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Limitless - Part 1

06 February 2022

False edicts

Time and time again, it has been shown that all pupils, regardless of wealth, sex or ethnicity, can learn well. For thousands of years, it has been understood by the great commentators on teaching and pupillage that all human beings can learn well. With expert teaching combined with serious application and effort from the pupil over the necessary and appropriate amount of time for the particular individual, it is within the grasp of everyone to succeed. That is to say, all human beings are born with, for all intents and purposes, limitless cognitive potential. At birth, we are blessed with a brain so unknowably complex and wondrous, so capable of extraordinary achievement and so full of potential that the whole of school level learning represents a mere iota of its capabilities.

Since the cognitive revolution some 70,000 years ago, humanity has passed on its knowledge from generation to generation through storytelling, meaning making, detailed attention and practice through hard exercise – it is no coincidence that the word gymnasium also used to mean school.

This process of cumulative culture (Boyd and Richerson, 1996) means that individual human beings can be smarter than they could otherwise achieve on their own. Individually, we all have the same potential for intellectual greatness – we all have the same physiological tools at our disposal as, for example, Isaac Newton had. Yet, none of us could independently invent calculus. We build on the whole of human knowledge that has come before us, which we can access through good teachers and hard work. It is a fallacy that Newton and Leibniz invented calculus – they did not. Rather, they represent a critical point in a thought process spanning millennia before them. Had they been required to do the combined millions of years of thinking for themselves, they would never have lived long enough to create the theories from scratch. We rely on our cumulative culture to springboard our cognitive abilities. Imagine standing on a beach and looking at the sand beneath your feet. How much time would have to pass before the thought occurred to you; ‘you know if I just mixed this with a dash of calcium carbonate and a pinch of sodium carbonate, swished the whole thing together in some water and then heated it to around 3000 degrees Fahrenheit, I could make something that is both solid and see through’? My answer would be the same as yours: the thought would never occur. Nor did it occur to any past individual. Rather, it was a point in a long process of thinking and experimenting carried out by an uncountable number of human beings over many, many years, eventually resulting in the invention of glass. Similarly, Newton was not able to advance his theories of relativity to the point that Einstein did because Newton did not have access to the centuries of additional thinking that took place between their work. Einstein was but a single point on a thought process too. He needed the sum of the thinking, theories, experiments and documenting that came before him.

Teaching is the best way to ensure that pupils are not left isolated from the endeavours of humanity. Individually, we are not a great deal smarter than our ape cousins, but cumulatively, we are incredible. We have limitless potential, but we do not have limitless time. By being lucky enough to receive a good education, we can become as clever as an immortal who has spent millions of years thinking and exploring the world. By not starting afresh, humanity continues to ascend in its knowledge and understanding - receiving a good education is like time travel.

Throughout most of history, learning was a one-to-one experience, with a tutor working with a pupil or master working with an apprentice. The addition of mass lectures thousands of years ago and the shift from an oral to a written culture, opened up the opportunity for many more to study, but this was invariably supported by tuition for those who were truly engaged in learning. Then schools started to became more widespread and more open, enabling more and more individuals to receive some education.  This opening up of the opportunity to learn increasingly included children from poor households, with the number increasing from the 1500s through to the mid-1800s.  And with this came a pernicious attack – the assertion by the most advantaged that not all pupils can learn well. Particularly the poor. This was perhaps most evident in the 1830s, as Chadwick and others pushed for poor children to be more widely educated, but it had been an underlying issue for the hundreds of years previous when schools were largely home only to the most wealthy. When Chadwick and his supporters argued in parliament for much broader access to schooling, they were met immediately with resistance from those who claimed that education was beyond the poor and, through trying to open their minds to learning knowledge beyond the most basic skills needed for manual labour, the children of the poor would be driven insane. This protest has been with us ever since – the wording of the arguments may well have morphed, but the general principle remains; keep the poor in their place. The major weapon of those who seek to do so is to claim that not all pupils can learn well.  And this weapon is particularly powerful when cloaked beneath a veil of concern and good intent.

The assertion that a good education should not be expected achievable by the poor is a rotten one, but a persistent one.  Even today, following 180 years of mass schooling during which serious education thinkers, commentators and researchers have repeatedly shown this position to be false, there remain vast numbers of people in the education sector determined to keep the poor in their place whilst simultaneously claiming to be kind.

We must reject this appalling view and instead keep in mind the evidence.  From Chadwick to Washburne to Carroll to Block to Postman to Ericsson, the truth has been shown again and again: given the right conditions, all pupils can indeed learn well.  The literature supporting the fact that all human beings can learn well is incontrovertible.

Why is it, then, that in today’s schools it is commonplace to find administrators, managers, teachers, pupils and parents who all believe that whether or not one is successful at school learning is a result of wildly varying potential? As though the potential to learn is some chance gift of birth.

There are two great edicts of current Western education systems. Nowhere in the history of education commentary are these edicts supported. They are entirely false. But, almost without exception, schools in the Western world subscribe to them.

The two proclamations are:
  1. Education systems shall arrange their curriculum such that it is presented to pupils in bite sized chunks on an ever-moving conveyor belt. The conveyor belt will never stop. Whether or not a pupil has understood what has come before will have no bearing on what will be presented next.
  2. Education systems shall arrange pupils into groups or classes based on the notion that they were born with different potentials. It will filter them into their predestined futures.
The conveyor belt approach undermines all that is known, and has been known for such a long time, about learning. It substitutes teaching for presentation, substitutes learning for witnessing. It treats learning as a set of disconnected episodes, none of which has any prerequisite or continuity. It treats learning as though it is somehow magically connected to the age of a child rather than the child’s current knowledge and understanding. In England, the conveyor belt approach has given rise to the adherence to ‘age related expectation’. This is a mind-numbingly stupid edict.

Learning is an edifice, one which requires firm foundations and strong, interconnected building blocks. To ignore prior understanding and misconception is to build castles in the sky.

In such a system, where learning itself is deliberately misconstrued, it is no wonder that pupils appear to have vastly different potentials. If we take no account of a pupil’s readiness to learn a new idea and no account of whether they have gripped an idea before testing them, then we will find that our tests proclaim that some pupils can learn well whilst others cannot.

In such a system, the pupils who will be deemed to have learned well are the pupils who have gained from influences beyond the classroom.  In the UK, for example, approximately one-quarter of all pupils have a private tutor, who is there to ensure the pupil properly grips ideas by treating them as an individual who has current knowledge and who will acquire new understanding in their own time. These pupils can thrive in an education system that does not take learning seriously – they can purchase a serious education whilst simply attending classroom lessons as an informed observer. For those unable to purchase such advantage, their only chance is a classroom in which their own personal education is taken seriously. But they find themselves on the conveyor belt and are lucky if their own learning rate happens to match the speed of the ever-moving curriculum.

Any commentary or so-called evidence put forward about learning that has been measured in such a system is entirely useless. Interventions are applied and researchers attempt to comment on their efficacy, but they are measuring their interventions in a medium so far removed from effective teaching and learning as to render their findings meaningless. What is the point in saying intervention X has impact Y when it is not being trialled in proper conditions for learning? All this can do is to tell us how we might make extremely sub-optimal conditions marginally better for a small number of pupils.

It is like measuring two ants in a race. But they are racing in custard. We can intervene and help one ant a little, but the real solution is to remove the ants from the custard entirely.

Attempting to measure learning when all pupils are in the custard of the conveyor belt has resulted in a fetishisation of ‘effect sizes’ – education systems around the world have fallen hook, line and sinker for this statistically laughable way of asserting knowledge about education. We now have the entirely farcical situation where governments will fund organisations and projects based on interventions that have shown, let’s say, a 4-month progress measure.

Anyone who thinks that learning can be measured in months, doesn’t think.

Suppose the pupil is studying mathematics.  What mathematics does this pupil now know? In what way have they advanced 4 months beyond their control group peers? Tell me the mathematics they understand and how this mathematics represents 4 months progress. You can’t, can you? Because it is utter madness.

All that these effect sizes are attempting to say is, for some intervention group, pupils perform better on a short-term knowledge acquisition test when compared to their peers. Now ask yourself, why would you care about that?

What does norm referenced testing tell us about how mathematical the child is now? Nothing. It simply ranks orders them against their peers. I don’t recall meeting any teacher, ever, anywhere in the world, who has told me that the reason they became a teacher was to stack up pupils in rank order against their peers. Rather, I meet teachers who want their pupils to become mathematical, to grip mathematics in a meaningful way such that, should they choose to do so, a pupil’s mathematical journey may continue successfully when they leave the schooling system.

One output of this modern fetish is that it makes it possible to claim that pupils have different potentials and that it is acceptable to design education systems that result in a 7-year attainment gap (whatever that means) by aged 11.

It is not acceptable. It is not ok that pupils who were born with miraculous learning potential are left incapacitated aged 18 when they leave school, barely able to count reliably or have the most basic of mathematical interactions. This is not ok at all.

But this is the weapon of today’s equivalent of those who attempted to stop Chadwick in his quest to educate the poor. Effect sizes, based on vanishingly small experiments, mainly in laboratory conditions or, even worse, amalgams of meta-analyses, can be used to support any argument. They can be used to suggest teenagers should learn mathematics in mixed ability groups or setted groups or mixed attainment groups or streamed groups. It is possible to create interventions to support any of these arguments because every pupil is in the custard. If, instead, we rejected the unsupported edicts of modern schooling and removed the pupils from the custard that is so very much responsible for a poverty of aspiration for all, and lifted them out of this system into a system based on the reality that all pupils can learn well, then we would see the factions who eternally bicker and fight as though mixed ability, setting, mixed attainment and streaming are different approaches would be exposed. These are not different world views, not different ideologies. They are precisely the same – they are those who believe that pupils have different potentials.

The mixed ability versus setting debate is an entirely false one. These people are on the same side – they want to keep pupils in the custard.

I have great empathy for anyone in the current system who argues for mixed or setting – on the whole, these are teachers and school managers who are faced with the practical choices to be made when confronted by a new cohort of pupils who span years and years of attainment. Most people involved in the discussion are simply trying to make the best possible decisions for the pupils in front of them. More power to them, and I am sure that teachers take those decisions in good faith.

But there are also those who believe it should be the aim of the education system to result in a huge spread of attainment by the time pupils leave school. There are those who want to keep the pupils in the custard.

I believe to support a system, which by design results in writing off huge numbers of pupils as mathematically illiterate and comforts itself in doing so by arranging pupils into mixed ability, setted, mixed attainment or streamed groups, is a repugnant position and serves only to consign millions of, largely poor, pupils to the scrapheap annually.

How did we get here? How can it be that the most prevalent practices in Western schools are completely unsupported by any evidence base and, in fact, entirely opposed by what the annuls of education discourse are there to teach us?

The answer to this question is clearly complex and deliberately obscured. There are many factors at play, but perhaps one key factor is the modern obsession with data. Having meaningful conversations about learning is incredibly difficult, since learning is elusive and nigh on impossible to measure. So, we have reduced learning to performance on short-term knowledge acquisition tests. Such performance does not come anywhere close to being a synonym for learning. Yet, we have all just accepted this position.

A focus on short-term knowledge acquisition gives the comfort of thinking a domain, such as mathematics, can be treated as a linear progression through a long list of disconnected episodes. It gives the comfort of thinking, should a pupil fail to perform well on a test, the reason must be the pupil cannot learn well. There is no sense that teachers might have a profound impact on pupils, no sense the conditions for learning may not have been appropriate, no sense human beings might achieve understanding at different rates, no sense a reductive view of a domain might actually be the problem. So, we can plough on, assuaged of any guilt since we know it is just the way the pupils are.

In systems that pretend performance is a synonym for learning and that calculation is a synonym for truth, data is abundant and must, therefore, be used. This has resulted in behaviours at national administration level so counterproductive to educational excellence that it seems now incredibly difficult to step back to truth. We publish data about teachers’ performance when we’re asking them to perform in custard. We rank schools against each other when no account is taken of the fact we ask them all to operate in suboptimal conditions and punish any school where teachers dare to engage their brains and draw on the historical educational discourse in favour of the banal effect sizes and months progress measures.

In Western education systems, we reward teachers for the wrong behaviours. We do this because what actually matters - learning - is extraordinarily difficult to measure, because we have treated calculation as a synonym for truth, because the enlightened teacher is hard to control. The result of our perverse reward and punishment systems for teachers is that we favour the exquisite performer over the forensic, the labeller of children over the honest assessor of one’s own impact, and the presenter over the teacher.

All of which is to say that we have created a system in which the teacher is substituted with the entertainer.

Teaching as entertainment is an entirely modern concept yet one that is now so deeply ingrained in our schools, colleges and even our universities, that those who speak out against it are treated as heretics.

As he so often did, Neil Postman summed this problem up perfectly:

“This entirely original conception is to be found nowhere in educational discourses, from Confucius to Plato to Cicero to Locke to Dewey.

No one has ever said or implied that significant learning is effectively, durably and truthfully achieved when education is entertainment.

Education philosophers have assumed that becoming acculturated is difficult because it necessarily involves the imposition of restraints. They have argued that there must be a sequence to learning, that perseverance and a certain measure of perspiration are indispensable, that individual pleasures must frequently be submerged in the interests of group cohesion, and that learning to be critical and to think conceptually and rigorously do not come easily to the young but are hard-fought victories.”

I wish to put forward an opposition to the two great edicts and those who support them. I wish to put forward an argument that every single pupil can learn well.

All pupils can learn well

It has been known for a long time that, given the right conditions, all pupils can learn well. Those conditions might pithily be summarised as

  1. Forensic teaching
  2. Pupil grit

Teachers can have a profound impact on pupils. The choices they make, the pedagogic decisions taken in the moment, the view they have of a domain and its interconnected webs of ideas, the time they give, the ways in which they deploy an expert understanding of how learning occurs, all of these can make the difference to whether a pupil grips and understands a new idea. We know a huge amount about teaching and learning, we know a huge amount about approaches that significantly increase the likelihood of pupils succeeding. The history of education and the knowledge base it has built allows us to take a forensic approach rather than leaving things to chance or using classroom time to experiment or indulge in the latest fads and fashions.

But, even with the most carefully planned teaching, learning rests within the pupil – it is they who must take the opportunity of expert teaching to learn well. Forensic teaching is not enough. The pupil must play a very active role and understand that the burden ultimately lies with them to make the most of the education they are privileged to receive. Learning is hard. It requires serious effort and nearly always includes discomfort and sacrifice. We’ll call an ability to endure and overcome such discomfort as ‘grit’.

As Aristotle reminds us, “excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives - choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”

It is crucial that we do not seek to hide this truth from pupils. They must know their part and must know how learning occurs – without this knowledge, they are left adrift in their adult life, their development arrested, unable to advance. The way in which teachers orientate their classroom environments, including their discourse, their exposition, their discussions, their expectations, and all that they ask pupils to do, instils in pupils a view of what learning is and how learning comes about.

John Dewey captured this well when he said, “perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only what he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes... may be and often is more important... For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.”

The experience a pupil has of education can leave them knowing that their part of the deal is to give serious attention and to work determinedly.

Sadly, in the Western world, the experience many pupils have leaves them believing that their part of the deal is to be a passive recipient of presentations and that, should they not grip an idea, it is through no fault of their own. This type of schooling makes a mockery of the struggle that humanity has undertaken to create the whole of human knowledge. I want no part in such a system and hope you do not either.

All pupils can learn well and difficulty is not something to be shied away from – overcoming difficultly is the very foundation of happiness and meaning.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described the joy and value that lies in difficultly, saying “the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

By creating the right conditions for learning, all pupils can move from novice to expert in all domains and with every idea they encounter.

The ascent from novice to expert

Teachers absolutely can ensure that all pupils have the opportunity to acquire a level of expertise in their subject areas because the transformation from novice to expert is well understood. We need not pretend that education is some unknowable, fuzzy mystery. Human beings have refined the process of education over millennia – we know an enormous amount about how to educate. Those who would have us believe otherwise are those who seek to ensure impactful education is the preserve of the few (most commonly themselves and their own children) and not accessible to the many.

The way in which most education research is funded and the conditions under which it is most often conducted do not help. It is so often very limited to tiny sample sizes and short timeframes, it is so often so incredibly hampered by poor methodology and bias, and it is so often just ideology masquerading as objective truth.

The result is an educational landscape flooded by mad proclamations such as the ‘months progress’ narrative discussed above or papers designed entirely to support a policy position or findings that don’t even begin to scratch the surface.

Take, for example, the debate around practice. There is an educational camp that pronounces practice makes perfect and an opposing camp that fights for pupils to work on just a few examples and another camp that argues practice should be mixed up with distracting examples and another camp that states practice on a single aspect of a skill should be sustained and significant. It is hard to unpick truth amongst all this bickering. Yet, it is my hunch at least, most of us instinctively know what the truth really is; all these camps have a point.

Because studies are so limited in their scope, they tend to focus on just one fleeting stage in the rather expansive journey that is maturation. The ‘mixed practiced’ camp is correct, but only when talking about knowledge acquisition. The ‘repeatedly and deliberately practice a micro skill until it is second nature’ camp is also correct, but only when talking about post-knowledge acquisition ascent to expertise.

Not all phases of learning are equal. And they all have different, specific and well understood requirements if they are to be successful.

At the point of meeting an entirely novel idea and having to make sense of that idea, there are approaches, known to be effective, which are not necessary (indeed are quite counterproductive) at much later stages of learning. Similarly, there are approaches entirely suitable for those who have a firm understanding of an idea and are now working on developing elite skills and expertise that are entirely inappropriate for the novice.

To assist us in having a discussion about these ideas, I propose a simple framework, which might be viewed as foundational layers building up into an edifice.

I shall consider these layers in learning and group them into two broad phases,
  1. Short-term knowledge acquisition phase
  2. Durable knowledge growth phase

The behaviours of both teacher and pupil in these two phases have key differences. I will attempt to show that the debate around important educational matters, such as the amount of practice required, is often a false battle. For, when we consider learning as a whole and what it means to become educated, there is a unifying of much of what is currently presented as opposing positions.

In Part 2 of this blog, I will take each of the layers in turn and give a brief explanation of their key characteristics and the specific approaches that teachers and pupils need follow to be able to continue the ascent to expertise. In Part 3, I will then discuss each layer in depth and give multiple exemplars of what the approaches look like in the classroom. In Part 4, I will bring all the layers together to discuss how they interact on a continuum and how, as you might expect, the journey from novice to expert is neither straightforward nor linear, giving us the opportunity to discuss what actions we can take to identify, mitigate against and undo regression in learning.  Finally, in Part 5, I will detail how the two key ingredients of forensic teaching and pupil grit can guarantee success for all.
Note:  I am aware that throughout this blog I refer to 'all' pupils being able to learn well and that this does not capture the truth for the very small number of pupils with severe learning difficulties.  For those pupils, there is clearly the need for specialist approaches and I am not attempting to make any case to the contrary here.  I am writing here only about pupils who do not have severe learning difficulties.

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