Review by Jane Manzone

10 Jul 2015, 6:00

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.



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8 Comments

  1. I entirely disagree with this review of ‘What if everything you knew about education was wrong?’. The reviewer unfairly dismisses as ‘old news’ a well-written and detailed analysis of the really important debates raging at the heart of teaching and school leadership currently.

    The ‘Wrong Book’ is a timely disruption to dominant and often simplistic approaches to evaluating and improving, teachers and schools. The example of Mr Garvery in chapter one, might describe countless teachers operating within an accountability regime which does not always appreciate the nuance of statistics or the limitations that apply to the validity of assessing teacher performance. The belief in the ‘infallibility’ of data (ignoring the complexities of analysis) pervades school culture at the moment, and I think the book introduces a non-specialist reader to some vital areas of doubt.

    The other form of ‘infallibility’ which the book expertly undermines is over-reliance on reflection as the basis of professional judgement. The book introduces a non-specialist reader to a range of cognitive biases which identify the many ways in which experience alone can be misleading. Our profession has a tendency to hold up ‘best practice’ which may be nothing of the sort. It also suffers from decisions in schools being driven by sunk costs or group think. The way that teachers and schools are evaluated is also subject to these biases, not least the ‘halo and horns’ effect produced by attainment data. The reviewer dismisses all this because she already knows these things to be falsehoods, but it seems bizarre to ignore that these biases strongly influence the accountability culture operating in schools.

    The author applies these cognitive biases to eight widespread but misguided ideas which circulate in education. The reviewer unfairly dismisses this part of the book as some ‘re-hash’ of ‘Seven Myths’. It’s not clear whether she considers these self-evident nonsense and the author is wasting time attacking things no one believes, or they are important truths which the author is ineffectually attacking. She also ignores the timely and important discussion about the use and limitations of evidence and research within education.

    The ‘wrong book’ for me details a very personal journey from a position of false certainty about how we assess and observe teaching and learning through to a refreshing lack of certainty about how much we really know. The second (and by far the longer) half of the book explores a comprehensive range of educational topics in light of this doubt. These are indeed ‘salient’: linear progress, ‘outstanding’ teachers, schools killing creativity, use of lesson observations, formative assessment, motivation and children’s attributions, differentiation and praise. The reviewer seems to be under the impression that everyone working in education already knows everything in the book. I disagree! There are really important arguments here which most teachers and school leaders appear frighteningly unaware! I see the ‘Wrong Book’ as genuine opportunity to raise professional awareness of these highly topical debates and issues in education.

    • Slow Evolver

      I agree. I think the reviewer approached the book from their interpretation of the title and was expecting something different (which is quite understandable). I think the book needs applauding for encapsulating many of the issues that are affecting classrooms. When these issues are expressed or shared anecdotally they can easily come across as complaints from a tired teacher (when heard by a non-teacher) as opposed to things that could actually be considered as “wrong” ways of approaching things.

  2. andrew lowery

    “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.”

    This ignores the fact that teachers regularly receive ‘authoritative’ statements about education from pundits, Ofsted, SLT, etc. It is a brave thing to stand up to ‘policy’ of which you have no control. The book offers solace to those who feel buffeted by the competing agendas in education. If that’s not you, great, but to say those people don’t exist is ‘absurd’.

  3. Alan O'Donohoe

    Is it just possible that the reviewer doesn’t fit the intended audience for this book?

    For example, it would not surprise me if one expert on Fine Art disagreed with another expert’s writings in “A Guide To Understanding Fine Art”.

  4. How about a review of the review. Jane is “a big ideas person”. I think not. She’s keen to tell us that she’s aware of her failings. I think not. Jane knows everything about teaching and learning and doesn’t need to know anything more than hew own definition and approach. The most laughable sentence in her review is “Teachers don’t go around issuing authoritative statements about teaching” which is exactly what her review consists of. Of course, Jane has that magic ability to distinguish between ‘guff’ and the ‘truth’. This isn’t a review – it’s a rant by someone who lacks analytic skills. I don’t agree with a lot of what’s in the book but to dismiss the very many ideas discussed as ‘guff’ is infantile. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that I doubt whethere the reviewr has the distance and critical skills to be a teacher never mind a reviewer. To the editor of Schools Week, find someone with the ‘smarts’ to be able to do proper reviews.

  5. I tend to agree with Jane. I found the book very simplistice with David identifying all of those issues that nobody understand but himself. The book is his attempt to enlighten the rest of us, you would almost think he was an educational consultant.

    I think most people(including Jane and myself) are not taken in by much of the nonsense floating around in schools. Much of the inconsistency between what teachers think and what they do is about individuals trying to do the best they can within a system that is corrupt and ethically derelict. Vested interests pervade the whole wretched thing.

    I think it is worth doing a review of the review (well a small part) ….

    Donald here made the following observation for instance….

    “Teachers don’t go around issuing authoritative statements about teaching” which is exactly what her review consists of.

    I feel that Jane’s review is simply an expressions of her reactions to the book. I dont’t belive Jane claims to make authoritative statements, she simply says what she thinks. She uses the terms “I” and “me” indicating that she is clear that the opinions expressed are hers and people can take them or leave them.

    I agree with her again. I do not think “teachers go around making authroitative statements” with a few exceptions I guess. If you go to the Turford School stuff you will find that they do in fact make lots of authoritative statements about education, if fact they seem to have identified the elusive truth.

    This is a review, as are the comments that follow. I know David et al will not believe it, but teachers will be able to read the review and comments and make up their own minds. hence the premise of the book is a little misguided.

  6. Peter Steidinger

    “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.”

    I do not think so. At least in Switzerland you will find much practice and theorizing about education that shows you, how many ill-defined or plainly wrong concepts are used in education. David Diaus book may not tell you something, you could not have known before – but at least it tells you, THAT there may be concepts you should think about. And making people thinkinstread of just relying on their sense for the “obvious” is not such a bad thing.