The ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the classroom

Naomi Fisher questions government proclamations in favour of a ‘traditional’ learning environment.

Speaking to the Foundation for Education Development National Education Summit on 1 March, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: ‘We know much more now about what works best: evidence-backed, traditional teacher-led lessons with children seated facing the expert at the front of the class are powerful tools for enabling a structured learning environment where everyone flourishes.’  

It’s all decided then. The science is in, and the results are clear. Just get our children back into those desks as soon as possible, and all will be well. Forwards together to a future of no child being left behind, of universal thriving. 

But hang on a moment. Many parents, educators and psychologists across the country responded to Williamson’s speech with a ‘huh?’ What is this evidence he’s talking about? How does it square with the research showing how important play and motivation is for learning? Where did he get that confidence about the same thing working for everyone, when any teacher knows that each child is different and that teaching a class of children rarely results in them all learning the same thing? How does it fit with our own experience as adults – where sitting facing the expert for hours every day isn’t how most of us choose to learn? 

Cognitive science

Williamson is referring to a school of thought which has gained traction in the USA and UK in recent years, that of education based on ‘cognitive science’. Advocates such as Daniel Willingham (Why Don’t Students Like School?), Daisy Christodoulou (Seven Myths about Education) and Katharine Birbalsingh (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers) argue that the research is in and progressive educational techniques don’t work. By progressive techniques they mean a wide range of methods, including the idea that schools should teach transferable skills (Christodoulou), that teachers should make an effort to make their lessons engaging and interesting to children (Birbalsingh), or that children should be encouraged to think critically and solve problems from early on (Willingham).  

From this perspective, progressive techniques are responsible for most of the educational ills of the world, and the whole thing could be put right if we just applied the science. Their approach is simple. An expert teacher instructs, children listen, repeat and learn. There’s an impressive body of research to back them up. So much so that it’s tough for your average parent or teacher to disagree. The studies are real, the findings are robust. 

Yet within that narrative there are some leaps of logic which may explain the disconnect between the ‘evidence-backed’ certainty of the government, and the day-to-day experience of most children and teachers.  

The research they cite is from cognitive psychology, and it looks at how humans acquire knowledge and skills. Cognitive scientists such as Daniel Willingham say that it is now indisputable that ‘thinking well requires knowing facts’. His book explains his model of how the brain works, which, when applied to schools and children results in the expert at the front, children as the audience model of education.  

This model is essentially an analysis of the process by which people move from being novices to experts. Willingham’s book explains in detail how experts have more information stored in their long-term memories, enabling them to ‘chunk’ their knowledge and therefore use their working memory capacity efficiently and creatively. Much of the research is in areas such as chess. Expert and novice chess players are fundamentally different. Expert chess players think in a different way, they even fail in a different way to novices – and it’s all, according to Willingham, down to the vast knowledge they have stored in their long-term memory.   

The qualitative difference in the thinking between experts and novices is what leads to the claim that in order to ‘think well’, we first require factual knowledge. And when applied to children, this means that the central task of education becomes getting as much knowledge as possible into children by the most efficient means.   

Or as Christodoulou puts it, schools should focus on ‘knowledge accumulation’. She says this is essential before children can engage in what she calls ‘sophisticated higher-order responses’. Those sophisticated higher-order responses include critical thinking, hypothesis testing and problem solving. 

Once it’s agreed that knowledge accumulation is the aim, the next step is how to achieve that. Here, another set of research findings come in. This is research into memory, and how information is best committed to memory. If your desired outcome is specific information committed to long term memory, repetition and practice over an extended period of time are what works. There are many studies which back this up. It doesn’t matter too much whether a person understands what they are meant to be remembering in this model, as it’s the retention of information which is important.  

So, the guiding principles are these. Experts think in a more sophisticated way to novices, and the difference between a novice and an expert is the amount of information stored in their long-term memory. Therefore, in order to turn children into people capable of sophisticated thinking we must first make sure they have lots of information stored in their long-term memory, and the sophisticated thinking will follow. Therefore, there is no point in wasting time at school in activities which create opportunities for novice children to use higher order thinking skills… it’s more efficient to spend the time on knowledge acquisition. 

Theory into practice 

Birbalsingh has founded a school, Michaela Community School, which takes these ideas as their founding principles. Teachers at Michaela focus on teaching content, students are expected to focus on retaining the information and to this end, they attend lessons which follow the Michaela system, which they summarise as ‘Reading, explanations and pupil practice’ (Birbalsingh, 2016). 

There is no variation in teaching methods across the school, and there is no differentiation between pupils. If a child isn’t learning, that is their responsibility, and if they don’t comply precisely with expectations, they are punished. Teachers at Michaela, as they explain in their book, give detentions and demerits for infractions such as slouching at your desk, and there are no exceptions for difficult circumstances. From their perspective, those children who have experienced the most adversity have the highest needs for strict rules and so difficult home situations or a trauma history aren’t reasons for non-compliance.  

Michaela gets results. Children pass their GCSEs and get good marks. They don’t have much other choice – if they don’t comply, they will quickly find themselves put under intense pressure to do so. Parents are expected to buy into the model too, and so the children are surrounded with the same ethos.    

So if GCSEs are the final benchmark of education, all that really matters, then perhaps the Education Secretary is right? Perhaps the real issue in education today is how to get those children facing forwards, so they can be filled with knowledge. 

But what is education actually about? 

Those of us who work with children might want more out of education, however. We might want to look at what children learn about themselves and their place in the world, and we might want to know how being so strictly controlled at school affects children’s wellbeing and ability to cope when they get into the less structured environment of university or work – one where intrinsic motivation matters.    

For this model of learning is all about how to get knowledge and skills into children. The science is procedural, mechanistic even. Any difficulties in education are reduced to how can we persuade children to face the front to comply with the regime of instruction, practice and repetition, one which the Education Secretary answers by referring to discipline and behavioural standards. Educational philosophy is completely missing from their approach. The question of why children might learn goes unmentioned, and the question of what they will learn is answered again by ‘the science’.  

The culture of dead white males

Daniel Willingham suggests that knowledge taught to children should be chosen on the basis of what yields the greatest cognitive benefit. He acknowledges that this means teaching children ‘the touchstones of the culture of dead white males’, which he suggests schools should continue to do until the wider culture changes. He argues that this is the most useful knowledge in our society, and therefore it’s what children should learn – again, using ‘cognitive science’ to justify this.  

If you’re starting to feel slightly uncomfortable about this, stick with me. Another part of their educational narrative is that the reason some children are disadvantaged in school is because they do not acquire as much background knowledge at home as other children. Some children arrive at school already versed in the culture of dead white males. Willingham gives what amounts to a description of a white middle class home as the model which other parents are failing to live up to: ‘What sort of vocabulary do parents use? Do the parents take their children to the museum or aquarium?.... Do the children observe their parents reading?’. The solution to this problem of unequal background knowledge is to fill those children unlucky enough not to be immersed at home in the ‘culture of dead white males’ with that knowledge at school, something which Willingham refers to as levelling the playing field. Again, the reason given for this valuing of one type of home culture over another is ‘cognitive science’, which depoliticises a highly politically charged position.

In the context of Black Lives Matter and calls to decolonise education, there is something deeply concerning about the idea that we should teach children that only experts can apply critical and higher order thinking. There’s something even more worrying about the argument that the cultural values which we hold as a society – which are rooted in colonisation in ways we are only just starting to recognise – should be taught to children without encouraging them to question it. Then there’s the definition of white middle class parenting and the cultural capital attached as ideal, with all the other children defined as in need of catching up. But, you know, cognitive science…

So the quibble isn’t with the claim that there is evidence. There is evidence that instruction, practice and repetition works, if the aim is to retain large amounts of information, although it’s less clear whether you can successfully impose this on other people without a very strict regime of control. The quibble is more about philosophy of education and whether retaining large amounts of particular types of information is the goal we should have for our children’s education. And there are some difficult questions about exactly what the purpose is of requiring children to learn a lot of information before they are allowed to engage in critical thinking or question what they are learning.  

Where’s the motivation? 

What’s missing in this Brave New World vision of well-behaved children sitting in rows absorbing knowledge? Well, remember that most of the research we’ve encountered is with adult experts, who have chosen to learn about something (such as chess) because they are highly motivated. People who are passionate about chess often spend all their waking time thinking about or playing chess. Their drive to practice and read and learn comes from within. I’ve seen this process in action with my own children with a rather different pursuit – Minecraft. I did not set out to create Minecraft experts and I suspect that if I had, they would not have been interested. No direct instruction was required for them to acquire expertise: playing Minecraft, YouTube videos and their own research sufficed. 

The issue of motivation is a serious one. Children do not typically come to the school because they are fascinated by phonics or fractions, or have heard that it’s the best place to learn about fronted adverbials. They learn because an adult somewhere has decided that this is what they should be learning. This means that most schools, as with Michaela, have to set up a complicated system of incentives and punishments in order to persuade children to comply with their demands, or they have to try to engage children on their own terms, perhaps by giving them more choices or a chance learn things they are interested in – so called ‘progressive techniques’. External motivation is less effective for learning than internally driven motivation, and affects the quality of learning (Deci & Ryan, 2017). Low quality motivation typically shows itself through behaviour, with children being disruptive or refusing. Schools then have to resort to ever more extreme behavioural regimes, and even then, not all children will comply. 

Beyond that motivation issue, there are other ways to think about learning. The cognitive model is only one of many. There is an extensive body of research which shows how, from a very early age, children are engaged as active agents in their learning and learn through play. They test hypotheses, problem solve and come up with creative solutions. Alison Gopnik, professor of developmental psychology at University of California, Berkeley, calls this the ‘child as scientist’ theory of learning, and anyone who has spent time with a young child will have seen it in action. They mix things together, they experiment with floating and sinking, they ask purposeful questions. My own daughter did a series of complex experiments aged about six when she would put various concoctions in the freezer, oven and in the bath under water, to see what would happen. The first I knew of it was when black smoke started emanating from the kitchen. Scientific enquiry was so alive in our home that every time I opened the fridge a new experiment fell out. 

It’s hard to square observations of young children learning with the idea that higher order thinking is impossible without extensive background knowledge. They are novices in every way, and yet their observations and experiments are frequently more creative and insightful than the adults around them. On the other hand, their ability to remain seated and listening to an expert is seriously lacking when compared to most adults, and so it seems perverse to insist on a method of learning which plays to children’s weaknesses rather than their strengths. 

To Gopnik, and to most developmental psychologists, learning is best understood as an interaction between what a child already knows, and what they experience around them.  Direct instruction can actually interfere with this, as the research shows that when children are told what to do with a toy they imitate the adult, whereas without direct instruction they explore freely and in the process discover more about the toy. The child is not an empty vessel, to be filled with expert knowledge, but an agent who acts upon the world around them. As they explore the world through play, they acquire higher order skills and knowledge – but the knowledge they acquire is not necessarily the same as the next child along. One child may learn all about the properties of mud and water, whilst another learns about tractors and diggers. It doesn’t really matter, because much of what they are learning is how to learn. This is constructivism. Knowledge is constructed by the child, based on what interests them, what they know already, and what experiences they have available to them.  

From this perspective, no two children will learn the same things from their experiences and so standardised curriculums can never guarantee standard results. But from this standpoint, it is not simply knowledge acquisition which an education should focus on, but rather the development of the child as an active learner, a person who sees that their choices matter and that they can have autonomy over their lives. These are the transferable skills.    

Thinking critically

Expert led, enforced instruction is not the only way to learn, and the evidence that shows that it is the most effective method has clearly defined parameters. If your aim is for all children to learn a specific body of knowledge and retain it, and you are confident that you can motivate children to do so, then direct instruction from an expert with lots of repetition (otherwise known as drilling) may well be effective. If your aim is children who can think critically and creatively, and who are developing their potential as active and diverse human beings, then there is no evidence that drilling them will achieve this. It’s simply not part of the way in which the studies were designed. There is, however, good reason to be sceptical about claims of the utter necessity of all those hours in classrooms, because there is research which shows that children who do not attend school at all learn effectively to the point where they are able to access higher education (Riley, 2020; Fisher, 2021).  

There are different models of learning, with different evidence bases. Only one is being championed by the government, and it’s the one which focuses on controlling children’s learning and behaviour. It’s the one which discourages critical thinking about the curriculum. It’s one which values the culture of (dead) white males over any other. The suggestion that ‘we know’ ‘what works best’ is used to control us too, to prevent dissent and discourage disagreement. We should not allow ourselves to be blinded by claims of evidence. We should continue to apply our critical thinking… even though their model itself suggests that we are not expert enough to do so.  

Naomi Fisher is a clinical psychologist and author of Changing Our Minds: How Children Can Take Control of their Learning, published by Robinson. 

See also 'School's out', 'School's really out' and ‘Weathering the storm’

Further reading

Birbalsingh, Katharine (Ed) (2016). Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way. John Catt Educational Ltd.

Christodoulou, D. (2014). Seven Myths about Education, Routledge.

Fisher, N. (2021). Changing Our Minds: How Children Can Take Control of their Own Learning. Robinson. 

Gopnik, A. (2017). The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children. Vintage.

Riley, G. (2020). Unschooling: Exploring Learning Outside the Classroom, Palgrave MacMillan.

Ryan, R. & Deci, E. (2018). Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development and Wellness. Guilford Press. 

Willingham, D. (2010). Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What it means for The Classroom. Jossey-Bass.

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