I fully expected to hate this book.
I knew it would be full of the kind of progressive ideas I had fallen for as a trainee teacher (plus I disliked the title and the cover art). I was especially irked by the authors’ disingenuous claim that their ideas tread a “middle way” between traditionalism and progressivism. To be clear, they fall squarely into the latter camp. And yet, despite my misgivings, I have to admit that it made me pause for thought.
The authors describe their “Learning Power Approach” as an all-encompassing philosophy for education. It aims to “power up” children to be confident, curious, independent-minded humans ready to go out and explore the world. At its core is a model of the mind as containing various “learning muscles” – curiosity, attention, imagination, determination etc.
This seems to be a variation on the common progressive tendency to emphasise generic skills like creativity and collaboration. I remain unconvinced. There is good evidence to suggest these skills are “biologically primary”, and therefore quite easy for the brain to learn. Indeed, as a species, human beings were creating and collaborating long before we ever started going to school.
I also think it’s quite misleading to represent the mind like this. In my view, a model of the mind that encompasses the structures of working and long-term memory is both more accurate and more useful to teachers. I worry that the “learning muscles” concept could result in teachers holding serious misconceptions about how the brain works.
Human beings were creating and collaborating long before started going to school
Chapter one deals with creating a safe and interesting classroom space. The authors advise teachers to create a culture of order and routine, and to foster attitudes of mutual respect. So far, so uncontroversial. However, they also advocate strongly for project-based and discovery learning, claiming that real and authentic experiences are more engaging for children.
Sweller’s cognitive load theory suggests that these kinds of lessons, when used for new learning, are likely to overload working memory. If you read carefully, the authors do acknowledge that problem-solving is best attempted when pupils already have strong prior knowledge, but blink and you’ll miss the reference. This is a real concern. All too often, new teachers underestimate how much practice it takes to master content. Progressing too quickly on to problem-solving can leave children feeling confused and frustrated.
I also think this book encourages teachers to spend valuable time on peripheral things that don’t have much impact on learning. In chapter two, they suggest creating exciting and constantly changing displays of pupils’ work. In chapter four, they advise frequently re-arranging classroom furniture. I’m not saying there’s no place for these; every child feels proud when they see their work on display. My concern is that these things shouldn’t be a teacher’s main focus. As a new teacher, I often fretted about display. But since I’ve begun worrying less about what’s on the walls, and more about what’s in pupils’ heads, I’ve become a better (and a less stressed) teacher.
So why, despite all this, am I still giving this book three stars? It’s because the authors’ core message needs to be heard: education has the power either to motivate or to discourage. It can hook children on learning for life, or put them off forever. Of course, we all want our lessons to inspire and engage children. But in attempting this, teachers’ attitudes and dispositions count for something. It pains me that, in some quarters, those who reject progressivism have returned to precisely the same dire strategies that gave rise to it in the first place, like mindlessly copying notes from the whiteboard.
As long as there are children who are turned off education by our methods, the trad/prog debate will rumble on. As long as those children exist, books like this will (and, rightly, should) have their place.