Gove, Gandhi and Grading

The English 'Baccalaureate Leads To A Fresh Outbreak of Curriculum WarsWell, he’s at it again. I’d really love to avoid the subject for a while, but the Secretary of State for Education in England, Michael Gove, keeps coming up with outrageous statements and ideological judo moves, that I find myself compelled to offer a dissenting voice. Again. Incapable of taking his own advice, barely a day goes by when the poor educators he promised to leave alone for a while, get bombarded with his latest learning theory, garnered from his selective policy-based evidence making (no, I didn’t get that round the wrong way)

In a speech given today, Mr Gove argued that rote learning and test taking should be at the heart of the school experience. The judo move came by suggesting that ‘examinations are a key weapon of progressives everywhere’.

Don’t fall for it, fellow progressives, it’s a trick! We’ve been here before, when he argued that ethnic minority students’ chances of going to Oxbridge were blighted by the ‘progressive’ education policies of the 70s. If you argued against his preferred return to tradition you were therfore patronising people of colour. So, let’s not say that progressives are against examinations, because we’re not. We’re just against the place that the all-encompassing, high-stakes accountability, gaming-the-system, corruption of learning has taken us to.

But Mr Gove isn’t just in favour of any old exams. The ones we currently have, apparently, are “pitched at a level which all can easily pass are worse than no exams at all.”

Hinting that the progressives display ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’, he presses his case for tests on the grounds of racial equality:

“tests show ethnic minority students performing better. So external tests are not only a way of levelling the playing field for children of all backgrounds they are a solvent of prejudice.”

It’s about now that his argument becomes, well, loopy: he claimed that academic tests – you know, the really hard ones that most people fail – have been a tool in the civil rights movement. And, of course, he has a point. Didn’t Gandhi famously say’ be the change you want to see in the world – you may turn over your papers now’? And then there was Martin Luther King’s promise that  ‘I may not get to the mountain-top with you, but I’ll make sure it’s norm-referenced, because it can get pretty crowded up there’.

If tests are to be the instrument of change, then Mr Gove makes a case for rote-learning as the key pedagogical route to success.  Citing Daniel Willingham as his source for evidence, he suggests that ‘memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding’. Well, I’ve read Mr Willingham’s book, ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’. There’s an interesting passage on memory and testing:

 ‘Doing a lot of studying right before a test is commonly known as cramming. I remember that when I was at school, students would brag that they had a crammed for a test and done well but couldn’t remember any of the material a week later (An odd thing to brag about, I know)’

I don’t think this is an odd thing to brag about at all. First, if the sole yardstick of understanding is to regurgitate facts through a test then well done that student. But that student’s response says everything about the corruption of their motivation to learn, and the shallowness of understanding which incessant testing promotes. Elsewhere Mr Willingham argues that we shouldn’t try to get students to think like expert scientists, historians or mathematicians because, well, it’s beyond them. The implication here is that ‘students are ready to comprehend but not create knowledge’ – not until they’ve put in around 10 yrs of practice.

And Mr Gove extends this argument to enhancing creativity :

“Memorising scales, or times tables, or verse, so that we can play, recall or recite automatically  (my italics) gives us this mental equipment to perform more advanced functions and display greater creativity.”

Well, try telling that to Paul McCartney. I’ve worked with Sir Paul, and I know that he never practised a scale in his life, because he has never learned to read music. Does this make him (or the millions of other musicians who taught themselves how to play, without the use of scales) less advanced, or uncreative? I know poets who couldn’t recite Tennyson, but they still seem to sell books. And what about the explosion of peer-to-peer learning taking place? Do coders sharing, and learning from each other suffer because they’re not rote-learning coding language?

My point is this: as a recent Newsweek article pointed out, most research on pedagogy is scientifically flawed. And even when the researchers get it right it’s hard to draw meaningful conclusions. Take the debate on direct instruction vs enquiry-based methods, for example. One of the few rigorous studies concluded that, ‘as long as students are actively engaged, direct instruction does just as well as inquiry-based teaching’.

But they key phrase here is ‘as long as students are actively engaged’. And we know that some schools keep their kids engaged while others don’t. So, rather than drawing battle-lines between traditionalists and progressives, presenting claim and counter-claim, maybe we should be trying to engage these kids a little more? I’d respectfully suggest that rote-learning and imposing yet more testing on these kids isn’t likely to do that.

And even if Mr Gove is right in claiming that ‘memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding’, there are more engaging ways these days to plant knowledge into the brain than tedious rote-learning. What about gamification, Khan AcademySpaced Learning or any of the truly innovative classroom strategies being used in schools all around the world?

I travel a lot with my work, meeting teachers and policy-makers around the world. England used to be seen as hotbed of innovation in education. But Michael Gove’s half-baked, backwards-looking ideas, are turning us into a laughing-stock. It’s time for senior leaders to find their voice and disassociate themselves with this reversion to a vision of learning which is out-of-time and out-of-step with the world as it now is. 


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13 Responses to Gove, Gandhi and Grading

  1. kathbrose says:

    Great post David – thank you. What is the reference for the ‘rigorous study’ on instruction-based vs enquiry-based learning? I run an education company in India, and would suggest that Gove visits schools where rote learning is the norm, and higher order thinking skills routinely absent, to refine his half-baked ideas about the extent to which memorising ‘gives us the mental equipment to perform more advanced functions’. Katherine (ps if you can point me in the direction of good reading/examples on the hot ‘engagement’ issue I will be grateful!)

  2. David Price says:

    Thanks for your kind comments. The study referred to is:Cobern, William W., Schuster, David, Adams, Betty, Applegate, Brooks, Skjold, Brandy, Undreiu, Adriana, Loving, Cathleen C. & Gobert, Janice D. (2010) ‘Experimental comparison of inquiry and direct instruction in science,’ Research in Science & Technological Education, 28: 1, 81-96. [PDF]Regarding engagement: I’ve written some pamphlets as part of the Learning Futures programme. You can find them at http://www.learningfutures.orgAlso the Canadian Education Association has done one of the largest studies into student engagement. Just Google ‘What Did You Do In School Today’ and you’ll find it.

  3. Peter DeWitt says:

    David,I am a principal in upstate, NY USA and I see that your education secretary’s philosophy is the same as the one here at the federal level along with many others at the state level. Your argument is a great one and I just can’t fathom why those making the policies cannot see that this era of accountability is ruining education and not enhancing it.

  4. David Price says:

    Peter,Me neither. But, one can only hope that as the more progressive policies continue to improve outcomes (even on inadequate measures like PISA) and the high-stakes testing countries continue to flounder, the penny will eventually drop.What we can’t understand, on this side of the pond, is why Pres Obama didn’t roll back the tide of NCLB!!

  5. Peter DeWitt says:

    Hi David,I agree with you. We wished that NCLB was abolished but unfortunately new policies just fell into place after the changes. We have entered an era of accountability we have never seen. They have also added a bit more competition and have offered grants, which schools do not have staff to go after because there have been massive lay-offs. Unfortunately, we are losing many bright teachers. I wrote about it on my Education Week blog and have included it for you. Once again, the piece you wrote is great.

  6. David Price says:

    Peter,That’s a really incisive piece you’ve written. Apparently we had a situation today where the Secretary of State met with teachers – and came off distinctly battered and bruised. Like I say in my book, accountability is what remains after trust has been taken away.But there enough of us who hold a different view – would love to visit your school next time I’m in the US for some morale-boosting!

  7. Peter DeWitt says:

    Thanks David. Let’s just say you have inspired a blog after reading this today. I’m not sure whether I like your story because misery loves company or whether it gives me hope that more people will speak out against this kind of insanity. You are always welcome to visit my school

  8. Peter DeWitt says:

    Hi David,Thanks for the inspiration. Your blog inspired me to write one on the topic for Education Week.

  9. Stephen Hurley says:

    Hi David,I appreciate your response to the ongoing event that is Michael Gove. His statements on testing were referenced in a keynote given by Stephen Murgatroyd last week in Ottawa, prompting me to search out the Guardian article. I love caricatures and Gove appears to setting his sights on this designation! Interesting that Gove referenced Willingham, a resource to which I have recently returned. Raises interesting questions (and important ones) about just how much “background knowledge/information a learner needs in order to think critcially and deeply”. This appears to be the question that Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia have been tackling for years as they have worked to promote a theory of “knowledge building” for many years ( deep learning something to be tackled once all of the skills and facts are firmly planted, or is it something that happens in the process? Through looking at the work that you have been doing, I know what YOUR answer to that is. But so many of our school systems are still holding on to the idea that this true. Looking forward to the ongoing conversations on this!Stephen

  10. Stephen Hurley says:

    Sorry for the apparent tagging mishap in the last entry!

  11. David Price says:

    Stephen,Thanks for this perceptive comment. It’s embarrassing that UK policy is making international headlines for all the wrong reasons. I’m sure you’ll reassure your fellow Canadians that we’re not all like that.And yes, you guess correctly. I, personally believe, that deep thinking requires deep engagement. Once that is achieved, and the teacher plays a crucial role in challenging and supporting the student’s knowledge building in pursuit of a purposeful goal, then deep understanding can be built alongside acquiring necessary information.The great songwriter Sammy Kahn was once asked the perennial songwriter chestnut: what comes first, the tune of the the lyrics? To which Kahn replied ‘usually, it’s the contract’.The contract, for the student, is their engagement and ability to see the relevance, authenticity and applicability of the knowledge we want them to acquire. Getting a good grade does not constitute a contract, in my book!

  12. David Price says:

    And, by the way, this post marks the start of a personal amnesty on Mr Gove. Writing about his assertions only draws more attention to them, so I need to start ignoring them.

  13. kathbrose says:

    Hi David, Thanks very much for the references. I’ve also enjoyed the comments on this post. Looking forward to more blog posts. Katherine

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