Why I am not a Tiger Teacher, part 2: Knowledge is porridge

| by James Mannion |

The notion that you need to know stuff in order to think or speak about it convincingly has been hailed from the rooftops in recent years like it offers some great insight. This seems strange because it is so obvious. This so-called ‘neo-traditional’ concern for subject knowledge seems to be born of a frustration with a national curriculum that has been overly concerned with skills, twinned with insights from cognitive scientists like Daniel Willingham that, well, you need to know stuff in order to think or speak about it convincingly.

I must say I welcome the development, albeit for slightly different reasons than those often given by neo-trads. As a Science teacher of 10 years I think it is fair to say that in my subject at least, knowledge has been… not under-represented, so much as misconceived. I don’t think this is because there has been too much emphasis on skills, because the actual skills scientists use are under-represented as well. (Not to mention, bizarrely distorted: I have worked in neuroscience research labs at UCL and Harvard Medical School, and I never once heard anyone say “Hang on a minute guys… what’s the independent variable here?” I have also attended many medical conferences; not once have I seen a medic raise their hand and say “Thanks for your talk, it was fascinating but there’s one thing I’m not clear on: did you list your equipment?”)

Rather, my concern is that the knowledge base in Science is so broad – and therefore so shallow. The outgoing Triple Science GCSE, being sat for the last time this year, is like a vast ocean of knowledge that’s about half an inch deep. There’s a mind-boggling amount to cover but there’s no depth to any of it, and barely a whiff of what is by far and away the most fascinating aspect of Science – the incredible human stories behind how we came to know all this stuff. Bill Bryson grasped this when he wrote A Short History of Nearly Everything, as does Michael Brooks in the equally excellent Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science. If only these guys wrote the GCSE specification.

To master this Pacific-sized puddle may make for a gruelling exam, but it provides a flimsy foundation for authentic scientific thinking and reasoning. So to clarify: I am not defending the status quo. If I had my way I would cover fewer topics in far greater depth. I would also introduce essays, to enable and encourage scientific thinking to go beyond the current upper limit: the point-scoring exercise of the 6-mark question.

So far so Tiger, you might think. Why, I’m asking for a greater depth of knowledge for goodness sake. So where do I part ways with my stripy feline friends? Well, as Neil Mercer explains in his chapter of the excellent ‘Speaking Frankly’ publication (recommended reading, free to download here): “Learning to become a scientist… obviously requires both content knowledge and the development of critical thinking skills.” Having read quite a bit from Tiger types on the role of subject knowledge, I think they tend to place too much emphasis on the former and too little on the latter. Allow me to explain.

Neo-trads frequently quote from Daniel Willingham’s excellent book Why don’t children like school? However, they tend to read it quite selectively. In particular, they are strongly influenced by passages like this one:

“Trying to teach students skills such as analysis or synthesis in the absence of factual knowledge is impossible. Research from cognitive science has shown that the sorts of skills teachers want for their students – such as the ability to analyse and to think critically – require extensive factual knowledge. The cognitive principle that guides this chapter is: ‘Factual knowledge must precede skill’.”

Because of statements like these, we have seen the phenomenon in recent years of teachers waking up from their blob-induced slumber like a scene from a science fiction movie, taking to the rooftops and declaring aloud “I was lost but now I am found! For all these years we’ve been teaching skills, when what we really need to do is teach knowledge! Let’s strip away everything and just drill knowledge! JUST TELL THEM! JOIN THE REVOLUTION! YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT YOUR CHAINS!” (These last 3 are direct Tiger Teacher quotes, by the way).

It is difficult to know the extent to which schools like Michaela “just drill knowledge” – this is not really something a visit to the school would solve, unless you stayed for several weeks – and so we have to go off what Tiger Teachers write. For example Joe Kirby, a Deputy Head at Michaela, wrote recently: “We use drills a lot at Michaela. Every lesson, six lessons a day, multiple times per lesson, learning at Michaela is an unrelenting regime of deliberately designed, subject-specific practice drills.” Perhaps I am misinterpreting this in some way, but here Joe does make it sound like drilling knowledge is pretty much the beginning and end of everything at his school. It is difficult to see where critical thinking skills could be developed in a timetable where every lesson is riddled with drill, because pretty much by definition you can’t develop critical thinking through drill.

Drilling knowledge has its place, and Willingham makes a good case for it in his book. But if you read what he says a bit more closely, you find that this is only half the story. Even if it is true that factual knowledge precedes critical thinking skills (it really is), this does not mean that drilling factual knowledge is sufficient to develop critical thinking skills (it really isn’t). Drilling knowledge for 6 lessons a day does not mean that students will automatically develop critical thinking skills in the way that Neo learned Kung Fu in the Matrix.

Here are some more quotes from the same Willingham chapter (emphases added):

“The implication is that facts must be taught, ideally in the context of skills

We want our students to think, not simply to memorise. When someone shows evidence of thinking critically, we consider her smart and well-educated. When someone spouts facts without context, we consider her boring and a show-off.”

“The conclusion from this work in cognitive science is straightforward: we must ensure that students acquire background knowledge in parallel with practicing critical thinking skills.”

“In this chapter I describe how cognitive scientists know that thinking skills and knowledge are bound together.”

“Our goal is not simply to have student know a lot of stuff-it’s to have them know stuff in service of being able to think effectively.”

Willingham even offers a quote from JD Everett, written in 1873:

“There is a great danger in the present day lest science-teaching should degenerate into the accumulation of disconnected facts and unexplained formulae, which burden the memory without cultivating the understanding.”

To reiterate, because this is important: knowledge is necessary for critical thinking, but it is not sufficient. It is abundantly clear that Willingham’s central message is one of balance, and he sums up the twin insights of cognitive science succinctly:

“It is certainly true that facts without the skills to use them are of little value. It is equally true that one cannot deploy thinking skills effectively without factual knowledge.”

He really couldn’t make it any clearer: knowledge is important, but please don’t rush off and create a school where knowledge is drilled didactically for 6 lessons a day… oh wait.

To explain the subtitle of this blog, borrowed from TV’s The Thick of It – I am currently in training for the Brighton marathon. Think of my goal – to complete the marathon in a respectable time – as a metaphor for writing a brilliant (if overly long) essay which showcases my critical thinking skills. As I increase my weekly mileage, I need to increase my intake of slow-release carbs accordingly. If all I do is eat porridge, I’ll just get fat; I’d get a stitch after half a mile. To run really well I need to combine eating lots of porridge with a detailed training regime; combining long runs with tempo bursts to increase my aerobic threshold; using technology like running machines and apps; reading about race tactics, sports psychology; and so on.

In becoming a scientist, as well as learning content knowledge you also need to understand how scientists collect and use evidence; how to design experiments so they’re resistant to experimenter bias; how to synthesise different strands of evidence into an argument or theory; how to pick holes in a method; how to spot when someone is cherry-picking data; how to question and determine the reliability of a source; how to systematically identify the source of data that doesn’t fit the pattern (shockingly, in GCSE science the advice with regard to anomalies is simply to ignore them – this is actually a question that regularly appears on the exam!); how to spot logical fallacies and rhetorical sleights of hand in the flow of a verbally fluent speaker… to name but a few.

To help students get better at critical thinking is not some woolly-minded progressive tree-hugging exercise. It is something you can achieve with traditional means also – modelling, explaining, deconstructing, providing opportunities for practice, scaffolding, withdrawing support, providing and acting on feedback, drafting and redrafting. It also benefits hugely from the judicious use of group work and paired work, as well as working independently or at the whole-class level. Progressive ends through traditional means, you might say.

Some people seem to suggest that critical thinking skills can’t be taught, For example, on Sunday Michael Fordham, a vocal advocate of subject knowledge, tweeted “Bailin et al took a lot of the critical thinking bandwagon apart in the late 1990s”, and provided a link to a paper entitled ‘Common misconceptions of critical thinking’. This was a response to my suggestion that knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for the development of critical thinking skills, and I assume that Michael intended this as proof that I was barking up the wrong tree, and that critical thinking can’t be taught. However in this article, which is well worth a read, the authors conclude that:

“a variety of means may be employed to promote [the development of critical thinking skills], including direct instruction, teacher modelling, creation of an educational environment where critical inquiry is valued and nurtured, and provision for students of frequent opportunities to think critically about meaningful common misconceptions of critical thinking challenges with appropriate feedback. Practice may also have a role to play, but it must be understood that it is not practice in the sense of a simple repetition of a skill, process or procedure. Rather such practice presupposes the kind of knowledge outlined above, and involves the development of critical judgement through applying this knowledge in a variety of contexts. It also involves attempts on the part of the learner to improve according to specific criteria of performance, and frequent feedback and evaluation with respect to the quality of thinking demonstrated.” (emphasis added)

I don’t think these is anything to argue with here. If we can accept that schools should seek to develop both subject knowledge and critical thinking skills – ideally embedded within the same scheme of work, and developed sequentially – shouldn’t we seek to do both? I have no doubt whatsoever that if schools like Michaela grasped the nettle and concerned themselves with finding ways to teach and develop critical thinking skills really well, I’m sure they would generate a lot good practice worth sharing. I hope it is not too long before they lift their gaze from relentless knowledge drills, re-read Willingham and accept that there is more to running a marathon than eating porridge.

If you want to find out about a whole-school approach to teaching and learning that is almost the polar opposite to Tiger Teaching – an approach rooted in research evidence, which has been found to lead to significantly improved academic attainment and a closing of the Pupil Premium gap from the bottom up – we are running a training event at Streatham and Clapham High School on January 27th. A Curriculum Journal article outlining the approach and its impact is available here. Tickets are available here. Tiger teachers welcome.

18 Comments

  1. I read the book a bit differently-for me the drills were a prelude to the lesson proper and not the lesson itself- so plenty of time for new stuff. And with regards to critical thinking, I think what the Michaela crowd are saying is that generic, cross subject critical skills don’t exist. That does not necessarily mean that there isn’t something called scientific critical thinking that can be used by knowledgeable scientists or historical critical thinking skills that can be used by knowledgeable historians. The problem for Michaela- if I am interpreting them correctly is that teaching a generic ‘ thinking skills’ course helps develop the ability to interrogate knowledgeable in neither science nor history. A bit like jam- you can’t have generic jam, it has to have a flavour of some sort, strawberry, raspberry etc.

      1. had a quick glimpse on the link – looks very interesting and will read properly once the holidasy start (in 7 glorious hours time!). One think occurs to me – Michaela’s bootcamp and continuous narration about behaviour, the daily ‘sermon’ etc all are strategies that help their students learn to learn and to self-regulate eg the stuff they learn about the Stoics and how ultimately we decide how we respond to events and the triangle where students at the bottom are purely motivated by the desire to avoid demerits, progressing through wanting to impress teachers and earn merits until the apex where the student learns well and behaves well because they ‘own’ those behaviours for themselves. Maybe part of Michaela’s success is because they do much more explicit narration of learning to learn – they just don’t call it that?

        1. It’s an interesting idea… I think the stuff you are talking about is to do with behaviour and compliance with the school rules. I think learning to learn can include the self-regulation of behaviour, but it is broader than that. To my mind learning to learn has to engage the learner’s agency. If you go the behaviourist route and punish/reward someone to the top of the pyramid, all you’ve done is condition them how to respond to stimuli. I think there is a problem with the idea that you can condition someone to the point to being “who they really are”

          1. I’ve finally read the link properly and understand where you are coming from. Interesting. It does make me wonder though if the gains either at ‘seaview’ or Michaela are more about having a decorated passionate team doing something thoughtfully and with sustained energy- rather than either approach per se.

          2. Hi, thanks for your comment and for reading the paper. This is a question I’ve thought about a lot – to what extent is the success of the programme due to our enthusiasm – or indeed due to the novelty effect. I think it’s fairly obvious that these factors will have contributed – they always do – as I say, the question is *to what extent* did they affect the outcomes in this instance? As far as possible, we tried to make the study design resistant to factors such as these. For example, rather than evaluating the impact based on some measure of L2L – a questionnaire say, or student interviews, or looking at student journals (although we did do all of these things), the primary outcome measure was on students’ academic attainment across all subjects combined. If we can assume that the enthusiasm of all 80 teachers in the school for their subjects did not significantly change as a result of 5 teachers running L2L lessons throughout key stage 3, then you would have to argue that our enthusiasm for L2L somehow transferred into subjects throughout the school. I don’t think you can rule this out, but I would argue that it is a fairly weak source of ‘noise’. Perhaps a stronger argument is that if our enthusiasm was indeed a factor, you would expect it to affect all students equally. While non-Pupil Premium students performed better than their counterparts in the control group, the gains were much more significant among Pupil Premium students; by the the end of year 9, the PP gap had closed almost completely. Again you could argue that our enthusiasm was especially beneficial to PP students, but I don’t see why this should be the case. It is clear that *something* about what we were doing was more beneficial for PP students, but I would argue that this was more due to the focus on Oracy, self-regulation, organisational skills etc within mixed ability settings, where students acquired learning skills, habits and dispositions as much from one another as from the teacher. Finally, I would say that we were absolutely enthusiastic for this work, and I feel that still more than 6 years later. Several L2L teachers spoke of “getting their mojo back” having felt restricted by the assessment heavy constraints of subject teaching. And so I don’t think our enthusiasm is a weakness of the approach – if anything it is a strength, and one that we will seek to replicate and harness as we begin to work with other schools to develop the approach more widely.

  2. I think you are deliberately misrepresenting MCS at this point. At no point have they argued knowledge or drills are an end to themselves. Fordham’s point is that there is no generic critical thinking skill, it is domain specific and the extent to which you will develop it does depend on the knowledge you are taught. This is a counter to the idea that critical thinking skills can be learnt separately with no need to care for what the content is.

    You have convinced yourself that this is what traditionalists are arguing for, good luck with that.

    1. I don’t think I am at all. I am referring to very specific things that they have written and said, and which I have quoted them as saying. For some time now I have listened and read very carefully what they have to say, and I have made clear that they have much to offer. I have read Joe Kirby’s blog for years, and many like his. However as a teacher of 10 years and an education researcher of 8 years, I also have some quite specific reservations about some of what they do, as outlined in these 2 blogs. I would love for these concerns to prove unfounded.

  3. A really nice post, thank you.

    I have read Dan Willingham’s book, and my interpretations were very close to yours. I find it difficult to fathom why the self styled neo trads believe they are the custodians and transmitters of subject knowledge.

    I believe most eclectic teachers (which I believe are the majority) teach a balanced curricular diet of knowledge and skills are have largely switched off from the debate as irrelevant.

    It is nice therefore to see some balanced and sensible discussion, especially with the renewed focus on the Tiger Teachers we have seen recently.

    1. Thanks Brian. I agree that most teachers seem to get this, but I genuinely welcome the debate that this school has sparked – anything that makes us think hard about what we do has to be a good thing

  4. Very interesting and thanks for the link to the published article (Feb 2016). My interest is in behaviour and engaging the student as the agent in their own learning – seems to me there’s the same edge, thinking about different types of knowledge (know what/know how) can help to open up either/or thinking to both/and – as in your essay. Thanks again – best wishes, Geoff

  5. Big bowl of BS!
    Curiosity is the fundamental prerequisite for learning and seeking knowledge, in the process you’ll also develop your critical thinking skills.

    1. Is that how you developed the dazzling critical thinking skills on display in your comment Mats? Maybe you’d like to construct an argument to explain where Dr Willingham and I are going wrong in our thinking?

      1. In one word, yes!
        I was always a curious learner and always at odds with the authoritarian education forced on me. Consequently, I refuted the legitimacy of the system to grade my performance, to grade me as a human being.
        Of course my grades were low as a result. But I retained my sanity and my critical thinking throughout. Now and old man I have a teachers exam, but never taught in school. Instead I’ve been a mental trainer for athletes. I have been a businessman, an entrepreneur in farming, construction and transport. Also I have been a student of history, philosophy, environmental sciences and politics. Academic grades I don’t care for, it’s satisfying my curiosity, analyzing and learning in the sense of understanding and being able to apply my understanding to real world endeavors that interests me.

        The totalitarian fancy of forcing “knowledge” into students minds is sickening. The totalitarian system of sorting people according to their ability to repeat such knowledge is a sure road to ruin a society.

        The rascals disobeying given instructions, exploring the world, curiously doing things the wrong way in order to satisfy their spirit of critical thinking will be the ones developing new ideas, new businesses. The ones accepting knowledge as a done deal will be the ones employed by the rascals.

        1. If I may temper my own words a bit.
          I stumbled across your article in a tweet. I read it without having checked out your website. Subsequently I missed some of your message, perhaps due to the space you gave to the things you don’t like instead of focusing on the message of what you actually like.
          After reading on your website, I find that we are more on the same side than I first imagined. Still, teaching “rebel learning” is not enough. You’ve got to live it!

  6. Come on! You write a piece on how much better you understand teaching than the teachers at Michaela. You get lots of praise in the comments.
    Then I comment that you are still wrong about learning. My claim is that curiosity is essentially critical thinking and that is what motivates learning, which after sorting out input becomes knowledge. You claim knowledge comes before critical thinking.
    Don’t chicken out on me now. You asked for an argument. Do you really want one, or do you settle for just contradicting?
    https://youtu.be/XNkjDuSVXiE

    1. Hi Mats.
      Sorry for the delay in responding, I’ve been away from my computer and can’t log in to WP from my phone for some reason. Cool story eh! Anyway, yes I agree after reading your 2nd and 3rd comments that we are much more aligned than I first thought! I do understand where the knowledge enthusiasts are coming from – obviously expertise is highly dependent on knowledge. I just do not agree with them that knowledge is all you need. So I’m afraid I’m not able to give you much of an argument because I think we are pretty much in agreement (thanks for the Python link by the way, I haven’t seen this for years!). I also agree about the importance of curiosity, and therefore of the need for some degree of agency / autonomy in student learning. This week I had a twitter conversation with someone who seems to think that adults always know best and that children should never be allowed to have a choice over what they study until age 16. I spent the whole day today interviewing incredibly confident, articulate 14 year olds who have recently been given a choice over what they study as the focus of a speaking and listening exam. Not only did they all love it, but they wanted more autonomy (they had to choose from a menu of topics) – not only over what they study, but for how much they could write, and for how long they could speak about it. Why anyone would want to impose limits on the natural curiosity of children – rather than setting it free – is utterly beyond me.

      1. Thanks for a full answer!
        About choices. Kids know very early what they want to learn. But it is very difficult as a child to understand what kind of work they will be doing after a series of yet unknown choices stretching over a ten year period or more. Never mind the pressure from parents, relatives, friends and school to choose what they seem appropriate.
        A lot of those kids are found in sports, because sports are perhaps easier to understand, or are better att describing the expected progression.

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