Educational myths – Daisy Christodoulou at the Swindon Festival of Literature

12 May

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Daisy. Cute name. Comprehensive school accent. Jeans and a ponytail. Young. And a secondary school teacher who found time to write a book, a clever book – Seven Myths About Education – full of well supported, understandable arguments. All very welcome and refreshing.

Her conclusion, it seemed to me, is that Knowledge is a Good Thing. And teaching knowledge for knowledge sake is not only a good thing but essential.

For some this would be a powerful argument, especially if, like me, you were educated in the 1980s and – you may have noticed – wasn’t taught much in the way of grammar.

But at junior school I had an old school-style teacher who drilled our mixed ability, mixed ages class in numbers that add up to 10, multiplication tables, and spelling. My class was streets ahead of the pack when we entered secondary school. The same teacher also introduced me to CS Lewis, songs White Horses and Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head but little in the way of poetry, art or craft.

But as a teacher briefly in the 1990s, the bedrock of teaching was knowledge, understanding and awareness, in that order. Awareness was the pot of gold, but you couldn’t get there without knowledge.

Daisy argues that teaching knowledge has been surrendered to fancy teaching styles like project work, where pupils will remember the teaching technique and not the lesson. She gives an example: Ofsted praised a lesson where the class made Romeo and Juliet puppets; Daisy argues they will remember the puppets but not the Shakespearean play.

To me this sounds like inappropriate teaching – unless they were about to use them to perform their own version.

Daisy describes a theory of the mind as expounded by computer science pioneer, Herbert Simon; we have a working memory and a longterm memory. The working memory is the immediate memory whereas the longterm memory is where we store all the knowledge our brains feel we will need again. We encourage the longterm memory to store knowledge by repetition. Skill is simply lots of stored knowledge. We free up working memory with learning, so, for instance, knowing our times tables is much more efficient than working it out with a calculator. And without a bunch of facts in our longterm memory, our skill at interpretation is limited.

According to Daisy, all humans have remarkably similar brains and store knowledge in much the same way.

This is a simplistic description of a highly complex organ, and an approach that hasn’t so far worked with computers. I remember this argument from philosophy classes 25 years ago, and since then, despite the vast technological advances that have been made, what do we have? Siri and Cortana. Computers have all the knowledge in the world but are still a sum of their parts, super-advanced calculators which have not achieved self-awareness. I suspect there is a new theory around the corner that will trounce the idea of working/longterm memory.

It also seems to ignore the hold emotion has over decision making and the importance of stories. Some people find it easy to look at sums and chemical equations, strings of formulae and code and interpret it like a language. For me, numbers and equations only make sense when they are telling a story with meaning to my life, work or society.

And what of people with autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, whose minds are wired differently?

Perhaps it’s a case of being better at some things than others; some things we need to practice more than others. The job of teachers is to make the practice interesting. This reminds me of an earlier Festival
event, where boxing trainer Paddy Fitzpatrick told us: “Repetition creates reaction. You have to do it in a way that’s mentally stimulating.”

Ultimately Daisy reminds us that we need good teachers. After listening to her talk and answering questions for an hour, I’ve no doubt that she has the skills to use an instructional style and hold a class rapt. Teachers that they are not entertainers or crowd controllers – efforts are better placed making the learning of facts more interesting than an entertaining but empty process.

I’m a big fan of facts first, opinion second, but I’m concerned that certain powers that be will only hear ‘knowledge is the most important’ with a full stop, and focus future curriculums solely on the acquisition of knowledge, rather than as the bedrock of understanding and awareness.

But don’t take my word for it, check out her book, Seven Myths About Education.

Daisy Christodolou appeared at Swindon Festival of Literature, 8 May 2015, at Swindon Arts Centre.

Words by Louisa Davison. Photos © Calyx Pictures.

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2 Responses to “Educational myths – Daisy Christodoulou at the Swindon Festival of Literature”

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  1. Strange bedfellows II – AC Grayling and Rory Bremner at Swindon Festival of Literature | Festival Chronicle - 14th May 2015

    […] rather than knowledge, which is at everyone’s fingertips: a complete counter-view to that offered by educator Daisy Christodoulou earlier in the […]

  2. Public Intellectual is not a dirty name – Suzannah Lipscomb at Swindon Festival of Literature | Festival Chronicle - 17th May 2015

    […] some were unexpected: Will Hutton, Shami Chakrabarti, Alan Johnson, Roman Krznaric, AC Grayling, Daisy Christodoulou, Danny Dorling, Peter Tachell, Henry Marsh, Robert Hewison, Julian Spalding, Jacqueline Rose, Jules […]

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