Category Archives: focus on science & research

Rambling in the brambles

Scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew claim today that there are 390,900 species of plants on Earth with 2,034 new species being discovered in 2015. The total number excludes algae, mosses, liverworts and hornworts and includes 369,400 flowering plants. 21% of known plants are at risk of extinction and the unknown will become extinct in private.

What do you make of that? The BBC’s written report actually says that there are 390,900 plants now known to science, but I had to correct that being a stickler for accuracy; one big field of wheat could contain that many plants, but only one species. Over two thousand new species discovered last year? Isn’t that amazing? My scientific brain clicks in again. Distinct species arise through the process of natural selection (the report doesn’t include genetically modified species) and given that the flowering plant group emerged at least 160 million years ago most species could not be described as new. Why are the so-called lower plants excluded from the total? Is it a fit  of pique among the Kew community or have they got a good reason, like they’re only uncluding vascular plants? Never mind, let’s move on, most people overlook liverworts anyway.

Lists and tidy minds

Putting things into groups is a fundamental human activity. At home it’s called sorting out the spices and condiments cupboard in the kitchen (am I showing my 1960s roots here?) and in biology it’s called taxonomy. In assembling their totals the people at Kew found that some plants had been separately described and listed more than once. That’s like putting cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon on different shelves, not good. I studied taxonomy as an undergraduate botanist at a time when biology was levitating up and away from its fascination with lists and reinventing itself as the science of what organisms do and how they do it, the functional approach. We were lucky enough (remembering we were scientists and knowing that I studied joint hons. Botany and Zoology would be useful here) to have recently deceased exhibits from the Regents Park Zoo to examine; a penguin, the head of a hippo, a lion cub and a three-toed sloth all turned up to our surprise and delight. We looked for clues about functionality. Did you know that the hair on most mammals parts at the midline of the back and points downwards to throw off water, whereas the sloth which spends it life dangling upside down from trees has its parting in the midline of its belly? I didn’t until I saw it in front of me. That took a few wet summers to evolve, I bet.

Since the dawn of time putting things in groups has been the main achievement of humankind and with the Enlightenment it became the proud ambition of the new science to list everything. Even today it makes the world more manageable to have a list of only 390,900 items rather than the billions of individal plants that cover much of the world’s surface, still.

In case you’re wondering where this story about science and education is going, I’d be honoured to introduce my next character, well known to our friends at Kew and to you, Sir David Attenborough.

A man of his time

He went to Cambridge to study natural sciences in 1945 with the taxonomic approach still alive and well and undergraduates being taught that things were either this or that, not both at the same time. In those days science was a process of piling up factual evidence in order to write proper lists. If you didn’t already know that our great TV explainer was a trained scientist you do now and I would guess that it makes you respect him even more. But I bet you didn’t know that in the hippy 60s he took himself off his work schedule to study social anthropology at LSE. Social anthropology! That’s not science! If you’ve now got your head in your hands, I know where you’re coming from.

That’s where all this flying out to discover new tribes of people comes from, only we and he knew and know that they weren’t new to themselves, they’d been doing quite nicely until the film crew arrived. And things did look strange to them too, even with the film-maker in a sarong, just as they looked strange to us, seeing people who lived happily in the heat without the use of a single fridge between them. This scientist/social anthopologist commissioned The Ascent of Man’ with all that social anthropology and hours of films on the TV to gawp at and then went back to search out every nook and cranny of this wonderful world to watch things never before seen by anyone without a highspeed camera and a wet suit.

We watched and are still watching. Watching what? A mockup in a lab, like the woodland sequence in ‘The Life of Plants’, a film of a humpback whale feeding on herrings, a cave full of bats and their enormous pile of dung? Is it evidence? Is it science. Is telling stories on film merely anecdotal voyeurism?

The Ascent of Attenborough is a story of transcendence. Science has broadened and expanded to offer us evidence of different types, always with the same scientific mission, to reduce uncertainty. Different strands of science investigate different realities through different approaches to evidence, what is is and what it means. It’s obvious that social science explores a different reality to those fielded by genetics or robotics or physics or psychology. Evidence can be numerical, descriptive, analytical, narrative, constructivist, even imaginary in the quantum world and it’s characterised by the type of reality it emerges from. And to make things more precise and more complex scientific philosophies themselves vary, cause-effect science in the concrete world of things, stratified critical realism in the world of social mechanisms.

Brass tacks. Getting down to.

It’s one thing to slump on the sofa watching a school of killer whales surge across the screen as a spectacle and quite another to maintain a critical relationship with the evidence in front of you. That takes some degree of scientific literacy, knowledge and balanced judgement. Killer whales aren’t whales, they’re dolphins and they’re predators, like spiders and bats, not killers for a start.

In education there seem to be people with a lot to say about research and evidence but no good grounds for saying it.  I think this is because some cover up illiteracy with stridency, others are playing a political game and a few do both. Yes, randomised controlled trials are a useful tool for reducing uncertainty in the concrete world of things. No, this doesn’t mean that descriptive, narrative science in the world of socially constructed reality is rubbish, no more than slight anecdotes. Yes, in some cases it makes sense to guess how physical things work, hypothesise, test your hunch and build a theory out of the findings. No, that doesn’t mean that carrying out a social action like teaching and writing a descriptive account of it, with the reader being invited to make their own contextualised interpretation of its meaning is a waste of valuable time, just idle chat over coffee till the bell goes.

As a scientist I know the importance of discussing ontology and epistemology, as a realist I know if I mention it here some people will accuse me of talking down to them, talking through my ivory hat. As a relativist I know that blood is thicker than water and as an anthropologist I know I can choose my friends but not my relations. And in the end all this might be no more than finding a way to spend a wet morning in Wales before I go to see the dentist.


To have a realistic hope of improving education, learning, teaching, schooling, we do need to share a common language and understanding and the current arguments about testing, assessment, zero-tolerance, mental illness, the magic of academies, bad grit and good stress, are all set within their own ontological contexts and spoken in their own epistemological terms. We need to know that and feel at ease in talking to each other about it.

So my message is this; For those who get it, keep on keeping on. For those who don’t, keep an open mind, keep asking the questions, we’ll help you get to the solutions. And then we can all relax and enjoy the sunshine together, fridge or no fridge.



Waving, not drowning

You know that feeling you get when you think you know what you’re doing and then someone points out that you don’t and it’ll end in disaster?

One minute you’re up.

‘This is a great idea, I’m so clever, it’s hard to do but I’m making it work!’ your inner voice whispers.

The next minute you’re down.

‘Oh no, I’ve got it all wrong, now what can I do, I’m so stupid I can’t even get the simplest things right.’

Like life really, ups and downs.


We paddle about in the shallows quite happily and then a big wave rolls in, nearly washes us off our feet, all excitement, falling down, getting up, losing your feet, finding them.

Then energy dissipates in foam and rolling shingle, leaves a few bright shells, bits of seaweed, smoother sea for paddlers.

Until the next big wave.

We had one recently, it was thrilling, knocked us all over place but we bobbed up and turned to watch it crashing onto the beach, all that power ending up in a swoosh and swash.

Beachcombing. Finding for free.

Press an ear to the big pink shell

‘Teach children their brain is muscle, exercise will make it grow,’ it whispers, ‘do this and all will be well’.

‘oh and …..,’ it whispers a bit more, ‘… if they’re rubbish at maths don’t say ok you’ve done your best and you’re good at other things, tell them they’re not any good at maths yet, but maybe they will be one day.’

‘Oh, sorry, and ….,’ your arm is beginning to ache now because it is actually quite a heavy shell, ‘remember to focus praise on the process not the product and … all will be well’.

This is a bit weird because we know that when you listen to a shell you hear the sea. Maybe this is Cymopoleia, goddess of giant waves, speaking to us about teaching? About teaching! That would be even more weird.

Mooch back home, pink shell in one hand seaweed in the other to think this through.

A nice cup of tea.

OK, it wasn’t Cymopoleia whispering in the shell, it was Carol Dweck. It’s her wave that nearly knocked us down. But the energy has mostly gone, caught and absorbed by us as we do, the voice stilling though echoes remain.

Listen to the shell,

‘You’ve got one mind, two mindsets and a flabby brain. Use one dump the other, grow brain muscle or be stupid.’ Ache.

‘Oh …. And all will be well…’


Dweck moves on, using her trumpet to blow other seas into different waves, talking to mothers of fresh new material who should get on with growing their babies’ giant thinking muscles too. When these babies arrive in school they’ll have to wear extra big hats to shield them from the sun.

Then us teachers can get back to mooching about in the shallows, growing children into people, laughing and drinking tea.

Teacher research – making a start

The concept of research in education is very open with a wide spectrum of activity and an equally wide range of areas of inquiry. This openness encourages multiple perspectives and helps us to reflect on our own position. But it can and does lead to misunderstandings when it comes to the detailed work of doing research.

I think that teaching and research in are inseparable partners, because it is impossible to be doing the work and not be thinking about how to do it better, or at least how to keep going when times are tough.

But what kind of research are teachers doing, out of all the available ‘research’ options?

The purpose of research is to reduce uncertainty by constructing knowledge. But ‘knowledge’ is another open concept, carrying with it the risk of misunderstanding its meaning within the educational research and the teaching community.

Teachers develop useful knowledge of different types in the lead-up to their first day in class and they build on it as they teach.

One type of such knowledge is the stable, communicable, factual type; know-what. It is the sort of knowledge that you could write in a handbook and pass on to a temporary teacher taking over your class for a day. It includes areas such as subject and curriculum knowledge, classroom management and procedures.

Teachers also construct another type of knowledge as they integrate their know-what and their ethical, moral and professional beliefs into their performance. This is know-how, constructed in the moment of performance by the teacher, in the context of the classroom. You can see it in action in another teacher’s room but if you asked tried to write it down you would find it practically impossible, because it is only expressed in performance. The same goes for your own performance; you can show it to someone on a video but a written report would be inadequate. If you visited the other teacher’s class again, working on the same subject and the same teacher and students so you could check your findings, you would be guaranteed to see something different because know-how is always changing. There’s no possibility of replication and any conclusions you might draw are interpretative and tentative.

Thinking about what teacher research means and what gives it its own identity it might be useful to keep in mind this idea of knowledge as know-what and know-how. An external researcher can investigate and build on know-what without the teacher being directly involved. But the only person who has full access to know-how is the person who generates it – the teacher.

So while a teacher could research know-what, given the resources and methodological training, the natural work of the teacher researcher is to investigate know-how. It’s a form of research that you are doing already.

Looked at this way we can begin to see teacher research standing in its own light rather than in the shadow of its bigger and older siblings.

Doing Research – what does it mean for teachers?

Traditionally educational research has placed university researchers as the knowers and teachers as the doers, with the knowers studying the doers. Lay users, teachers and policy makers, can then take the products of research as findings and recommendations, to improve schools and schooling. Research conferences, research journals and libraries are filled with educational research studies of this type but it seems that few practitioners read them and apply them in their work.

As an alternative approach the Centre for Applied Research in Education (CARE) was established at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the mid-20th century, repositioning teachers as researchers. Lawrence Stenhouse, a teacher educator who was a main driving force behind the setting up of CARE, argued that teachers were highly competent professionals who should be in charge of their own practice. A team member John Elliott called CARE’s perspective a radical departure from the traditional view of educational research as a specialist activity, the results of which teachers apply rather than create. Elliott soon became heavily involved in the development of action research at CARE with the large scale Ford project.

In parallel in the USA Donald Schon (1983), a professor of urban studies and education at MIT, was asking questions about the kind of knowledge production and use that competent practitioners engage in and how professional knowing differs from the kinds of knowledge presented in academic textbooks, scientific papers, and research journals. Schon pointed out that for teachers real-world problems do not arise as well-formed structures but as messy and indeterminate situations encouraging reflective practice, improvisation, invention and the testing of strategies in the actual context in which they arise, in a form of teacher research. He was making a distinction between the relatively fixed and easily communicable know-what form and the uncertain, transitory and context-dependent know-how form that is produced in the act of performance of expert work.

Action research and teacher research

The terms action research, teacher research, and practitioner inquiry (or practitioner research) are often used interchangeably.

Action research in its strict sense refers to research activities that use a cyclical, action/reflection model to investigate and attempt to make changes in an organization, for example, a whole school and usually carried out by a team of researchers. Action research emerged in the 1940s from the work of anthropologist John Collier and social psychologist Kurt Lewin. The spiral process of successive cycles of planning, inquiry, action, and fact finding about the result of the action is a defining element of action research.

The term participatory action research emphasises the involvement of those who might be termed research subjects, but are repositioned as co-researchers who take part in conceptualisation, implementation, and interpretation of the research project.

Teacher research is intentional, systematic, public, voluntary, ethical, and contextual inquiry in a school/classroom conducted by practitioners. It deploys methodologies which have been developed to investigate the messy and indeterminate situations that Schon mentioned.

Teacher research differs from action research in that:

  1. It is not necessarily cyclic.
  2. It does not necessarily require a team element — a teacher can conduct practitioner inquiry in their own classroom, for their own benefit.
  3. It does not necessarily require a specific action or improvement as an outcome. It may produce a change in a teacher’s perceptions, attitudes, or thinking that will eventually result in particular changes, but the immediate result of a practitioner inquiry project need not be a set of specific action. It is this knowledge dimension that teacher researchers often cite as its most powerful, transformative benefit and broadens the meaning of research by including description and story-telling, a narrative process, in addition to the more usual products of research, conclusions, findings and recommendations. I will expand this idea in my next blog.

All action research carried out by practitioners can be called teacher research, but not all teacher research can properly be labelled action research.

A strength of teacher research is that it can help to address some of the weaknesses inherent in traditional educational research. It is designed to change the conceptualisation and activity of practice by working from within that context outwards, helping to close the theory/practice divide.

A limitation is that reporting of results is usually confined to the local community, restricting their potential usefulness. This communication aspect is something we can take on as the teacher research community by the many means now available to us, face to face and online.

Next blog: What counts as research?


The Research Quality Myth

For research to be taken up by teachers it has to be of high quality. In assessing the quality of research, lay users, notably policymakers and practitioners, face two problems;

1) How to assess research findings in the way they are presented, in the specific language and beliefs of a field of research.

2) How to relate these findings to what they already know, in the way they normally judge the validity of claims to truth made in everyday life.

Lay people may act as if in awe of research and the research process on the one hand or dismiss research findings if they conflict with their existing knowledge on the other. Lacking the background knowledge, skill and experience of professional researchers in their specific fields, lay users may see external quality criteria as their only hope in assessing quality. (Hammersley, M. pp. 289-291, 2013)

The three established quality criteria for quantitative research are;

1) Reliability – Can it be accurately reproduced or replicated?

2) Validity – Has it achieved what it set out to do? Has a causal relationship been demonstrated between the experimental variable and its hypothesized effect? Have the findings really be accurately interpreted and alternative explanations offered?

3) Generalisability – Are the findings applicable in other research settings? Can a theory be developed that can apply the findings to other non-research situations?

In quantitative research methodology, including the quality criteria, is rarely mentioned in research reports. It is assumed that readers already know about it in detail and attention is paid instead to method, i.e. how things were set up in the laboratory, and data collection and analytical procedures.

In contrast quantitative researchers often describe their methodology in detail. This is defensive to some extent, in the face of the critical assault made on by some in the quantitative researchers community who feel free to talk and write about qualitative research as if it were no more than pseudo-science, a poor relation. In doing so they are missing the point that it is operating in a fundamentally different reality.

It is commonly assumed that all research evidence should ideally match the established quantitative quality criteria – the so-called Gold Standard – and there is sustained pressure for the adoption of qualitative criteria to parallel them. This pressure comes principally from lay users of research aligned with the evidence-based practice movement, which is rooted firmly in quantitative science. A central theme is ‘transparency’, which demands that the basis of research professionals’ work should be made explicit, so that the lay people who use their services can judge the quality of what is provided.

Social and educational research is caught up in this current push for quality criteria because lay users see it as being capable of supplying the evidence on which more effective policy can be based and professional practice can be judged. Transparency is seen as the means by which lay users, lacking the specialist knowledge and understanding of the professional research community, can assess which research findings they can rely upon.

Hammersley (2013) states that the idea that research can be fully transparent is a mirage. It is not possible for researchers to make their judgements transparent and fully intelligible to anyone, irrespective of background knowledge and experience. Lay people cannot consistently make judgements about the quality of particular research studies that are as good as those of researchers who work in the relevant field. Indeed there are limits to the extent to which these judgments can be made intelligible even to fellow researchers, as judgment is made within a context, which is by definition uncertain. The judgement made by quantitative researchers of qualitative research is equally likely to be open to question. 

‘Intelligibility is an achievement, it is not automatic.’ Hammersley (2013)

There is no exact correspondence between research and the report that seeks to represent it. The researcher must lay out as clearly as they can the reasons they have for making their judgments. The reader must be able to infer what is meant in the report on the basis of their background resources in order for accurate assessment to be made. Interpretation is going on throughout the process. In highly specialised fields of work these resources include an extensive knowledge of the history of the field, its language and its methodology and methods; in short what reality it occupies, its ontology and epistemology. This leads back to the demands for external research guidelines and quality criteria.

Hammersley concludes; ‘The greater the experiential distance between speaker and hearer, the larger this problem of communication will be.’ ….‘Because the use of guidelines always depends upon background knowledge and judgement, they cannot solve this problem even if they can serve as a useful resource in dealing with it.’

Teachers in this sense are lay users of educational research carried out by university based academics and as such it produces a very narrow definition of what is meant by ‘research’. The experiential gap and the limitations in what guidelines can do, go some way in explaining why over many years so little of such research has brought about sustained change in classrooms. Can we do better?

My next blog; Doing Research – what does it mean for teachers?





It’s not rocket science

The ‘O’ word.

I am following up Tim Taylor’s reflective piece this week about the relationship between research and teaching.(1) Taylor makes the point that ‘research in the social sciences is different to research in the natural sciences. Ontologically different, meaning they involve fundamentally different phenomena,’ different phenomena existing in different realities. The Ofsted Chief Inspector knows this and says that dealing with disruptive behaviour in schools is not rocket science and indeed it is not; human behaviour and rocketry are phenomena existing in the very different realities of the social and the physical worlds.

I’ve thought about the ontological question, written and talked about it for years without making much progress. It’s important but it’s not a pressing issue, or maybe not a comprehensible one, for most people. On the edge of yet another conference designed to expose to examination the level of ontological ignorance underlying the fierce discussion about educational research and its relevance to teachers, it’s a good time to look at this problem another way.

Careful, quiet and respectful talking has largely failed in the attempt to get the ontological argument heard.

To take a current example, Mr. T Bennett, adviser on behaviour and related teacher training to the Minister of State for education and director of a conference series aimed at improving the so-called research literacy of teachers and bombing pseudo-science into rubble, is making some serious public claims this week in the fields of communications technology, education and social science. He claims (2) that there is no evidence to show that technology helps pupils learn and that students only use ipads for looking at dubious images on the web and hurling insults at each other. He claims that ‘devices are used as ‘pacifiers’ by teachers to control unruly classes’ and that ‘parents (are) allowing children to stay up late using gadgets.’

As reported in the ‘The Daily Mail’ (2)  Mr. Bennett states that there is ‘absolutely no need’ for children to have access to the Internet, on the grounds that ‘kids are kids – they will see things you don’t want them to see.’

Mr. Bennett criticizes teachers who tell children to use search engines to complete homework, describing it as being like ‘guiding them to a library without a librarian’ and concludes that it is a teacher’s duty to point out mistakes on the web.

Ok, so where’s the reliable evidence for Mr. Bennett’s claims?

Are the claims made here based on high-quality positivist research? Or on other forms of research appropriate to the realms of the social sciences? What form of research inquiry is best fitted to produced and analyse the evidence?

The process of publication and peer review requires a researcher to be named and accessible and the work to be open to critique. The critique itself is in turn itself open to critique. It’s recognized to be an imperfect process and to give a current example p-level gaming (3) and the difficulties of replication in psychological research (4) are currently under the microscope as the system seeks to self-correct.

As blogging in our world of education and educational research matures into something more than shouting at a laptop it’s the time to encourage and welcome critique, for claims to be justified or withdrawn, as happens in the rest of the research world.

Put up or shut up, eh?











G D James 2 Sept 2015it’s

Critical thinking and critical values


I’m returning to this topic, long after the Twitter heat is off and maybe too late to be of much use to fast moving bloggers.

It all seemed to start with Willingham’s article; somebody read it and told The Education Secretary Mr. Gove about it.

He said; ‘Daniel Willingham again makes the point powerfully in his work when he points out that, “research from cognitive science has shown that the sort of skills that teachers want for students – such as the ability to analyze and think critically – require extensive factual knowledge.” ( …. ) As Daniel Willingham demonstrates brilliantly in his book, memorisation is a necessary pre-condition of understanding. Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the memory – so that it is no effort to recall them and no effort is required to work things out from first principles – do we really have a secure hold on knowledge. Memorising scales, or times tables, or verse, so that we can play, recall or recite automatically gives us this mental equipment to perform more advanced functions and display greater creativity.’

The best way to build memory, Willingham said, is by the investment of thought and effort which Mr. Gove told us means the thought and effort we require for exam preparation and testing.

Mr. Gove explained that because tests require students to show they have absorbed and retained knowledge – and can reproduce at will – they require teachers to develop the techniques which hold students’ attention and fix concepts in their minds. That will mean deploying entertaining narratives in history, striking practical work in science and unveiling hidden patterns in maths. Tests drive creativity at every level.

He then went step further to say that tests they drive equality. The seventh reason we need exams is to ensure our society is ordered on the basis of fairness. And merit.’

Mr. Gove is a journalist. The way he built his argument is interesting. He cites the evidence and interprets it for us. Learning is a linear process, memorisation of facts comes before understanding, because it gives us ‘mental equipment’ for ‘performing advanced functions’. Testing memorisation not only demonstrates what facts the student has stored but also drives creativity it ensures social equality built on fairness and merit. This is how I’d summarise his argument:

‘Facts and concepts are the same thing. Critical thinking requires extensive factual knowledge. The first task of teachers is to ensure that students memorise facts as unprocessed data. The second task is to test the accuracy of memorisation. Tests require students to reproduce the facts they have learned. Tests drive creativity and social equality and both understanding and knowledge are expressions of remembered facts. Consequently the school teacher’s job is to hold students’ attention in order to fix concepts in their minds by the use of specific techniques such as entertaining narratives, striking practicals and the unveiling of hidden patterns.’

In ‘Critical thinking – why is it so hard to teach?’ Willingham, a cognitive psychologist, said that the ability to think critically depends on domain knowledge and practice. He calls critical thinking ‘doing what the metacognitive strategies call for’. He says critical thinking is not a skill nor is it a set of  skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.

A journalist and a psychologist giving firm advice here on education, the occupation of teachers. Why is that? Is teaching subsidiary to other professions and only understandable from within their paradigms?

As a teacher I might put the question the other way round; ‘What makes critical thinking hard to learn?’ We’re all agreed, Gove, Willingham and me, that critical thinking exists. The Cognitive Psychologist says ‘critical thinking can’t really be taught because the processes of thinking are intertwined with content.’ The ‘intertwining’ metaphor refers to a very physical model of the brain and its workings. This paradigm is based on the positivist view of reality, where something must be a concrete thing for it to be analysed and verified. The fact that the objects of study of psychology are non-physical, like thoughts and memories, makes their research more complicated because things that are not measurable have to be represented by things that are, or might be. Whatever, The Journalist accepts the paradigmatic truths of The Psychologist and believes that the amount and quality of the information in the brain’s physical memory store, facts and concepts being the same thing, are represented by the answers in the examination booklet.

Willingham, in speaking about teachers, said; ‘People who have sought to teach critical thinking (CT) assume it’s a skill like riding a bicycle and it is generalisable – once you’ve learned it you can apply it in any situation.’ This implies that CT is fixed, not related to context , reproducible in exactly the same form at different times, stable information. This is the definition of information, raw data; therefore form this perspective, a skill is raw data. However, Willingham has a more nuanced view, which has got lost in Mr. Gove’s interpretation. What Willingham says about thinking processes and information content being ‘intertwined’ rings true to me as a teacher. Managing the relationship between know-what and know-how and using the appropriate pedagogical approach to use their intertwined nature as an aid to learning is the job of teachers. In the classroom it’s both content and thinking that matter and they seem to happen simultaneously.

Willingham also says that if you remind a student to Look At A Problem From Multiple Perspectives often enough, she’ll store an LAAPFMP information chunk which will be available in context, but she will probably not implement the advice without background knowledge and practice.

This means that it’s possible to teach information sets relating to physical action that can be assessed in the form of the skills the learner can do – like bike riding – the reproduction of raw data in an information set. Information sets can also be learned which apply to mental action, thinking critically.

All this is about Know-What, raw information. However if the raw information (background knowledge in Willingham’s terms, Know-What in my terms) is to be brought into use in a non-physical action, like thinking, it requires practice. This is thinking practice, or rehearsal. It’s information, not knowledge which is produced in context in the moment of expert performance, what I call Know-How (K-W).

Why should we as teachers be critical of conclusions arrived at through work carried out in a non-teacher paradigm? Willingham’s positivist paradigm is based on the ontology/epistemology/methodology structure. As an experienced researcher and writer in cognitive psychology he stays true to his paradigm. Looking across his paper he focuses on information and the storage  and organisation of information. The ‘subject’ is no more than a site at which the processes under investigation are located.  The student as a person, with hopes, likes and dislikes – with values – is not a valid object of study in this paradigm.

That’s what is missing in his explanation and in Mr. Gove’s analysis. As I’ve argued before, the teacher’s paradigm comprises ontology/epistemology/axiology/pedagogy. Axiology is what is missing in Willingham’s account because his paradigm excludes the person as an uncontrollable variable, in the positivist scientific tradition.

So what does this mean when we are thinking, as teachers, critically about critical thinking? Values are expressed through the actions of the person in shaping the world as they would like it to be, as an effect of their agency.

‘Transfer (of critical thinking skills) does occur’ notes Willingham and ‘is relevant for educators: transfer depends on student’s familiarity with deep structure and knowing she should look for in deep structure’. It also depends on whether or not she’s bothered. ‘Looking out for deep structures helps but it only takes you so far – the second factor that aids in transfer – despite distracting (of attention?) differences in surface structure – is knowing to look for a deep structure.’ Is she bothered?

Part of the fuss about direct instruction, drilling and rote memorizing of facts in order to construct the information store, has been the worry that some students and teachers  don’t buy into this approach. It’s all very well for Mr.Gove to talk about entertaining narratives and unveiling surprises like a classroom magician, but in the middle of the either/or debate about ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’ there are people with agency. Unlike the glassware on the laboratory bench or the experimental rats in a cage they can always walk out, or at least not pay attention. This is where the discussion has gone wrong. Willingham treats the critical thinker as a mechanical object. Teachers don’t operate in this reality – a classroom is a community of people, all of whom have values. And Mr. Gove has missed the point.

I’m going to end this with an invitation to have a look at two pieces of writing. The first is a 2011 literature review of ‘Critical Thinking’. Initially I included it in this blog, but it runs to 20 pages so I’ve put a link to it.

I think it’s a useful and balanced review that raises some interesting questions. Not least is this question of values in the teacher paradigm. In the section on ‘Dispositions’ Lai notes; ‘However, a small minority of experts also argued that critical thinking must fulfill ethical standards to be truly critical. According to this argument, a defense attorney using critical thinking abilities and dispositions to get her guilty client acquitted would not be a critical thinker (Facione, 1990).’ And in the section on ‘Importance of background knowledge’ Lai says ‘Too much of value is lost if critical thinking is conceived of simply as a list of logical operations and domain-specific knowledge is conceived of simply as an aggregation of information.’

Also read Brian Edmiston’s excellent article on teaching and values ( )

Axiology – The Elephant in the Room

I no therefore I can. Or knot.

There’s an old country joke that you probably know. A Lost Driver stops to ask the way from a gentleman walking along the narrow lane. The Walker has the knees of his moleskins tied with baler twine and the band of his battered felt hat decorated with two cock pheasant tail feathers. The Lost Driver pulls up beside the Walker and opens his window. ‘Good morning”, he says, “can you tell me how to get to Manuden?’ The Walker stops, turns to look at the Lost Driver and takes the straw out of his mouth, he clasps his hands behind his back and answers, ‘Hmm. Get to Manuden eh… Well, I wouldn’t start from here.’

On January 10, 2014, the TES published a feature article by their behaviour expert, Tom Bennett, entitled, ‘I know Therefore I Can’. ( In the article, Tom makes the argument for schools privileging the teaching of knowledge (by which he means know-what or facts) over time spent developing (by which he means know-how or knowledge). He maintains there is no false dichotomy in categorising these two separately things and the impact of losing time on developing knowledge (he calls doing skill acquisition tasks) He states that this disproportionately affects the poor, magnifies the disadvantages they already suffer and is unhelpful in the fight against inequality. A solid core of Knowledge (meaning know-what), he maintains, attracts other pieces of knowledge, by a process similar to gravity. Knowing stuff can be represented as physical mass. The existing mass of knowledge captures and drags in what he terms ‘other fragments of wisdom’, further increasing its own mass gravitational influence; its own power to capture more matter.

This is a beguiling argument. It offers an interesting and uncomplicated analogy and cloaks itself in the language of empowerment. Teaching children facts, it seems, is a virtuous cause, practiced by those on the side of the good. It is a moral and social crusade that will educate and emancipate the poor, freeing them from their ignorance and gaining them access to social mobility.  Who could argue against that?

Social responsibility is certainly a fine cause and one we would all agree is worth supporting. But is Tom’s suggested route the best way to get there? Before we set off it would be a very good idea to make sure the suggested path is, in fact, the road to Manuden.

We should start by ignoring the argument that one path is morally superior to the other. Tom implies that some people in education, notably those supporting the idea of developing students’ know-how are advocating keeping children ignorant or denying them access to know-what, facts or information. That is clearly a false argument, misrepresenting one side of the argument and then arguing against it. It’s easier than dealing with the substantive issues, because the misrepresenter retains control without doing any hard work.

But what about this idea that schools should privilege the teaching of know-what (facts) over  the development of know-how (skills)? There is after all only a very limited amount of time that children spend in school and shouldn’t schools spend as much of that time as possible doing what is most effective? Again, who would argue against this?

It is, after all, the central business of education to teach children in the best way possible. So, let’s take a closer look at Tom’s argument and see if it tells us the best path to take.

Getting directions 

Tom’s article is about knowing and knowledge. He uses his central term ‘knowledge’ to mean a fact, a piece of information; and also a collection of facts, a store of information. (‘information’ meaning raw data, not acted upon by the receiver). He attributes some attractive, gravitational property to the discrete pieces of information, such that they tend to accumulate.

He also uses ‘knowledge’ in a different way to mean a process in which context related information is deployed, what might be called a skill.

He uses ‘expertise’ in the same way, as both an object (a fixed body of interlocked facts) and a process (given sufficient practice, the facts appear in the world as expert action).

He asserts that skills are based entirely on knowledge. He also refers to skill as habit but does not expand on this.

He supports his argument against the teaching of skills by stating that; skills cannot be easily obtained by doing tasks centred on skill acquisition. in other words skills aren’t generalisable. He also states that children can be taught to apply learned skills in unfamiliar areas through the use of inductive inference. In other words skills are generalisable. This is getting a bit confusing.

Tom’s argument is weakened by his use of the term ‘knowledge’ to mean both a thing and a process. Here he’s introducing the concept of a dual state. This is a difficult concept to understand, it’s similar to the idea of the wave-particle duality of light and electrons.

This isn’t getting any easier. It’s a big muddle. Where exactly are we going? What does Manuden mean?

Maybe we need to agree some terms so we can hear what we are saying to each other. Here’s my suggestion: 

Community:  I am member of the community of educators, which I take to include teachers, academic educationalists, psychologists, sociologists and anyone who feels themselves to be entitled to membership because of their commitment to learning and flourishing.

Know-how: As a community we use the more every-day term ‘Know-how’ in place of the cognitive psychologists term procedural knowledge, what the behaviorist psychologist Bloom called intellectual skills in the early 1950s.

Know-what: In place of the term declarative knowledge, what Bloom termed knowledge and is also variously termed descriptive or propositional knowledge I suggest we use the term know-what. Information or data are examples of know-what.

Know-how is a process, an activity, it’s the graceful, artistic and balanced skater, there, in front of you on the ice. Know-how is knowledge; it is unique in its context, is difficult to communicate, is impermanent and known only to the performer inasmuch as it can be known.

Know-what is the store of information that is drawn on by the skater to make her beautiful performance. Know-what is information, it persists over time, it is communicable, it can be known and understood by both the performer and a person they are talking to.

Know-how = process = knowledge

Know-what = store of facts = information



There’s ‘The Yew Tree’. We’re getting close.

Ah. Manuden.


Paradigm – loose ends, tidy thinking Part 2


Knowing about knowledge Part 2


Superficially it seems that we know enough about knowledge to be able to talk about it fluently. It comes in two forms: procedural and declaritive. Procedural knowledge can be directly applied to a task, for example solving a problem, and the knowledge is formed by doing the problem solving task. Declaritive knowledge here could be called knowledge about problem solving. However, from my understanding of knowledge and information, what’s called declaritive knowledge looks more like information and prodedural knowledge more of a process than an object. This isn’t a settled field. Maybe we don’t know enough. Or maybe I don’t.


Luiztavio Barros writing about language acquisition says:


“Procedural knowledge is (….) knowing how to do something. It contrasts with declarative knowledge, which is knowledge about something. For example, I may read about the importance of perfect arm strokes and coordination while swimming and yet drown like a stone when inside the pool. This may sound obvious, I know, but as far as language learning goes, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Declarative knowledge enables a student to describe a rule and perhaps apply it in a drill or a gap-fill. Procedural knowledge, on the other hand, enables the student to apply that rule in real language use.


Not surprisingly, procedural knowledge does not translate automatically into declarative knowledge – try asking a native speaker to explain why exactly she said “I’ve been there” rather than “I went there”. In the same way, declarative knowledge does not automatically cross over into communicative language use. In other words, students may be able to describe a grammar rule and manipulate it through controlled exercises, but consistently fail to apply the rule in communication – spoken or written.”


Educational psychology puts things in this way: ( ‘Declarative knowledge is a persons ‘encyclopedic’ knowledge base, whereas procedural knowledge is specific knowledge relating to performing particular tasks. The application of these cognitive paradigms to education attempts to augment a student’s ability to integrate declarative knowledge into newly learned procedures in an effort to facilitate accelerated learning.’


This suggests that knowing how to do something is a fixed procedure deploying specific knowledge for a specific task without reference to the context of the action. Declarative and procedural knowledge are treated as discrete but amenable to integration. This is quite a different notion to mine, outlined in my previous post, about information and knowledge being different from one another, knowledge being uniquely created and deployed in the moment of action.. Rewriting this using ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’ as I understand them, would look more like this:


“Know-what is a person’s encyclopaedic information base, including the specific step-by-step information of the actions necessary to complete a specific task, a task related skill. Teaching a student the information contained in routines or hierarchies of action may produce more rapid and consistent action on their part. The student’s performance of the action, seen as know-how, may become automatic if they are given the opportunity to practice. The student’s know-what can be assessed by standardised testing; their know-how by recording their actual performance and interpreting the performance of the skill – for example by recording the performance on video and asking  asking them to comment on it).”


‘In the field of second language learning other writers ( e.g. Krashen ) claim that declarative and procedural knowledge are two separate entities, (language acquisition being associated with comprehensible input, language learning with exposure to grammar) while others believe that declarative knowledge can be proceduralized through practice. There’s a third group that argues that it’s noticing (and renoticing) rather than practice that will push students’ interlanguage development forward. In other words, there is far from unanimous agreement that practice makes perfect as far as language learning goes.’


In the context of the classroom, a student brings some procedural knowledge with them into the classroom and adds to it, for example by learning about learning strategies, the rules, actions/action sequences, and skills that result in successful learning. 


In the business world knowledge and information are described in non-technical terms. Procedural knowledge is called ‘Know-how’, practical knowledge on how get something done. Declarative knowledge is called “Know-what”, facts and information. There are also the categories “know-why” (science) and “know-who” (communication) containing know-how and know-what specific to these areas of activity. Know-how is seen as often tacit and difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or speaking it. The opposite of tacit knowledge is explicit knowledge that is readily communicated. Interestingly Know-how is recognized in U.S. Tax regulations as an industrial  property. Services by individuals having know-how are not.


‘A chief practice of technological development is the codification of tacit knowledge into explicit programmed operations so that processes previously requiring skilled employees can be automated for greater efficiency and consistency at lower cost. Such codification involves mechanically replicating the performance of persons who possess relevant tacit knowledge; in doing so, however, the ability of the skilled practitioner to innovate and adapt to unforeseen circumstances based on the tacit “feel” of the situation is often lost. Expert know-how is broad and deep, say of a chess grandmaster. Even with massive processing power current computers cannot achieve this “feel”.’


Note: Information technologists seem to be ambiguous about the relationship between tacit and explicit knowledge and in the use of terminology in talking about information and knowledge.


‘The conflicts (…..) are reflected in Ikujiro Nonaka’s model of organizational knowledge creation, in which he proposes that tacit knowledge can be converted to explicit knowledge. Transforming tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge is known as codification. In that model tacit knowledge is presented variously as uncodifiable (“tacit aspects of knowledge are those that cannot be codified”) and codifiable. This ambiguity is common in the knowledge management literature.


Nonaka’s view may be contrasted with Polanyi’s original view of “tacit knowing.” Polanyi believed that while declarative knowledge may be needed for acquiring skills, it is unnecessary for using those skills once the novice becomes an expert. And indeed, it does seem to be the case that, as Polanyi argued, when we acquire a skill we acquire a corresponding understanding that defies articulation.’


(see )

An end note on noticing


( ) 


‘Traditional information processing models explain acquisition as the conversion of declarative knowledge, obtained through explicit instruction, into procedural knowledge through processing practice which involves the automatisation of controlled processing. The Noticing hypothesis reverses this process: implicit knowledge is acquired through focusing attention on a form which becomes procedural knowledge; declarative knowledge may develop later with practice.

Schmidt defines noticing in a special sense, meaning apperception as opposed to conscious attention.  Conscious attention is a metalinguistic process which leads to metalinguistic knowledge; noticing is a more subtle phenomenon.

Doughty claims that:


People learn about the structure of a complex system without necessarily intending to do so, and in such a way that the resulting knowledge is difficult to express. (Doughty 2003)


Automatic processing is activation of a learned sequence of elements in long-term memory that is initiated by appropriate inputs and then proceeds automatically – without subject control, without stressing the capacity limitation of the system, and without necessarily demanding attention. Controlled processing is a temporary activation of a sequence of elements that can be set up quickly and easily but requires attention, is capacity-limited (usually serial in nature), and is controlled by the subject. (http// (Schneider & Shiffrin, 1977)’

According to this idea, there two kinds of skills


1) skills as sets of information coming straight out of the information store, know-what rather than know-how, automatic, fast with no capacity limitations, light on processing power demands not demanding attention


2) skills as know-how, an on-demand set of know-what elements, capacity limited and controlled by the performer, context related, requiring attention and resource hungry.


Does that sound plausible?








Paradigm – loose ends, tidy thinking Part 1

Knowing about knowledge Part 1


Ontology-Epistemology-Axiology-Pedagogy – a teacher’s paradigm.

I’m writing this series of pieces as reflective research; I believe that writing is research, not merely a product of it.  It certainly helps me to clarify my own thinking and I’m grateful to you for your reading of it. The purpose is to get a better understanding of pedagogy in theory and practice, as the professional core of teaching. I feel I’ll be closer to that after this Part 1 and the following Part 2.

Thanks to Nina C Smith ( ) for her gentle comment on my recent post:

Thanks for this interesting post. I would also add axiology to your building blocks of paradigm, just because the value level decisions are the ones that define your other choices. I wrote a blogpost about the dimensions of teachers’ learning process to clarify my thinking about that. It seems to me that you are using information and knowledge somewhat interchangeably, and I was hoping you could clarify the connection between procedural/declarative knowledge in your thinking of pedagogy.”

I’ve been missing something important. I’ve been circling around it and glimpsed it now and again. I’ve had an image in my mind but not expressed it. In my last post I said In teaching, our stock in trade is reality and knowledge about reality. Of course there’s no right or wrong about what reality and truth might be. Everyone has the right to their own beliefs. Teachers are assumed to have beliefs that are generally virtuous as are other professionals, but outside this limitation teachers are entitled to believe as they see fit.” As I was writing this I was also thinking “But what if a teacher isn’t virtuous?” In my work I’ve witnessed a senior teacher being physically cruel to a student in school. The teacher was never held to account; they left the school before a police investigation into alleged systematic cruelty got under way got under way. The school was subsequently closed down.

Nina, trained as a teacher in Finland, says ‘….. the value decisions are the ones that define your other choices.’

We talk about the ethos of a school but what does it mean? What when you walk into a school you can often sense it from all kinds of signs around you, in the corridors, in classrooms, in the playground, in the road outside. Schools often state their values on their websites – how are these values arrived at? I haven’t come across an organized way of thinking about his in my experience in the U.K. as student, teacher and person. I’ve known that we don’t pay as much attention to this side of teaching as happens outside the U.K., since talking to a Norwegian friend in the early 2000s about his training as a teacher in Norway. It wasn’t there in my own PGCE training in 1993 and I think my experience is generally true for other teachers. In reading for the blogs I’ve been writing over the last weeks I didn’t come across the term axiology. Now Nina C Smith has made me aware of it, it’s easy to find.

Axiology is the study of values and of how different people determine the value of different things. Different people can approach the same item and value it in a different way. Included as values are ethics, morals, religion and aesthetic values. Depending on the individual the value he or she assigns an object or idea can either match their reality if it is a valid judgment of value, or distort it such as when too much value is accorded a particular item by others, making it seem to be worth more than it actually is.

To give a value to an item, idea or belief, priorities need to be set in a person’s mind. The person needs to compare the new item, belief or idea to those that are already known or held and then decide which one has more value. All people assign value and they do so in a pattern that is unique to themselves. Axiology studies how people make these decisions and the patterns of value setting that can be discerned. (See

The second point Nina C Smith makes is my use of the terms information and knowledge interchangeably. That was a mistake and I’ve been working to try to correct it.

I support the view that unlike information, knowledge isn’t stored in the brain somehow as relatively fixed material, it’s created in a specific situation. It’s never recreated in the same way again or used in the same way to produce action. For example, take an ice-skater to a frozen river. Whilst the skater has stored useful information on balancing, skating, falling, facts about ice, her skating knowledge is created at the time, on that ice on that day. Another time things will be different and new knowledge will be created to match those circumstances, on that other day, on another frozen river.

Information is raw; the receiver doesn’t act on it. Information is static and can be represented by a conceptual model, a case, a rule, an object. Knowledge is action and can be represented as information in symbols, but the two are not the same. Information does not produce knowledge until and unless it is applied effectively.

Information can be recalled from the memory store. We can’t recall knowledge because it isn’t stored; we can only experience a situation as being similar to one we have already experienced. We can describe the situation but we can’t describe the knowledge associated with it. When we communicate about our knowledge we usually describe the information related to it. Knowledge is fluid, dynamic and tacit. Try riding a bike with your hands crossed and then tell me about it.

That’s enough information about information. Thanks for your company.


Being pragmatic about teaching


Two responses to my last Elephantological posting: Neil Gilbride (@nmgilbride) “Aw, no Pragmatic Realism in that piece, such is life” and Karl Bentley (@bentleykarl) “amazing blog post re pedagogy – hell to pragmatism, why what we do is equally, if not more, important”.  Thanks Neil and Karl.

I set out with this series of Elephantology blogs with the hope that we could have a conversation about what lies at the heart of our passion, to get to know each other better as teachers and do something more productive than insulting each other from positions of ignorance. That’s not to say I see myself as the expert here. More the irritant in the oyster.

Good point Neil. I’ll try again. Let me know what you think please?

I’d like to acknowledge LeoNora M. Cohen (1999) Ontario State University, School of Education before I start. OSU have got good materials online

In teaching, our stock in trade is reality and knowledge about reality. Of course there’s no right or wrong about what reality and truth might be. Everyone has the right to their own beliefs. Teachers are assumed to have beliefs that are generally virtuous as are other professionals, but outside this limitation teachers are entitled to believe as they see fit. Which of these fits your belief system best?

Idealism: ideas are reality. Truth is established through conscious reasoning. The idealistic curriculum is literature, history, philosophy and religion. Idealistic pedagogy embraces lectures, discussion and dialogue and developing introspection, intuition, and insight and building character through the imitation of heroes.

Realism: reality is in physical objects. Truth is what can be observed. The realist curriculum is standardised and focuses science and mathematics. The pedagogy of realism organises and presents content systematically to master basic facts and skills through demonstration and recitation, within the boundary of a discipline with students showing they can think scientifically and critically. Training of students in the rules of conduct develops their character.

Pragmatism: (experientialism): reality is those things that can be experienced or observed. Truth is what works and it’s always changing. All learning depends on context, of place, time and circumstance. Pragmatic pedagogy blurs the lines between disciplines, students often working in groups, focusing on problem solving and experimentation with social experience in the foreground. Students apply their knowledge to real situations. Character development comes through making group decisions informed by the process of inquiry.

Existentialism:  reality is subjective and individual; the physical world has no inherent meaning. Existentialists do not accept any other person’s predetermined view of realty, but focus on freedom and individual meaning making. The teacher provides opportunities for self-direction and self-actualisation, with the subject matter agreed through personal choice, starting with the student rather than with the curriculum. The teacher opposes the tracking, measurement and standardisation of students. Character development emphasises personal responsibility in decision-making.

The point of all this is to enable me to be reflective about what I’m doing. My best hope is that it could enable us to be reflective.

My particular interest is what has come to be known as behaviour with capital B. If what I do is all attributable all to my own experience, as a research biologist, a tree feller, a boy in private primary school, a welder of smashed cars, a teacher, a pharmaceutical researcher, a cabbage picker,  a chickens farmer, am I an existentialist pedagogue? Maybe. But do I believe that all reality is subjective and of my own making? No. I’m closer to pragmatism and I know I’m not a realist.

I’m having this conversation with you as reader as if you were there in the other chair. If you were and we shared an understanding of both what is possible and the pedagogical consequences of our positioning, we’re off to a flying start when we come to discuss how to approach students learning about themselves. Those who position them selves as realists, training students in the rules of conduct as the way to develop their character could join the conversation in a rational way. If realist training means that a large and relatively stable number of children and young people are dismissed, removed, segregated from a full and fruitful education, that needs some rational justification. That would be better than blundering about in dark rooms, I think.

If we started the conversation with the question: “Supposing when you’re teaching you’re operating within a particular paradigm – what might that be?” or “What’s your paradigm?”  that could be interesting.

What do you think?


What’s your Paradigm?


‘What’s your paradigm, if you don’t mind me asking?’

I’m using some good material at (an e-learning resource about research) in talking about this particular Elephant.

Paradigms can be characterised through their: ontology (What is reality?), epistemology (How do you know something?) and methodology (How do go about finding out?) (Guba (1990), These characteristics create a holistic view of how we view knowledge: how we see ourselves in relation to this knowledge and the (methodological) strategies we use to un/dis/cover it.

In order to get to grips with this, we need to clarify what these terms mean.

The original resource has been written for researchers and if it’s true for researchers maybe it’s true for teachers too. I’ve refocused this article for you as a teacher, where your interest is pedagogy rather than methodology. I’m taking pedagogy here to include your view of knowledge, how you find out about it, your relationship to it and how you represent it, to and with your students.

Ontology is what exists and is a view on the nature of reality.

Are you a realist ? if so you know that reality is something ‘out there’, as a law of nature just waiting to be found.

Are you a critical realist? You know  things exist ‘out there’ but as human beings our own presence as researchers influences what we are trying to measure and explain.

Or, are you a relativist ? You know that knowledge is a social reality, value-laden and it only comes to light through individual interpretation.

Epistemology is our relationship with the knowledge we are un/dis/covering. Are we part of that knowledge or are we external to it?

Your view will frame your interaction with what you are teaching and will depend on your ontological view. For example your approach will be objective if you see knowledge governed by the laws of nature or subjective if you see knowledge as something interpreted by individuals. This in turn affects your pedagogy.

Pedagogy refers to how you go about finding out knowledge as a person and a teacher, the teaching of it to students, whether your relationship with students is of relevance and what results in terms of their education. It is your strategic approach, rather than a set of techniques and skills. Some examples of pedagogical methods are:

  • Didactic
  • Dialogic
  • Dialectic
  • Ideological

Mark K. Smith gives a useful outline of the development of the idea of pedagogy over time. In the U.K. at present the term carries such a wide range of meanings as to be of limited use, unless we take care to limit the range of the particular aspects of ‘pedagogy’ we are talking about. For example the ‘pedagogy of teaching’ is most often taken to mean teaching the basic components of education to the student using logic and facts; it’s not about ‘teaching as entertainment’, it is about presenting a topic in a way that a student can learn it. The teacher presents the information, and the student listens and takes notes. This would be more accurately described as didactic pedagogy (Hamilton, D. (1999). ‘The pedagogic paradox (or why no didactics in England?)’, Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 7:1, 135-152) and refers back to John Amos Comenius’s book The Great Didactic [Didactica Magna] (first published in Czech in 1648, Latin in 1657 and in English in 1896).

Dialogic pedagogy involves interchange between different points of view and dialectic pedagogy, testing the strengths and weaknesses of opposing points of view to get at the truth of a matter.

I am particularly interested in the effects of pedagogy on students’ thinking expressed through Imaginative Inquiry and through my work within the solution focused paradigm. Teachers who have been trained in this approach often express their delight in broadening their pedagogical base in this way.

Understanding the meaning of pedagogy and consequently being able to make pedagogical choices is strengthened by knowing which paradigm you’re in. In turn your ontological and epistemological understanding are practically useful when it comes to making pedagogical choices. It seems that in the USA and UK at least education is in the grip of didacticism, which would not be a criticism if it were an informed choice. Dr Richard Paul reinforces the need to understand where you are as a teacher:

‘Knowledge is discovered by thinking, analyzed by thinking, interpreted by thinking, organized by thinking, extended by thinking and assessed by thinking. ….. There is no way to take the thinking out of knowledge, neither is there a way to create a step by step path to knowledge that all minds can follow.’

So what is your paradigm, if you don’t mind me asking?


The Dodo Verdict

I’ve been working for a Local Authority Educational Psychology and Specialist Support (EPSS) service for 16 years. I’m called an Advisory Support Teacher. In written documentation it is stated that the service we provide is based on sound psychological principles. In the last few years we have been trying to tighten up the interventions we offer to support children who are struggling in school for a wide range of reasons. With no specialist training offered by my employers I was employed as a Behaviour Support teacher doing outreach for mainstream and special schools and a Pupil Referral Unit science teacher for children permanently excluded from secondary school. I started my Ph.D. at the same time, intending to research the history and practrice of thePRU. I assumed there would be a great documentary archive to explore for my research data, building my thesis as a natural scientist. However when I started looking there was no documentary record, as the place had metamorphosed form one from of provision to another all documents had been destroyed, or moved out to other services where they were unavailable.

In the course of my work I came across solution focused brief therapy as an approach to children with a range of difficulties. I undertook some training at BRIEF in London, which I arranged and got funding for from an outside source. I asked my employers to pay but they refused my request. A few years in to my job I was accidentally recategorised as a Learning Support Teacher, again with no specific training. My Authority separated ‘behaviour’ from ‘learning’ and still does for no apparent reason. At about this time I accepted a secondment to work in part-time in the local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Clinic. When I started there I met a mental health nurse practitioner who had trained in solution focused brief therapy and used the approach routinely. He told me that when he started the job with the NHS he was asked what specific training he needed. He said he wanted to go to Milwaukee to train with Steve de Shazar and Insoo Kim Berg, the key people in the solution focused world. The NHS had to follow NICE guidelines in commissioning interventions and SFBT is included amongst the unspecified group of ‘non-directive’ therapies, with weak evidence quoted for its effectiveness. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is promoted by NICE despite the evidence for its effectiveness also being weak.

My role with CAMHS was unclear and not set out by my management. I decided to review what had gone before and write a proposal for my work which was accepted by my manager. The previous Advisory Teacher from the EPSS had used a small room in the clinic to provide a very limited programme of education for children and young people who were missing school because of their mental health difficulties. I felt that there were already far better facilities in schools and my role would be to act as an intermediary between the CAMHS professionals and school staff to ensure that children and young people maintained access to their entitlement education. I was having good success with the solution focused approach in my direct work with children at the PRU and in mainstream schools and offered to contribute my approach to CAMHS provision. A mental health professional was always the case holder.
At the clinic I worked with a 14 year old girl who was experiencing serious anxiety problems and related physical effects that resulted in her being unable to leave her home. I was asked by a clinical psychologist who had started CBT with her and was making no progress, if I could join a meeting to offer solution focused support. The psychologist knew about sfbt because of its presence at the clinic and felt that maybe this approach could do something useful where CBT had not been effective. The psychologist had explained the principles of sfbt to the girl and her parents and asked them if they would like to meet me, to try this different approach and they readily agreed.
When I first met this girl in May, with her mother and the clinical psychologist, I used the usual sf framework. I asked her about her best hope for school and she said to be in school fulltime in September in the same year. I asked her to scale her current position, where 1 was when things had been at their most difficult for her and 10 being in school full time in September. She said she was at 3. I asked her if the meeting had been useful to her and she said it had been and she said she’d like to meet me again. I asked her this question; if we were to meet in two weeks, as was usual at the CAMHS clinic, where did she hope she might be on the scale. Did she hope things might change a bit or did she hope to keep going at 3? She said her best hope was to keep at 3, to ‘stay at the same place’. I asked her to look out for things that would tell her she was keeping at 3, and said I would ask her about what was telling her that she was ‘staying in the same place’ when we met next time. I complimented her about a strength she had shown in the meeting and asked her parents and the psychologist to compliment her. I asked her to compliment herself which she did.
When we met two weeks later I asked her about ‘staying in the same place’ as we had agreed. She said that she thought she might have gone up a bit. I said that was good to hear and we would talk about that later, after she we’d talked about her keeping going at 3, if that was ok with her. Then we talked about the change she’d noticed. She said she thought she was at 4 this time. I asked her to tell me her best hope for the next two weeks and she said ‘stay in the same place’ at 4.
We met fortnightly over the summer term. Her best hope remained the same – to be in school full time in September. Each time she said she hoped to stay in the same place and each time she’d made progress. Each time I asked her the ‘staying in the same place’ question before we got onto what had changed. During the course of our meetings she experienced several very diffucult events, affecting her general health and particularly her level of anxiety, yet never moved down the scale and she maintained her steady progress.
We didn’t meet over the summer holiday period. In early September I returned to the clinic for a prearranged meeting with her and her mother. Just inside the main entrance is the waiting area. She was sitting with her mother. She smiled when she saw me and I said ‘Good morning’ and walked past her and into the clinic. She was wearing her full school uniform.

I discussed what had happened with the clinical psychologist, who had attended every meeting and addressed the medical needs and coordinated our work with the psychiatrist who was managing the girl’s case. What was the difference that had made a difference? CBT is problem-focused, the therapist directs the work and anticipates week by week changes taking place; it’s directional and directed. For a patient to be taken on for CBT it’s a requirement that they demonstrate their motivation to make changes. My clinical psychologist colleague felt that for this highly anxious girl, the pressure applied to her by the CBT process was too great and she could not respond because it made her more anxious. My question to her, about whether she hoped to stay in the same place on the 1-10 scale or to make changes was the key. All she had to do was keep going as she was, nothing new, no pressure, by her choice. What she did was to make continuous changes, even when unexpected outside factors put her under considerable additional pressure.

CBT of SFBT? Both the clinical psychologist and I did our best, with work which had sufficient but limited conventional positivist scientific evidence to be approved by NICE. We both intended to do something useful and in this case the solution focused approach was right for this particular young individual.

So how come sfbt is relatively little known approach and CBT is growing and expanding nationally?

Have a look at this from the University of East Anglia in 2007

“CBT superiority is a myth
The idea that Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is more effective than other types of therapy is a myth, according to leading psychotherapy experts attending a major conference at the University of East Anglia (UEA) today.
The US and UK researchers will present data and critical analyses that debunk the widespread belief in the superior effectiveness of CBT.
The major international conference will be hosted from July 6-10 by UEA’s Centre for Counselling Studies. Organised on behalf of the World Association for Person- Centered and Experiential Psychotherapy and Counselling, it is the first time the conference has been held in England and 400 delegates are attending from across the world. Professors Mick Cooper and Robert Elliott (both University of Strathclyde), William B Stiles (Miami University) and Art Bohart (Saybrook Graduate School) will issue the following joint statement today:
“The government, the public and even many health officials have been sold a version of the scientific evidence that is not based in fact, but is instead based on a logical error. This is how it works: 1) More academic researchers subscribe to a CBT approach than any other. 2) These researchers get more research grants and publish more studies on the effectiveness of CBT. 3) This greater number of studies is used to imply that CBT is more effective. This is a classic example of the logical fallacy known as ‘argument from ignorance’ ie the absence of evidence is taken as evidence of absence. Although CBT advocates rarely make this claim so boldly, their continual emphasis on the amount of evidence is misunderstood by the public, other health care workers, and government officials, a misunderstanding that they allow to stand without correction. The result is a widespread belief that no one takes responsibility for. In other words, a myth.
“This situation has direct negative consequences for other well-developed psychotherapies, such as person-centred and psychodynamic, which have smaller evidence bases than CBT. These approaches are themselves supported by substantial, although smaller, bodies of research. The accumulated scientific evidence clearly points to three facts: 1) People show large changes over the course of psychotherapy, changes that are generally maintained after the end of therapy. 2) People who get therapy show substantially more change than people who don’t get therapy, regardless of the type of therapy they get. 3) When established therapies are compared to one another in scientifically valid studies, the most common result is that both therapies are equally effective. A case in point is person-centred and related therapies (PCTs): In a meta-analysis of more than 80 studies to be presented by Robert Elliott and Beth Freire at the Norwich conference, PCTs were shown to be as effective as other forms of psychotherapy, including CBT.
“In view of these and other data, it is scientifically irresponsible to continue to imply and act as though CBTs are more effective, as has been done in justifying the expenditure of £173m to train CBT therapists throughout England. Such claims harm the public by restricting patient choice and discourage some psychologically distressed people from seeking treatment. We urge our CBT colleagues and government officials to refrain from acting on this harmful myth and to broaden the scope of the Improving Access to Psychological Treatments (IAPT) project to include other effective forms of psychotherapy and counselling.”
Beyond this joint statement, Prof Cooper, in his lecture to the Norwich conference, will say: “The research consistently suggests that the kind of therapy that a practitioner delivers makes little difference to outcomes. More important is the client’s level of motivation, how much they get involved with the therapeutic process, and how able they are to think about themselves in a psychological way. After that, the key ingredient seems to be the quality of the therapeutic relationship, with warm, understanding, trustworthy therapists having the best results.”
Last year Health Secretary Alan Johnson announced that by 2010, £173m a year would be spent on CBT as part of the UK Government’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme. The increased funding will allow 900,000 more people to be treated using psychological therapies. Prof Cooper added: “The Government’s decision to spend £173 million on CBT can only be applauded, but not all clients will benefit from that approach. There is clear evidence that some clients will do better with other forms of therapy. It all depends on who the client is, and what kind of treatment they can most make use of.”
Art Bohart, a world-leading psychotherapy theorist and researcher, will say: “There is evidence that some clients prefer an approach to counselling where the focus is on helping you explore and understand yourself. The outcome of this approach is that you make choices that move your life in new, more meaningful and personally satisfying directions. The counselor’s expertise lies in his or her ability to create a relationship where you have companionship and support on your journey to understanding. Client-centered and psychodynamic counseling are examples. In contrast, other clients prefer an approach where the therapist takes the lead in teaching you particular cognitive and behavioural skills, such as how to think. Since both work about equally well it is important that both be available to the public.”
In the world of psychotherapy research, the finding that different therapies are about equal in their effectiveness is known as the ‘Dodo verdict’, after the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland who, on judging a race, declared ‘everybody has won and all must have prizes’. This conclusion continues to be hotly contested by some CBT advocates, but the four researchers presenting at the Norwich conference are unanimous in calling for a more balanced, scientifically accurate reading of the available evidence.
Also speaking at the conference will be Pamela J Burry, whose mother ‘Gloria’ was a patient of Carl Rogers, one of the founding fathers of psychotherapy, and featured in the celebrated 1960s educational films, Three Approaches to Psychotherapy, more popularly known as ‘The Gloria Films’.
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You could apply this thinking to current claims currently being made about the absolute superiority of direct instruction over other teaching approaches, logical error and the ‘Dodo verdict’ notwithstanding.
Today’s question: where else can you see ‘the logical error’ operating in your world?
If you’re interested in children’s behaviour in school, have a look at the sources of evidence that informed the 1989 Elton Report on discipline in schools, what type of recommendations the report made and what’s happened as a result since 1989. See if you can spot the logical error.

I’ll come back to the matter of direct instruction later.
Thanks for reading this far.