Teaching skills is vital: why God doesn’t agree with ‘Seven Myths about Education’: A response to Daisy Christodoulou’s book. By Geoff Petty Author of ‘Teaching Today’ and ‘Evidence Based Teaching’
Summary: Daisy Christodoulou’s book ‘Seven Myths about Education’ has created a stir, not least in the blogosphere, where her ideas seem almost to have become a new orthodoxy. She believes we should not teach skills, but only knowledge (facts). She is wrong, and ironically it is her own weak critical thinking skills that have caused her to make this error.
I look at the evidence that skills are very teachable, and ironically, greatly help students learn facts.
I enjoyed reading this book, and agree with some of its arguments as I will explain later, but the key message that Daisy Christodoulou makes – that it is not possible to teach skills – is very wrong and very easily disproved. The misconception is also dangerous as it leads teachers into bad practice. (There are quotes below showing that she really is arguing not to teach skills.)
How do we know that it is possible to teach skills? Christodoulou refers mainly to books on cognitive psychology which are often largely based on lab research. But this is not the best source of information on which teaching methods work best, and which don’t. The most authoritative source of information on this is meta-studies, or systematic research reviews on experiments in real classrooms with real students and real teachers. There is an excellent research review on the teaching of skills such as learning to learn and study skills etc. It is by Hattie, Biggs, and Purdie and there is a summary of it on my website.
The main findings of Hattie’s review are that if the teaching of skills is integrated into the teaching of facts, there is a very marked improvement in students’ understanding of those facts, and they learn the skill too.
It might seem surprising that learning a skill would improve understanding of facts, but if students have to think hard about the facts they’ve been taught, as skills require, they will learn these facts better.
Hattie Biggs and Purdie’s review was based on about 50 attempts to improve students’ learning-to-learn or study skills. In the nature of systematic reviews, only the best evidence was used. In each case there was a control group who were not taught the skills so that comparisons could be made between not teaching skills, and teaching them. Those who were taught skills did very much better in assessments of the understanding of the content taught. (So teaching skills helps students learn facts better, it does not impede the learning of facts as Christodoulou believes)
It’s important to realise that the effect of integrating the learning of skills into the teaching of content can be very large. Prof John Hattie, whom Christodoulou quotes with considerable approval in her book, finds in his own review that the effect size of integrating the teaching of study skills into content teaching is 0 .77. (Effect sizes measure the effect of a teaching strategy or other factor on student attainment, an effect size of 0.4 is moderate, 0.6 is high according to Hattie’s Visible Learning (2009). So Skills teaching is not only possible, it has a high effect.
The effect size of ‘Direct Instruction’ which Christodoulou advocates and found quite revelatory, is 0.59 according to Hattie’s Visible Learning, which Christodoulou mentions with approval. In the same book the average effect size for teaching study skills (integrated in or taught separately) is also 0.59. But according to Christodoulou direct instruction is a revelation, and teaching study skills is impossible. (Direct Instruction is a specific a sequence of teaching methods designed to teach a topic, which crucially includes student activity, but student activity is missing from her description.)
By the way, if skills are taught conventionally at a separate time to the teaching of the content, then the effect size is much less at about 0 .45. This is not so good, but still of moderate effectiveness.
It is not only study skills teaching that works well. See Abrami (2008) on critical thinking which finds that done the right way (see below) you can get a very high effect size. See Hattie (2009) for a list of meta studies on other skills.
You can download my summary of Hattie Biggs and Purdy’s review here https://geoffpetty.com/for-teachers/skills/. Here is a useful finding from it:
Teach Study skills in context: the relational approach. (Mean Effect size 0.77)
This is the best approach. It is to integrate study skills teaching into the subject teaching using subject specific material and tasks. For example the subject teacher teaches essay planning, by setting a task of doing an essay that is actually required for the course. The subject teacher breaks down the skill of essay writing, and explains how to research, plan and write essays, gives students time to practice these skills in class, and ensures students get feedback on how well they have done on each sub-skill. This does not need much extra time. See chapter 21 in ‘Evidence Based Teaching’ for an account of ‘double decker lessons’ which teach skills and content at the same time but leaves most time for teaching content.
Skills are best learned alongside content. This argument is given directly in a quote Christodoulou takes from ‘Why don’t students like school’ by Dan Willingham. But Christodoulou appears not to notice this quote contradicts her own argument. The quote appears on page 77 of her book, the last sentence of the quote reads:
“The conclusion from this work in cognitive science is straightforward: we must ensure that students acquire background knowledge parallel with practicing critical thinking”
Abrami et al (2008) finds in his meta-analysis that if teachers teach critical thinking skills is sessions dotted through the course, and students are then set tasks that get students to apply these same skills to course content, then students learn the skills very well indeed (effect size over 0.9). It also helps if students collaborate in groups or pairs, and are given clear objectives for thinking critically.
Christodoulou criticises people who believe that we only need to teach skills, and then swings to the other extreme saying that we only need to teach knowledge (facts). We need to teach both. God, or evolution seems to think we need both too: we have a special place in the brain to store facts (declarative memory), and another place to store skills, (procedural memory). Whoever else agrees with Daisy, God does not. (Hence the title for this blog)
If we don’t teach students skills such as essay writing, reading for understanding, testing your own recall before a test, note making, exam techniques etc., then students will be left to learn them unguided. This is discovery learning, which Christodoulou greatly disapproves of too!
It seems odd that an English teacher would be against teaching students how to write essays, but it just goes to show how you can be misled if you’re not careful when choosing what to read. I reckon you should read cognitive psychology, look at research into what teaching methods work best, and at research into what the best teachers do. Where you find common ground, then give that approach a try. This is ‘corroboration’ or ‘triangulation’ – a critical thinking skill.
How this book might mislead teachers
The glaring omission, in what is admittedly a short book, is how should we teach the facts that Christodoulou (and I) so greatly approves of. She seems to like ‘Direct Instruction’. Like many in the UK I call ‘Direct Instruction’ ‘Whole Class Interactive Teaching’, the evidence for it is overwhelming as she says, (and there is a lot about it in my Evidence Based Teaching).
I worry some teachers will interpret her book to mean that they should stand at the front and spout facts. This clearly won’t work. She does write on page 101 that “the most effective way of remembering something is to think about it” and quotes Dan Willingham again, saying ‘memory is the residue of thought’.
But how are we to make students think about facts? Only by asking them questions that go well beyond simple recall. So teachers must ask students to take the facts they have explained and then analyse, problem-solve, and evaluate for example. But then students are using skills.
What I agree with
I stress that there was a lot in this book I enjoyed: for example the focus on the importance of fact learning, the critiques of Oftsed’s advice on good practice which are shocking and I hope will improve not least because of the attention she has given it. I was also interested and agreed with much of her criticism that the National Curriculum being far too skills based though she might go too far here.
I passionately agree that initial teacher training should be evidence based. I liked the stress on classroom practice, and especially agree that teachers should consider carefully what students are made to think about by their lessons.
I agree that teaching facts is vital. I agree that as our factual knowledge increases we become more expert. I agree that skills are useless without facts. I agree that learning at the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy is at least as important as learning at the top. I agree that much skills learning is done badly. But non of these proves that skills do not exist, or that you can’t teach skills well.
Doesn’t hold up does it? We need to teach facts and skills, or only the most privileged will learn skills.
Does Christodoulou really say don’t teach skills?
I have received some comments on twitter, and in response to this blog, worrying that I might have misread Daisy’s book. Here are a few quotes from her book that make it clear she only approves of learning knowledge, or facts:
On page 71 first paragraph, Christodoulou sets out the position that she criticizes, that ‘we should teach transferable skills’:
“Teach pupils the how, not the what. Teach them how to solve problems, how to analyse, how to think critically, how to evaluate. Teach them how to apply these important skills to whatever content they might encounter, now and later in life. Above all teach them how to learn, because if you teach pupils how to learn, then it does not matter how fast knowledge changes.”
Teaching ‘how to learn’ includes teaching study skills such as checking your recall of important facts. I set out in Chapter 21 of Evidence Based Teaching how to teach other skills such as analysis, evaluation etc. However, rather than teaching skills the way Christodoulou describes and criticises, I advocate teaching skills the way the evidence points – embedding the teaching of skills into the teaching of knowledge. Then the learning of both skills and knowledge benefits.
She makes it clear later in the same chapter that she does not think we should teach these skills, (which includes learning to learn skills), but instead should teach knowledge only. On Page 80, in the last paragraph she writes:
“It is wrong to conceive of knowledge and skill as polar opposites. However, I then often see people conclude from this that we should teach both skills and knowledge. This is not the case. What Simon shows us is that it isn’t really possible to teach skills in this abstract fashion. We achieve skilled performance through committing knowledge to long-term memory and practising using it. Once we’ve recognised that the distinction between knowledge and skills is a false dichotomy, the practical conclusion we should draw is this: if pupils commit knowledge to memory and practice retrieving it from memory, that will cause skilled performance.”
Crucially, on Page 81 in the first paragraph she writes:
“If you think that your teaching time should be completely devoted to teaching skills, or if you think that it should be divided in some kind of proportion between teaching knowledge and teaching skills, the time that is given over to teaching skills is devoted to practice that won’t actually improve skills.”
I take this to mean don’t teach study skills or essay writing skills, or how to evaluate, just teach knowledge or facts. This is clearly wrong. It would also be boring.
What I think has happened here is that Christodoulou’s is using her book to fight an ideological war. She takes a ‘traditional’, or ‘neo-traditional’ view of education, and her book attacks the progressive view. She is right to criticise many approaches advocated by the ‘progressive’ movement, including the attempt to teach skills without content, the evidence is dead against this. But she throws the skills teaching “baby” out with the wooly-minded progressive “bathwater”. There is a way to teach skills that is very effective.
Questions for my critics.
Here are a few questions for Daisy Christodoulou and those who are persuaded by her:
If we can’t learn skills:
- Why has the brain special places to store skills (procedural memory), if all we need is knowledge (declarative memory) ?
- Why have rigourous experiments in real classrooms with control groups repeatedly found that teaching skills can raise students’ performance markedly? See for example Abrami (2008) on teaching critical thinking.
- Are you really saying that we can’t teach students to read for understanding by underlining key points in a text and then summarising in a mind map, or with key points? Are you really saying we can’t teach students to write essays, or to practice their recall of important facts? Or are you saying that if you teach this, it doesn’t work?
- If you say you don’t approve of discovery learning, why do you, by implication, condemn students to learning skills by this method?
Abrami, P. C. (2008) “Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: a Stage 1 meta-analysis.” Review of Educational Research 78: 1102 -1134
Christodoulou, D.(2014) Seven Myths about Education. London: Routledge ……First published by the Curriculum Centre (2013)
Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge
Hattie Biggs and Purdie (1996) “Effects of Learning Skills Interventions on Student Learning: A Meta Analysis.” Review of Educational Research Summer 1996 Vol. 66, No 2, pp 99-136
Petty, G. (2009) ‘Evidence Based Teaching’ 2nd Ed. Oxford: OUP