Review by Kris Boulton

19 Nov 2017, 5:00

The Missing Piece: The essential skills that education forgot

Schools are the only institution through which – with limited exception – every single citizen is guaranteed to pass.

Therefore, as soon as some problem is perceived in society, schools are the place to go to fix it.

The Missing Piece is a book about a perceived problem and how schools can fix it, born out of the author’s experience establishing and growing a social enterprise that works with schools.
Despite my apparent scepticism, I’m deeply sympathetic to its cause.

The book kicks off with a scene familiar to any teacher, lamenting that through a fixation on grades alone, the author’s pupils “were unable to work together, they could not communicate effectively, and they gave up easily. They had never been asked to set their own goals.”

I went into this an open-minded sceptic, excited that I might be convinced we can teach these essential life skills, and that I might finally learn how to do it.

I was disappointed.

There is no analysis of how children who do effectively demonstrate these skills happen to develop them, so no compelling evidence that these “skills” are teachable in the way the book suggests, beyond the personal assertion of the author.

Where research is cited, it is often opinion surveys; at one point the statement “research suggests” is made without any citation, and at another a rather bold statement begins “there is growing evidence in management academia…” which references Jim Collins’ 16-year-old book, Good to Great, now mostly remembered because nine of its 11 supposedly “great” companies have since failed or underperformed.

The book felt like a rehash of something I would’ve read 10 years ago

The book felt like a rehash of something I would’ve read 10 years ago. As ever, it speaks to a problem we all feel and describes it well, but fails to articulate a compelling solution. Despite a clear effort to provide structure, I felt lost amid the waffle: long lists of poorly defined, frequently repeated words that broadly mean the same thing.

While he stops short of repeating the now debunked claim that “65 per cent of future jobs haven’t been invented yet”, the author does write “I have lost track of the number of times I have been sagely advised many of the jobs our children and young people will do in 10 years haven’t been invented yet.”

It reads as if the burgeoning cognitive revolution of the last few years never happened. There are frequent references to Anders Ericsson, and Dan Willingham pops up in the bibliography, but other than that, work that would be important to the fields of learning and measurement is missing. For example, what role might David Geary’s biologically primary and secondary learning play in unpicking whether or not these skills are teachable? I’ve no idea: it’s not discussed.

At one point, the book manages to spectacularly mispresent the debate about knowledge-led curriculums, successfully framing “teaching knowledge” as the preserve of political conservatives.

Then come levels, reinvented. If I tried hard to divine the purpose of this book, I might suggest it’s to sell the reader on yet another reinvigoration of the old level system, with all its problems and illusions. For example, level nine in listening equates to “I can use strategies to listen for a specific purpose”, which is apparently more advanced than analysing how a speaker uses gesture and language to engage an audience.

There are many moments of real hope: The question of university and employer responsibility is raised, as is the question of whether level descriptors represent real progression. Each time this happened I eagerly read on, expecting to have my scepticism quashed and learn something new. Each time, what came next was unconvincing, and left me feeling that the missing piece was right here.

I can’t recommend anyone read this, and I’m not even sure it would benefit the social enterprise if they did.

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