Quality education needs Thinking Schools, not Behaviour Tsars or Hero Innovators

Behaviourism is back and it’s taking over

A ‘delivery’ paradigm is taking over English schools. In our marketised  education system the Department for Education (DfE) delivers its expectations in terms of teaching methods to Academy Trusts. Nick Gibb is the government’s postman-in-chief and he makes clear his commitment to the ‘delivery’ paradigm in this factually questionable speech. He is clear that facts and knowledge are to be delivered to pupils by their teachers.

There was a time when teacher training was largely carried out in the Education Schools of our academic universities, except that ‘teaching skills training’ was only ever part of what is better described as teacher education. The dominant teaching methods would be seminar based, requiring discussion and debate about how children learn and the nature of effective pedagogy. Post graduate students would return from school placement teaching practise with plenty of experience of successes and failures to share and discuss with their tutors and each other. Nothing about this process could be described as ‘delivery’. Graduates recruited into teaching are now more likely to follow the ‘Teach First’ route involving on-the-job training in ‘teaching schools’ (Academies) run by Academy Trust Executives with limited or no teaching experience. But no worries because government expectations in terms of teaching methods have been clearly delivered to Academy Trusts by Nick Gibb, a trained accountant. The Academy Trust Executive Leadership Team then delivers these instructions to its teachers who in turn deliver the requisite facts and knowledge to their pupils. OfSTED appears to have little role other than supporting the line taken by the government.

This approach is that of ‘behaviourism‘, which was discredited as a pedagogy decades ago, but which is being revived as part of the Great Educational Reform Movement (GERM) being spread from the US along with its support for the ideology of marketisation and competition between schools. My 2015 article about behaviourism and the ‘bucket theory of learning’ has been visited more than 2000 times from all over the world. This is an extract.

In the 1980 science fiction romp Flash Gordon (Universal Studios), Dr Zarkov, a major character, is subjected to ‘mind reconditioning’ by ‘Ming the Merciless’ using a ‘mind reprogramming’ machine. We see the unfortunate Zarkov strapped to a table beneath a huge device that resembles an X-Ray machine pointing at his head. When activated, the machine proceeds to suck out all the knowledge from Zarkov’s brain starting with the most recent then going back to early childhood and finally birth. The dastardly Ming then switches the machine into reverse so that it proceeds to refill Zarkov’s mind with a new set of knowledge presumably prepared for the purpose by Ming himself. We know this is happening because we are treated VCR style (it was 1980) to a fast frame-by-frame rewind of Zarkov’s entire life followed by ‘fast forward’ reprogramming.

The ‘direct’ instruction methods of a number of Academy Schools mirror this notion of requiring the minds of pupils to be first purged of all thoughts before being focussed intently onto the teacher at the front of the class. This is achieved through SLANT and from electric shock devices attached to the seats of chairs operated by the minimum wage teaching assistant deployed in each lesson to scan the facial expressions of the pupils (shortly to be replaced by facial recognition technology) applying correctional ‘jolts’ to any pupil judged to be deviating from 100 per cent attentiveness. OK, I made the last bit up but nothing would surprise meThe behaviourism currently promoted by GERM and delivered by Nick Gibb has been updated in various ways including ‘cognitive load theory’, which sounds impressive, but simply means that it is better to ‘deliver’ knowledge using lots of small buckets rather than fewer large ones.

Thinking Schools

However academic universities are fighting back. Examples are Exeter and Cambridge. My only worry is the use of the term ‘thinking skills’, which I believe to be misleading. ‘Skills’ are acquired by ‘training’, whereas cognitive development is not. I explain this here. This is from the Exeter website.

In addition to TS@Exeter’s specific role of evaluating and accrediting thinking schools, TS@Exeter provides support and advice related to research on teaching thinking, group thinking and dialogue, creativity, metacognition, and teachers’ professional development. Research in these areas has been a specific focus at Exeter University for a significant time and TS@Exeter has strong links with the Centre for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in Education, the Centre for Research in Professional Learning, and the Creativity and Emergent Educational Futures Network.  All our accredited schools are invited and encouraged to join the Exeter Professional Learning and Inquiry Network (ExPLAIN). I am sure Ted Wragg would approve.

And this from Cambridge.

A dialogue-based approach to the development of children’s thinking and learning. It promotes children’s awareness and use of talk as a tool for thinking – they learn to not merely interact but to inter-think. It connects the development of children’s ‘thinking skills’ to the development of their communication skills and curriculum learning. It emphasises the importance of both teacher–pupil and pupil–pupil talk. It is based on over two decades of classroom-based research into the relationship between talking and thinking.

The dominant theory of learning is constructivism a complete rejection of US and UK government’s behaviourism. I discuss the limitations of the behaviourism of Hirsch (Gibb’s favourite) here and here. Contructivism comes in many versions, with perhaps the best known being that of the ‘Cognitive Acceleration‘ movement (secondary) of Michael Shayer and Philip Adey  and in primary schools ‘Philosophy for Children‘ (P4C). Then there is the parallel ‘slow thinking’ contribution of Daniel Kahneman, and the ‘Slow Education’ movement led by the late Maurice Holt and Eton schoolmaster Mike Grenier.

What they all have in common is the view that the gains in cognitive sophistication that result from these approaches to teaching and learning are permanent, independent of the context in which the developmental gains are made and transferable to all other learning contexts. This is massively important and fiercely contested by the behaviourist ‘facts and knowledge’ movement, but is proven by Shayer’s research reported in his definitive 1999 paper.

The ‘Behaviour Tsar’ is imprisoned within his behaviourism

This is from a Schools Week report of May 2019.

Government behaviour tsar Tom Bennett will lead a £10 million project to support 500 schools across England to develop policies like detention systems and new sanctions for pupils. At the Conservative Party conference in October, education secretary Damian Hinds pledged the £10 million in funding to help schools which manage behaviour well share their experience with others. Details of the scheme were sparse at the time, but the DfE announced today that the money will be used to identify lead schools for the network and fund their activities in supporting others, through staff training, the creation of centralised detention systems, and new sanctions and rewards schemes for pupils, with a focus on pupil attendance and punctuality. Bennett, a proponent of zero-tolerance behaviour policies who led the DfE’s independent review of behaviour in schools, will be the lead adviser of the programme. Schools minister Nick Gibb said the DfE wants schools to “instil cultures of good behaviour top to bottom” and described improving pupil behaviour as a “key priority” of the government.

It never seems to occur to these punishment-reward behaviourist disciplinarians that the schools that appear to be in most need of the harshest discipline policies are the schools that are the most committed to the behaviourist, knowledge-based pedagogies of SLANT.

There is another way and it worked in Barrow-in Furness (before Academisation) and still works in high PISA performing Finland, where the Masters Degree teaching force would struggle not to laugh or cry at the ineffective barbarities now being inflicted onto English pupils. It also worked in 19th century Kings Somborne until replaced in the first ‘payment by results’ wave of government imposed behaviourist educational folly.

How not to bring about a ‘thinking school’

Tom Sherrington is a prolific tweeter and blogger on educational matters. He is also a globe trotting educational consultant superstar. I admire much of Tom’s work and his contributions. His forensic destruction of the government’s Progress 8 accountability regime is the best that I have seen. I have ‘liked’ and re-tweeted many of his posts and commented favourably on his website, although I do not always agree with him. Tom has launched a huge promotion of the behaviourist pedagogy of Barak Rosenshine and his ’17 principles of effective instruction’. I do not doubt that these methods will bring about improved SATs results and higher proportions of students gaining grade 4/5 at GCSE, but what is good for SATs results is not necessarily good preparation for the demands of KS3/4 and what is good for GCSE Progress 8 is not necessarily good for recruitment and success in Academic A Levels.

For many of us constructivists a seminal work is ‘Learning Intelligence‘, a collection of essays edited by Professors Michael Shayer and Philip Adey. None of the 11 chapters provide any endorsement of Rosenshine’s principles and all would take issue with the first three in particular.

Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning.

Present new material in small steps with student practise after each step.

Limit the amount of material students receive at one time.

I attended a recent ‘Philosophy for Children’ (P4C) INSET at the excellent junior school where I am a governor. We did Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (CASE) at my headship school. P4C and CASE involve starting lessons by confronting pupils with complex moral dilemmas or challenging experimentation. Not only do the pupils never practise anything, the teacher frequently feeds in additional ‘what if’ questions to further stimulate peer-peer talk and debate, contrary to cognitive load theory.

So imagine that a school forks out for two members of the leadership team to attend one of Tom’s slick, professional and highly convincing Rosenshine lectures. They return fired up and persuade the head that the school must introduce Rosenshine’s principles in all departments, with all staff issued with Tom’s book on the subject and instructed to study it. This is unlikely to turn out well for the reasons set out in ‘The Myth of the Hero Innovator’, a highly influential 1975 paper by Georgiades and Phillimore. I have been unable to find a link to this paper, so if any reader has one, please tweet it or provide it in a comment to this article.

The first problem will be that (hopefully) the school will still have some experienced members of staff that, inspired by Piaget and Vygotsky, have successfully been teaching using constructivist methods for decades. They are likely to be Heads of Departments. When I first took up my headship, although we had many good teachers, we did not have a ‘thinking school’. The top decision making committee, which all curriculum and pastoral heads attended was called, ‘Policy Steering’, universally referred to in the staffroom as ‘Policy Hearing’.

My earliest struggles were to convince the staff that I actually wanted genuine pedagogical debate to take place, not just in senior management meetings, but in every departmental workroom and pastoral staff meeting in the school. Even when this was successfully accomplished not all staff were comfortable with challenges to seniority. Every morning there was a 10 minute ‘briefing’ in the staff room before registration. I was frequently challenged by a young female teacher who delighted in asking me awkward ‘what if’ questions. This ‘impertinence’ caused embarrassment to some, but did not bother me in the least. The embarrassed staff did not realise that having taken on the introduction of CASE in the science department, of which I was a teaching member, we were all used to the power of ‘what if’ questions, encouraging them from pupils as well as staff.

If I was an HMI, how would I judge a ‘thinking school’? I would look for evidence of ‘impertinent’ questioning at all levels.      

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2 Responses to Quality education needs Thinking Schools, not Behaviour Tsars or Hero Innovators

  1. This article from Exeter University is highly recommended.

    Meeting the need for a systemic approach to cognitive education : The development of ‘Thinking Schools in the UK and beyond.

    Bob Burden, Sue Chedzoy and Judy Silver
    Cognitive Education Development Unit, Graduate School of Education, University of Exeter,UK

    This is an extract.

    “The conclusion that we reached was that the obstacles to the successful implementation of any programme designed to teach children how to learn were almost entirely systemic. There was little wrong with the programmes themselves, only the ways in which they were being introduced into schools. Firstly, there was what Georgiades and Phillimore referred to many years ago as ‘The Myth of the Hero Innovator’. In a highly influential article they pointed out that innovations are often introduced by enthusiastic individuals, possibly teachers returning from a conference or course, who seek to impose their new-found enthusiasm upon an unresponsive audience of sceptical colleagues. In a telling phase, Georgiades and Phillimore commented that ‘organisations, like dragons, eat hero-innovators for breakfast.’ Thus, deprived of support or nourishment, the innovation will inevitably fail.

    A link to the Georgiades and Phillimore paper is provided..

    Georgides, N. & Phillimore, L. (1975) The myth of the hero-innovator and alternative strategies for organisational change. In C. Kiernan & E.P. Woodford (eds) Behaviour Modification with the Severely Retarded Amsterdam: Assoc. Sci. Pub


  2. Shanti Lall says:

    Where have you been all my life? Or rather for the past 8 or so years in which I have felt increasingly confused and uncertain about my teaching methods because of the growing ubiquity of ‘knowledge’ and ‘CLT’ based ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

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