What if everything you knew about education was wrong?

Besides the annoying title (which made me want to not even start reading), David Didau has unfortunately managed to write a book so lacking in substance that I struggled to find a single new idea within the quite considerable word count.

I am a big ideas person; it’s what attracted me to teaching. Education is a big thing. It defies definition as it encompasses so much: knowledge, values and relationships. These are all big things in themselves, but education is more than this: the whole history of the human race, meeting the future, in the present – all happening invisibly inside hearts and minds. And yet this isn’t all that education is.

I want to read new ideas, or at least feel like I am reading a book by a person who has ideas. If I read a book about education I want it to take everything the author believes and distils it into something beautiful and useful; a book to remind me how exciting, how important, how vast my job is.

I appreciate that David has a substantial following on Twitter, who find his words wise and useful. I have heard him speak and we agree about lots of things. But he has not written my kind of book. He says in the introduction it is a book “about ideas”, and this is where it fails for me. (That’s on page 1, there are another 400 to go).

It opens by asking us to consider have we ever been wrong. Not difficult: we all get things wrong. I thought I was going to be a tiger-taming, supermodel poet when I was 18. We are then invited to write down five things we have been told in education that we “now possibly think are wrong”. There are lines in the book for reader participation; I didn’t participate. Not because I’m adverse to getting things wrong, or being told I am wrong. We are all wrong about stuff nearly all the time. I get it. I am sure most teachers get it. But this doesn’t stop Didau summarising an awful lot of psychology to convince us. We find pages of psychological theory: the fundamental attribution error, confirmation bias, group bias, the backfire effect, the anchoring effect, and so on. By the time you are through the first two chapters you feel as if you’ve been sitting in a psychology lecture. And not to a great end: I don’t need a psychological theory to tell me graded lesson observations are “entirely and utterly subjective”.

In chapter 3, Didau begins to deconstruct some of the beliefs we are told he once held, including “good lessons involve children working in groups with minimal intervention from the teacher” and “learning should be fun”. At this point my impatience at being told nothing (at great length) melded into déjà vu and it will for you if, like me, you have read The Seven Myths About Education by Daisy Christodoulou which coincidentally (or not) Dylan Wiliam also endorsed quite emphatically.

To be fair, David does throw a few new myths of his own in at this juncture: ‘children are naturally good and any misbehaviour must be my fault’ and ‘children should make rapid and sustained progress in each lesson’. However he manages to keep to the magic number of seven. It was insufferable to read the same guff as in Christodolou’s book, though at least Didau doesn’t try to lay the ills of teaching at the door of ‘postmodernism’.

Still, the whole premise of this book is absurd. Teachers don’t go around issuing authoritative statements about teaching. In reality, they quickly learn that teaching is a shifting mix of techniques resulting in successes and failures and a whole lot of emotion. One day we think we’ve cracked it; the next in the depths of despair wondering what went so very wrong. It is a witless teacher who thinks they have discovered any universal teaching maxims.

We need to look at this book for what it is: not a self-effacing examination of where a teacher has gone wrong in their thinking but rather part of a recent political narrative within education that mythologises a progressive approach. It conflates some highly skilled pedagogical approaches (group work and active learning) with a flat-pack version of teaching wheeled out on the whim of dimwit senior school leaders to please Ofsted. Teachers, even young ones, do not believe everything they are told, just because it comes with a lolly stick or a sparkly hat. This book is is just another in a stream of blogs and books that creates education models out of smoke and mirrors, before unpicking them and putting forward the “radical alternative” of making children learn hard stuff and behave themselves.

The salient points (and there are many) are regrettably obvious: graded lesson observations are rubbish, children need explicit teaching, they need to be taught difficult content, insincere praise doesn’t work.

Didau says in his introduction that a ‘threshold concept’ in his book is that learning is invisible. He imagines this might be a ‘troublesome’ idea for us. I would say that teachers deserve more credit than that. Just because we work within a system gone made with accountability, and which has been in the yoke of a lesson observation culture where learning must be seen and progress always visible, most of us nevertheless know this to be simply untrue.

The voice of the book is of a humble teacher who has seen the error of his ways; a teacher voice that is gently pushing us in the right direction, urging us to travel down the road he has travelled to partial enlightenment. I don’t buy it. My verdict? Don’t bother. Watch some Chomsky on YouTube instead.