Telling isn’t teaching and listening isn’t learning

I am writing this shortly after the Chancellor, George Osborne, made his March 2016 budget announcement that all the remaining Local Authority schools in England will be converted into ‘independent’ Academies, with most handed over to private Multi Academy Trusts (MATs).

This did not go down well, not just with teachers and educationalists, but also right across the political spectrum including hundreds of Conservative county councillors in LAs where great legitimate pride is taken in the high standards of many of their comprehensive schools.

The announcement was swiftly followed by further disclosures of financial malpractice in a MAT previously lauded by Prime Minister David Cameron and former Education Secretary and Academy promoting guru Michael Gove.

All this generated huge amounts of negative media comment, which nevertheless still largely failed to recognise the true scale of the catastrophe that this privatisation would inflict onto the English education system and completely ignored the implications for the degraded nature and quality of learning that would result.

The best written articles and informed comments can be found on the website of ‘Disappointed Idealist’ here and here and also in the posts of Henry Stewart and Janet Downs on ‘Local Schools Network’.

However, consideration of the damage of Academisation to quality of learning was still largely missing. That this is an inevitable consequence of marketisation is the major theme of my book, ‘Learning Matters‘.

Academisation is the English product of the ‘Global Education Reform Movement‘. It results in the replacement of ‘Headteachers’ by ‘Executive Principals’ and the domination of the ‘behaviourist’ assumptions that flow from the culture of ‘training’ that MATs impose onto their schools. I am not knocking training. I want the people that sit in the driver’s seat of the 125+mph trains that take me to London to be well trained. Such training requires learning the BR drivers’ handbook by heart and lots of practise in simulators. But training is not education, ‘telling’ is not ‘teaching’ and ‘listening’ is not learning.

This is because while assimilation of facts and knowledge is an essential part of learning it is not enough to secure deep understanding. The decline of teaching for deep understanding is a serious cumulative weakness in the English education system that will be worsened by universal academisation.  The ‘Slow Education‘ movement provides a further explanation of this process.

This is what Vygotsky wrote.

As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level.

 This was a major plank of mainstream learning theory prior to the marketisation paradigm’s increasing rejection of such ‘complicated theorising’ in favour of ‘common sense’ behaviourism. This is explained here.

Vygotsky argues that in schools, knowledge is first presented to learners ‘on the social plane’, which at the most basic level could indeed just mean listening to the teacher. For students to acquire understanding they have to individually ‘internalise’ this knowledge. This requires assimilating the new ideas in a way that makes sense to them.

This implies that talk is the essential currency of deep understanding and therefore effective lessons should encourage and provide opportunities for pupil-pupil discussion.

During 1981 and 1982 I carried out some postgraduate educational research at Leicester University where I was heavily influenced by the work of former Leicester postgraduate students Michael Shayer and Philip Adey. These educationalists progressed to Kings College, London where they set up and developed programmes of teaching for enhancing cognitive development based on the learning theories of Piaget and Vygotsky. Their book, ‘Learning Intelligence‘, sets out classroom-based examples of how these approaches can be made to work in practice.

A key point is that developmental learning, as opposed to skills training, involves personal cognitive conflict as pupils struggle to assimilate new facts and knowledge in a way that makes sense to them. In schools and other important learning contexts the resolution of cognitive conflict is a social process essential to deep learning. Read more about this important principle here.

The implication for schools is that a special quality in the social relationships of the classroom is needed. I was lucky enough early in my career to work in a comprehensive school where such quality relationships existed, and it became a career goal to eventually achieve this in my eventual headship school. 

Pupils have to trust and not fear the teacher if they are to risk revealing the true depth of their misunderstandings. Peer relationships in classrooms have to be good enough for all pupils, organised in groups, to be comfortable with revealing their own lack of understanding to each other, as well as collectively and individually to the teacher, without fear or shame. This is a major pedagogic issue and a big ask not to be underestimated. Is it high on MAT leadership agendas? Has the Secretary of State got the faintest idea what I am talking about? I suspect not.

The increasingly common, popular with parents, school culture of behaviourist authoritarianism is unlikely to provide sufficient personal psychological security for the teacher or the pupils for the necessary social interactions to constructively engage. This is precisely the school culture promoted by the academisation movement because it is based on the behaviourist ‘training’ paradigm where, telling IS teaching and listening IS learning.

This Guardian article describes this academisation culture in practice.

 A further common thread and a key feature of Shayer and Adey’s ‘cognitive acceleration’ approach is ‘metacognition’. It means being aware of your own thinking. It recognises that language provides the tools for thought and that learners benefit from consciously ‘talking to themselves’ as well as talking to peers and the teacher, so developing a metacognitive ability that enhances their learning in all subject contexts.

I had been a science teacher for 10 years before my one year full time secondment to the postgraduate course M.Ed course at Leicester University. All the teacher-students were also experienced teachers given full financial support by the LEA to complete the course.

We learned in the context of significant pooled pre-existing professional experience. That fact greatly enhanced the quality of seminars and debate. In Finland, a country with a very high performing comprehensive education system, all teachers possess qualifications in the study of education at higher university degree level.

High profile failures of Academies and Free Schools are becoming ever more common. Like most teachers my age I had a long apprenticeship on a progressive pay scale uncorrupted by performance related pay. I learned from excellent Heads of Departments and worked under Heads/Principals that had themselves served a long apprenticeship in classrooms. They believed in collegiality and that teachers as well as pupils needed to develop.

I don’t need to spell out where I am coming from here with regard to the emergence of schools allowed to be opened/taken over and run by ideologically driven enthusiasts lacking both depth of experience and academic understanding. One consequence is the onward march of superficially attractive, popular with parents, behaviourism in the classrooms of English schools.

This will lead to the degradation of the entire education system from the top down with predictable consequences for the quality of learning of our pupils.

The March 2016 George Osborne announcement of a major escalation in the imposition of this ideologically driven project must not be allowed to succeed.

All of this is set out and explained in a fully referenced and evidenced manner in my book, ‘Learning Matters‘.


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13 Responses to Telling isn’t teaching and listening isn’t learning

  1. The Lord Carrington says:

    Agree with most of this, by Vygotsky didnt write anything in 1986 because he’d been dead for fifty years. I wonder whether this is a misprint or whether the reference refers to the publication date of a translation.

    Great blog, though!


  2. Thank you, and for pointing the misleading date. It does indeed refer to a translation.


  3. Brilliant article that touches on a lot of what we are trying to fight back against as parents by keeping kids off school on May 3rd to SUPPORT schools & teachers via


  4. Chris Harvey says:

    I have just pulled my two children from secondary school. You describe so well the big picture and the underlying issues that have caused the critical state of education today. I now have a clearer understanding of what I have to do for both my own children’s future and my educational software development work to help others.

    Thank you and keep up the good work.


  5. I have a very simple attitude to this which was summed up succinctly by Mark Twain who said that he never let “schooling” interfere with his “education”.
    As far as my interpretation of what he meant goes – schooling is “top down” (outside of the control of the student/pupil), taught to an agenda and tested to establish that the agenda has been absorbed.
    Education on the other hand is “bottom up” (owned and controlled by the student/pupil) and is based upon seeking answers which is a better form of “testing.”
    When I was a pupil and learning the dates of the Kings and Queens of England or even my multiplication tables I was being “schooled.”
    When I was out playing and kicked my ball into a tree and had to devise a way of retrieving it – climb the tree, use my mother’s clothes prop, shake the tree, throw things at it, get adult help or walk away etc., I was educating myself.
    We need both and you certainly cannot learn everything in life by first hand experience, however I fear that is not the reason why so much “child centered” education that was promoted in the 1960’s was abandoned.
    I fear that it would not do to have a population that was encouraged to ask too many searching questions – who knows where that might lead.
    I do not have a web site but but I got out of teaching for precisely the reasons above and have posted a link to a youth cafe that I was instrumental in establishing when I gained employment as a local community worker


  6. Thank you Howard, you are right. Learning is an interactive process. Personsl schemas have to be modified to make sense of personal experiences. Without rich experiences there can be no deep learning.


  7. Pingback: Is effective teaching taking place in Academies? | Roger Titcombe's Learning Matters

  8. Pingback: Why schools and teachers are needed for deep learning | Roger Titcombe's Learning Matters

  9. Pingback: School Councils – misunderstandings, misuse and missed opportunities for learning excellence | Roger Titcombe's Learning Matters

  10. I am a Driving Instructor and the very title infers instruction works, unfortunately it doesnt but there are so many driving instructors that have been told what to do that they just repeat the telling and learning doesnt take place until after the learner has passed their driving test. The tellers probably like their position as it makes them important and some learners like being told because they dont have to think. Thank you for your article I agree 100% with telling isnt learning and listening isnt understanding.


  11. Pingback: Life Of The School Episode 50: Rachel Lytle – Life of the School

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