12 Jan 2019
David Didau’s new book is basically a trad manifesto for closing the advantage gap, whose core argument runs: we should try to make children cleverer because it’s the best bet for improving their welfare. Schools can do this by teaching them a knowledge-rich curriculum full of powerful, culturally useful information, using the principles of cognitive science.
Essentially, he opens, whatever we’re after in life (happiness, fulfilment, wealth, good health), you can’t go wrong by trying to boost everyone’s intelligence. This is because intelligence correlates with lots of societal and personal goods (although he’s careful to note that the causal links have not necessarily been established).
While it’s hard to come up with a universally accepted definition of intelligence, we know it has multiple components, says Didau, some of which are more genetically determined than others. With traits such as mental acuity and speed of information processing, “what you’ve got is all you’ll ever have,” but one important thing schools can influence, he argues, is the “quantity and quality of what children know”.
He doesn’t make a big fanfare about it, but this is essentially his underpinning for the knowledge agenda in schools.
In fact, he argues, if we fail to teach knowledge, we will disproportionately disadvantage the disadvantaged. This is because some cognitive skills are just easier to learn – they are the ones that we are predisposed to pick up through observation and include problem-solving, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.
You’ll notice that these are the same attributes commonly referred to as “21st-century skills”. Didau challenges us to think of these instead as “Stone Age skills”, because they are “biologically primary” – ie, kids can learn them by copying.
What they can’t learn by copying is “secondary” knowledge, stuff that has to be taught explicitly, and if schools don’t teach this, it’s only the privileged kids that will get it – thus increasing disadvantage. His argument has nuance, acknowledging that some children will come from homes where even the primary skills need to be taught, thus justifying their inclusion in early years education.
In chapter two, Didau scores a stealth goal for knowledge transmission over discovery learning, by piggybacking it in off the argument that throughout human evolution, social learning (wisdom of the tribe) has been more efficient than asocial learning (trial and error). I can’t work out whether this is a stroke of genius or a Jedi mind trick. In any case, it merits discussion, and he makes a compelling argument for schools being a place where the accumulated wisdom of the tribe is transmitted, rather than where children “tinker around the margins of human culture, maybe discovering something useful”.
Didau scores a stealth goal for knowledge transmission over discovery learning
Referencing well-respected academic findings that suggest genetics and peer group are more important than parenting in determining life outcomes, he argues that schools are well placed to curate the peer-group experience. Successful schools in disadvantaged areas often work, he thinks, by creating the sense for pupils that they are part of a privileged “in-group” that values learning. The important thing is to help children develop habits that will serve them well in the long term.
Didau is careful to point out that the “science of behavioural genetics is probabilistic not deterministic”. In fact, he points out, the impact of genetics is much higher for those from privileged backgrounds. “Your genes might indicate something about your potential, but you’re far less likely to develop a high IQ if you’re abused and neglected.”
Environment matters most for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, so the culture of a school is crucial. This is a scientific justification for the social justice heart of the trad manifesto (which those who align more with a progressive view of education don’t always acknowledge!).
In his chapter on what knowledge schools should teach, he makes an impassioned case for a broad, powerful, culturally rich, coherent curriculum that children should be not only taught, but encouraged to critique.
Whether or not you end up agreeing with all his points, he writes beautifully and presents thoughtful arguments that deserve to be debated. It is a work of maturity that strives genuinely to take into account the counter arguments to his points. Oh, and with a Tango-orange cover that almost wills the reader to think “yes, I can – I can make these kids cleverer, dammit!” what’s not to love?