A book that changed my teaching

THIS ISSUE: COVER STAR DAISY CHRISTODOULOU’S SEVEN MYTHS OF EDUCATION

When I first read Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education in 2013, my first thought was: ’This is brilliant, but I don’t know how to share it at my school – it seems too controversial.’ Reading it again now, it’s hard to imagine this, as many of the seeds planted from this book have not only taken root, but have produced rich harvests in schools all over – including my own – in the five years that have passed since its first publication. But in 2013, it was like reading a revolutionary pamphlet (not least because it was only available as a more-or-less self-published e-book at this point).

But whilst it may have felt incendiary at the time, the book itself is far from being simply an act of rhetoric. Its power lies in the measured way that Christodoulou collects and presents her arguments: this is the work of the diligent solicitor preparing a sound case, not that of the showy barrister summing up with wily legerdemain. The reason this book appealed to me as a teacher was that each myth is laid out systematically: initially with well-referenced documentation of its prevalence – much of which chimed with my own experience – and then the myth is promptly dismantled, using the author’s vast amount of reading on each subject.

Seven Myths About Education lit the blue touch paper for the way that I approach teaching today. It changed things for me, and for my pupils.

Reading the book led me to trace back through Christodoulou’s references – much of which are from cognitive psychology – and read the papers and books for myself. There is much discussion about contemporary cognitive psychology in schools today, but nobody had ever made any real reference to it in the time I had been teaching up until the point I first read Seven Myths About Education. As far as my initial teacher training was concerned, cognitive psychology was something that ended sometime in the 1930s, with Piaget and Vygostky.

So Christodoulou’s book was a gateway to Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009) and Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s seminal paper ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work’ (2006), amongst others. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen and heard these works referenced by educators today.

But Seven Myths About Education, whilst standing on the shoulders of giants, stands as the singular work that lit the blue touch paper for the way that I approach teaching today. It changed things for me, and for my pupils.

Reading through the chapters for the first time, I could relate much of what was being said back to my own classroom (this may seem obvious of a book on education, but you’d be surprised at how many writers manage to miss this mark). Some of the things written immediately rang true, whereas others challenged my own close-held beliefs at the time. I can remember reading the first chapter on the myth that ‘facts prevent understanding’ and, as I read, piecing it together with my own experience in the classroom: what did those pupils who possessed the ‘skills’ of enquiry, evaluation and creativity, etc. have in common? It was like a lightbulb going on. The pupils that understood new ideas more immediately were doing so because they already had knowledge and they were drawing on this knowledge to help them understand the new ideas. The pupils that were creative, or were analytical, were working from a strong base of knowledge. I now approach my classroom with the initial aim of building fluent and flexible knowledge in my pupils before we develop skills around this knowledge. What’s more pleasing is that this approach is not particularly controversial today. I think Seven Myths About Education can take some credit for that.

Other myths in the book were difficult for me to swallow at the time, specifically those around education technology. The chapters on the ideas that ‘the twenty-first century fundamentally changes everything’ (myth 3) and that ‘you can always just look it up’ (myth 4) both contained sacred cows to me. At the time I read this, I had spent the past few years going back to my own initial teacher training course to run sessions for trainees on the use of edtech in the classroom. I had advocated pupils using technology to research topics themselves and had been in the thrall of some of the claims about technological change made in the popular YouTube video Shift Happens. In Seven Myths About Education, Christodoulou sacrificed those cows right in front of my eyes.

I think that perhaps the greatest impact the book had on my approach to teaching was in making me think critically about how and what I teach. As Christodoulou writes when disposing with the myth on the 21st-century movement: ‘Nothing dates so fast as the cutting edge.’ In education, teachers are constantly placed in front of a conveyor belt of ideas, like contestants on The Generation Game trying to pick up as many of the best prizes that we can. Some of these ideas are new and some have been around for a while, but as we tend to be drawn to shiny new things and we like to feel that we are at the forefront of something, it is the novel that is often valorised. That, as Christodoulou writes, is the conclusion of the 21st-century movement. But the author’s own conclusion is the one that has stuck with me: ‘The newer the idea, the more sceptical we should be about teaching it in school, and the older the idea, the more likely it has stood the test of time.’ Of course, this doesn’t mean that I write off new ideas; rather that I take time to investigate any claims made of them, I try to evaluate them properly and am certain not to draw conclusions on them too hastily.

I cannot overstate the impact that Seven Myths About Education has had on my approach to teaching. It may not really have been a revolutionary pamphlet at the time I first read it, but it certainly feels like common sense to me now.

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