I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken. – Oliver Cromwell
My new book is finally out! In it I pose the question, what if everything you know about education is wrong? Just to be clear, I’m not saying you, or anyone else is wrong, I’m just asking you to consider the consequences of being wrong. What would you do if your most cherished beliefs turned out to be mistaken? You see, I think we’re wrong a lot more than we’d like to accept. We have all sorts of perceptual and cognitive biases that prevent us from recognising where we’ve made mistakes. Mistakes are fine as long as we learn from then but if we don’t even know we’ve made them, what then? I illustrate all this with seem of the mistakes I’ve made and the painful process of coming to see just how mistaken I’ve been. Of course, it’s pretty easy to point out mistakes in things we used to believe or the stuff others believe. Much, much harder to rigorously examine our current beliefs for errors. All this is further confounded by the fact that we don’t agree on what education is actually for. There’s little point in looking to discover what works if we disagree on what we’re trying to make work. I do of course fully accept that I am as likely to be wrong as anyone else but I have at least tried to subject my ideas to a good going over.
After softening readers up and predicting many of the objections that are bound to be raised, I go on to suggest some ways of thinking about education which may be new or surprising for some teachers. These ways of thinking are ‘threshold concepts’ – ideas that are difficult to accept but fundamentally change the way we think. Drawing on the working of such diverse thinkers as Robert Bjork (Professor of Cognitive Psychology at UCLA), Graham Nuthall (sadly deceased Professor of Education at University of Canterbury) and Jan Meyer and Ray Land (two professors of higher education who have opened up the study of threshold concepts), I discuss the concept of learning from two different perspectives: learning vs. performance, and liminality. I offer a tripartite definition which suggests that ‘learning’ should include three important qualities: retention, transfer and change.
In order to know whether something has been learned we should ask ourselves three questions:
- Will students still know this next week, next month, next year?
- Will students be able to apply what they have been learning in a new context?
- How will this transform a students’ understanding of the world?
If these questions were routinely asked, teaching might turn out to be something very different. The main conclusion I’ve come to is that although we know learning occurs, we can’t actually see it. Learning is like dark matter; it exerts a sort of gravitational pull that reveals its existence but it takes places inside students’ minds. All we can see is what a student is able to do at this moment in time. We can’t see whether they’ll be able to do at another time or in another place. And you certainly won’t know how it might have changed their perceptions of the world. Learning takes time. We can, of course, infer that learning has taken place, but we’re very often mistaken. The counter-intuitive finding from research into learning and forgetting is that reducing current performance might actually increase future learning.
I then offer some practical advice for going about teaching in a way that addresses these questions. One solution is, I think, to make learning harder. Not too hard – there’s no value in students finding work impossible – but the principle ought to be that learning involves struggle. There’s a delicate balance to be struck here; too hard and students give up, too easy and they won’t learn. This lead me to consider and explore Bjork’s theory of ‘desirable difficulties’. His research indicates that some difficulties at the point of teaching result in better retention and transfer. These difficulties (spacing, interleaving, testing, variability and reducing feedback) are discussed in detail.
Thinking about education in this way is like picking at a strand of wool in a scarf – the more you tug, the more the scarf unravels. If we can’t see learning, what else might we have gotten wrong? It seems likely there are some other areas in education about which we may have been mistaken. These include assessment for learning, lesson observation, metacognition, mindsets, independent learning, differentiation, motivation and behaviour. Two other areas, data and intelligence, are also called into question. Jack Marwood has written a magisterial demolition of the way we use data in schools and Andrew Sabisky has elegantly debunked a series of the most enduring edu-myths about intelligence.
Of course, I may well be wrong. That’s not really the point. What I hope to achieve is that you are forced to question some of your beliefs. If you end up dismissing everything I’ve said I hope you will at least have thought deeply about why you believe as you do and will be the better for it.
I’m very proud of it and hope you enjoy it half as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you’re wondering whether to shell out your hard-earned cash, here is Robert Coe’s review, and also some snippets from others who’ve read the book. And apart from anything else, it clocks in at 464 pages and looks damned impressive on your bookshelf.
In addition, it’s the perfect fashion accessory:
If you felt able to send me your own thoughts, or if you fancy writing a review I’d be delighted to publicise it – even if you’re critical! I’d also be chuffed if you sent me a photo of your copy of #WrongBook. Please feel free to drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
Thank you and happy reading.