like some further reading on the Dutch RME: http://www.mei.org.uk/files/pdf/RME_Impact_booklet.pdf

        Finally, on your last line, the idea of plenty of mathematicians that disagree, I’m not sure tallying how many agree or disagree on any side proves anything. I just want to know what is the best that I can do, that is all, why is that so hard to find?

        Finally, as you have read ‘You Are Not So Smart’ you will know that evidence doesn’t actually change peoples viewpoints but actually makes them more entrenched in their own position. Hell, religion would be falling to pieces if evidence meant anything.

        A final point, if we conclude that Direct Instruction is better for long term learning: ‘Some critics of DI have indicated that many, if not most, early DI achievement gains will disappear over time. There are different reasons given for this prediction. One reason given is that the DI students were “babied” through sequences that made instruction easy for them. They received reinforcement and enjoyed small group instruction, but they would find it difficult to transition to the realities of the “standard” classroom.’

        from: http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~adiep/ft/adams.htm

        Is this really long term learning? Again, I am asking out of curiosity.

  4. On dichotomies | The Echo Chamber March 27, 2014 at 6:46 pm - Reply

    […] Read more on The Learning Spy… […]

  5. logicalincrementalism March 27, 2014 at 7:08 pm - Reply

    ‘Traditional’ and ‘progressive’ are category labels. They are categories that each contain many different members. And people vary as to what they think belongs in each category. I’m not suggesting the categories exist only in people’s minds – clearly they relate to real activities. What I am suggesting is that the two categories are only mutually exclusive if someone thinks of them that way.

    Obviously you can’t do child centred learning and teacher led instruction simultaneously, but you could use different approaches at different times in the same lesson. They are polar opposites on a continuum, but the existence of one doesn’t negate the validity of the other, which is what you seem to be suggesting.

    • David Didau March 27, 2014 at 7:10 pm - Reply

      I’m certainly acknowledging that many people believe as you do that you can do both. Of course you can. But some people think one is ‘better’ than the other: if this is the case, why would you use the other?

      • logicalincrementalism March 27, 2014 at 8:10 pm - Reply

        You would use whatever approach was suitable for what was being learned. Some learning requires clear, step-by-step, explicit, teacher-led explanation. Sometimes kids go off at very productive tangents that are worth following up, because those tangents are so salient to them that they learn a great deal from following them up. That’s child-led learning, but might require, within it, step-by-step, explicit, teacher-led explanation. The two types of approach can interweave.

        If people think one approach is ‘better’, per se, than another, then they will presumably use only one approach. Personally, I think that view doesn’t reflect the complexity of knowledge.

        • Ian Lynch April 1, 2014 at 12:11 pm - Reply

          And school based education is more than knowledge – physical education for example. Dexterity in measurement in science, controlling your urge to punch someone. I know some teachers would like education to be only academic learning in their subject but in schools that is never likely to be the remit. If teachers think like that they would be better off teaching in higher education.

      • Ian Lynch April 1, 2014 at 12:36 am - Reply

        Because in different contexts different things work.

    • David Didau March 28, 2014 at 7:08 am - Reply

      You can only use two mutually exclusive approaches if you believe that one is no better than the other. If you believe one is no better than the other then you haven’t really thought them through to their logical conclusions. I could choose to spend my mornings holding a religious belief and my afternoons being atheist, but what would be the point?
      Choosing a AND z just leads to doing both badly.

      • Cazzwebbo March 28, 2014 at 7:50 am - Reply

        What about a pluralistic approach? To integrate the plurality and co exist? And not that one is better than the other but that rather they are all do the same thing? Just questions. Not statements.

      • logicalincrementalism March 28, 2014 at 8:38 am - Reply

        I think you’re conflating several things.

        There are states of being that are mutually exclusive in the sense that they can’t both be true *at the same time*. I can’t be in my kitchen and not be in my kitchen. I can’t be moving and stationary. Or a pedestrian and a passenger. But I can be in my kitchen and then leave it. Or be moving one minute and stationary the next. Or a pedestrian in the morning and a passenger in the afternoon.

        None of those states is necessarily ‘better’ than its opposite. They are only mutually exclusive in the sense that you can’t be in both states at once.

        Nor is there any more ‘point’ to one of the states rather than the other. I’m in my kitchen or out of it, move or stop moving, walk or ride when I need to.

        Belief is a different kind of thing to what people do. Certainly, you can’t simultaneously believe in the existence of a deity and be an atheist, but people in states of uncertainty do find themselves being believers in the morning and unbelievers in the afternoon. I agree there wouldn’t be much point in *choosing* to do that – unless of course you were trying to resolve your uncertainty.

        The approaches used to teach children, and beliefs about those teaching approaches are also different kinds of thing to each other. True, you can’t simultaneously believe that traditional approaches are better and that progressive approaches are better (if that’s the way you want to classify different teaching and learning methods), but you can believe that child-led learning is better in some circumstances and teacher-led learning is better in others.

        For example, our school summer holidays at home included a good deal of child-led learning. For example, my children spontaneously decided to learn by themselves about life in the Hebrides in the 19th century (prompted by the memory of a relative) and the plot devices used in early 20th century film (prompted by watching a black-and-white film). That didn’t prevent me working out a timetable of fall-back activities, or giving explicit, direct instruction about geographical features or how to create a narrative spine in a script. As I said earlier, the two types of approach can interweave.

        • David Didau March 28, 2014 at 5:06 pm - Reply

          You can choose to believe that “child-led learning is better in some circumstances and teacher-led learning is better in others” but I’d argue that if this were the case you’d be doing neither well. You can force anything to interweave but to what end? By intruding on the self-selected study of your children, you could be accused of spoiling the naturalness of their pursuit by beating in knowledge that hey might have discovered when they were ready for it. By choosing to ignore this principle of progressive education you reveal a preference for the authority of the teacher led approach. Or so one could argue.

          • john gammer (@questionsit) March 28, 2014 at 10:00 pm

            You have to do both well. If you couldn’t, education would be impossible in 10 life times, let alone one.

          • David Didau March 29, 2014 at 10:00 am

            There is no support whatsoever for this assertion.

          • logicalincrementalism March 29, 2014 at 5:51 am

            I’m not ‘choosing to believe’ that; I’m basing it on my own experience of learning and on how I’ve observed other people learn. Sometimes, I need to do a lot of reading. Sometimes I need to walk and think about what I’ve read. Sometimes, I need to ask an expert to explain something. Sometimes, the expert tells me it’s essential to understand a concept that at first looks irrelevant and that is a pig to get my head round. I do it, and find they were right. That’s been my pattern of learning since childhood. I don’t get the impression my way of learning is unique.

            I disagree that interweaving teacher-led and child-led approaches means you’d do neither well, because you’re not doing them both *at the same time*. If I’m reading, I focus on my reading. If an expert tells me I need to master a particular concept, I focus on doing that. I’m not forcing the interweaving – what I need to do and when, emerges from what I’m learning.

            And I wasn’t ‘intruding’ on my children’s learning. They would appear after a session with the internet and ask why a particular area was so sparsely inhabited, or wonder, after seeing a movie, why a scriptwriter used a particular character in a certain way. They would soon tell me if they felt I was ‘spoiling the naturalness of their pursuit’.

            One could certainly argue that to ‘ignore this principle of progressive education [I] reveal a preference for the authority of the teacher led approach’, but then one would be overlooking the fact that I wasn’t ignoring the principle – far from it, and a preference for one approach over the other is only likely if you think the two approaches are mutually exclusive. Which I don’t.

          • David Didau March 29, 2014 at 10:02 am

            And and that point any debate becomes very difficult because we now both believe the other is ‘wrong’. I’m happy to accept that you genuinely believe what you say – can you agree the same?

          • logicalincrementalism March 29, 2014 at 10:39 am

            The debate isn’t difficult because we each ‘believe’ the other is wrong; it’s because your premise that child-led and teacher-led approaches are mutually exclusive only holds true if you try to implement them both simultaneously, a point made by several other commenters. If you implement them at different times, they’re not mutually exclusive, but complementary. This about definitions and logic, not ‘beliefs’.

          • David Didau March 29, 2014 at 4:33 pm

            No. If you believe that direct instruction is the best way for children to learn then it is an utter waste of time to engage in discovery learning at any time. What would be the point of discovering something you already know?

          • logicalincrementalism March 29, 2014 at 5:45 pm

            I’m not interested in what people ‘believe’. I’m interested in evidence. The evidence that direct instruction is the best and only way for children to learn is flawed.

            Are you saying that children should be prevented from discovering things for themselves? How would you stop them? It’s what human beings do.

          • David Didau March 29, 2014 at 5:48 pm

            I’m saying no such thing – I’m pointing out a dichotomy which you seem to want to deny. I’m not really sure why.

            If you’re interested in evidence then you’ll be aware that despite you ironic belief that the evidence supporting DI is flawed, the evidence also confirms the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of discovery learning. Ignoring this evidence is an emotional choice which then requires post-rationalisation.

          • logicalincrementalism March 29, 2014 at 8:21 pm

            Your original post mentions several dichotomies; traditional vs progressive, DI vs discovery learning, teacher-led vs child-led. I’m not clear whether you think these dichotomies are different ones, or whether you think traditional, DI and teacher-led methods are facets of one thing, and progressive, discovery, child-led methods are facets of another thing.

            So when in your original post you say “You can’t do child centred learning and teacher led instruction at the same time” I agree completely. The two are by definition mutually exclusive if you try to do them simultaneously. The same applies to the other dichotomies you mention. But there is nothing to stop anyone using methods that are generally categorised under those headings, at different times.

            I think what you are saying is that one person can’t espouse a traditional/DI/teacher-led philosophy of education and espouse a progressive/discovery/child-led philosophy of education at the same time. Is that right?

            If so, I understand what you mean, but I think that dichotomy is forcing a bunch of teaching methods into one or other category despite some methods being used by people in both ‘camps’. I know lots of people subscribe to this dichotomy, I just don’t think it’s a valid one.

            For the record, I didn’t say I believed that the evidence supporting DI is flawed I said ‘the evidence that direct instruction is the best and only way for children to learn is flawed’. They are not the same thing. Direct instruction is a perfectly respectable and very effective way of conveying knowledge. I would also say ‘the evidence that discovery learning is the best and only way for children to learn is flawed’, but I can see nothing wrong with discovery learning in an appropriate context. It’s when it’s seen as the only way to go that it causes problems.

          • Cazzwebbo March 29, 2014 at 8:31 pm

            I think this debate would benefit from a schematic diagram or two 🙂

          • logicalincrementalism March 30, 2014 at 6:34 am

            Me too. Set theory perhaps.

          • SurrealAnarchy March 30, 2014 at 7:19 am

            There is nothing in this world that can’t be solved by a Venn Diagram

          • Cazzwebbo March 30, 2014 at 7:28 am

            Or a two by two matrix 🙂

          • logicalincrementalism March 30, 2014 at 9:05 am

            That statement is probably truer than it looks!

          • SurrealAnarchy March 30, 2014 at 9:18 am

            There we go!

  6. cbokhove March 27, 2014 at 7:31 pm - Reply

    It makes sense to dislike a OR b when you believe a XOR b 😉

    • David Didau March 28, 2014 at 7:02 am - Reply

      I’m sorry but I have no idea what this means 😉

  7. john gammer (@questionsit) March 27, 2014 at 10:32 pm - Reply

    I love reading your blog but this is a seriously confused article. As far as we know, nothing can travel faster than light but it would be silly to claim that as a logical necessity. A clever child is going to ask the obvious question if you do that. Of course, it is possible to teach something as the truth and leave open the possibility that we may be wrong. This is, in fact, what we do when we are doing high-level physics, etc. It happens even in mathematics. Think of Russel’s paradox. The history of set theory is littered with disagreement.

    It is an obvious false dichotomy to say it is either DI or discovery learning.It is sort of embarrassing you believe this actually.

    • David Didau March 28, 2014 at 7:01 am - Reply

      I accept that what I’ve written is perhaps confusing so let me attempt to clarify. I’m not claiming or arguing that you can’t leave open the possibility that a thing isn’t true, of course you can. But that isn’t dialectics. What I said was that you can’t simultaneously take a position that a thing is both true and false. Dialectics is the reducing to rubble of truth to form a new truth. And yes, this process is essential in science – it’s how we gain in ‘truth’ and acquire new grammar which is then in turn attacked and undermined. But you can’t do this at the same time, can you?

      Why is it obviously false to say it is either DI or discovery learning? Leaving aside that I haven’t said that, it’s obviously true that a child centred approach is at odds with a teacher led one. You can do both, but that’s seriously confused. You can’t do both well. The result is a compromise; it is a grey and disappointing mulch. Clearly this happens, maybe even most of the time. But it’s the result (I contend) of lazy thinking and wooly principles. Rather than just asserting that this is “obviously false”, can you construct a counter argument?

      • nmurphy2013 March 28, 2014 at 8:31 am - Reply

        Isn’t effective DI also child centred?

        • David Didau March 28, 2014 at 9:38 am - Reply

          I’m not sure what you mean by this, but on the face if it, no.

          • harrybackhouse March 28, 2014 at 12:55 pm

            Well of course it is – we aren’t teaching for our own benefit, are we? Good DI depends on pre-existing knowledge of the class, and that knowledge being used to shape the nature of the DI to fit the students receiving it. It can’t help but be child-centred.

            I normally find myself nodding in agreement with your blog, David, but I don’t agree with this at all. You cloak your argument in logical terminology, but that masks, I think, a pretty huge category error of your own. Your analogy of medicine/faith healing is unhelpful, and unnecessary; your readers understand what you mean by DI and discovery learning, so why obfuscate?

            I would suggest that the truth of the argument is something closer to what logicalincrementalisam suggests. I’d merely ad to their point by specifying a structure. I would say, based on my own experience, that discovery learning which does not come after a solid grounding in knowledge, introduced through DI, has a tendency to produce shallow understanding and disengaged students; whilst DI which does not lead to an independent task runs the risk of being forgotten or remaining unconceptualised.

            Basically, DI THEN Discovery, not DI OR Discovery.

          • David Didau March 28, 2014 at 5:01 pm

            I’m really pleased to have written something you don’t agree with and that you’ve taken the time to comment. The fact that you’ve engaged in the dialectic process of trying to reduce my position to rubble illustrates my point. You can only present your anti-thesis because I have presented my thesis. The ‘knowledge’ I have communicated is of course open to critique. But I think you are wrong. There is merit in the OR. DI is a complete theory of teaching which is neither shallow or likely to produce disengaged students. And it always leads to an independent task. If you are using Engelmann’s ideas as he envisaged them then there is never a need for discovery learning. Sure, you’re welcome to follow one with the other, but what would be the point? How could you discover something you had already learned?

            In other news, I’m sorry you found my analogy unhelpful – it wasn’t intended to obfuscate but to clarify. Mea culpa.

          • nmurphy2013 March 28, 2014 at 3:50 pm

            In that any direct instruction is pitched to meet the needs of the students (or at least the needs suggested by their performance…). I always take ‘child centred’ to relate to ‘educare’ i.e. leading students further on from where they are at.
            Direct instruction is not child initiated learning and may not be active learning but to be effective it has to be ‘child centred’ in the sense that the teacher meets the students where they are at and leads/guides them further on.
            Incidentally, have you read the paper ‘Instruction versus exploration in science learning’
            (apologies if I saw that research cited on your blog David!) What’s your take on that?

          • David Didau March 28, 2014 at 4:53 pm

            OK, I see your point. Yes, you can argue that any form of instruction is child centred in those terms. But that’s not really what I was trying to get at. My point is that the tension is real. People fundamentally and passionately disagree at the ‘best’ way to teach.

      • john gammer (@questionsit) March 28, 2014 at 9:52 pm - Reply

        I think you didn’t think this article through before you wrote it. If the argument is that exclusively traditional and purely didactic methods of teaching are not compatible with learning that involves active discovery by the learner, that is true but empty. The interesting, and trivially wrong, position is to hold, I think as you meant to argue, is that you cannot have learning taking place in which both direct instruction and discovery by the learner do not happen at the same time. This is an absurd position because that is how almost all good learning happens. Chomksy was being directly instructed in B.F. Skinner’s ideas as the same time as he was finding them ‘ridiculous’. Breakthroughs cannot happen if that wasn’t the case. You are confusing information acquisition with learning proper, a common, even Govian, mistake. Apart from lists of names and language specific sounds all learning is self-discovered even when it looks like it isn’t, because DI is crucial in a lot of learning. This is why cats don’t programme computers.

        • David Didau March 29, 2014 at 10:00 am - Reply

          Ha Ha! You fall into the trap of assuming that someone that disagrees with you must be either ignorant or stupid. I did think through what I wrote (over several months); you just disagree with it. Which is fine. But you might find it more interesting if you could accept that I really believe what I’m saying and that there might be some substance to it. The problem with these kinds of debates is that we construct logical arguments to support our emotional responses. Obviously there is no way we could convince each other that what we feel is wrong.

          • john gammer (@questionsit) March 29, 2014 at 12:56 pm

            I do not believe you are stupid or ignorant; absolutely not. I have a lot of respect for what you write, hence why I am here reading it all the time. I am certain you believe what you are saying here. I don’t see why anyone would have any emotional investment in DI vs discovery learning. Those relatively permanent changes that reshape the way we look at the world happen because of self discovery. You certainly have to be told the capital city of France is Paris but that is not what we mean by learning, is it?

  8. Nick Hitchen March 28, 2014 at 8:41 am - Reply

    ‘Traditional’ and ‘progressive’ are category labels. They are categories that each contain many different members.’ Is AfL child-led or teacher-led? Is your (excellent) DIRT model for marking ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional’? Is direct instruction in P.E. comparable with direct instruction in mathematics?

  9. Tim Taylor March 28, 2014 at 1:50 pm - Reply

    Its interesting you use Trivium to support your argument, because I think it supports almost exactly the opposite of what you are trying to say.

    This seems to be the nub of your argument: “Can you teach that a thing is true and undermine the truth of it at the same time? Won’t things will very quickly fall apart?”

    The answer is, no. In fact this process is extremely generative because it engenders thinking. Here are some quotes from Trivium that I think are relevant to this process, the first ones concern Montaigne (who I think Martin is very influenced by):

    “Montaigne believed that the task of the thinking person was to find ways to balance opinion, test for truth or meaning through practice, and build up powers of judgement.”

    “Montaigne argues that we are born to on a quest for the truth and that the world is but a school of enquiry… He encourages a style of conversation that listens. learns, and questions.”

    “Montaigne continues that schooling should not be about whether someone has learned a great deal, but about who understands the best. Teachers should not just ‘spew’ out their learning; they should pursue understanding.”

    [Quote from Montaigne] “There is nothing like tempting the boy to want to study and to love it: otherwise you simply produce donkeys laden with books. They are flogged into retaining a pannier of learning; but if its to do any good, learning must not lodge with us: we must marry her.”

    These are Martin’s own thoughts: “ By concentrating on counting and measuring we have neglected education… the lofty but fuzzy aims of a ‘life-well lived’, ‘wisdom’, or a ‘virtuous life’ have been replaced by hard data… Where is the evidence-based education… that proves our schools are producing wiser and more virtuous citizens who are living well-lived lives?”

    His vision is for schools full of ‘philosopher’ kids – ‘responsible citizens’ he says, “we have a duty to enter into dialogue in the present, with the past, in order to build a future.” [my emphasis]

    Martin talks about the ‘cracks’ in grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. None of the three can have dominance over the other, “separately, the arts are unable to deal with the complexity of our world; together they can begin to educate our children properly through their contradictions… we need to put our disagreements into the centre of the curriculum.” [my emphasis]

    It may be uncomfortable, but learning is complex. And we do a disservice by trying to win wars and marginalise those that teacher differently. I agree that there is a real dichotomy at the heart of educational theory, but I disagree there is no way to live with the paradox. Trivium is the answer.

    • David Didau March 28, 2014 at 4:51 pm - Reply

      It’s interesting that you’re unhappy with my use of the Trivium to support my point. I spent yesterday evening with Martin discussing exactly this and today we delivered a course on curriculum design which explored the dichotomies inherent in education.

      I think maybe you mistake my purpose: I’m not trying to win a war here. The point I want to make is that there is an ever present tension between the requirements of grammar & dialectic. A tension which resulted in Socrates’ death.

  10. Tim Taylor March 28, 2014 at 5:01 pm - Reply

    So, you agree with me (and Martin) on living with the paradox and the productive tension generated by working in the cracks (or grey area)?

    I’m not unhappy with you using Trivium, I just don’t think it supports your argument.

    • David Didau March 28, 2014 at 5:09 pm - Reply

      The paradox and the cracks are produced by the very real dichotomy between the progressive and the traditional approach to education. They do not fit together and are inherently in tension. To that extent I’m happy to agree with you.

      But why do you need or want me to agree? The tension between our relative beliefs is so much more interesting.

      • Tim Taylor March 28, 2014 at 5:15 pm - Reply

        I agree the tension is much more interesting. I didn’t want us to agree, just wanted to understand what you were saying.

        • SurrealAnarchy March 28, 2014 at 5:37 pm - Reply

          Ah! I can reply!

          I think the. ‘At the same time’ is crucial. The immediate critical stance can destroy the most beautiful, salient or thoughtful knowledge, for example if a teacher recites a sonnet and a kid immediately says it’s shit & class laugh. A confident teacher might be able to take that on, a few, depending on the class might be crushed. For some kids the sonnet might never stand a chance due to the immediate critique. Maybe the tradition needs to be absorbed and also open to critique but not at the same time…

      • David Russell ETF March 28, 2014 at 9:02 pm - Reply

        Hello David

        I think you are asserting that 3 STATEMENTS are true :

        1 Not all apparent ‘A or B’ dichotomies are false dichotomies; some are true dichotomies

        2 In the case of a true dichotomy it makes no sense to believe, support or practise a bit of ‘A’ and a bit of ‘B’

        3 ‘DI or Discovery Learning’ is a true dichotomy.

        I think that most of the posters who are taking issue with you are either contesting the truth of STATEMENT 3 or else one of your other STATEMENT-3-type statements (eg S4 ‘teaching truth or questioning truth’ is a true dichotomy).

        I think that you are trying to defend the truth of STATEMENT 3 by seeking to demonstrate (or asserting) the truth of STATEMENTS 1 and 2.

        The method for ascertaining the truth value of S1 and S2 is, I would suggest, deductive. They can be argued a priori. But S3’s truth value can only be ascertained a posteriori (unless one defines the two types of education in a mutually exclusive way in which case S3 becomes tautological and trivial).

        I further think that the truth values of each of your 3 statements are independent of the other two.

        None of that depends on opinions about education; it’s about logic. So to bring my opinions on education in at the end……

        I happen to think that S1 and S2 are true, but S3 is probably false. From the above, if you were to convince me S3 is true you’d have to do so without reference to S1 or S2, and with reference to some contingent facts to be found in the world.

        Thanks for interesting debate ! You don’t see enough philosophy on t’internet….

        • David Didau March 29, 2014 at 9:55 am - Reply

          Yes, I think you’re right. Clearly though I also think statement 3 is true. But I’ aware that our belief are emotive rather than logical and that it’s pointless to attempt to convince someone that their feelings are incorrect.

          • David Russell ETF March 29, 2014 at 8:50 pm

            Thanks for your reply, David. I think the truth or falsity of S3 could be established through examination of the world (i.e. having a close look at the two modes of education as they are practised). I don’t think anyone’s feelings would have any bearing on the facts of the matter ! Anyone who ‘feels’ that DI and DL are in true (or false) dichotomy is either using ‘feel’ as a non-confrontational euphemism for ‘think’ or ‘judge’; or else they are making a category error. Aren’t they ?

          • john gammer (@questionsit) March 30, 2014 at 8:20 pm

            I think you are barking up the wrong tree with this ‘I can’t prove your feelings are false’ stuff. It is hard to see what feelings have got to do with it. I think your logic is plainly wrong and you are trying to defend a weak position by saying that people are too emotional about…. I don’t even know about what, actually. You think DI and discovery learning are mutually exclusive. You further think this is a logical truth, which it clearly isn’t because, by inspection, you can see it is a posteriori statement. Remember that to say something is a logical necessity is to assert that there is no possible world where that something is false. I am pretty sure you don’t want to claim this about DI and discovery learning. That is essentially what the debate is about. Feelings don’t come into it, I think.

          • David Didau March 30, 2014 at 8:24 pm

            Well fair enough, but I do maintain that DI and discovery are opposites with no logical overlap. Other than asserting that this is incorrect, no one has actually attempted to demonstrate that this is untrue. I suspect, you feel compelled to tell me how ‘barking’ I am because of an emotional investment, but I’ll take your word for it if you want to claim otherwise.

          • Ian Lynch March 30, 2014 at 9:19 pm

            What if I directly instruct the student to look up a word’s meaning in a dictionary? Is that discovery learning or direct instruction? What if the required learning outcome is related to “Exercise autonomy and judgement subject to overall direction or guidance.” This is straight from the qualifications and credit framework at L2 so without it you are going to miss out on getting qualified in some subject areas, directly affecting employment prospects. There are real practical problems with this dichotomy approach if you want kids to get employed. It’s simply not appropriate in some subjects even if you believe it is in yours.

          • David Didau March 30, 2014 at 9:22 pm

            That is not Direct Instruction. You may have noticed that I have consistently used capital letters when writing it – that is because it isa proper noun: http://www.education.com/reference/article/what-direct-instruction/

          • Ian Lynch March 30, 2014 at 9:27 pm

            So you believe it is never a good idea to expect children to look up words they don’t recognise and simply tell them the meaning directly? Seems a pretty inefficient approach to that issue and contrary to pretty well all the traditional English teaching I have experienced. And as I say on the other issue, i’ts going to cause big problems with getting qualified in many instances.

          • David Didau March 30, 2014 at 9:29 pm

            I tend to view getting kids to look stuff up in dictionaries as a massive and tedious waste of time. I’m pretty sure this won’t lead to mass unemployment.

          • Ian Lynch March 30, 2014 at 10:04 pm

            Two different issues sorry for linking them. I’m quite amazed that an English teacher thinks looking up meanings of words is a waste of time. I definitely would not want to be reliant on a third party to tell me instead. It’s obvious that such strategies need to be learnt since adults often tweet questions it would be far quicker to look up. Sounds like you want to breed dependency culture? In terms of qualifications, I doubt not passing GCSE maths will in itself lead to mass unemployment but any ideology that clearly reduces a child’s chance of getting qualified in any subject has to be viewed with suspicion.

  11. @Eddiekayshun March 29, 2014 at 11:38 am - Reply

    Morning David. Very interesting and thought-provoking post. It would appear that many people are disagreeing with your setting up the dichotomy of prog/trad. These are people you dismiss as wrong. I accept your right to your opinion and understand that your biases lead you to pre-define a prog approach. Did you see this exchange on prog/trad yesterday:” In which I reply to Harry Webb:” http://t.co/1pgfIrBKTs I believe that the prog/trad dichotomy may be false, that a more nuanced view is needed and call for more teachers to articulate their vision of education.

    • David Didau March 29, 2014 at 4:34 pm - Reply

      You may believe that the dichotomy is false, but I do not. Is there then a continuum of belief about dichotomies?

      • Not quite sure what you mean by continuum of belief about dichotomies, unless you are being facetious. You say that DI always leads to an independent task. Most progressivists would acknowledge that some knowledge input is necessary before independent learning. Where is the dichotomy?

        • David Didau March 29, 2014 at 5:37 pm - Reply

          No I’m not being facetious – I’m point out (at some tedious length) that real and unambiguous difference exist between what progressives and traditionalist educators believe.

          Independent learning is a mistaken means to the end of independence. Unfortunately though, independent learning creates dependence. Therefore a traditional educator would eschew in favour of teacher led instruction.

          Independence is, perhaps, the goal of both camps, but it is only achieved by careful explanation, modelling, scaffolding and practice.

          But as you say, “Most progressivists would acknowledge that some knowledge input is necessary before independent learning” this reveals that their ‘progressive’ beliefs are actually bankrupt. If they had the courage of their convictions they would continue to try the draw knowledge ‘naturally’ out of the child. The fact that the vast majority of educators who consider themselves ‘progressive’ don’t do this reveals a fundamental self deception.

          • David Russell ETF March 29, 2014 at 8:53 pm

            Good point.

          • Rory Gallagher なーに? (@EddieKayshun) March 29, 2014 at 11:08 pm

            You are selective defining others beliefs for them. You are creating a false dichotomy and a straw man argument to try and provide your point. If you would like to engage with a personal definition of progressive teaching , see the link above to Harry Webb’s post and my reply. You are denying people the right to define their own philosophy of education. You are insulting and belittling a large proportion of the teaching community. To what purpose? To prove a point? Or because you believe damage is being done in schools across the country? Education is not about dichotomy. It is about dialogue.

          • David Didau March 29, 2014 at 11:21 pm

            Hmm – not sure how to respond to this, but I’ll try to take it step by step:

            1. I am not interested in defining anyone else’s beliefs. That is entirely their own business. But that doesn’t mean that I cannot point out flaws or inconsistencies in their beliefs, does it?

            2. In order to create a straw man I would have to attribute a belief to someone which they did not in fact hold. I haven’t done that.

            3. I am not creating a false dichotomy. It is ridiculous to imagine that anyone would feel offended or insulted by something that wasn’t real. We feel so strongly precisely because it’s real.

            4. How could I deny anyone the right to their own philosophy of eduction? I don’t have that power.

            5. I’m not intending to insult or belittle anyone. I wrote the post because I feel insulted and belittled when someone dismisses my opinions as a false dichotomy.If you feel insulted in my pointing that I think the dichotomy is real then it might be worth examining exactly why that is.

            6. Why must dialogue exclude my opinion about this dichotomy? It seems to me that you are attempting to dictate to me what I can and can’t say and believe. You’re welcome to say I’m wrong, but it’s not OK to say I can’t hold the opinions that inform my thinking.

            7. I certainly do believe that damage is being done in schools across the country. That wasn’t the point of this post, but it’s the reason that I am continuing to debate the point. If you felt similarly then you might also feel the need to speak out. As I said, you don’t have to agree, but please don’t tell that I shouldn’t express my opinion.

          • Cazzwebbo March 30, 2014 at 7:46 am

            I wonder if the brick wall between people here is because on the one hand we are talking about wanting evidence, which suggests a fact informed approach, while on the other hand then being prescriptive and strongly opinionated, switching quickly to belief (which is more akin to faith based practice)…. ?
            Also… Re “I am not interested in defining anyone else’s beliefs. That is entirely their own business”… I think we need to listen and acknowledge the views of others in order to understand, at the very least for sincere debate, but also to genuinely co-exist in a world of pluralities and patchwork pastiche.
            I knew someone who claimed to be very existentialist … Believing that they could create the world around them as they wished it to be. But in reality this seemed more like a life spent in delusional denial with a paper bag over their head, which is what can happen if we don’t fully try to understand the perspective of the other person. This starts if we aren’t willing to try and define their beliefs…

          • David Didau March 30, 2014 at 8:52 am

            I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but people tend to get very upset at having their beliefs defined by anyone who doesn’t share them. I have very little interest in the logical fallacies we commit in order to justify our emotional attachment – I’d much rather think about why we feel so strongly about how to teach.

          • Cazzwebbo March 30, 2014 at 9:27 am

            It’s true. I have noticed. And I bristle too when someone does that to me if I think they are using it to pigeonhole me and then dismiss me or talk down to me. Grrr. But that deserves right of reply too.
            If people bristle, they can say so. But being human, trying to understand, we have to do it and use it as a starting point. Then seek clarification. If we have misunderstood we can redefine. If the other person tells us more we can understand. Emotions are attached. Otherwise why do we care so much to keep going on about it?
            Great ven diagram by the way 🙂

          • eddiekayshun March 30, 2014 at 12:43 pm

            Morning David,
            First of all apologies for the tone of my post last night. The content I stand by, but I did not mean to imply that you should not express your opinion. I ask for dialogue. My point is that you are defining other people’s positions for them. If you are pointing out flaws and inconsistencies in someone’s arguments, whose is it? This is why with Harry we attempted to start from a definition of progressivism I was happy with and which we could use as a basis for discussion. Unfortunately that does not seem to have worked – see http://websofsubstance.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/i-refute-it-thus/comment-page-1/#comment-3792 . To reply to your points:
            1. Whose beliefs are you refuting? Could you post what you see as an acceptable definition of progressivism so that we can all discuss the same points? I propose the definition in the above article. I am prepared to debate the flaws and inconsistencies of this model as my own model. If you do not give a concrete example of defintionof progressivism, then I am afraid that you are defining the other’s beliefs for them.
            2. It would seem that I am not alone in feeling that the definition of progressivism you attribute is not appropriate. In that case you are indeed creating a straw man by speaking for other. See point 1.
            3.Education is real. I feel very strongly about that. My language may have been excessive but I believe that when you say that people’s beliefs are “bankrupt”,and that there are many educators who are living a “fundamental self deception”, then that is insulting and belittling. You are attempting to take the moral and intellectual high ground, It is difficult to debate with you, because you will not allow your interlocutor to define his or her views, but rather impose your view.
            4. Thus you are in fact refusing to listen to the philosophy of education that others might hold, because anything that does not fit into your dichotomy is morally and intellectually wrong, and if one declares themself in the progressivist camp, one is also wrong. You do not have the power to deny anyone to the right to their own philosophy of education. What I said was that “you are denying people the right to DEFINE their own philosophy of education”.
            5. I am sure that you are not intending to insult or belittle. Unfortunately we can offend without intending sometimes. You yourself say that you feel insulted and belittled when people do not agree with you (“when someone dismisses my opinions as a false dichotomy”. I do not see your point here. You feel insulted because I do not agree with you, but if I feel insulted by your comments, then it must be because I am wrong?
            6. I at no point say that dialogue excludes your opinion. You have said on numerous occasions that we have the right to think that the other is wrong. I think you are wrong. I am engaging in dialogue with you here. I am not dictating what you should say. I am asking that you listen to other voices and opinions, and not speak for others.
            7. I feel very strongly about education, as you do, and always try to speak out. I respect your opinions and values enormously. I have seen you teach at Clevedon, and seen the respect that your colleagues and students have for you. Please do not think that I am trying to silence you. We are both here because we care about education and the lives of children in our care. We are colleagues and collaborators. My call for dialogue is honest and heart-felt.
            Thank you for the debate, and I look forward to reading more of your blog, and to exchanging ideas with you.

          • David Didau March 30, 2014 at 5:39 pm

            I’m happy to agree to your definition your definition of progressivism although I think many others might not. I also think it’s misguided, but then you’ve already had that discussion with Harry. Are you happy to agree that there is a real and fundamental difference between your position and mine? If not, are you guilty of everything of which you accuse me?

            Basically I don’t mind what your philosophy of education is, or whether you agree with me. I just feel irked that you seem to want to claim that there is no difference between us. Which seems odd.

          • eddiekayshun March 30, 2014 at 5:54 pm

            I’m happy to agree that there is a real difference in our positions. I hear what you are saying and have been reflecting on this issue a lot. Personally I think there is a need to go beyond dichotomies and perhaps to define our epistemologies and philosophies as much as the methods we use. I had planned a post on this, but have gone for a more self-reflective post on what I do to see more of who I am.
            http://eddiekayshun.edublogs.org/2014/03/29/defining-who-i-am-by-what-i-do-not-what-i-think/ Thanks again David.

  12. Derek Conway March 30, 2014 at 2:02 am - Reply

    I cannot actually believe I am responding to this at this time, but something has stirred in my soul.

    I tend to teach a lot using techniques that would be classified as direct instruction. This is because I recognise that it is a highly efficient way to teach. That said, I will also use progressive techniques at time. It isn’t because I eschew efficiency though as you seem to suggest (I think I understand- if I want to be traditional and progressive at the same time I can be; I just can’t claim to be very interested in efficiency and therefore to follow that through to its logical conclusion, I am less effective teacher).

    The thing is, I’m interested in being a good teacher in a real classroom. This is a classroom with real kids who do real things for sometimes inexplicable reasons. It may just be that if I directly instruct all the time everything will fall into place and I’ll get maximum results and the kids will learn the most they could possibly learn. I’m unconvinced.

    Too much DI and kids moan. It’s boring. It’s all the same. It becomes stale and dry. Andy Flower thought he could control everything because the ‘science’ said it would work; he was wrong. I see a potentially similar situation here. I add the caveat that maybe a superior practitioner to me could deliver exclusively through DI and have consistently have kids who learn. I get kids who switch off and unexpected consequences. And so to try to keep things fresh and kids motivated I try to mix it up. I’m still striving for efficiency. I’ve just yet to be convinced that doing the same thing all the time is best. Maybe i just haven’t read the right stuff.

  13. Ian Lynch March 30, 2014 at 11:22 am - Reply

    The one missing element in all this is motivation. When I was about 8 I made the best progress ever in maths – I did 100s of problems, mostly checking the answers myself and fixing them when I got them wrong. Teacher spent a few minutes telling me where to start and left me to get on with it. Was this because I was inherently interested in maths? Not at all, it was because the kid that go the most done got out early on a Friday which meant I could get down to the beach and spend more time there which is what I valued.

    If you can find what positively motivates people they will almost always surpass any level of expectation you would normally ascribe to them. The rest will seem like debating how many angel can dance on the head of a pin.

    • Ian Lynch March 30, 2014 at 10:18 pm - Reply

      Just by coincidence marking an IT exam and this is one of the replies to a question about the effect of a power cut on the way they work.

      “If we were using this technology in an English classroom we would not be able to look up a word on an online dictionary, we would need to take time to search through a real paper dictionary and the time lost would have a negative impact on our learning time.”

      Maybe I should knock a mark off for not saying the teacher should just tell me then We wouldn’t need electricity 😉

  14. Debaser March 31, 2014 at 6:12 pm - Reply

    What’s happening with your book DD? I was looking forward to reading it, but I’m going to have to cancel my pre-order at this rate.

    • David Didau March 31, 2014 at 11:35 pm - Reply

      It was printed in February and is sitting at a printers somewhere in Wales. I’ve had to rewrite certain sections due to an intellectual property issue. Very annoying but hopefully resolved now.

  15. Terry Pearson April 1, 2014 at 10:50 am - Reply

    David, another interesting and somewhat provocative discussion and I must say I need to overcome a key obstacle in order to feel comfortable with the original blog. At the moment I am not convinced of the reality of the proposed ‘progressive or traditionalist’ dichotomy.

    As I understand it, there exists a dichotomous relationship between ‘progressive and non-progressive teaching’ and ‘traditionalist and non-traditionalist teaching’ in that the two fundamental conditions of a dichotomy are present i.e. both are mutually exclusive insofar as no part of progressive teaching is contained in non-progressive teaching and no part of traditional teaching is an element of non-traditional teaching, and when described in this way together they are collectively exhaustive in that every approach to teaching must belong to one description or the other.

    In order to be sure of the ‘progressive or traditionalist’ dichotomy that you are putting forward I need a clear description of the two categories as defined by you so that I can test the dichotomy against the fundamental conditions. Without a means of delineating the concepts using the criteria that you have chosen to adopt I find it difficult to appreciate your argument. You have kindly directed us to a link about Direct Instruction but I don’t want to take this to mean ‘traditionalist’ or ‘progressive’ in relation to the discussion without your say so. It would help me a lot if you were therefore to clarify what you mean by ‘progressive’ and ‘traditionalist’ teaching.

    It would also be helpful to me if you could provide evidence to support your claim that “Choosing a AND z just leads to doing both badly.”

  16. Heidi April 1, 2014 at 11:54 am - Reply

    Extremely interesting and I understand it and agree that the two views are opposing. However, I am not sure what I could/should do differently when I teach? I have often wondered whether my own education (mostly enquiry based and very little learning by heart) could have been more effective. I know how to learn new things for myself, problem solve and can adapt to change etc. But sometimes I wish I knew a few more facts (yes I should read more!). Interesting thank you David.

    • Ian Lynch April 1, 2014 at 12:16 pm - Reply

      There is a new brain scanner in trial at MIT. It enables data to be passed directly from a computer to the pre-frontal cortex. Initial results show that facts such as dates of battles, physics formulae and number bonds can be embedded directly and once there they are consistently remembered. Perhaps this is the death of teaching as we now know it?

  17. Terry Pearson April 3, 2014 at 8:11 am - Reply

    David, I thought you would have responded to my previous post (1 April) by now. Please let me know whether or not you have a problem with responding.

    • David Didau April 3, 2014 at 8:50 am - Reply

      You’re asking me to construct a definitive description of progressive and traditional education? I’m sorry but I’m a bit too busy to do this right now. I could spend some time googling such descriptions for you but then, so could you 🙂

      • Ian Lynch April 3, 2014 at 9:16 am - Reply

        I believe in learning key facts, practising exam questions and learning through performing practically useful tasks in different contexts in the school curriculum. Does that make me a traditionalist or a progressive or typical of most of the teachers I talk to?

        • chemistrypoet April 3, 2014 at 7:52 pm - Reply

          Is there a possibility that many teachers use techniques/pedagogies that come from starting points (ideologies) that they are not aware of? But is it less likely that a teacher wouldn’t have a view of students and learning that wasn’t in one camp or the other? That is, a philosophical underpinning that was either traditionalist or progressive…..the philosophical underpinning would significantly influence a teacher’s reaction to proposed teaching approaches/tasks, but would not exclude using one that didn’t agree with their philosophical position. It is also possible that a teacher wouldn’t be aware of their own understanding, in this regard. It would not be possible to hold both philosophical positions at the same time (well, it is possible, but would lead to confusion and cognitive dissonance, probably)?

          • David Didau April 3, 2014 at 10:27 pm

            Can you actually hold a philosophical position without being aware of it? What’s that Keynes quote Daisy Christodoulou always uses about being slaves to the assumptions of dead men?

          • chemistrypoet April 3, 2014 at 11:04 pm

            Yes, I think you can. It’s what forms the basis for your understanding of the world. So, if you believe that kids are crushed by authority (but don’t label this, because it’s what you’ve always seemed to have thought, part of your cognitive furniture), you will have a very definitive sense of the appropriateness of any given teaching approach/task…..just feeling what’s right, without being able to explain it….?

      • Ian Lynch April 3, 2014 at 10:54 am - Reply

        Terry is right. Without a common understanding from an agreed definition all we get is cross channel noise from different interpretations. Searches are not going to give people the same view of things. They’ll interpret what they read differently. Probably to Harry Webb I’m a progressive trendy but to Michael Rosen I’d be an entrenched traditionalist. I can’t be both in your view of the world so you have to be very clear, precise and unambiguous about what you think these things mean to you, not just let people work out what they think they mean to themselves. The onus is on you to prove your thesis from your definitions. You might be able to do that but it still won’t stop people saying your definitions are wrong, too narrow or whatever.

  18. Terry Pearson April 3, 2014 at 10:35 am - Reply

    Unfortunately David, that is precisely what you must do if you are to propose a dichotomous relationship exists between progressive and traditional education/teaching. Without such definitions how can you show that both are mutually exclusive AND collectively inclusive? It seems pointless to refer to such a dichotomy if this wasn’t done in the first place!

    • David Didau April 3, 2014 at 10:45 am - Reply

      This might be the case if I was submitting a PhD thesis. But I’m not. I’m just stating an opinion. It’s perfectly fine you you to dismiss my opinion as ‘pointless’ due to the fact that I haven’t completed an exhaustive literature review but I choose to believe it has a point. Is this a real dichotomy or a false one?

      • Terry Pearson April 3, 2014 at 11:01 am - Reply

        It cannot be a real dichotomy if the conditions for a dichotomy are not satisfied. This requires both stances to be mutually exclusive and collectively inclusive. Without a clear definition of the terms ‘traditional teaching’ and ‘progressive teaching’ as they are used in the argument, it is difficult to ascertain whether the conditions are met. If they are not met it cannot be real.

        • David Didau April 3, 2014 at 11:05 am - Reply

          Aha. So what are the conditions for this dichotomy? You suggest my opinion is only valid if supported by extensive and exhaustive research and I contend that I can have an opinion without doing this work. It looks like your assertion is a false dichotomy 🙂

      • Ian Lynch April 3, 2014 at 11:04 am - Reply

        Not about literature reviews, it’s about agreed starting points. I can state the opinion that the sea is blue, that is right in some contexts and wrong in others.

        • Terry Pearson April 3, 2014 at 11:12 am - Reply

          David, I didn’t think I would need to repeat myself but the conditions for ALL dichotomies are the same insofar as (repeat) “both stances need to be mutually exclusive and collectively inclusive”. I am pointing out that your opinion is only accurate if these conditions are met.

          This is not to say that you cannot hold an opinion on the matter that is incorrect.

          • David Didau April 3, 2014 at 11:19 am

            Ha ha! So unless I establish your conditions my opinion is de facto incorrect? Brilliant!

          • Ian Lynch April 3, 2014 at 11:25 am

            These are not “his conditions” they are just obvious basic starting points. Definitions of the issue. Without that there is no issue.

  19. Terry Pearson April 3, 2014 at 11:36 am - Reply

    This not a laughing matter David!

    Nor is it about you having to establish my conditions. It is about you being accountable for your opinions. How can I check the reality of dichotomy you propose without sufficient information to test it against the fundamental conditions of all dichotomies?

    • David Didau April 3, 2014 at 2:35 pm - Reply

      I’m sorry Terry but I find this laughable. The fact that I’ve published my opinion makes me accountable. What’s your opinion?

      I’ve explained the reasons for my opinions and you want to find a chink in order, presumably to prove me wrong. Why is it so important for you that I be wrong?

      • Terry Pearson April 3, 2014 at 2:46 pm - Reply

        It is not important to me that you are wrong. It is important to me that I can trust your opinion. At present I don’t have sufficient information to believe your view is accurate.

        I am not sure why you find it laughable either. I thought your blogs were meant to be serious.

        • David Didau April 3, 2014 at 2:50 pm - Reply

          They are. If I were to put this particular opinion in a book it would need a bit more thought. The point of writing this blog was my irritation at having my opinion dismissed as being a false dichotomy: it’s not. If it was, why would writing it have upset so many people?

          If I think it’s important that readers trust my opinion on an important point I tend to provide links to research evidence. It’s irrelevant whether you trust my opinion on this point – it would just be nice that you allowed that you disagreeing doesn’t invalidate it.

  20. […] would mean occupying two stances simultaneously – ideas articulated well by David Didau here:https://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/dichotomies/ and challenged equally expertly in the comments section of that blog and in this […]

  21. Terry Pearson April 3, 2014 at 2:56 pm - Reply

    So how would you feel if this particular opinion was justifiably proven to be a false dichotomy?

  22. Terry Pearson April 3, 2014 at 7:26 pm - Reply

    Apologies for the delay in replying David, I have just returned from one of those “evidencing progress in 15 minutes” events.

    As it currently stands, there is insufficient information in this blog to support a claim that a dichotomous relationship exists between ‘progressive teaching’ and ‘traditional teaching’. In order to be clear that such a relationship is true it is important to show that:

    a – all approaches to teaching can be delineated into either ‘traditional teaching’ or ‘progressive teaching’, and
    b – there is no overlap between ‘ traditional teaching’ and ‘progressive teaching’ approaches.

    If these two conditions can be achieved then it is likely that the dichotomy you are proposing is real. These conditions can be illustrated using a tossing of a coin analogy. When tossing a coin the only two outcomes are heads or tails. A tail cannot be a head and a head cannot be a tail. There is also no other outcomes that can be obtained.

    Consequently, it is unwise to draw the conclusion from the contents of this blog alone that ‘progressive teaching’ and ‘traditional teaching’ are mutually exclusive and indeed collectively inclusive of all approaches to teaching. It contains inadequate grounds on which to base a view that teachers are therefore faced with an either/or choice when it comes to using ‘progressive teaching’ or ‘traditional teaching’ methods.

    • Ian Lynch April 3, 2014 at 8:44 pm - Reply

      Can we agree on what constitutes effective teaching? Are there differences in different age groups and different subjects? Once you have all that sorted out you can then decide what the dichotomy is and if any of the breadth of contexts across education violate it. Good luck. Things used to be easier back in the dim past when I was a kid. We had great teachers, so-so ones and crap ones. Don’t recall asking them about their ideological affiliation but we knew how to classify them.

      • Terry Pearson April 3, 2014 at 9:27 pm - Reply

        For me these are great questions Ian. Useful reminders of the complex nature of teaching and the role of effective teachers. To quote Horace Mann (1840):

        “He who is apt to teach is acquainted, not only with common methods for common minds but with peculiar methods for pupils of peculiar dispositions and temperaments, and he is acquainted with the principles of all methods whereby he can vary his plan according to any different circumstances.”

        • Ian Lynch April 4, 2014 at 12:34 pm - Reply

          Yes, its than damned amygdala again. The variable that seems to be conveniently ignored by pseudoscientists 🙂

    • David Didau April 3, 2014 at 10:23 pm - Reply

      Terry, you’re probably right. There may well be some overlap. But does the potential existence of this small overlap really justify the clear need many people (including you and me) seem to have to make their point so forcefully? This seems to present a clear case where the overlap is much less significant than the differences. If it pleases you to feel that you have therefore ‘won’ the argument, fine. I shall , however, continue to refer to the very real dichotomy between progressive and traditional teaching.

      • Terry Pearson April 4, 2014 at 8:40 am - Reply

        It is not about making a point forcefully. Nor is it about whether the degree of overlap is significant or not. And it is certainly not about a need to please my emotions by suggesting I have won the argument. It is about accuracy.

        Logically two things are either in a dichotomous relationship or they are not. If someone believes two things to be part of a dichotomy when the two things are not this is an error of judgement. Is education and teaching not concerned with correcting errors of judgement and misunderstandings? Surely academic debate is about bringing personal beliefs and opinions into the open for public scrutiny and in doing so strengthening and adding credibility to justifiable claims as well as bringing to attention claims that do not have a firm foundation. If so, why would someone continue to refer to an error as if it was true?

        • Ian Lynch April 4, 2014 at 12:50 pm - Reply

          I’d even question that “the most interesting thinking often happens at the extremes”. In my experience the most simplistic obviously non-practical thinking happens at the extremes. When solving real world problems eg setting up a new business start up, the interesting thing is how to make it work, how to avoid losing your home and not dwelling on whether the philosophy of private sector, third sector or charity is superior. But then, I tend to be a practical person so maybe that is just me.

  23. SurrealAnarchy April 3, 2014 at 7:51 pm - Reply

    Could you use the same argument politically? Say liberals and conservatives are the same ? Poignant in these days of coalition, the differences between UKIP & the Labour Party are a false dichotomy…?

    There can be, as you say, a degree of overlap but that doesn’t stop there being a starting point from different places. A Tory and a Liberal might end up in a Government together but that doesn’t mean the dichotomy is false.

    Isn’t the dichotomy a good thing? An ideological base from which to discuss, disagree and sometimes reach a form of consensus. Isn’t this a bit healthier than all pursuing a managerial route where we all agree as to what to do in every circumstance because we all ‘know ‘?

    Our arguments in doubt are useful. Yes, some answers can be found but new questions lie beyond , but isn’t education itself about what we want for our children ,and that is reflective of our ideals and never a foregone conclusion?

  24. Terry Pearson April 3, 2014 at 8:12 pm - Reply

    The same argument could only be used in a party politics context if:

    Only two political parties existed, and neither party shared common goals or attributes.

    The voting population would therefore be faced with an either/or choice and there would’t be an alternative choice.

    A hypothetical dichotomy can be a useful spur for intellectual debate about two opposing standpoints but only if all concerned are aware it is a hypothetical proposition. Otherwise the person proposing the dichotomy is holding an inaccurate view of a situation.

    • SurrealAnarchy April 3, 2014 at 8:24 pm - Reply

      Can we agree on a definition of dichotomy? http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/dichotomy

      • Terry Pearson April 3, 2014 at 8:55 pm - Reply

        David is using the expression dichotomy in a philosophical/logical context having started the blog from introducing the concept of the false dichotomy. In this context dichotomy is generally taken to mean any splitting of a whole into exactly two non-overlapping parts. A dichotomy in this sense is only true if:

        a – everything relating to the whole in question belongs to one part or the other, and
        b – nothing can belong simultaneously to both parts.

        From these conditions arise the terms collectively inclusive and mutually exclusive.

        Referring back to David’s point about a false dichotomy, this occurs when an argument presents two options and ignores, either purposefully or out of ignorance, other alternatives. From a philosophical standpoint it is generally accepted that a false dichotomy gives the impression that the two opposing options are mutually exclusive (that is, only one of them may be the case, never both) and that at least one of the options is true thereby ensuring they represent all of the possible options.

        • SurrealAnarchy April 3, 2014 at 9:53 pm - Reply

          The progressive & traditional are anti-thetical, set up in opposition on many levels, to me that can be mutually destructive or constructive. By examining the very real differences between them one can see that attitudes towards truth, hierarchy and authority of knowledge, institutions and cultural tradition might be where the argument lies. If that is so then do we create a real dichotomy between the two? Maybe not, but bringing these two sides together and being able to pick and choose is a bit complex… Of course then there is the role of mitigated scepticism that might allow us to see this dichotomy as false…

        • David Didau April 3, 2014 at 10:28 pm - Reply

          Er, no. I’m using it in exactly the way Martin describes.

          • Terry Pearson April 4, 2014 at 8:42 am

            I fail to see how you (David) are not using the term dichotomy in a philosophical/logical context. You can’t legitimately put forward a blog which stems from an exploration of the false dichotomy concept without setting the debate in such a context.

  25. Terry Pearson April 3, 2014 at 10:14 pm - Reply

    To make a claim that ‘progressive teaching’ and ‘traditional teaching’ are antithetical requires a clear delineation of each. Without definitions of each it is impossible to be confident about issues of conflict, contradiction, incompatibility, variance, contrast and divergence. These need to be reconciled in order to commit to the concept of dichotomy.

    David’s blog is not about attitudes towards truth, hierarchy and authority of knowledge, institutions and cultural tradition although as you rightly point out these may be where the argument and indeed real concerns lie. David’s blog is about dichotomy. It is entitled “On dichotomies”. If David wanted to discuss these alternative constructs he should not have written a blog about dichotomies should he?

    • David Didau April 3, 2014 at 10:29 pm - Reply

      Maybe just reread the first paragraph of the blog?

      • Terry Pearson April 4, 2014 at 8:43 am - Reply

        I just have. What point are you making?

  26. discreetteacher April 5, 2014 at 12:30 pm - Reply

    After thinking about David’s points, I’m struggling to understand how you can’t think it is a dichotomy. On the one hand – progressive is child-led learning which means the child decides what to learn, on the other hand is the traditional teacher-led learning – which is where the teacher decides. If the teacher has any input at the start in the way that learning is heading then it is clearly not child-led learning, as the teacher has taken the lead. So at the very outset it is a dichotomy, either the child chooses or the teacher chooses.

    The second very clear point is that you can either tell somebody the answer or get them to work it out. You can’t both tell them and get them to work it out. They do either one or the other, if after trying to work it out you tell them, then clearly you have told them.

    So the very foundations of both methods are in opposition.

    • David Didau April 5, 2014 at 12:34 pm - Reply

      You said, “I’m struggling to understand how you can’t think it is a dichotomy” but then go on to demonstrate the opposite? I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, but did you mean, “I’m struggling to understand how you can’t think it is NOT a dichotomy”?

      Either way, thank you for such a useful contribution.

      • discreetteacher April 5, 2014 at 2:10 pm - Reply

        Well, yes. Damn, you need an edit function, David. Now I’m going to look stupid!

    • Ian Lynch April 5, 2014 at 1:03 pm - Reply

      In the end the child decides what it will learn whoever initiates the process. A Romanian colleague was forced to “learn” Russian in the cold war. He’s bright and speaks English can’t speak Russian. Why? because he refused to learn it on principle despite rather draconian measures that would never stand up in our society.

  27. […] everything I’ve been saying for the past year or so? Well, happily, as long as we acknowledge the very real dichotomy between teaching knowledge and questioning knowledge, I’m willing to embrace the […]

  28. @naffteacher April 7, 2014 at 2:19 pm - Reply

    Hi David,
    I’m late to the party, but I only have a couple of thoughts.

    I’m not convinced that “teacher led” and “student centred” are mutually exclusive. Let’s pretend that I have marked some books. Maybe I’ve even jotted some notes about common mistakes or gaps in knowledge. Next lesson, I do some didactic teacher talk and maybe a touch of modelling to address these gaps or mistakes.

    Surely this is both student-centred and teacher-led. Heck, I could make the didactic bit last an hour, but it’s still based on my assessment of the learners before me. Perhaps I get them doing some rote-practice to consolidate what I’ve told them. All of which might be judged as “traditional” classroom activities. Some might call them passive. Who knows.

    On a separate note, your comment that Christianity is mutually exclusive from Atheism is another commonly held error of thinking. I’m certain that many Christians actually are atheist, or certainly agnostic, when it comes down to it. Equally, I often hear atheists praying to God. Usually when they are running late. 🙂


  29. […] Whether or not the third argument (a bit of both) is possible has been discussed in great detail on David Didau’s blog – read both the article and the comments for a fuller discussion. My opinion on this last […]

  30. […] is time you can’t spend teaching your subject. (This is, I would suggest, an example of a real dichotomy.) If you decide not to commit valuable teaching time to these irrelevancies then pupils are […]

  31. […] On dichotomies On behaviour […]

  32. […] On Dichotomies: Where he argues that some commentators are too swift to dismiss important and genuine dichotomies as false. That in thinking we can cherry-pick techniques from both traditionalist and progressive teaching techniques, it is our students who suffer. That by seeking to fudge some sort of middle ground and do a ‘bit of both’ – we will end up doing neither very well. […]

  33. […] leads us to question whether we’ve establish a false dichotomy or a real one? Can we do a ‘bit of both’? Or are we left with dismissing the interpretivism as less […]

  34. […] On Dichotomies: Where he argues that some commentators are too swift to dismiss important and genuine dichotomies as false. That in thinking we can cherry-pick techniques from both traditionalist and progressive teaching techniques, it is our students who suffer. That by seeking to fudge some sort of middle ground and do a ‘bit of both’ – we will end up doing neither very well. […]

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