New book: What if everything you know about education is wrong?

//New book: What if everything you know about education is wrong?

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken. – Oliver Cromwell

I haven’t been posting much lately but that’s not to say I haven’t been busy writing. I’m delighted to tell you I’ve now finished my new book and wanted to take the opportunity to share the contents before it’s listed on Amazon the whole thing is inevitably cheapened by sales figures.

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.

The book is structured in 4 parts. In Part 1 I try to persuade you that we are all prone to making mistakes and often get things wrong by outlining some of the thinking traps we routinely fall into. I then talk through some of the things that I have caused my the most grief over the past year or so: the purposes of education, compromise, the ‘false’ dichotomy, and the problems with the whole evidence charabanc.

Then, in Part 2 I suggest some ways of thinking about education which may be new or surprising for some teachers. I suggest that these ways of thinking are threshold concepts which are difficult to grasp but fundamentally change the way we think about education. Drawing on the working of Robert Bjork, Graham Nuthall and Meyer and Land, 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. Living in an edublogging bubble as I do, I sometimes forget these ideas are not at all widely known. (I spent the day talking to teachers in Belfast today and was surprised that none of them had come across Carol Dweck!)

In Part 3 I synthesise some the research I’ve been reading to offer some practical strategies for adjusting teaching to try to ensure students retain what we teach, are able to use it in new contexts and are changed by it.

Finally in Part 4 I suggest 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.

I’m also exceedingly grateful for the contributions of Jack Marwood and Andrew Sabisky. Jack has written a magisterial demolition of the way we use data in schools and Andrew has elegantly debunked a series of the most enduring edu-myths about intelligence.

All in all, I’m pretty pleased with myself. This is by far the best thing I’ve written and I hope is that it proves useful to both teachers and policy makers. The manuscript has to pass through copy editing but I hope it will be available some time next spring.

2014-12-17T19:11:14+00:00December 17th, 2014|Featured|


  1. chemistrypoet December 17, 2014 at 7:49 pm - Reply

    That’s a relief…I had begun to think that your lack of visible writing was a sign that things were getting to you! Seriously, I think it is time for an attempt to synthesis recent movements in the UK edu-world…and your book sounds like it might attempt just that.

  2. Jo Hetherington December 17, 2014 at 8:08 pm - Reply

    Sounds fascinating and seems to fit with some of the things I’ve been thinking for a long time. Can’t wait to read more.

  3. janettesmith999 December 17, 2014 at 9:47 pm - Reply

    Today I picked up your last book as part of the school Edubook club. I’ve already been impressed by flipping through and dipping in. Looking forward to reading it properly. I hope it’s not stuffed full of the ‘wrong’ stuff. Good luck with the new book, sounds like perfect timing for the current climate in schools.

  4. Dan the Physicist December 17, 2014 at 10:20 pm - Reply

    I’ve really enjoyed watching your metamorphosis over the years from the days of your banter with Old Andrew to your discovery of some really enlightened and well-researched ideas related to education. As a result, through you I have discovered the work of such people as Bjork, and recently read Graham Nuthall’s seminal book. All these ideas have influenced my teaching for ever more. Additionally, I read your book on literacy last summer and have tried in some way to synthesise many of those ideas into my day-to-day teaching. I have really tried my level best to explain to my students what might work best for them in terms of learning and study, especially highlighting the work of Willingham, Bjork and Dweck, in spite of the conflicting advice of the school.
    However, I have had to do this as a subversive. The ‘outstanding’ institution where I work would burn me at the stake for espousing such ‘rubbish’, the mantra being observable progress at all times (especially in graded observations) with maximal student engagement, aka ‘fun’, or else. Most schools in my area are similar in their ethos, if not worse, so there’s no escaping.
    So, I’ll be buying your book of course as it sounds as if it’ll be a great summary of many of the things you have been talking about and I have been led to research into as a result. I want so much to be the best teacher I can be and through exploring this stuff, it seems much more possible. But to paraphrase one of the few colleagues who actually listens to me going on and on as I do at school on these matters – why torture yourself by reading such stuff? No one in power (Heads, SMT etc.) is really interested save a few brave and enlightened souls. The individuals who run the majority of schools will remain happy in their bubble clinging onto their specious ideas and those of us who look outside will feel the pain even more so than before.
    So I can only ask, do you foresee a change from the current dogma and if so, what could force such a change?

    • David Didau December 30, 2014 at 8:51 am - Reply

      Hi Dan – thanks for your kind words. As to change, I maybe foolishly optimistic, but I think it’s a-comin’. The fact that I was consulted on, and rewrote much of the quality of teaching section of the new Ofsted Handbook suggests that change will be inevitable. It will take time, but maybe less than I might have thought. In January 203 I said I thought Ofsted would stop lesson grading within 3 years. They already have and many schools have followed suit. The more deeply this understanding is enshrined, the more the terms of the debate will change.

  5. Harry Fletcher-Wood December 18, 2014 at 8:06 am - Reply

    This I am looking forward to… congratulations on finishing and I hope you’ll be able to spend more time online!

    • David Didau December 18, 2014 at 8:07 am - Reply

      You get a mention Harry – I write about your experiments with the testing effect

      • Harry Fletcher-Wood December 18, 2014 at 8:09 am - Reply

        I still have to write up how I’ve tried to improve that unit this year. Perhaps it’ll make the second edition!

  6. Michael Rosen December 18, 2014 at 11:48 am - Reply

    Can you please explain how ‘retention’ of knowledge slots into the exam system. I was reared on the retention principle and it served the exam system brilliantly. Some of us retained better than others. Them that retained went on. Them that didn’t, left.

    • David Didau December 18, 2014 at 5:26 pm - Reply

      I’m not quite sure what you’re asking – you appear to have answered the question quite adequately yourself.

      But maybe the question is actually a critique of the concept of retention? My point is that without retention there can be no learning. It would be absurd to say you’d learned something if you couldn’t remember it. Obviously that’s not all learning is, hence the reason for the other two facets of the definition.

      • Michael Rosen December 18, 2014 at 5:29 pm - Reply

        In 1962, i learned the order of the main cities on the Rhine from Basle to Rotterdam. By 1968 I had forgotten the order of the main cities on the Rhine from Basle to Rotterdam. In 1969, I learned the English translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Wanderer’. By 1970, I had forgotten it.

        • David Didau December 18, 2014 at 5:36 pm - Reply

          Again, I’m not sure of the point you’re making. Are you saying retention is unimportant?

          Your story of forgetting The Wanderer is an interesting case. The new theory of disuse would suggest that if once you knew it you haven’t in fact forgotten it, you are merely unable to retrieve it. If you were to attempt to relearn it you are likely to find it much easier to increase its retrieval strength than the first time you attempted it.

          As ever, things are a little more complicated as the very brief summary of my book’s contents might suggest 🙂

          • Michael Rosen December 18, 2014 at 5:47 pm

            Yes, indeed it is very complicated and much complicated by the exam system and the fibs that we tell children and students. So, we can’t talk about ‘retention’ without talking about ‘retrieval’. And ‘retention’ itself is mechanistic and assumes that it takes place separately from ‘interpretation’. Indeed, a good deal of education deliberately tries to exclude interpretation from learning as it produces ‘wrong’ answers. As we know, there are only right and wrong answers (not).

            I suspect that if the exam system wasn’t the way it is, we would come up with very different models for learning, retention, retrieval and interpretation. I suspect that we keep mapping exams back on to what is supposedly ‘good for learning’, when we really mean ‘good for exams’. However, exams are only ‘good’ for those who pass.

            By the way, your kind comments re my cities on the Rhine and The Wanderer – or was it The Seafarer? – are interesting. However, there was only one reason to learn those things: to pass ‘O-level Geography and my finals. It wasn’t to ‘understand’ or ‘interpret’ anything.

          • David Didau December 18, 2014 at 5:57 pm

            I’m certainly not against exam reform, but that’s beyond the scope of the book I’ve written.

            I do understand the points you make about learning ‘mere facts’ to pass exams. I forgot everything I’d learned about GCSE maths about a week after taking the exams. Generally, children are encouraged to cram these facts in before an exam and so they have very little durability. I would argue that remembering something for a week or so is n one’s definition of ‘learning’. But I do think there are very good reasons to remember things. Knowledge only lives in side our heads. Just knowing where to find something is not the same as knowing it. When we know a thing we can both think with and about it. And it goes without saying that those things we most value are usually well remembered.

            But I need to reiterate that my definition of learning also includes transfer (the ability to use what we’ve acquired in new contexts) and change (the idea that learning something is a liminal process that is, if successful, transformative – once we really know something we are no longer the same people we were beforehand.

            Does this make sense?

  7. Martin Robinson December 18, 2014 at 2:01 pm - Reply

    I’m enjoying reading it!

  8. Michael Rosen December 18, 2014 at 6:08 pm - Reply

    Now what if we add the words ‘how’ and ‘what’ to the word knowledge? If you google the word ‘google’ you get a long list of ‘results’. Under normal circumstances, the list of results are ‘knowledge what’ e.g. the info on Arsenal or winners of X-factor or train timetables. However, a lot of what comes up when you google ‘google’ are about how to use google. Now, to start off with – I didn’t ‘know’ or remember these methods of using google. I did know where to look for them though. So whenever I needed the process in question – I knew how to go and get it, use it and apply it. So my knowledge was very know-how and not very know-what. As it happens, in this case I used the ‘how’ a lot and I can now do these procedures without consulting the info. On the other hand, there are other digital procedures which I do very rarely, e.g. sending photos from my phone to friends. I keep forgetting these. However,again, I know where to get them. So I do.

    All this tells me that a good deal of the ‘dichotomisation’ (!) of stuff to do with ‘knowledge’ and ‘transferable skills’ is false.

    • David Didau December 18, 2014 at 8:06 pm - Reply

      On one level all dichotomies are ‘false’ – they’re just a way to view the world. They’re either useful or not useful. I would say that skills are more properly procedural knowledge and that the division doesn’t even exist, but there you go. The point remains, anything I have to look up I am unable to think with – ‘thinking with’ and ‘thinking about’ are different ways of handling knowledge but both depend on having the stuff in your head. The fact that you ‘know’ where to look something up is all you are able to to think with or about. You hold it in your head long enough to complete a task and then let it go. This is, of course, fair enough. If we don’t value the knowledge of how to send photos to friends sufficiently to want to memorise it I have no complaints. But *only* being able to look things up is an impoverishing experience.

  9. Peter Blenkinsop (@ManYanaEd) December 18, 2014 at 6:12 pm - Reply

    There seems to be an attempt to ‘prove’ something about learning that denies the importance of knowing stuff. I don’t think teachers ever try to just get children to learn by rote and never use that learning for understanding (even if at some later date) but they do guide their interpretation. I don’t think this is a bad thing.

  10. Debbie Hepplewhite December 18, 2014 at 7:53 pm - Reply

    I’m looking forward to reading your book, David.

  11. Maths Tyn December 21, 2014 at 4:01 pm - Reply

    Great. Another brilliant book to buy and not have time to read.
    With regard to the retention/retrieval stuff, it’s quite simple: use it or lose it.

    • David Didau December 21, 2014 at 5:09 pm - Reply

      It’s actually not nearly as simple as that. Forgetting plays a powerful and deeply strange role in retention.

  12. sandy December 23, 2014 at 10:13 am - Reply

    congratulation, hope it will be your one of best work and i will definitely read this book.

  13. […] prompt for writing this came from an exchange with poet, Michael Rosen in the comments section of a post a wrote last week. I had defined  learning as being a combination of retention, transfer and change. Rosen seemed to […]

  14. Clever September 13, 2016 at 12:15 am - Reply

    Life is all about learning thank you sir

  15. […] best represented in the writing of psychologist Daniel Willingham or former school principal David Didau. This take views learning in terms of cognitive processing and emphasizes the role of working […]

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