In Part 3 of this series of posts looking at the limits and possibilities in applying scientific findings and methodology to the practice of education, I looked at the basic characteristics of the scientific method, and some of the challenges faced by carrying-out ‘hard’ scientific research in an educational setting. For sure, if you are going to investigate teaching and learning in ‘ecologically valid’ ways, whilst also using the gold standard of double-blind randomised controlled trials, you are going to have your work cut-out for you.

But I declared at the end of the post that it wasn’t simply the nightmare of us ever accumulating enough methodologically robust research that was bothering me. Rather, I said that my concern is with the social human subject matter itself: with the explosion of complications you get through the interactions between different levels of elements, the reflexivity of the human subject matter, and the constantly shifting uniqueness of every situation which is looked at.

In this post, I am going to expand on this point, and explore just why I believe that these three factors mean that we will NEVER be able to

  • Completely understand why someone has acted the way they have
  • Fully predict how they will act in the future
  • Reliably control changes in a person


We are relentlessly researching just about every aspect of human activity. In the process, we are constantly uncovering patterns, dynamics and apparent mechanisms which come into play in myriad ways across the diverse range of human behaviours. We acknowledge that each one of these apparent factors give a weighting to what happens – they don’t necessarily allow you to predict everything – but we often read reports of new findings which do seem to imply that ‘this explains everything’ – that the mechanism which has been identified appears to have a hidden hand in just about all human occurrences, and now that we have found out about it…. well…

…Well what? Just how far do such discoveries get us? The famous concept of ‘The Butterfly Effect’– that small changes can lead to huge consequences down the line – simplifies a much bigger realisation. Not only might the flapping of that butterfly’s wings conceivably lead to a hurricane occurring somewhere, but the flapping of the wings will also have some indiscriminate effect on uncountable other future events in multiple directions within the same dynamic system (however infinitesimal these effects might be). Furthermore – and this is crucial to the ways humans like to rationalise things – going backwards in time, what was it that led the butterfly to flap its wings? An infinity of previous events and processes fanning-out prior to that moment (think of the way family trees spread out both before and after an individual’s place in them.)

Why did Britain vote for Brexit again? After the event there was no shortage of analysts demonstrating our attraction to hindsight bias. This is the case after any unexpected event. We think that both it was obvious that it would happen, and that there was one key factor implicated in it and which can be used in the future to predict similar things.

Any effect which we think will be caused by a current action is but one of many consequences, rippling outwards and onwards. And any cause which we think has led to a current happening is also but one of very many, coinciding on this moment from legion previous happenings.

So, in human affairs we can NEVER point to a causal chain. It is ALWAYS a causal web of just how many strands we can be fully sure, and an additional thing to ponder is just how quickly different effects can multiply together to create fundamentally unpredictable consequences. Using the example of billiard balls colliding in turn, physicist Michael Berry calculated that by the 6th or 7th collision, in order to predict how the balls would collide, you would have to take into consideration the gravitational pull of people moving around the edge of the table…

In essence, what I’m saying is that the uncovering of ‘general principles’ influencing what seems to happen in brains or classrooms or social systems, give us absolutely no power whatsoever to predict – let alone direct – what will actually happen as a consequence of our actions.


One of the defining aspects of human intelligence is our ability to carry-out abstract reasoning, running simulations about what might happen in the future, and combining information intentionally to achieve goals. This means that we can consciously interact with causes and effects around us, creating either positive or negative reinforcement loops. In social science this is known as reflexivity.

This adds an additional layer of unfathomable complexity to what is going on, as any attempt to predict and openly control future behaviour can change the likelihood of that behaviour coming to pass. It could be that it creates self-fulfilling prophecies and placebo effects, or alternatively it could create a reaction against what would otherwise have been a smooth progression from one situation to an apparently inevitable outcome. Publically announced election forecasts are famously prone to influencing what they are purporting to simply be observing, and social science researchers getting close to the subject matter of their study are likely to effect the exact appearance of what it is they are most likely struggling to observe – and perhaps even the likelihood that it will appear again in those particular subjects.

It is not even the question of whether or not we have ‘free will’ that would make this situation hard to factor into predictions. Just the very belief in free will can make people respond differently to situations, and every shift in a person’s beliefs, understanding and experience can change the ground for future outcomes. We never return to the same state we have previously inhabited. Whether or not the Illuminati are cleverly controlling our behaviours, believing that they are or that they aren’t will likely affect the way we go about our lives in some way.

How to control for reflexivity, in a way which would allow researchers to unambiguously measure the inner workings of a human decision, untangle the web of causality which has led to it, and then take an action which will reliably lead to predictable and replicable outcomes, seems impossible to untangle. And that is made all the more certain by the final concern I have…


Why do we keep making the same mistakes? Why can’t we properly learn from the lessons of history? The infinite webs of interactions – both seen and unseen, known and unknown – between causes and effects, systems and entanglements, mean that we never enter the same situation twice. The famous saying “no one steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man” (derived from attributions by Plato and others to the teachings of Heraclitus), show that this reality was apparent at least 2500 years ago.

We bemoan the fact that no-one learns from history, and also mock naïve assertions that “this time things will be different”, but there are good reasons for our inability to sagely avoid previous missteps – despite our most reflective best intentions – as well as our inability to repeat the successful formulas of the past: The exact same circumstances are simply never repeated.

If you were to raise the idea at this present moment in Britain of having a referendum about some big issue (such as becoming a republic perhaps), then, irrespective of people’s feelings about the monarchy, the reaction would likely be different to how it would have been 3 years ago. Our collective and individual thoughts and feelings about things such as referenda will have been sizeably changed by the experience of the Brexit vote. We can’t go back to a previous state of naivety, but, even if we could, the situated reality in which we are operating will have changed anyway. Technology and interconnectivity, norms and opinions, all of these things are evolving at such a rate that we can never tell from one day to the next just which way the wind will blow with a proposed idea, or an unexpected – or indeed expected – action.

The bottom line to all of these things is that hopes to ever be able to scientifically disentangle, predict and control human experience and behaviour, in the way we can now control silicon and electricity, are utterly deluded, and this has a significant impact on our vision for what education might become.

Exactly where this leaves us moving forward is the subject of my final post in this series.


SCIENCE and EDUCATION: Limits & Possibilities. Part 3 – The constraints of the SCIENTIFIC APPROACH

Constraints of Science

In this series of blog posts I am exploring the relationship between scientific research and our approach to education. In the first two posts I looked at the current suitability of the field of education for having the methods and insights of science applied to it, and found it lacking in two general areas: Clarity of definitions, and clarity of purpose.

In the next two posts I am going to come to things from the position of science, to look at how it might be suited for studying an area such as education, and just what the limits might be – not simply currently, but perhaps intrinsically.

In this post I am going to give a bit of a primer to the scientific approach, and in particular the constraints it faces in terms of studying areas of human activity such as education. In the next post I will be making more general claims regarding the actual limits of what it will ever be able to achieve in for us and our educational endeavours.

So firstly… What is science? See if you agree with my bluffer’s guide…

At its core, science is a way of finding out more about things which increases detail and levels of certainty.

Its methods are varied, but essentially require careful observation, as different ingredients in a situation are strategically isolated and manipulated.

In the process it identifies patterns, from which it tries to infer the most probable causal relationships.

In exploring patterns, scientists create theories – plausible explanations of the patterns drawing on existing evidence, and which ideally make predictions which can allow the theory to be tested further.

From a purely logical sense, science can never give us absolute certainty regarding lines of causation, nor exhaust the possible limits of a situation. Consequently, the strength of a theory is assessed according to how well it fits within the existing body of theories, how much explanatory power it possesses, and how parsimonious it is in terms of the number of assumptions it has to make.

A good theory will allow some possibilities to be ruled out (falsified), and in the process of accumulating and replicating results increase our confidence in the probability of a theory being true to the point that – for everyday purposes – it is a useful shorthand to treat it as a true representation of a situation, or a scientific ‘law’.

If the subject under investigation is too difficult to observe directly, scientists employ models – metaphorical situations supported by theory, which function as similarly to the study area as can be conceptualised.

Sometimes different factors being studied can be shown to vary together (correlation), but whether one causes the other, or both are caused by something else, remains hard to pin-point.

What can science give us?

In discovering patterns which point to some genuine cause in nature, science can – at the very least, satisfy a level of human curiosity – expanding the cognitive satisfaction we experience at finding out something new. In the process, it might educe from us a new way of acting towards people and situations in the world.

It might also allow us to make predictions about what is likely to happen in the future, and – in its highest practical form, it might allow us to take actions to control aspects of the world around us – possibly through the creation of new technologies.

‘Hard’ vs ‘Soft’ Science

Scientific fields and endeavours are sometimes characterised as being ‘harder’ or ‘softer’. Generally speaking, a science is ‘harder’ the more that it can precisely isolate and manipulate individual phenomena, with a high degree of predictability and replicability, often in tight consonance with mathematical logic.

In distinguishing sciences this way, ‘natural sciences’ – those that study natural phenomena in and of themselves – tend to be viewed as hard.  Whereas ‘social sciences’ – those which study the behavioural phenomena arising through the interactions of processes within the mental lives of people, and between multitudes of people, – tend to be viewed as soft.

Increasingly, the simple catagorisation of a discipline such as Psychology as ‘soft’ is problematic, because the field now encompasses and draws upon such a wide variety of approaches and areas of focus. Neuropsychologists for example work at the interface between brain biology and observable behaviour, and much cognitive psychology functions within highly rarefied laboratory settings, increasingly informed by what does and doesn’t work in the practical applications of artificial intelligence. Indeed, many people working in these areas would these days prefer to be identified under the new interdisciplinary area of Cognitive Science.

The ‘lab’ approach to trying to gain hard evidence

Scientific research into education is similarly going to be a multi-faceted beast, focused on different areas, at different levels and using different techniques. As with psychology, whilst we may gain a lot of information from existing areas of brain science, and we might be able to ‘grow’ some theories through isolated and artificial laboratory experiments, exactly how things work together in real-world educational settings may remain elusive.

At the ‘harder’ end of the research scale, there is work which extrapolates from more general research into brain functioning and cognitive architecture, whereby scientists deliberately try to isolate individual processes which are going-on in the brain and see what this might be able to teach us as educators about dealing directly with the brain through these mechanisms.

This is of course particularly of interest when trying to understand and provide ways to address Special Educational Needs – or atypical functioning of one kind or another, and there is an increasing wealth of research data now in terms of how the brain appears to go about its business, due to highly controlled investigations into our functional constraints in particular situations.

Some of this research has proven exceptionally helpful in terms of identifying what appear to be universal characteristics of human cognitive functioning – the limits of our attentional system and ‘working memory’ for example.

However, we have evolved such that our perceptual and cognitive systems best function in a flexibly dynamic interaction in a rich 3D natural environment. What many lab experiments into humans achieve are demonstrations into what humans can do, but not necessarily what we do do in everyday situations. Similarly, they demonstrate the flaws and limitations of how our brain functions when situations are highly constrained, but these may not prove to be constant limitations in the real world. It could be argued that the human being is the most incredible ‘work-around system’ that has ever existed on this planet.

An obvious example of this would be the situation with the myriad optical illusions which entertain and perplex us in the contemporary world. It is far more rare to see (or at least fall prey to) optical illusions in the natural world around us than it is to see them in 2D images or computer animations. This is because illusions generally arise due to a poverty of information in our perceptual field. In general, we function in a world with binocular vision which can draw on motion information whenever it needs it, and a wealth of environmental light affordances which together enable the brain to piece-together a functionally accurate view of the situation in front of it.

What we find in the lab may not really allow us to make concrete practical conclusions then. A significant problem which cognitive scientists have faced over time is that – in the process of becoming ‘harder’ as a science – in the move towards increasingly tight isolation of variables and processes in a laboratory – they run the risk of loosing what is termed ‘ecological validity’ – the results may not reflect what does happen when these processes are situated in a normal human context.

The ‘situated’ approach to gaining ecological validity

And hence, much research goes into looking at real-world settings, but these situations start to greatly reduce the ‘hardness’ of the science which can be done. It is much harder to properly isolate and exactly replicate individual processes within a classroom.

Social Scientists have gone a long way over the decades in trying to develop techniques which allow them to derive the most objective benefit from studying real-world processes, but it becomes very difficult to go much further than to derive general patterns of correlations.

For example, if we were to use the gold standard medical trial model of research into whether a ‘treatment’ has significant benefits (the double-blind randomised controlled trial) in deciding on whether an educational technique has real benefit, you would need to do the following:

  1. Ensure that you had a very large sample size
  2. Ensure that fully informed consent had been given for participation in the trial by either the participants or their legal guardians.
  3. Ensure that your two (or more) groups of participants were randomly made-up and (hopefully) equivalent in all key areas which could impact on the outcomes of the trial.
  4. Consistently and equivalently apply the circumstances of the different experimental conditions over as long a period of time as possible.
  5. Ensure that none of the subjects undergoing the trial knew the significance of which grouping they were in (i.e. whether they were meant to be a control group, a placebo group or the group undergoing the treatment being studied.)
  6. Ensure that none of the administrators of the trial knew the significance of who was in each group…. In other words – they don’t know what they are doing to each participant (this is the double blind part)…

If trials for drug treatments haven’t gone through such a procedure, you can bet that the claims coming from their findings will be picked-apart from one angle or another.

It is of course very hard to create such circumstances in educational settings (particularly number 6) in a way which doesn’t have frustrating degrees of fudging at one level or another. Even if you could manage to properly satisfy every feasible aspect, the effort and time involved in doing such research makes it a highly slow, laborious and inconvenient process for many schools to be involved in.

Consequently, for much educational research – if being reported honestly – any findings would be introduced by many concessions to the circumstances in which the results were obtained, and therefore in which we could gain most confidence in them being relevant. Effectively they would say “For this particular group, of this kind of children, done in this way, in this setting, for this duration, at this time of the school year, and being taught by teachers who have this kind of knowledge and predisposition…etc. etc. it was found that there was this particular statistical chance that this approach….etc.” And then you have the problem of replicating the same circumstances to find out how robust those particular findings were…

These factors are of course messy, and should constantly be a source of concern for people involved in professional educational research. Consequently, there has been a big move in social science to go for ‘meta-analyses’ – attempts to say “well if you group together all the bits of research into the same phenomenon [assuming that all of those bits of research were indeed investigating the same thing – conceived and operationalised in the same way – see Part 1] then this will help to balance out all of the flaws contained in the individual bits of research, and any remaining statistically significant effect will show that something is definitely going on there. Well, maybe….

If laboratory research can only give us pieces of the ‘capabilities jigsaw’, without helping us see just how these things come-into play (or not) in real world social situations, large-scale field research can only give us forever contentious general patterns – constantly in need of additional clarification and contextualisation to really tell us something we can use with any great confidence. And so we are on a project to constantly improve, refine and extend both kinds of research such that they might one day meet in the middle and then… and then what…?

Well, I have fundamental reservations as to whether both wings of the scientific enterprise as outlined will ever get us to the place – in the social science orientated side to things – which our science-fiction orientated minds assume it will.

Firstly, it is not because I think that human experience and interactions are somehow the wrong kind of ‘stuff’ for scientific study, as in they can’t in theory be reduced to mechanisms within the natural world. In this sense I think that human functioning can be reduced (if useful to do so) to natural science. The key differences between social and sub-atomic processes are degrees of complexity, and levels of organisation.

Furthermore, I don’t think that the problem is simply that we have more processes to distinguish from each other – that the increase in complexity just makes them harder to spot because there are more things going on – like trying to find a product in a big shop that you usually spot easily in a small shop.

Rather, my concern is the explosion of complications you get through the interactions between different levels of elements, the reflexivity of the human subject matter, and the constantly shifting uniqueness of every situation which is looked at.

Unpacking these concerns will be the focus of Part 4.

SCIENCE and EDUCATION: Limits & Possibilities. Part 2 – The struggle with EDUCATIONAL PURPOSE


In this series of posts I’m aiming to paint an overview of the issues surrounding the drive to make educational practice as open to scientific insight as possible. In the first two posts I’m looking at problems with the current state of ‘education’ as a philosophical entity, and how this might impact on our ability to usefully apply scientific methods to it. In the first post, I focused on the difficulties we have with clearly defining many of the key concepts which seem to be at the centre of educational debate. Unless we can clearly ‘operationalise’ a concept, we can’t unambiguously set about systematically investigating it.

In this second post, I’m returning to the perennial migrane of much educational debate, the lack of agreement around the purpose of education.


It goes without saying that there must be some purpose to education, otherwise – what on earth would be the point of doing it?

Furthermore, if science is to be of any use to the enterprise of education, then it is important that there is a clear direction of travel which it can demonstrably help us to journey towards.

However, there appear to be 5 key problems with us being able to provide this visible end point:

  1. We seem fixated by the idea that there should be one ultimate purpose
  2. Even if we identify more than one purpose, it might be that methods of best achieving one could conflict with achieving another
  3. To be of any real use in guiding action, the end goals should be recognisable when they are reached – or in other words – measurable
  4. The complete project of ‘education’ might not necessarily be the responsibility of schooling?
  5. We don’t seem to have any real way for agreeing on the purpose(s) anyway


Problem 1: One Single Purpose?

Perhaps it’s an evolved psychological thing, but it seems that we wish there to be a single, overarching, preferably pithy and punchy, headline purpose to education…

“To enable people to fulfill their potential!”

“To prepare people for life!”

“To make people cleverer!”

Probably the single biggest problem with this approach is that any one goal seems to miss something else out which feels important to many other people. Consider as an alternative the situation of the prison system. Whilst (like any field) there are disagreements about the significance of different elements, it is generally accepted that the prison system has as its remit a combination of the following 4 purposes:

  • Retribution (making criminals feel bad for what they’ve done, and victims feel somehow better)
  • Prevention (physically restricting criminals from continuing offending)
  • Deterrence (putting people off the idea of committing crimes in the first place)
  • Rehabilitation (ensuring that, if they are to be released at some point, criminals are prepared for going ‘straight’)

Despite the debates within the Justice System, I don’t believe that there is anybody who states “No, no, no… the purpose of prisons is simply_______!

So, in the same way, why can’t there be more than one clearly agreed-upon purpose for the education system?

Problem 2: How compatible might multiple purposes be?

Perhaps then – as with the prison example – we could define several distinct purposes to education, which together satisfy the different key things we reflectively want from it as a society.

A problem which could then arise is that the pursuit of one purpose might mitigate against our pursuit of another. In the prison example above, some attempts at rehabilitating prisoners can put them in a situation where prevention from continued re-offending could be weakened, or indeed, if the opportunities opened-up by correction are too good, they could reduce the deterrence effect of incarceration for would-be offenders whose lives seem to be spiraling downwards on the outside.

A similar problem arises with the tripartite ideals of the French Revolution (still entrenched in the  French constitution) – “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. Over time the French have wrestled with how to make these compatible bedfellows. Liberty doesn’t sit well with either equality or fraternity, most obviously if it is equality of outcomes that you’re after. If you want ‘equality under the law’ things just about work, but if you wanted, say, equality of opportunity – where children of all backgrounds get an equally good education, then you have to place limits on the liberty that people have to spend their money as they want. You certainly can’t have them spending money on enhancing their own children’s education, whether in the form of extra tutoring or private schooling, or trips to stimulating places etc.

In education itself, does the aim to create community-minded citizens necessarily fit snugly with developing liberated individuals? At the very least – if there is no philosophical conflict between different purposes – focus spent on one of them will likely take time away from another (the oft used ‘opportunity cost‘ objection), but then you can say that about the teaching of different subjects anyway. Time spent teaching Maths is time lost for the teaching of English.

So it could well be that the acknowledgement of multiple purposes to education will introduce new complications into discussions of the ‘best’ methods – but those are the complications which already seem to plague debate at every level anyway due to the underlying disagreement over the ‘one true purpose’ – particularly in internet discussions where it is clear that participants are simply ‘talking past each other’.

Problem 3: Clearly measurable outcomes?

It is a fundamental truth (I believe) that not everything of value to humans can be measured – at least not in a transparently unambiguous and objective sense (more in my next post). However, if we are discussing the application of science to the act of educating, then measurements of some kind are clearly going to be needed at certain points.

The problem with a purpose such as “For every child to fulfill their potential”, is that – as it stands – it is only meaningful at an intuitive or personally defined level.

  • For every child to fulfill their potential in what exactly…? In ‘life’? What – all of it? Love, career, happiness…? If just in their career, is this to be measured by money, status, job satisfaction…?
  • Or should we be asking: For children to fulfill their potential as what…? As everything that they want to be? As just the key things that they want to be? As everything which they could be? As the thing for which they have the potential for being the most successful at, irrespective of whether it’s what they want…?
  • And even if we manage to isolate which of the above we’re aiming for, who is to decide what that means for the individual child? Their parents? Their teachers? They themselves…?
  • And when should this outcome be judged? School leaving age? When they’ve finished making a family? When they’ve got as far up any career ladder as they are going to get? When they reach the point of retirement? On their death bed…?

Given all of this, how on earth should schools decide on the correct methods to help bring about such a purpose, and how would they measure their progress towards it? How would they ever know if they are taking the right approach?

It is no wonder that the Neo-Traditionalist movement is on the front foot at the moment with its simple purpose of “To make people cleverer” (see here and here). Not only is it relatively focused on one thing, compared to the many competing suggestions from more progressive educators at present, it seems relatively easy to specify, measure, and create methods for.

Problem 4: What aspects of ‘Education’ should actually be the responsibility of ‘Schooling’?

Another perspective which helps strengthen the arm of the Traditionalists is the stance that there should be a distinction made between the grand project of ‘education’, and the specific instance of ‘schooling’, as being a particular, institutionalised form of formal education.

For sure, most parents would be appalled at the idea that their children have learned nothing from the long years of family nurture and care, or indeed that schools might propose completely shaping children in the image that they or the state considered best. Furthermore, surely nobody would assert that the everyday messages and role-models which children meet throughout society – the media, the high streets, any groups that they are part of outside of school – have no formative ‘educating’ effect – for good or for ill.

Consequently, some educators suggest that the existence of schooling – following-on from its original reason for coming into being in its classical and medieval forms – is not to train or shape the character of people (that is the role of other aspects of society), it is to carry out the far more specialised function of developing the intellect and transmitting to the next generation the best that has been produced by human culture.

Again, there is a certain elegant purity to this position, and it certainly fits well with a more ‘libertarian’ as opposed to ‘paternalistic’ form of political outlook, where you’re trying to open up the opportunity for children to become whatever kind of person they might want to become, and make the choices they want to make, rather than forming them in a particular moral image chosen from above.

From what I’m saying here, it might seem that I am quite predisposed to this purpose (I do think that it is perhaps the defining cornerstone of a professional teacher’s job), but I still see it’s ‘single prong approach’ as a limitation (written about here) and anyhow, for now, it is lost in the 5th problem…

Problem 5) We just can’t find consensus on the purpose of education

As I have written previously, the purpose of education belongs to the society in which the education system is established and supported. It simply ISN’T a ‘given’ from some Platonic realm of Forms, to be hotly declared by me or any individual reader out there. If you are the head of an independent school, you certainly have some power to declare what your school is going to treat as its purpose, but a society-wide system of compulsory, tax-payer funded schooling needs something bigger.

Short of having a system made-up entirely of ‘free’ schools, from which parents can choose the one with the purposes they most approve of (logistically unworkable), or on having a public referendum on such a thing, the most democratic way of making sure that we have clear purposes representing our society will be through the consultations and deliberations of the elected government – informed by as wide a range of interested parties as possible.

Consequently, it was encouraging in the November of 2015 when the UK House of Commons Education Select Committee convened an inquiry into “The Purpose and Quality of Education in England”.

At the outset they stated… “As a Committee, we want over this Parliament to explore the fundamentals of education in England. Approaching this basic question of the purpose of education will pave the way for the Committee to examine whether our curriculum, qualifications, assessment and accountability systems really are fit for purpose.” They accepted written and oral evidence from a variety of sources, before concluding this process with a conference in September 2016, following which they stated …“The Committee plans to reflect on the conference before deciding its next steps.

At the present time of writing this blog post, the inquiry is categorized as ‘Concluded’ and of course there has been a change of parliamentary session, but as yet no ‘next steps’ or decisions ever seem to have been made public, 11 months on…

It could well be that they realized the problem of pinning down the ‘Purpose of Education’ was nigh on impossible. Here were some of the varying suggestions that they received from organisations submitting written evidence:

  • The City of London Corporation: “To educate and inspire children and young people to achieve their full potential
  • I CAN: “…we feel that education should prepare children and young people for life, learning and work, to be active and successful members of society.”
  • Teachers are Gold:The intended purpose of education for children of all ages is to prepare them as completely as is possible for life.”

(A broader selection of contributed purposes were reflected on by the University of Hull here)

Perhaps the most insightful contribution to the inquiry was the keynote speech during the conference of Professor Mary Beard (also quoted from at the beginning of the previous post) which seemed to acknowledge many of the issues I have pointed to here, and (just perhaps) might have resulted in the dead-end which the inquiry seems to have reached:

“If I was forced to say what I thought education is for. I guess I might say that it is “the process by which screaming babies are turned into the kind of human beings we would like them to be, both individually and en masse”. It’s not usually put that way but it’s broadly true, uncontroversial and doesn’t tell us very much. It only gets interesting and controversial when we try to pin down what kind of human beings, or human society, we want, and which of the many desiderata we should prioritize…. More practically it gets controversial when we try to narrow down those desirable aims into something that the formal education system can or should deliver and how we judge whether it has done a good job. Schools aren’t the only places involved in turning babies into people and what particular contribution we can expect of them is always going to be a matter of debate.”

Despite the insightful nature of Professor Beard’s summary though, perhaps the most telling contribution came from the oral evidence of Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools and head of OFSTED at the time (a role he’d held for several years – so he should have been clear what he was talking about). The significance of his contribution came from the apparent fact that he couldn’t actually seem to conceive of educational purposes beyond getting good exam results and thereby a good job (which could make people ‘happy’. See the transcript here – perhaps he felt it was beyond the technical remit of his professional role to state anything more).

The reason for me seeing significance in this statement is that, despite all our rosy, heart-felt, idealistic ruminations about what the real purpose of education should be, we are all already united by a universally established pithy single purpose, (however much we rail against it) which is easy to measure, and which is very much firmly in the remit of ‘schools’ as opposed to ‘society as a whole’; namely… to get children the best exam results we can.

It seems to me that pretty much the only useful debate which is ever had about methods etc. comes from the presence of this always flawed, never popular, public exam system.

If we took this system away, and then started to have a discussion about how best we could use the scientific approach to help with education, where exactly would we be? One way or another, we have to have some way in which we can justify the value of education to the society which pays for it. However flawed the current assessment system is, there does HAVE to be some kind of assessment system, and the best one will result in a currency that has broad recognition and utility past the point of exit – society will not stand for anything else for very long. Consequently, any replacement headline purpose for education, which isn’t just the nice additional ‘value added’ window dressing, which so many worthy additional aims are on the billboards of schools, must start by establishing EXACTLY how it will be quantified and be of use as a genuinely versatile ‘paper currency’ for young people once they pass the departure gate. However many employers might say that they’re going to start ignoring paper qualifications and administer their own aptitude tests for job applicants, I don’t believe that this will never become a wide-spread or efficient system for HR and employers.

So, to summarise then: As it stands, the ground in education is poorly prepared for scientific research and insights to make much impact beyond seeking ways to increase the grades achieved using traditional assessment structures. If we wish for wider applications of the scientific method, we need to identify and clarify ways of operationalizing other goals such that progress towards them can be in some way meaningfully measured – both as an end point, and as a path of progression towards them.

In part 3 of this series of blog posts, I will turn my focus onto the enterprise of science as a means for informing and developing the enterprise of schooling.

SCIENCE and EDUCATION: Limits & Possibilities. Part 1 – The fuzziness of EDUCATIONAL DEFINITIONS

5Triangle Soft Abstract Geometric Blurs Background

During this 5-part blog post, I aim to survey the current relationship between the enterprise of education and the application of scientific enquiry and research findings. In particular, I wish to assess the capabilities of the scientific method for examining the processes of education, and also how we might profitably apply the findings of scientific research from other areas.

A large amount of renewed attention has been focused on the potential for science-led innovation in pedagogy in recent years, with movements such as researchED aiming to help link teachers with relevant areas of scientific research and in general become a more ‘evidence based’ profession.

However, exactly what should we realistically expect from the most perfect marriage of science and teaching practice?

In the first two posts I wish to prepare one half of the ground, by looking at some of the current limitations of this thing we all call ‘education’ and which we all talk about from a position of such intimacy.

In the third post I am going to flip over to look at the enterprise of science, to give – I hope – an open-eyed perspective on what it genuinely could hope to offer education, and what – in all likelihood – it will never be able to give us.

In the fourth post I will portray the fundamental challenge to any theorist of the human condition – the mind-boggling challenge of interactional complexity.

Finally, in the fifth post, I aim to give a road-map as I see it regarding the emerging state of the relationship between the two fields.

Firstly then, into the ‘murky’ concept of Education…

“So what should we do? The point of much of what I have said is that we have to face up to the fact that education in the broadest sense is one of the most elusive subjects in the human sciences; that we are bound to disagree and never to get it right, and never even really know how right we are getting it.”

(Professor Mary Beard – from her keynote speech to the House of Commons Education Committee conference into the Purpose and Quality of Education in England – 13th September 2016)

In order for the techniques of science to have something useful to add to the practice of education, we need to be as clear as possible about what it is that we are wanting to apply science to. Of course, we all know what ‘education’ is… after all, even if we aren’t working professionally in the field as adults, all of us since our earliest memories have spent a significant amount of time on the inside of the education system, partaking in it and having it ‘done’ to us…

However, this intimate familiarity can blind us to just how fuzzy and confused an area education is, before we even start to talk about methods. This fuzziness comes from two general areas – definitions and purpose.


One of the most intriguing things in life (I think) comes from how much of it seems to make sense until we start to stare directly at it, and try to pin down exactly what it is, and exactly what we mean when we refer to it. In the same way that writing was invented as an approximation of direct verbal communication, verbal communication itself evolved as a way to approximate directly experienced  reality – sufficiently for everyday usage and survival – whilst not always quite getting to it with complete precision. In the process of doing this of course, it has also helped – in turn – to shape that experienced reality.

So… educationlearningintelligenceknowledgeunderstandingskills… all of these are commonly used words in everyday English, and must surely be close to the heart of what professionals should be doing in classrooms, but it seems clear from any modest amount of reading, that we have a very poor consensus regarding exactly what we mean by them.

Now, it is often the case that the popular usage of a word isn’t the same as its technical usage in a particular domain. For example, in the humanities and social sciences, the word ‘modern’ refers to a particular style or historical period, rather than simply the everyday sense of ‘whatever is the most up to date’.

However, rather strangely, in the field of education, it is hard to find technical definitions of the words I singled-out above which significantly differentiates them from everyday use, and certainly which defines them so unambiguously that everybody working within the field knows exactly what is meant by them. Take this recent blog post by Cognitive Psychologist Daniel Willingham on the definition of ‘learning’ (the discussion in the comments section is essential to it) or the over 900 tweets which were spawned in response to this tweet of mine querying the definition of knowledge (David Didau also followed that up with a blog post exploring it further).

‘Knowledge’ is a good example to pick on, as it is frequently used at the present time to label differences in educational approach – ‘knowledge’ vs ‘skills’ – ‘knowledge-based’ schooling etc.

In everyday practice we use the words ‘know/knowledge’ to mean – amongst other things…

  • a ‘justified true belief’ – something we can’t be proven wrong about.
  • a familiarity with something/someone – “I know the basic rules of football” or “I know the sister of the Headteacher
  • an acknowledgement of understanding – “I know what you mean, it’s just that…”

In addition, taking a lead from cognitive science, for David Didau knowledge doesn’t simply imply true beliefs, it is all of the ‘stuff’ we have learned and stored away in our brains – however trivial or erroneous. It is the sum total of what veteran philosopher of cognitive science, Daniel Dennett, in his recent opus “From Bacteria to Bach and Back”, handily refers to as ‘informational structures’ in our brains, which includes understanding, skills, beliefs and anything else we might pick-up during our life.

So when some of the derision on Twitter aimed at the recent announcement of the new BPP “Knowledge-based PGCE” was because (effectively) “we all teach knowledge don’t we?!”, it was facilitated by the weakness of the term. Perhaps indeed, the description of the course should read:

The first teacher training course to prioritise the voracious accumulation of domain-specific propositional/declarative ‘know-that’ as the route to building capabilities in pupils, rather than the oft celebrated alternative approach of trying to prioritise the development of domain-general procedural ‘know-how’, independently of the ‘know-that’…

I admit that it could look awkward on a poster, but it might have deflected some of the less necessary ire.

It could be deduced then, that if we’re to debate a lot of these things, we really just need to make sure that we’re using key words according to the ‘expert’ definitions. However, as my link to Willingham indicates, we might find that there are no definitive answers out there.

Indeed, despite referring to ‘informational structures’, Dennett points out that we struggle to properly define what ‘information’ is in itself. Certainly, we can’t view ‘semantic information’ in our brain and culture in the same way that we have come to view ‘Shannon Information’ – the binary unit measure of data in computing. The brain storage and representation of units of ‘knowledge’ is, at best, understood as being distributed widely, and in constant shift as processes interact (something which I’ll come back to in the final post).

There is a general problem here that, even if we come up with a definition wide and general enough to allow a word to cover all the things that we – seemingly intuitively – feel that it should, every concession makes it harder to do anything particularly useful with that word. If ‘knowledge’ for example, does cover all of the informational structures in the brain, then it becomes meaningless to talk about ‘knowledge-based’ schooling, and we need to create new terms with much more specific meanings in order to facilitate debate and research. If we can’t operationalise a concept – clearly demarcate what it means distinct from other concepts – then we can’t begin to scientifically verify that it does function as a discrete entity, and any investigation of it might equally well be done through the realm of poetry.

An example from wider culture could be the word ‘love’ – used constantly without people getting too confused. But are the following emotions really linked by anything more than the word love?

  • The romantic passion which we feel for someone we’re making plans to marry (“I’m in love with her”)
  • The heartfelt compassion which we feel towards the victim of some disaster (“I’m demonstrating love for that person”)
  • The pangs of attachment which as a child (and maybe beyond!) we feel towards our favourite cuddly toy (“I love that teddy!!!”)

Arguably then, we should derive more meaning from the well-known song lyric “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with” (attributed by songwriter Stephen Stills to Billy Preston) by turning it into “If you can’t be with the one you feel passion for, act compassionately towards the one you’re with (until you develop an attachment to them…)Perhaps best off not trying to sing it to the same chorus line though.

It is clear that any scientific investigations of the concept of ‘love’ then have to very clearly define some quite different processes, even if they notionally share the same umbrella term (and that is indeed what researchers do with love – 7 or 8 categories are not uncommon).

So the first big message to come out of these blog posts is that, if we wish for the scientific method and its body of existing findings to have much utility in education, we need to put much more concerted effort into defining and operationalising the concepts which we all, so far, only loosely talk about.

In many cases I suspect that this might require creating or adopting new terms to give extra clarity to things such as ‘learning’ or ‘intelligence’, and perhaps not being so quick to reduce so many things simply down to the heading of ‘knowledge’.

In my second part, I’m going to return – once again – to the hoary old topic of the purpose of education…

Forget Trad vs Prog – there’s some genuine debate to be had!


Let’s talk about beliefs, convictions and assumptions.

Let’s talk about those inclinations and cognitive structures that often lurk unseen for months in the backgrounds of our minds – perhaps being pushed aside in favour of simply catching the balls which are thrown our way, as the firehose of term-time school life … (the overcrowded curriculum, the unmanageable lists of non-negotiables, the ever-more-complicated-than-we-would-like-it-to-be conundrum of how actual children think, feel and act…) … hits us squarely in our faces.

Yes, let’s try to bring back out into the open those underlying ideals which perhaps drove us into teaching in the first place, which were fanned and inculcated in us during our initial training, and which underpinned how we imagined we would approach everything which lay before us.

But let’s stop talking Traditionalism vs Progressivism for a few moments. Let’s assume that both of these labels identify IDEOLOGIES – and by that I mean systems of beliefs – things which only really apply if you buy-into the whole package, but which seem to dominate the entire landscape at the grittier end of the educational blogosphere and EduTwitter. Why…?

The Trad v Prog debate stifles real discussion for the following reasons:

  • It is assumed that the two full-on polarities of Traditionalism or Progressivism must categorise everyone, despite the fact that there are multiple blends possible of the different aspects which make them up. Quite probably [made up stat alert] more than 95% of teachers wouldn’t identify themselves fully as either properly Prog or Trad.
  • To make things worse though – to avoid people simply absenting themselves from the proper Trad v Prog war – there is the insistence by Andrew Old, the king of the teaching ‘battleground’, that you are only really a trad if you fulfil all the criteria which make up the full ideology (he lists them under the headings of Authority, Content and Methods) – and critically – if you don’t fulfil those criteria, you are, by default a Progressive (explained here and here). It’s as if he’s generously giving the other side a much bigger team, but that act forcibly sweeps up multitudes of people who really don’t think the label fits, who don’t want to fight on those terms anyway, and who – together – don’t have any coherent group identity other than simply being ‘not pure-blood trads’. It’s a clever sell to a degree, in that people who are disappointed as to have not made the trad team due to maybe a third of their approaches being outside it, feel compelled to buy-in to the full creed so as to belong. It regularly happens in religions and political parties of course. [You’ve described yourself as politically centre-left Andrew – so are you a Communist or a Capitalist..?!]
  • Finally, the whole teaching philosophies and practices cake could actually be cut in multiple other ways anyway, if we really tried to mark out the lines and get some steam up. How about banging-on about the real war being between the following 3 philosophies, and categorise each other according to them?
    1. Behaviourist: Children are basically part of the animal kingdom, and need to be trained by stimulus-response, and assessed by outward signs of behaviour.
    2. Cognitivist: Children are basically rational information-processing mechanisms, and need to be programmed to function in the most logical way, and assessed according to levels of rationality.
    3. Humanist: Children are spiritual beings which need to be set free, and should be nurtured to be the most creatively distinctive and truly individual people they can be.

These categories have been used very actively to keep debates going in the realms of psychotherapy for decades – why aren’t they our battle lines?

Or – if binaries are your thing, why not sort ourselves into whether we think human education should be completely devoid of digital technologies, or whether it should be enhanced by them as much as possible? There is of course plenty of this debate going-on anyway.

Of course, as with the Trad/Prog differentiation, both of these ways of carving ourselves up are probably met with the vast majority of teachers saying… “but it’s more complicated than these positions – it’s not necessarily either/or.”

But why does this stifle, rather than stimulate, proper debate?

The really big problem I think with the flaws of the Trad/Prog debate outlined above, is that it is gradually turning a lot of people to say that there really is no fundamental disagreement about teaching approaches or positions to be had at all. Not only is it not about those two ideologies, it’s not about beliefs, convictions or assumptions either – we just tend to pragmatically pick and choose ‘what works’ according to the needs of the situation, and we should just discuss techniques based on how well they fulfil that need in our differing situations.

Now, I would largely agree with this, and describe much of my varied practice being ‘pragmatic’. But then, we still find ourselves at loggerheads about ‘what works’ – for example whether or not there is good research evidence to support our claims, and we end up talking past each other in never-ending Twitter discussions, quibbling over details which aren’t actually the things which are getting in the way.

This is because, beyond the need to teach-to-the-test, our opinions about what works are massively coloured by the individual beliefs, convictions and assumptions – whether conscious or not – which we bring into the classroom each day.

THESE are the things which we need to try to bring out into the open if there is disagreement on technical details, and try to have fertile, respectful, energetic debates about – without trying to constantly herd each other’s opinions towards one of two polarised mega-ideologies.

The things we need to be getting our teeth stuck into:

If you’re wondering what I might be referring to, try these as starters:

  • What do you believe is the natural essence of humans and children…?
  • How do you believe children naturally best learn…?
  • What do you believe to be the primary purpose of education…?
  • What do you believe the primary purpose of schooling should be…?

Personally I don’t believe that there is a single overarching answer to any of these, but it would appear that many teachers believe that there is, or indeed that there should be one single, fundamentally overriding, soundbite. Do you personally have ones which you like to profess or bring to mind?

Additionally, if you’re really struggling to avoid the shrug of the shoulders which says “I really do just go with the hunch of what’s pragmatically the best thing to do in each situation,” try starting with the phrase “In an ideal school….” and play around with different endings and the response they prompt in you. For example:

  • In an ideal school… children would discover as many things for themselves as possible.
  • In an ideal school… children would know as many things as possible.
  • In an ideal school… I would personalise the education of children as much as possible.
  • In an ideal school… I, as a teacher, would be almost invisible in the learning process.
  • In an ideal school… the teacher would be deferred to as the relative expert in the learning process.
  • In an ideal school… children would show respect to teachers irrespective of whether it had been ‘earned’ or not.
  • In an ideal school… there would be no subject boundaries at all.
  • In an ideal school… what gives each subject its distinctive flavour would be passionately communicated to children.
  • etc. etc. etc.

I think that most of us would find ourselves either agreeing or disagreeing with most of the statements above – in other words, we have a belief or conviction which will colour our pragmatic choices whenever we have some freedom to choose. And if for any of them you found yourself saying “Well, DUH! Of course! Doesn’t everyone think that?!” then you really do have underlying assumptions which are worth pulling-out into the open and discussing with others as to why they might not agree with you. All of the above will make a significant difference as to how we all teach, and experience teaching, over time.

Of course, some of the things I’m talking about might be based on such personal beliefs and world-views that to debate them would either be crass, futile, or more usefully discussed in a different sphere of human discourse. Nevertheless, acknowledging them, and pointing to their roles in underpinning our educational decision making, is vital for real discussion of contentious issues.

There’s some genuine debate to be had out there!

Understanding then Compliance, or Compliance then Understanding…?

Compliance then Understanding

A key phrase struck me when reading Cassie Cheng’s most recent blog post, concerning the way in which lesson observations are handled at Michaela (a very positive post I thought overall).

It was this phrase included in an example of the kind of email feedback which she gets…

…You don’t always need to seek understanding from the kids, but if they have any kind of negative reaction, give them a second DM.  They’ll get the message! ..”

Now, as Cassie has clarified in the comments section to this post, there is a carefully calculated procedure going on with this, and this post isn’t an analysis of what is actually done at Michaela. However, when I initially read it, I paused for thought, and contemplated the notion of simply driving-home the punishments irrespective of whether or not a child understands why they are getting them. I have to be clear, in the same feedback on Cassie’s post it is made plain that the reason for a demerit should be openly stated, so I’m not for a moment suggesting that what is going-on here is obscure or hidden. Rather, I think that the point being made is that teachers shouldn’t have to justify the RULE, even if they do justify (in positive terms) why the CONSEQUENCE is being given with reference to the rule. Indeed, as Cassie points out below, the key thing here is signalling the DM without the lesson being de-railed.

However, pondering the thoughts opened-up by this reminds me of two forms of Catholic schooling experience which I had as a Primary School child. One of these was in Blackburn, at a (now demolished) prep school. I recall the Head Mistress there – a nun called Sister Gabriel (an extraordinary lady in all the best senses) explain that the reason why it was appropriate to smack children was because they didn’t know what they were doing. In other words, since children couldn’t be reasoned into good behaviour, they needed to be trained behaviourally.

I then moved down to a state Primary School in Devon – again led by a nun – Sister Canice (an extraordinary lady in all the best senses) – who I recall explaining that because children didn’t know what they were doing,  it was unfair to smack them. In other words, they didn’t deserve punishment.

I’ve always looked-back with fascination on such an opposing conclusion being drawn from the same apparent starting point – not least because I understood both their perspectives. Sister Gabriel’s position was from a forward-thinking formative perspective: you need to get children to a particular position behaviourally, irrespective of whether or not they are able to reason themselves to that position, or are even old enough to understand why once it is pointed-out to them.

Sister Canice’s position on the other hand was from a retrospective restorative justice perspective: It was unfair to treat these kids as if they knew what they were doing, and punish them accordingly; they simply didn’t deserve it.

Now, of course it is also possible to see Sister Canice’s position as being a kind of forward-thinking one; She wanted to create humans who valued fairness and reasonableness as they moved-forward in life. However, the question which I find myself pondering is: at what level might conformity serve us better than fairness…?

It is clear that there are some areas where we really need to train children to comply without waiting for them to discover for themselves why, or without even needing to give them a reason why. For young children, sticking fingers into plug sockets and running towards roads are two examples. It is also clear that – if they’re being brought-up as humans rather than dogs – we should seek understanding from them if we expect them to toe the line. Perhaps allegiance to a particular political party, or adult participation in a religious tradition would be examples of this.

Where do we stand on this with school rules? How much does the social cohesion of a pattern of respected school norms – with the knock-on in productiveness in other goal-seeking areas (i.e. a minimisation of distractions in lessons) – prove itself to be more important for the creation of an 18 year old mature human, than the pursuit of understanding and full-hearted consent? To what degree does this follow the tension between micro and macro justice which I wrote about here?

I know full well that this isn’t a fully clear binary issue, and the truth of the question may rely entirely on the exact circumstances of the situation we find ourselves in. I’m more raising it as a question rather than proposing a definitive answer. However, I can clearly see situations where in the past, my own formation through areas I neither understood nor had choice over, gave me a strength and an understanding which, with hindsight, I’m not sure I would have had otherwise.

To quote from the most recent Doctor Who episode…”Your consent must be pure…” Must it really be in education? As a society, can’t we actually justify NOT requiring consent of children for school rules based on our own experience of seeing the usefulness in our lives retrospectively? Isn’t there a case that – imperfect though they are – human adults are a little less imperfect than human children when it comes to judging what will be in the interests of said children, and the classrooms which they inhabit? I spent some years in charge of a boarding-house for 7-14 year olds, and a proclamation I occasionally heard when laying-down the law (and despite my best efforts at having justified it) was “But I don’t see why we can’t…..!”. “Yes,” I would respond, “and that is why we don’t have 13 year olds running the boarding house…”

A final reflection: Both my parents were piano teachers. We had two pianos in the house when I was young, and for me they were like TV’s. Every house has a piano I thought. My mum kept trying to teach me piano, but kept giving-up if I lost interest (which I tended to do after 3 weeks). She never wanted to force me to learn, and so I never did. If I resent my mother for anything which she has ever done, it is that she never forced me to learn piano when I had such an opportunity! (It’s ok Mum – I don’t really resent you for anything, but………….)

I would really welcome responses to this….

Why Michaela can never be generalised

Michaela Adapted

This post is nothing to do with the overall theory and educational approach of Michaela School. It is not a critique which suggests that there is anything about the way in which it is doing things which is wrong. It also is nothing to do particularly with whether or not society will ever any longer tolerate a ‘one size fits all’ approach to schooling – of any kind. I have not visited Michaela, and I have not even read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers yet (it’s taken its place in line on my Kindle though).

Rather, it is about inevitable features of the school which makes it fundamentally different to the majority of similar schools which might follow, and perhaps which might be worth bearing in mind when its public exam results start to roll-in and (hopefully) people also reflect down the line on the success of its ex-pupils in life beyond education. It’s going to be a while before we can truly assess the model of education which it’s espousing…

Michaela is both trail-blazing and it is unique – and it is this uniqueness which means that they are going to be hard to replicate. For a start, as David Didau and Katharine Birbalsingh acknowledge, good schools create a belief in their children that their school is special, and that they are in some way the fortunate ones for being there; a special in-group which is defined by how much better it is than the ‘out-group’:

“This is, I think, how successful schools in disadvantaged areas operate. They create an in-group where ‘we’ are different to everyone out there. ‘We’ feel privileged to be in the in-group and appalled at the idea of what it must be like to be a member of the out-group. ‘We’ notice everything that makes us different from ‘them’ and we revel in the differences.” (From The Learning Spy)

“If you read nothing else, read this by David Didau. It is so spot-on in everything it says. It chimes with my years of experience in a variety of schools and it is for these reasons that at Michaela, we do as David says: we talk about being ‘Top of the Pyramid’. Many schools do this. It is a trick of illusion used by teachers in their classrooms and heads in their schools. “We are better than them” is the sentiment. We can behave better, work harder, strive more, and these attributes make us ‘better’. We aren’t failures like the kids who choose gang life over a life of hard work. We are better than that. At Michaela, we so believe in the sentiment that we have ‘Top of the Pyramid’ painted on the wall. We are the best. We are so damn good, we are going to give those boys at Eton who think they are the best a real run for their money. Think you are the best Eton? You haven’t met Michaela yet.” (from To Miss With Love)

Why do schools do this? It is a psychological trick to help create self-fulfilling prophecies, where children work in line with the aspirations which they have now acquired due to their belief that they actually have everything to play for in life. Perhaps it’s quite allied to Growth Mindset theory.

Of course, the danger is that many children – particularly cynical and increasingly worldly wise teens – are likely to see through this unless they genuinely are privileged to be at a particular school due to the special features it objectively has compared to other schools. (Which is easy to convince yourself of if you are at the only Grammar, or Independent School in the area).

However, Michaela literally has these objective features in bucket-loads, without it needing to be academically selective or fee-paying, and hence I think that its generalisability needs to be viewed with caution.

To explore why this is the case, let’s look at 3 areas: Their Head, their teachers and their pupils.

The Headmistress – Katharine Birbalsingh.

By any fair assessment, Katharine Birbalsingh is an incredibly impressive person to have running a state-funded school. She had an international upbringing, went to Oxford, and taught in 5 inner-city secondary schools in 10 years. She developed her belief in a knowledge-based education when it was still rude to talk about it publically, and became so passionate that she made headlines at the 2010 Conservative Party Conference by speaking-out about the British education system.

Not only is she the Headmistress of Michaela, but she was also its founder – the school is there because of her vision and her efforts, but – despite being utterly dedicated to its own success – she is still heavily committed to fighting the wider cause of knowledge-based education:


The Michaela pupils will see Katharine appearing on national television talking about Michaela’s uniqueness and vision. They will also see the regular rafts of visitors to the school – including camera crews – and have it consistently reinforced to them that “this school is special!”

When Katharine actually stands in front of the school and then does indeed tell them with great conviction that they are the “top of the pyramid” – the lived reality will make her own authority to say this very hard to contest. This is no game-playing illusion creation, she genuinely believes it, and she will appear to have an almost mythical status when declaring her visionary words, compared to most inner-city secondary school heads.

I have no doubt that the children will rise to things accordingly. Good luck to the rest of the Headteachers across the globe to match that!

The Teachers:

“So the idea of reserving all the clever teachers for the brightest seems wrong.” …

“To reserve the cleverest staff for the brightest children because they will want to discuss more Shakespeare is both unfair in my opinion, and simply not true. At Michaela, we take children who were years behind their chronological reading age on entry and have them writing glorious essays on Macbeth within 2 years.

If we didn’t have super bright staff (and I don’t just mean teachers), we wouldn’t be able to do that.” (my bold emphasis) [from To Miss With Love]

It is clear that Michaela have super bright (according to the post above) and super committed (according to various other criteria) staff. Including Birbalsingh, 14 individual members of Michaela staff have their own blogs, and 3 other members contribute towards the Arts blog.


Almost without doubt, teachers there will have been individually challenged at some point by people beyond the school with regards to their allegiance to Michaela, and, whilst it could of course be argued that the current hostile climate towards the school might make it hard to attract staff (which wouldn’t be the case if it was a standard model of schooling), the fact that it does have that situation means that only the most committed teachers are likely to be teaching there. Teachers who – again – are going to be highly dedicated to proving that the model can work.

It is also possible too – and I will happily be put right on this – that the current fame of Michaela could attract able and dedicated teachers from a far wider area than is the norm for state secondary schools.

In other words, it cannot be expected that the vast majority of schools could ever have such a similar body of committed professionals working for them – unless they managed to stand-out from the crowd and – by default – draw nutrients from other schools.

The Pupils

What is immensely impressive about Michaela is that it is an inner-city school, without special entry requirements, which appears – from the media available online – to be predominantly made-up of people from British ethnic minorities. As was mentioned with the staff, it is quite possible to imagine the disproportionate degree of hostility directed towards Michaela as being a negative factor which shouldn’t be the case if their model of education became widespread. However, even with the difficulties they face, Michaela appear to have a waiting list for each year group, and – though the children may well be from a great spread of economic backgrounds, and bring with them a broad spread of academic aptitudes – I think that there could be little doubt that they will all have supportive family backgrounds. What family would send their child to such a publically controversial school otherwise?

Again, I could be very wrong about this, and am happy to be told so, but I imagine that most children don’t arrive at Michaela now without their parents being highly committed to the project which the school is pioneering. In other words, as with the teachers, there has been a degree of natural selection for Michaela pupils which means that whatever the school does, it will be unusually strongly supported by the parents (for a state school). Of course – as with independent schools – there will always be a cusp of parents who want to believe in you, but are nervously waiting to be convinced, and – at any moment – could back-out of the project. However, I simply can’t see the make-up of the parent body at Michaela as being representative of what you would get from a randomly sampled state school across the country, even if Michaela’s educational philosophy was to become the dominant form of schooling.


So, what is my point? My point is that, whatever trailblazing, pioneering, prejudice-busting, paradigm-changing effect Michaela might have on our education system down the line, it – in itself – will never become a template that could become a normal model within our education system.

This is irrespective of the rightness, or adoptability of knowledge-based education as a whole: Michaela is always going to be a unique and un-generalisable point in time – whatever it manages to open the doors to down the line, and this will need to be borne in mind when the public exam measures of school success start to flow in.