Locating Ourselves in the Epistemological Landscape: a response to Myths about education

by Jenny Toerien

Thanks to Julie for her interesting post on Daisy Christodoulou’s book Seven Myths about Education (2014). I must confess that, like Julie, the premise of the book made me feel uncomfortable, but the post gave me the prompt I needed to actually read it!

Stepping back
Before looking at the book itself, I feel I need to take a step back. In engaging with a book like this which has a very clear agenda – the promotion of traditional instruction in the classroom – it is important to place the author within the epistemological landscape. In other words, what does she believe about knowledge and how it is transmitted?

Unfortunately educational debate in this area is very polarised, and each side describes the other in caricature. Instuctionists on one side are described as believing that knowledge is king and the only purpose of teaching is to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next, and constructivists on the other are described as believing that it is not possible to transmit knowledge effectively, so let’s not bother at all and teach skills instead. As is generally the case, caricatures are unhelpful and inaccurate and stop us engaging with the genuine arguments, so we end up needing to pick a side, rather than locate ourselves on an educational spectrum.

While we may, very successfully, use a variety of methods, we need to realise that where we stand on the instructionist/constructivist continuum will dramatically alter how we use them. On a very basic level, instructionists view education from a teacher-centred world view (what is the teacher doing?) and constructivists from a learner-centred worldview (what/how is the student learning?). Alongside this there are two important debates going on:
1. A broader one about our philosophy of learning (Objectivism vs. Constructivism), where we do actually need to ‘pick a side’ because these are two competing paradigms. Either knowledge is ‘out there’ waiting to be transmitted from person to person (objectivism), or it is something which each learner needs to construct for (note not ‘by’) themselves based on their experiences (constructivism).
2. A narrower one about which educational methods (pedagogy) to choose. Daisy Christodoulou is engaging in the debate on the methods level without explicitly addressing the philosophical underpinnings. She advocates an instructionist approach, often called direct instruction, which appears to be located solidly within an objectivist paradigm. The approaches she is critical of are traditionally constructivist, but this is a very broad family, and my frustration is that she uses examples of bad practice from an extreme end of that spectrum to dismiss the entire approach outright.

Christodoulou is angry – she says so in her introduction (p.5). She is angry and feels “misled” by those who trained her. This is not a good position from which to develop a balanced argument. To her credit, she does appear to work hard to develop her arguments carefully, but actually as you read each chapter you can feel the structure building as she sets up the “myth” in order to knock it down. It is very poor argumentation to examine a complex, multifaceted problem from just two perspectives. However, Christodoulou sets up a number of these false dichotomies in her book. She says that “the most frequent objection I have faced is that I have isolated some examples of bad practice and generalised from them”(p.5) and, while actually in many cases I would agree with her that the bad practice she describes is not isolated but widespread, I would contend that she does generalise and makes little effort to examine similar bad practice on her own side of the epistemological fence. For example, in her chapter on “You can always just look it up” she says of Ofsted “They see one poor example of teacher exposition and assume from this that the problem is teacher exposition per se and that the answer is to abandon teacher exposition per se and replace it with internet research. This is not the case. The solution to poor teacher exposition is better teacher exposition, not a complete absence of teacher exposition.” (p.67). And yet that is the basic premise of her entire book in relation to constructivism in general and inquiry in particular – personally, I would argue that the solution to poorly designed, implemented and resourced inquiries is often better designed, resourced and implemented inquiries, not a complete absence of inquiry. Christodoulou seems to disagree.

Although the book is, in places, more nuanced than it might appear from its headlines, Christodoulou does not seem to have heard of Guided Inquiry – and indeed she quotes in several chapters without qualification from Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s 2006 paper “Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work.” This widely-referenced paper often pulled out by direct instruction advocates completely misses the point. Direct instruction is not the only alternative to minimally guided inquiry. Guided inquiry is an excellent and highly successful alternative. It is worth reading Hmelo-Silver, Duncan and Chin’s (2007) excellent response to Kirschner et al., which takes serious issue with the conflation of all inquiry with minimally guided inquiry2.

Coming back from my long digression to Julie’s interesting article about the first two chapters of Seven Myths about Education:

Myth 1: Facts prevent understanding
In her summary of this chapter, Julie pulls out the quote “Bloom’s taxonomy suggests that knowing is a lower-order skill, while analysing and evaluating are higher-order skills…[which]…suggests that skills are somehow separate from knowledge…[and] that knowledge is somehow less important and less worthy.” (p.21). I fundamentally disagree with Christodoulou’s criticism of Bloom’s taxonomy here. I have always regarded Bloom’s taxonomy as being like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you haven’t satisfied the base of the pyramid, then you have no hope of moving up to the higher-order skills. If you know nothing then you have no reference point for analysis and evaluation. It is not Bloom who is wrong here, but Christodoulou’s interpretation. The fact that Bloom’s Taxonomy is usually represented as a pyramid with knowledge at the base does suggest that knowledge is a fundamental underpinning for everything that lies above it, whatever your paradigm. The philosophical argument is about what constitutes knowledge and how it is acquired.

Coming back to this in her second chapter, Christodoulou makes the sweeping statement that “I think it is fair to conclude …that…their [constructivists?] hostility to formal fact learning is not because they think facts are taught better in other ways. It is just a subset of their hostility to facts, and of their misconception of the role of facts in cognition.” (p.42). Actually, I am absolutely not against the transmission of facts. I am a Librarian and an ex-Physics teacher – curating ‘facts’ is part of my job, and I understand very well how we stand “on the shoulders of giants”, as Christodoulou quotes several times. I just believe that the mere transmission of facts does not automatically increase knowledge. We may front-load more ‘direct instruction’ type teaching in an inquiry unit in order to reduce cognitive demand during the inquiry phase (but we don’t always have to), but this is against a broader background of assisting children to assimilate these into their own ‘fact base’ and use this to construct their own unique knowledge and understanding of the world.

Christodoulou’s criticism of some modern educational systems which lack prescriptive content has some validity – but only if educators (ab)use this freedom to ‘teach to the test’ and teach all skills and no content, rather than to choose content that is appropriate to their situation and audience. Note, for example that the MYP is deliberately not prescriptive over content because it is designed to be flexible to local requirements – that absolutely doesn’t mean MYP courses should be content free. I would also agree with Hirsch’s (whom Christodoulou greatly admires) point that a certain level of cultural literacy and shared knowledge is very important However, I profoundly disagree with Christodoulou’s main argument that direct instruction is the only way to learn facts. It’s demonstrably untrue! We have all met (or may even have been) the young child who, without any ‘instruction’ at all, seems to know far more than anyone around them about dinosaurs/Pokemon/Disney movies etc. In terms of cultural literacy, for example, I could not still recite the complex sequence of dates and events that led up to the outbreak of World War 1 that I learnt for my GCSE exams over 25 years ago (although I know how to find it easily if I really need to). But I do understand instantly what a BBC journalist is referring to and implying when s/he draws an analogy between the recent killing of General Qasem Soleimani and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. That is important cultural knowledge which I can trace back directly to my History GCSE, and the kind of knowledge that I think Christodoulou and I would both agree is important.

On page 17 Christodoulou suggests that “My aim here is not to criticise true conceptual understanding, genuine appreciation of significance or higher order skill development. All these things are indeed the true aim of education. My argument is that facts and subject content are not opposed to such aims; instead they are part of it.”, and in this I completely agree with her – I just think she has a misunderstanding of inquiry in particular and constructivism in general if she believes it is incompatible with subject content.

Myth 2: Teacher-led instruction is passive
In her second chapter, Christodoulou makes the important point that “It is a baffling over-reaction: to move from legitimate criticism of mindless rote learning to complete denial of any kind of teacher-led activity.” (p.38) and I wholeheartedly agree with this. However, she then moves on to say “The solution to mindless rote-learning is not less teacher instruction. It is different and better teacher instruction” (p.38). Here I disagree, because she implies that there is no other alternative – and because she uses the essentially same argument the other way around to dismiss inquiry out of hand. What about a flexible approach which includes some teacher instruction and some guided inquiry?3

Christodoulou asks the question “If it really were possible to learn independently, why would we need teachers and schools?” (p.38), but for me that is the point. It isn’t possible for children to learn completely independently and without guidance when they start school – but it should be by the time they finish. If we give them no guidance and practice at all in this vital skill, how can we expect them to emerge as fully fledged information literate, independent, life-long learners once they leave school? Or don’t we – do we think they should be dependent on others forever? Ivan Illich (of whose, admittedly fairly radical, ideas Christodoulou is very critical) said in Deschooling Society “The principle lesson school teaches is the need to be taught”, and it shouldn’t be!

Julie and Christodoulou both refer to Hattie’s studies (Hattie, 2009, p.206) that seem to suggest that “teacher-led instruction ranks highly, in third place after feedback and quality of instruction” (Summers, 2020). While interesting, there are many issues with Hattie’s conclusions, not least the definitions of teacher-led instruction and inquiry-based teaching4 . This blog post (Lupton 2016) provides an interesting analysis of Hattie’s results. It is obviously very one-sided but perhaps provides a balance to Christodoulou’s own one-sided interpretation. Hattie himself, as someone who appears actively hostile to inquiry learning, talks in this video (Corwin, 2015) about his findings. Even Hattie’s argument is not “don’t do it at all”, it is “don’t do it too early”. He is unapologetic that the size of the effect shown may actually be because the teachers in the studies he lists are not actually conducting inquiries effectively.

Julie’s comments about the way young children learn language are interesting, because many educators would regard the initial learning of spoken language as a very inquiry based approach. It could be argued that children are learning by immersion, following their curiosity, rather than being given formal lessons. Even if this does involve a fair amount of repetition, there is rarely a sense of being taught formal ‘lists’ of vocabulary in the same way as you would learning a second language as an older student, for example. Learning to read and write are often regarded as the point where more formal instruction kicks in because these are regarded as less ‘natural’ human activities.

I wholeheartedly agree with Julie that the answer to doing the best we can for our students lies in having an open mind – but would also say that as individual educators we need to work to understand where we locate ourselves in the epistemological landscape. Both inquiry and direct instruction have their merits and most good educators will routinely use a wide array of pedagogical approaches which may include both of these. However, direct instruction used as a tool from a constructivist perspective will look very different than from an instructionist perspective, as will inquiry.

It is also important to understand that our own school days, and often our training, equip us to understand what direct instructions look like when done well or done badly, but many critics of inquiry do not have a good understanding of the difference between well-designed, resourced and implemented inquiry and inquiry done poorly. In her conclusion Christodoulou talks about her experiences as a newly qualified teacher. She says that “For three years I struggled to improve my pupils’ education without ever knowing that I could be using hugely more effective methods. I would spend entire lessons quietly observing my pupils chatting away in groups about complete misconceptions and I would think that the problem in the lesson was that I had been too prescriptive.” (p.130, emphasis added).

What? She just watched them without enacting or planning some kind of intervention to correct the misconceptions? No wonder she didn’t find these methods effective! A great strength of inquiry is that it often brings misconceptions out into the open so that they can be examined and dealt with. That sums up how completely Christodoulou has missed the point about constructivist education. She talks earlier in the book about “sage on the stage” vs. “guide on the side” but doesn’t seem to understand that a guide has a very active role in the educational process and is not a passive audience. I actually much prefer the phrase “guide by the side” because it makes this active role much clearer. A (good) mountain guide isn’t just going to allow you to fall into a crevasse because it’s ‘all part of the mountain climbing experience’ – but equally they don’t climb the mountain for you and then come back and give you a lecture about it!

1. Inquiry-based learning: a review of the Research Literature (Scott & Freisen, 2013) provides a comprehensive review outlining the vital elements for successful inquiry-based learning (including “scaffolding activities, formative feedback loops, and the adoption of powerful questioning strategies to guide the learning process” (p.25).

2. It is also worth noting that the Library team at Oakham have never advocated minimally guided inquiry. FOSIL is a structured, guided and scaffolded approach to support students, reduce demands on working memory and enable them to focus on developing particular areas of knowledge and individual skills. We have a lot of experience of inquiry design and if you have ever worked with us you will know that we strongly advocate a backwards design approach, starting from your desired learning outcomes. If Christodoulou had come to me with her ideas for creative writing about 19th century footballers (p.100) or a Romeo and Juliet puppet show (p.101), I would like to hope I would have asked her whether the activities she had planned (and later criticised) would actually lead to the outcomes she desired, and whether there might be more productive inquiry activities her students could engage in to reach her desired outcomes. When designing an inquiry for L1, for example, we deliberately didn’t tell the pupils until near the end of the inquiry that their expression would be a Power Point presentation – we wanted them to focus on the History they were learning not on fonts, colours, backgrounds and transitions.

3. In fact there is an excellent book by David Callison called”The evolution of inquiry: controlled, guided, modelled and free” which goes through the process of growing children up through inquiry to the point where the ‘training wheels’ can legitimately be removed.

4. it is worth noting that this very name suggests an instructionist paradigm – many constructivists prefer inquiry-based learning.
Callison, D. (2015) The Evolution of Inquiry : Controlled, Guided, Modeled, and Free. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.
Christodoulou, D. (2014) Seven Myths about Education. Abingdon: Routledge.
Corwin (2015) John Hattie on Inquiry-Based Learning [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUooOYbgSUg
Hattie, J. (2009) Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.
Hmelo-Silver, C. E., Duncan, R. G., & Chinn, C. A. (2007). Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 99–107. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520701263368
Illich, I. (2000). Deschooling Society. London: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd.
Kirschner, P., Sweller, J. & Clark, R. E. (2006) Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1
Lupton, M. (2016) Hattie’s Analysis of Inquiry-Based Teaching. Inquiry Learning and Information Literacy Blog. Retrieved from https://inquirylearningblog.wordpress.com/2016/01/05/hatties-analysis-of-inquiry-based-teaching/
Scott & Freisen (2013) Inquiry-based learning: a review of the Research Literature. Retrieved from http://galileo.org/focus-on-inquiry-lit-review.pdf
Summers, J. (2020, January 15). Myths about Education: What are they? Where do they come from? What do we think?. Oakham School T&L Blog. Retrieved from https://academic.oakham.rutland.sch.uk/2020/01/15/myths-about-education-what-are-they-where-do-they-come-from-what-do-we-think/