29 Apr 2021
Assistant English lead, Mary Hind-Portley finds a book that promises synthesis but brings little balance to key educational debates
This book claims to explore the future of teaching through Claxton’s critique of a range of practices he categorises as ‘trad’ with some comparisons with those of ‘progs’. These terms dominated social media debate for a while but now seem passé. Yet they proliferate in the book, which didn’t endear this reader to the debate Claxton wishes to present. While it is right to challenge current thinking and to present robust arguments for and against popular teaching and learning approaches, Claxton’s arguments appear personally rather than professionally driven.
The book begins in a Shakespearean fashion, but Claxton’s prologue affords little dignity to the house of ‘trads’. The tone is vituperative and invidious, with those in favour of a knowledge-rich curriculum taught through direct instruction referred to as ‘DIKR’. He offers some criticisms of ‘prog’ approaches, but it is ‘DIKR’ that Claxton writes acerbically about, referring to its “half-truths” pulling back teachers and leaders, “rather than encouraging them to move forward”.
Claxton also states that we need to explore the “misconceptions that have taken hold in the DIKR movement, so that we might allow the tide of necessary innovation to pursue its course”. But will Claxton support the reader to do this?
The opening chapter isn’t promising. Titled ‘Punch and Judy’ (a fighting metaphor that rather trivialises the book’s overall message), it names several current influential educators and, rather than presenting a rigorous, academic criticism of the theories they favour, quickly descends into pejorative comments. He dismisses one as a ‘young English teacher’, and refers to a school as ‘notorious’. Claxton maintains that he “has tried to be as even-handed as possible so far”, but this reader could only see the author as disingenuous, given the clear bias in his linguistic choices.
Rather than rigorous criticism of theories, it quickly descends into pejorative comments
Chapter 2, ironically named ‘Values’, introduces us to the ‘river of learning’ and an overview of ‘progs and trads’. It is hard to ascertain what the takeaway might be for the busy leader and/or teacher here. ‘Trads’ are presented as “less inclined to have the difficult, delicate conversations about what the outcomes ought to be, if they are to equip all young people to rise to the considerable…challenges of life in the mid- to late-21st century”. The charge could be levelled at this book so far.
From here, Claxton moves us through ‘Knowledge’, ‘Thinking’, ‘Learning and learning to learn’, ‘Memory’ and ‘Teaching’. After that, it’s on to chapters called ‘Reality ̶ getting out more’, ‘Research ̶ but what kind?’ and finally and eponymously, ‘The future of teaching’. These titles promise much but seem to deliver little more than an ongoing critique of the ‘DIKR’ approach. That would be fine, as far as it goes, but the arguments seem more intent on criticising the supposed singular approach of the ‘DIKR’ collective than in presenting a nuanced unpicking of specific aspects.
The comments on memory in Chapter 6 are hard to follow and hard to relate to the work and research on memory that has supported many teachers and leaders over the past few years. It would have been beneficial for the reader for Claxton to explore other theories of memory to support reflection on current pedagogy. The section on 4E cognition could have been an interesting area of thinking for readers if it had been a focus of the chapter.
In Chapter 7, Teaching, the criticisms Claxton puts forward about supposed ‘DIKR’ classrooms are contrasted with single examples of classrooms on the whole. Claxton also seems to assume that thinking is not part of a so-called ‘DIKR’ classroom, yet practitioners in knowledge-rich classrooms consistently maintain they use knowledge to build schema to support rich thinking. This comes across as another missed opportunity for genuine synthesis.
Overall then, The Future of Teaching is a diatribe against ‘DIKR’ as a single entity rather than a positive exposition of its author’s approach. “Education is a complicated enterprise”, he says, rightly. Which makes the reductive approach that follows sadly ironic.