Below is an unmitigated rant that I wrote on Facebook in response to George Monbiot’s Guardian article. It isn’t they type of thing that I would usually use this blog for so if you’re looking for calm and reasoned analysis of some aspect of science teaching this is not for you. But someone on twitter asked to see it so I thought this would be the easiest place to share it. Whilst you’re here feel free to check out my other stuff…It’s a bit less…angry…

See also Martin Robinson’s less sledgehammer-y type approach here.



A lot of people have been sharing this post. It is important that you realise it is utter polemical hogwash, devoid of any basis in cognitive science, educational reality in this country, or social insight.

There are plenty of things to mourn about our current education system. Nothing in this article fits that category.

Below is a detailed take down of Monbiot’s polemic. Something that pervades throughout this is that Monbiot clearly has no idea how the brain works. One cannot, simply cannot, think critically, creatively or incisively without massive banks of background knowledge. This is as much a fact as the theories of gravity, evolution, or climate change.

As it happens, the educational dystopia that he is presenting has been shown, since the times of Rousseau (yeah really not that original), to only benefit people who already have that background knowledge. In our society who are those people? You guessed it, the wealthy. Young people from poor backgrounds are damaged the most by this kind of educational hell. So if you want those people to suffer by all means. Vote Monbiot!

Background reading from introduction:…/americ…/spring-2006/how-knowledge-helps

The piece:
“In the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled. So why are children being taught to behave like machines?”

They aren’t. They just aren’t. Author makes three claims here and provides no evidence for any of them.

“Children learn best when teaching aligns with their natural exuberance, energy and curiosity.”

Factually incorrect. There is not a single study from the history of educational psychology which could defend this proposition.

“So why are they dragooned into rows and made to sit still while they are stuffed with facts?”

This is playing on the factory model. A frequent trope which argues that students sit in rows in classrooms because schools prepare students for work in a factory, and in factories people sit in rows. Read this for a detailed dismantling of this utter nonsense

“We succeed in adulthood through collaboration. So why is collaboration in tests and exams called cheating?”

Because the whole point of exams is to test individual aptitude? This is seriously dumb. By all means argue that we should have assessments looking at collaborative abilities (no such reliable assessment exists) but the logical incoherence here is clear.

“Governments claim to want to reduce the number of children being excluded from school. So why are their curriculums and tests so narrow that they alienate any child whose mind does not work in a particular way?”

Utter nonsense. There’s a lot to unpack here. The firs is that students’s minds, on the whole, work in exactly the same way for the overwhelming majority of the time. See here for more:…/Teaching-to-What-Students-Have-in-Com…

There is also the implicit assumption that students who don’t suit the curriculum get excluded, and that is the reason for it. Students get excluded for violence, aggression, dealing drugs, racial abuse, emotional abuse and other such offences. Saying ‘yeah but that’s just because the curriculum doesn’t suit them’ is, in my opinion, immoral.

Final point here is that the curriculum is designed to be the best of that which has been thought and said. Our finest intellectual and cultural treasures. Depriving certain students of that because their “minds” do not “work in a particular way” is outrageous.

“The best teachers use their character, creativity and inspiration to trigger children’s instinct to learn.”
Incorrect. There is a wealth of literature on what the best teachers do. You can find an excellent synopsis here…/defa…/files/periodicals/Rosenshine.pdf. In fact I would reverse the assumption of the author; the best teachers do not need to be creative. This is an inefficient way to establish the best route to teach something. The most efficient way is to take advice from the hundreds of thousands who have done a pretty damn good job of it until now and copy them.

“So why are character, creativity and inspiration suppressed by a stifling regime of micromanagement?”

I mean, they aren’t. This guy clearly has no idea of what is happening in schools. Character is extensively discussed and educated (an interesting concept is whether or not it is possible), and the creative subjects are on the increase in terms of numbers of entry. So yeah.

“There is, as Graham Brown-Martin explains in his book Learning {Re}imagined, a common reason for these perversities. Our schools were designed to produce the workforce required by 19th-century factories. The desired product was workers who would sit silently at their benches all day, behaving identically, to produce identical products, submitting to punishment if they failed to achieve the requisite standards. Collaboration and critical thinking were just what the factory owners wished to discourage.”

Rubbish. Total rubbish. You make a historical claim you need to be ready to back it up. The link above from hackeducation demonstratively disproves this myth.

“As far as relevance and utility are concerned, we might as well train children to operate a spinning jenny.”

What even is that?

“Our schools teach skills that are not only redundant but counter-productive.”

Like what? Seriously, like what?

“Our children suffer this life-defying, dehumanising system for nothing.”

Yes. If by “suffer” you mean gain access to our society’s greatest treasures and cultural artefacts.

“The less relevant the system becomes, the harder the rules must be enforced, and the greater the stress they inflict. One school’s current advertisement in the Times Educational Supplement asks: “Do you like order and discipline? Do you believe in children being obedient every time? … If you do, then the role of detention director could be for you.””

1. The advert is on the Tes, which is not the Times Educational Supplement.
2. This is from the Michaela Community School which is a fascinating little experiment. Note that it is only one school, but note also the response of their head and Tom Bennett (one of the UK’s most respected teachers):…/the-detention-d…/ and…/lets-end-outrage-over-michaelas-serge…

This all boils down to behaviour. In many of our schools behaviour is completely out of control. And it isn’t because the curriculum isn’t “relevant.” The longer you keep saying it is, the more power you give to those who would excuse their own (and their children’s) behaviour.

“Yes, many schools have discipline problems. But is it surprising when children, bursting with energy and excitement, are confined to the spot like battery chickens?”
I think this guy needs to go see a battery farm. Then a school. Then retire.

“Teachers are now leaving the profession in droves, their training wasted and their careers destroyed by overwork and a spirit-crushing regime of standardisation, testing and top-down control.”

The first thing that is at least partially true.

“The less autonomy they are granted, the more they are blamed for the failures of the system. A major recruitment crisis beckons, especially in crucial subjects such as physics and design and technology. This is what governments call efficiency.”

Also true. But I don’t really see how physics is “relevant” these days…

“Any attempt to change the system, to equip children for the likely demands of the 21st century,”

The “likely demands of the 21st century” are exactly the same as they have always been. Independent, well-educated adults ready to contribute to society.

“rather than those of the 19th, is demonised by governments and newspapers as “social engineering”. Well, of course it is. All teaching is social engineering. At present we are stuck with the social engineering of an industrial workforce in a post-industrial era.”

Yes but we aren’t.

“Under Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and a nostalgic government in Britain, it’s likely only to become worse.”

This has not been proved at all. Our education system has been stagnating for around 20 years.

“When they are allowed to apply their natural creativity and curiosity, children love learning. They learn to walk, to talk, to eat and to play spontaneously, by watching and experimenting.”

This is correct. This is called the acquisition of “biologically primary” knowledge and is a natural process. We’ve known this since the 80’s.…/Evolutionary_educational_psychol…

“Then they get to school, and we suppress this instinct by sitting them down, force-feeding them with inert facts and testing the life out of them.”

No we don’t. Not at all. You see, the acquisition of “biologically secondary” knowledge like, say, how to read, cannot be acquired naturally. We have decades of cognitive science research proving that. You can start here:…/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf

I don’t know what an “inert fact” is. Is reading one of those? Does the author think we shouldn’t teach children how to read and write?

“There is no single system for teaching children well, but the best ones have this in common: they open up rich worlds that children can explore in their own ways, developing their interests with help rather than indoctrination. For example, the Essa academy in Bolton gives every pupil an iPad, on which they create projects, share material with their teachers and each other, and can contact their teachers with questions about their homework. By reducing their routine tasks, this system enables teachers to give the children individual help.”

What a great idea. If only we had more than your anecdotal evidence to support this kind of teaching.

Why would I want students to develop their own interests? How do they know what to be interested in? This is just such a trope that romanticises the evolutionarily inefficient and frankly harmful view that students should be left to construct their own learning. Just stop and think about that for a second.

“Other schools have gone in the opposite direction, taking children outdoors and using the natural world to engage their interests and develop their mental and physical capacities (the Forest School movement promotes this method).”

I don’t know what the point of this is. I also don’t know much about outdoor education but the effect sizes seem to be very small…/ResearchReviewsMetaanalysis.html (remember that d=0.4 is considered average for an intervention)

“But it’s not a matter of high-tech or low-tech; the point is that the world a child enters is rich and diverse enough to ignite their curiosity, and allow them to discover a way of learning that best reflects their character and skills.”

I think I’ve adequately responded to this above.

“There are plenty of teaching programmes designed to work with children, not against them. For example, the Mantle of the Expert encourages them to form teams of inquiry, solving an imaginary task – such as running a container port, excavating a tomb or rescuing people from a disaster – that cuts across traditional subject boundaries.”

See above. Discovery based or inquiry based learning is the worst possible way to learn. And here I toot my own horn:…/the-science-of-…/

“A similar approach, called Quest to Learn, is based on the way children teach themselves to play games. To solve the complex tasks they’re given, they need to acquire plenty of information and skills. They do it with the excitement and tenacity of gamers.”

That’s just dandy. So they can leave school really good at playing games. Bring on the 21st century world of tomorrow!

“The Reggio Emilia approach, developed in Italy, allows children to develop their own curriculum, based on what interests them most, opening up the subjects they encounter along the way with the help of their teachers.”

So if a student isn’t interested in Shakespeare they shouldn’t learn Shakespeare? Fundamental science? Consent in sexual relationships? The law of the land? I mean this is just ridiculous. Children are the worst possible people to judge what it is important for them to know and what is not.

“Ashoka Changemaker schools treat empathy as “a foundational skill on a par with reading and math”, and use it to develop the kind of open, fluid collaboration that, they believe, will be the 21st century’s key skill.”

Show me the evidence that empathy can be taught or measured. See here…/the-fatal-flaw-in-attem…/ and the comment from Dylan William, the second most important educational researcher in the world.

“The first multi-racial school in South Africa, Woodmead, developed a fully democratic method of teaching, whose rules and discipline were overseen by a student council.”

Horrible idea.

“Its integrated studies programme, like the new system in Finland, junked traditional subjects in favour of the students’ explorations of themes, such as gold, or relationships, or the ocean. Among its alumni are some of South Africa’s foremost thinkers, politicians and businesspeople.”

Ha! Finland. You know Finland used to teach boring inert facts in a boring “traditional” subject based way. You know what happened? They dominated every international league table. Recently, they’ve decided to can all that stuff. Guess what happened? Results went down the toilet.…/…/three-myths-about-pisa/

“In countries such as Britain and the United States, such programmes succeed despite the system, not because of it. Had these governments set out to ensure that children find learning difficult and painful, they could not have done a better job. Yes, let’s have some social engineering. Let’s engineer our children out of the factory and into the real world.”

Whatever man.