Telling is not teaching and listening is not learning

Roger Titcombe's picture

I am writing this shortly after the Chancellor, George Osborne, made his March 2016 budget announcement that all the remaining Local Authority schools in England will be converted into 'independent' Academies, with most handed over to private Multi Academy Trusts (MATs).

This did not go down well, not just with teachers and educationalists, but also right across the political spectrum including hundreds of Conservative county councillors in LAs where great legitimate pride is taken in the high standards of many of their comprehensive schools.

The announcement was swiftly followed by further disclosures of financial malpractice in a MAT previously lauded by Prime Minister David Cameron and former Education Secretary and Academy-promoting guru Michael Gove.

All this generated huge amounts of negative media comment, which nevertheless still largely failed to recognise the true scale of the catastrophe that this privatisation would inflict onto the English education system and completely ignored the implications for the degraded nature and quality of learning that would result.

The best written articles and informed comments can be found on the website of 'Disappointed Idealist' here and here and also in the posts of Henry Stewart and Janet Downs elsewhere on 'Local Schools Network'.

However, consideration of the damage of Academisation to quality of learning remains largely missing. That this is an inevitable consequence of marketisation is the major theme of my book, 'Learning Matters'.

Academisation is the English product of the 'Global Education Reform Movement'. It results in the replacement of 'Headteachers' by 'Executive Principals' and the domination of the 'behaviourist' assumptions that flow from the culture of 'training' that MATs impose onto their schools. I am not knocking training. I want the people that sit in the driver's seat of the 125+mph trains that take me to London to be well trained. Such training requires learning the BR drivers' handbook by heart and lots of practise in simulators. But training is not education, 'telling' is not 'teaching' and 'listening' is not learning.

This is because while assimilation of facts and knowledge is an essential part of learning it is not enough to secure deep understanding. The decline of teaching for deep understanding is a serious cumulative weakness in the English education system that will be worsened by universal academisation.  The 'Slow Education' movement provides a further explanation of this process.

This is what Vygotsky wrote:

As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level.

 This was a major plank of mainstream learning theory prior to the marketisation paradigm's increasing rejection of such 'complicated theorising' in favour of 'common sense' behaviourism. This is explained here.

Vygotsky argues that in schools, knowledge is first presented to learners 'on the social plane', which at the most basic level could indeed just mean listening to the teacher. For students to acquire understanding they have to individually 'internalise' this knowledge. This requires assimilating the new ideas in a way that makes sense to them.

This implies that talk is the essential currency of deep understanding and therefore effective lessons should encourage and provide opportunities for pupil-pupil discussion.

During 1981 and 1982 I carried out some postgraduate educational research at Leicester University where I was heavily influenced by the work of former Leicester postgraduate students Michael Shayer and Philip Adey. These educationalists progressed to Kings College, London where they set up and developed programmes of teaching for enhancing cognitive development based on the learning theories of Piaget and Vygotsky. Their book, 'Learning Intelligence', sets out classroom-based examples of how these approaches can be made to work in practice.

A key point is that developmental learning, as opposed to skills training, involves personal cognitive conflict as pupils struggle to assimilate new facts and knowledge in a way that makes sense to them. In schools and other important learning contexts the resolution of cognitive conflict is a social process essential to deep learning. Read more about this important principle here.

The implication for schools is that a special quality in the social relationships of the classroom is needed. I was lucky enough early in my career to work in a comprehensive school where such quality relationships existed, and it became a career goal to eventually achieve this in my eventual headship school. 

Pupils have to trust and not fear the teacher if they are to risk revealing the true depth of their misunderstandings. Peer relationships in classrooms have to be good enough for all pupils, organised in groups, to be comfortable with revealing their own lack of understanding to each other, as well as collectively and individually to the teacher, without fear or shame. This is a major pedagogic issue and a big ask not to be underestimated. Is it high on MAT leadership agendas? Has the Secretary of State got the faintest idea what I am talking about? I suspect not.

The increasingly common, popular with parents, school culture of behaviourist authoritarianism is unlikely to provide sufficient personal psychological security for the teacher or the pupils for the necessary social interactions to constructively engage. This is precisely the school culture promoted by the academisation movement because it is based on the behaviourist 'training' paradigm where, telling IS teaching and listening IS learning.

This Guardian article describes this academisation culture in practice.

 A further common thread and a key feature of Shayer and Adey's 'cognitive acceleration' approach is 'metacognition'. It means being aware of your own thinking. It recognises that language provides the tools for thought and that learners benefit from consciously ‘talking to themselves’ as well as talking to peers and the teacher, so developing a metacognitive ability that enhances their learning in all subject contexts.

I had been a science teacher for 10 years before my one year full time secondment to the postgraduate course M.Ed course at Leicester University. All the teacher-students were also experienced teachers given full financial support by the LEA to complete the course.

We learned in the context of significant pooled pre-existing professional experience. That fact greatly enhanced the quality of seminars and debate. In Finland, a country with a very high performing comprehensive education system, all teachers possess qualifications in the study of education at higher university degree level.

High profile failures of Academies and Free Schools are becoming ever more common. Like most teachers my age I had a long apprenticeship on a progressive pay scale uncorrupted by performance related pay. I learned from excellent Heads of Departments and worked under Heads/Principals that had themselves served a long apprenticeship in classrooms. They believed in collegiality and that teachers as well as pupils needed to develop.

I don't need to spell out where I am coming from here with regard to the emergence of schools allowed to be opened/taken over and run by ideologically driven enthusiasts lacking both depth of experience and academic understanding. One consequence is the onward march of superficially attractive, popular with parents, behaviourism in the classrooms of English schools.

This will lead to the degradation of the entire education system from the top down with predictable consequences for the quality of learning of our pupils.

The March 2016 George Osborne announcement of a major escalation in the imposition of this ideologically driven project must not be allowed to succeed.

All of this is set out and explained in a fully referenced and evidenced manner in my book, 'Learning Matters'.


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Comments's picture
Fri, 17/06/2016 - 19:20

Vygotsky is the most important educational thinker of the twentieth century, and his work is consistent with the findings of the latest brain research. He has also been cherry-picked, and this article is an example. Telling can indeed be teaching, depending on the quality of what is being told. Listening can indeed be learning, depending on the quality of what is being said, and how well the listener listens. Vygotsky's key text is Thought and Language, and the most important part is Chapter 6. I don't find anything there to support the idea that children learn by talking to each other, though I've not re-read it to check. His more popular Mind in Society is, unlike, Thought and Language, not based on direct observation and includes many errors, including taking comments from Cyril Burt at face value - eg, he believed Burt when he said that London children could start school at four, subject to space, and could read by 5.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 18/06/2016 - 11:07

Thank you John for replying to this article. I would far rather be argued with than ignored; something which the old version of this website seemed to facilitate more successfully. I will address your points in order starting with cherry picking. I am happy to readily admit to this. I do not hold up Vygotsky as an infallible guru. Gurus are discredited if they are ever found to be wrong. I don't believe in gurus. I agree with you about the value of Vygotsky's contribution, but I don't think he was right in every respect. Burt is now so reviled that Vygotsky's mistaken support for him is often quoted against Vygotsky, as if this mistake devalues all his other work. It does not, anymore than Isaac Newton's lifelong and deeply puzzling (to us) belief in alchemy and the Occult in any way invalidates his towering contributions to physics and mathematics. Cherry picking is the only rational way to treat the contributions of anybody in any field. Hence atheists (like me) are happy to quote some of the (reported) statements of Jesus, but to reject others. The same applies to the entirely opposing positions of both Confucius and Mao Zedong. In my view Karl Marx got communism largely wrong, but his understanding and analysis of capitalism remains unequalled. To return to Vygotsky, his contributions on the social dimension of learning continue to influence many current developmental approaches to teaching and learning. In Part 5 of my book 'Learning Matters', I refer to (in order): Shayer & Adey's 'Cognitive Acceleration'; Mortimer & Scott's Leeds University work on the importance of language to the internalisation of concepts; and the Mathematical Resilience work of Johnston-Wilder & Lee. My book also has a section on the 19th century practise of Richard Dawes which predates Vygotsky by many decades, but which is especially strong on social learning. Vygotsky is also the major influence on the current work of Carol Dweck and the 'Growth Mindset' movement. As for Vygotsky not specifically mentioning peer to peer learning, there is no doubt that this is based on his ideas. The Education Endowment Foundation finds this to be particularly effective. The work of Shayer & Adey is in my view especially important as it synthesises and integrates the work of Vygotsky with that of Piaget. Chapter 11 of their, 'Learning Intelligence' is especially strong in this regard. Shayer & Adey refer mainly to Piaget in respect of cognitive development and to Vygotsky for social plane learning. I believe that this approach remains the strongest theoretical foundation for rejecting the current cult of behaviourism in our schools, which results from the ideological imposition of the marketisation paradigm. In support of Piaget, Part 5 of my book also has a section on the work of Daniel Kahneman whose 'System 1 & System 2' thinking correspond directly with Piaget's 'concrete' and 'formal' stages of cognitive development.

Finally, of course 'telling' and 'listening' are important facets of learning, but they are not enough. They are all you get from behaviourism and the proponents of the 'knowledge-based' curriculum that the government is trying to force onto all our children.

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