Category Archives: Homeschooling Thoughts

Myth 6

Another chapter summary from “Seven Myths of Education”.


Myth :  Projects and Activities are the Best Way to Learn


Theoretical Evidence that this myth exists:

Projects and activities, which focus on real world problems, are the, currently, glorified methods of instruction.

An holistic approach, rather than a subject based focus, is currently desirable.  Making links, across subject areas, is a priority.

Teacher-directed instruction is labelled ‘spoon feeding’ and accused of churning out children who are unable to learn independently.  One study states that 1 in 3 uni students can’t learn independently.  It is believed that this is because teacher are treating students as empty vessels waiting to be filled and hence the uni students are expecting to be filled too.

Students should be able to use and apply a number of skills, within context, across a variety of subject areas.  Teachers want students to “think like a scientist”, and “think like an historian”.  They don’t want them to ‘just’ have knowledge.  The idea being that ‘scientific thinking’ will lead to ‘scientific content’ so the teacher doesn’t need to directly teach it.  It is believed that students are disempowered if given another person’s thinking.

The current view is that students need to be prepared for the real world and hence they need real world problems so they can ‘practice’ thinking like what they might be in the real world ie. scientists, historians etc.


Evidence that the belief persists in Modern Practices:

In the classroom, teachers are removing subject barriers and integrating real world problems across the curriculum.  Some keep subjects, merely as an organising structure, and teach projects within subject areas.

The goal is to make students more independent and less reliant on teachers.

Good practise is to have students asking their own questions, planning their own work, determining how they will find answers, exploring their own best way of learning, organising their time, and assessing themselves.

As well as learning, students nowadays are taking the role of teacher and assessor too.  Peer assessment is common practise.

Modern teachers are focused on students’ learning rather than teaching the students.  They plan realistic activities.  For example, a group of students was asked to help make the school library more eco-friendly.  The students had to design ideas, write emails, locate costs, give a persuasive pitch and presentation.

REAL – Realistic Experience for Active Learners.  These are fictional scenarios where the students act like experts in order to practice the skills they will need in the real world.  REAL activities provide opportunities to learn teamwork, communication, independent learning, and problem solving.  The activities are also enjoyable and motivating for the students.  The students solve complex realistic real world problems.  Little guidance is given to the students.

This approach is also used for teaching literature.  One example was given of a lesson on Romeo and Juliet.  The students were required to present a scene from Romeo and Juliet using puppets and props they made themselves.

In History, a class learned about the British empire through designing an Empire commemorative plate.

Website called Active History is full of REAL resources.  A very popular activity for learning about medieval history is designing a coat of arms.

Modern educators, rather than imposing knowledge on students, aim to have students construct their own knowledge.


Why is “Projects and Activities are the Best Way to Learn” a myth?

The problem with having novices ‘act’ as experts, aside from the fact that it takes years to become an expert, is that experts have a huge body of knowledge and process in their long term memory that novices don’t have.  This body of knowledge and processes changes how experts think.  It’s not just extra stuff that they know.  Experts actually solve problems differently to novices.

There is simply no short cut from novice to expert and it’s unrealistic to think that children or even high schoolers can ‘act’ like an expert.

Copying expert behaviours won’t make a novice an expert.  Experts and novices used different tactics when approaching problems.  Experts use ‘self-talk’ to help retrieve the knowledge and processes stored in their long term memory.  Novices have little to no access to such knowledge and processes so practicing ‘self-talk’, an expert behaviour, will not help a novice.

Modern educators are confusing causation with correlation.  Here’s an example of what this means.  There is an islander group called the cargo cult that remembers a time in WW2 when planes landed on their island.  The people want this time to return so they have built a makeshift runaway, and various parts of an airport, as best they could recall.  Their belief is that if they build it, the planes will come.  They believe that the visible environment (the correlations) would cause the planes to return.  Returning to our education example, educators teach children ‘self-talk’ because it is a known expert behaviour and they want their students to become experts so they practice expert beaviours.  However, self-talk is not what ’causes’ people to become experts.

Having novices copy the behaviours of experts (ie think like a scientist, think like an historian) doesn’t acknowledge the body of knowledge and processes that experts have stored in their long term memory.

In lessons, educators shouldn’t aim to have students act and think like experts.  Instead, they should aim to equip students so one day they can solve problems independently, like experts.

In the example of designing an eco-friendly library, experts have a lot of knowledge and process they can deploy to solve the problem.  Novices don’t have this and hence they aren’t going to be able to successfully solve the problem.  At best, their efforts will be hit and miss.  All the new information and skills they need, will totally overload their working memory.

To successfully complete a project (or some complex real life problem) students require a body of knowledge to draw from.  If schools are no longer explicitly teaching this knowledge, then students have to draw on what little knowledge they already have available to them.  Hence, projects are particularly inappropriate for young students who have the least amount of knowledge and processes stored in long term memory.  They also disadvantage children from lower socioeconomic families as they many not have exposure to the same amount of knowledge as children living in wealthier families with more highly educated parents.

Teachers are already realising that students are not going to be successful at these projects unless the teachers simplify the tasks for them.  So, instead of having a student write a report about the British Empire, the students might be required to design a new Emblem for the British Empire.  Or, when assigning reports, students are given help sheets that tell what each paragraph must contain.  (Of course, giving an explicit lesson on the structure of a report would be unthinkable).

The real reason uni students are not independent learners is because they were always taught as though they were independent already and they weren’t;  that they were experts already, but they weren’t.

An educator’s aim should be to positively alter long term memory.

To remember something you need to think about that something.  They means that the things you are thinking about should be worthy of remembering.

Educators needs to consider what their students will be thinking about in the lessons they plan.  For example, one educator planned a lesson on the Underground Railroad and had their students bake cookies like the runaway slaves might have eaten.  The students in this lesson would predominantly have been thinking about the baking and eating experience with the cookies and NOT the underground railroad or the runaway slaves.

This project approach is also very time consuming meaning that children ultimately learn less than generations before them.  Consider if a history class spends two hours of their twenty hours that term designing, making and presenting their medieval coat of arms.  That’s one tenth of their history instruction time used on one small area of history (although those students weren’t even thinking about history but drawing and colouring).

Artificial drill based teaching is best.   Consider football for example.  You don’t teach football by having students simply play a lot of competitive games (the experts know this; many schools and children’s clubs haven’t figured it out yet though).  You break down the task to its smallest parts and you practice them until they are automatic.  It is the same with things like Math and English.  Students need a lot of practice at the smaller elements that make up the bigger more complex tasks.

Sadly, it is common practice to simply ask a child to write, without giving them explicit instruction or practice on how to spell, how to write quality sentences with accurate grammar, how to form paragraphs or even how to correctly structure the specific genre.

Grammar went out of favour in the 60s and several generations didn’t receive grammar instruction.  Then bits and pieces of grammar came back into vogue, but since the current teachers never received grammar instruction in schools, they don’t have the skills to teach grammar to this generation.

Equipping students to solve real world problems is a noble aim, but the current method of having students act like experts and pretend to solve real world problems is dreadful.  Rather than having their students copy expert behaviours, educators must start teaching students the fundamental knowledge and processes that experts have.

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Posted by on October 14, 2017 in Homeschooling Thoughts


Myth 5

Ready for another Myth summary?


Myth 5:  We Should Teach Transferable Skills

Theoretical Evidence that this myth exists:

Time that teachers once used to teach knowledge is now used to teach transferable skills.

Educators are focusing on the ‘how’ of learning, not the ‘what’ of learning.   Skills such as problem solving, analysing, thinking critically, and evaluating are applied to any content.

In preparation for a fast changing future, learning ‘how to learn’  is a key focus.  It is said that educators must strengthen their students’ ‘learning power’ by teaching generic skills, since ‘learning power’ has no use by date, unlike knowledge and content.

Students, who can’t learn new things by themselves are termed “illearnerate’.  Learning how to learn (learnacy) is said to be more important than literacy and numeracy.

We apparently must develop nimble minds by exercising students’ ‘mental muscles’ by practicing skills.  The focus is not on history muscles or the math muscles but on the generic muscles that can be used for all different things.  These ‘generic muscles’ are the ones that educators are told to exercise in students.

It is these skills that can be used, later, to acquire subject knowledge in any area of life.  These skills apparently give a student the ability to know anything they need to know.  Hence negating the need to ‘teach’ knowledge/content at school, or so we are told.

Evidence that the belief persists in Modern Practices:

Educators are reducing the amount of time spent teaching subject content and increasing the amount of time spent on ‘projects’ (whose goals/aims are skill-focused).  Curriculums are deliberately reducing the amount of content taught to students.  Some curriculum providers even organise their curriculum by skills and not subject.  When a curriculum is skill-focused, you can use any content you wish.  Themes and ‘projects’, touching on lots of subject areas, are also common in classrooms.

Some schools are directly teaching ‘learning strategies’, teaching things like learning styles, right and left hemispheres of the brain, brain gym, multiple intelligences, use of brain-friendly music etc.  [The author said that she didn’t even include things like Brain Gym and Learning Styles in her list of myths because they have been so thoroughly debunked many years ago.]

In reading, students are taught ‘comprehension skills’ that apparently can help students comprehend anything they read.  Students are taught strategies such as skimming, looking for main ideas, summarising, predicting etc.

Why is “We Should Teach Transferable Skills” a myth?

The author agrees that these skills are important, however, she states that the method educators are using will not work.  Knowledge and skills are intertwined.  You can not separate them and teach one without the other.

The skills, examined outside of subject domains, seem similar and that’s why it’s falsely believed that generic skills could be extracted and taught in isolation from knowledge/subjects.  However, analysing in Math, for example, is very different to analysing in History.  It is a misconception to think that these skills operate in the same way in different places.  Each skill is intimately tied to its background information.

There is a famous chess experiment whose results showed us that chess is not a game of pure reasoning where masters and novices are set apart by mental muscles.  It turns out that the most important difference between chess masters and chess novices is their memory/knowledge of typical chess positions; that is, their ability to retrieve chess chunks from their long-term memory.  Therefore, chess is highly knowledge bound.

This experiment has been replicated in many other areas and it turns out that past skills are not transferable to dissimilar circumstances; that is, if you can think critically in Math, it doesn’t mean that you will be able to think critically in history.  Therefore you can’t teach the skill of, say, critical thinking, generically across subjects.  The skill must be closely tied to its knowledge.

Some adults do have good general thinking skills.  Research has found that this is because these adults have subject specific knowledge in a wide range of subjects.  High scores on general knowledge correlate closely with having 21st century skills.  Hence 21st century skills are knowledge based.   Knowledge is foundational to having 21st century skills.

In fact, knowledge IS skill (although the way we use language struggles with this idea).

In every subject, considerable knowledge is an essential prerequisite to expert skills.  Experts have extensive knowledge from which to draw on and are well practiced in drawing it out from long term memory.  Experts are not made overnight, with newly acquired information.

Intelligence is the accumulation of lots of knowledge and the user’s ability to draw chunks of knowledge from long term memory and apply it to problems/tasks in working memory.

Skill is enabled by knowledge in long term memory, where there has been plenty of practice at retrieving that knowledge.

Knowledge and skills can not be taught separately in any way.  Time spent teaching transferable skills/21 century skills is time spent learning neither knowledge OR skill.

The author refers to books that teach students how to ‘skim for main points’ in a text and says that these tasks will not teach this skill.  Reading is knowledge specific.  The best way to teach comprehension skills is to read a lot and acquire knowledge in the subject area that you want to comprehend.

To be a good reader, you need to know a little about a lot.  Wide general knowledge (knowing a little about a lot) enables you to read more widely.

Reading is a lot more than knowing what words mean.  Reading also requires context and understanding of concepts in the text.  When we read, we use our long term memory to help us comprehend.  If teachers haven’t taught much knowledge, for a student to move it into long term memory, the student will have great difficulty reading and understanding much at all.

Look at this sentence:  “Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run”.  Do you understand what it means?  Every individual word in it is understandable, but does that help you understand its meaning?  Using all manner of reading strategies, that teachers have taught you, won’t help at all.  You need subject specific knowledge to understand that sentence.

An experiment was described where good and poor readers were given a reading task about baseball.  Some of the students had knowledge about baseball and some didn’t.  The results showed that the good readers were not the best comprehenders of the baseball text.  Those students who had previous knowledge about baseball, even if they were poor readers, had the best comprehension of the text.  Therefore, reading comprehension is based on knowledge, not skill.

Learners/readers/humans are knowledge dependent, yet many teachers deprive their students of knowledge by simply teaching skills or trying to divorce knowledge from skills.  Yes, their aim is admirable, but their method is futile because they don’t understand the role of that knowledge plays in skill acquisition.

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Posted by on October 6, 2017 in Homeschooling Thoughts


Myth 4

Another summary from the book, “Seven Myths of Education”.


Myth 4:  You Can Always Look It Up


Theoretical Evidence that this myth exists:

It is falsely believed that the technology we have available to us today allows us to do away with the need to learn facts.   This is not a recent idea.  Einstein is supposed to have said, “You don’t have to know everything, you just have to know where to find it”.  [This quote is attributed to him but it’s not believed to be what he actually said.]

Information is easier than ever to find now, so people wonder why we bother learning complex stuff.  We could always Google it.

Declarative knowledge (or ‘knowing that’) is said to be useless nowadays; however, procedural knowledge (or ‘knowing how’) is very useful.  [Procedural knowledge could also be called ‘skills’]

Some think that teachers are no longer ‘fountains of knowledge’.  Google has apparently taken over that role.

People says that students don’t need facts in their head; instead, they need to know how to learn.

It’s falsely believed that technology relieves us from needing ‘to know’.


Evidence that the belief persists in Modern Practices:

Nowadays, educators have moved their focus from teaching information to teaching research and investigation skills.  Supposedly, students need to ‘manage’ information rather than memorise information.

Instead of teachers imparting knowledge to students, it’s believed by modern educators that students should access information on their own.

Students needs to be able to question the sources of information (whether the information on the internet is from an authority or not).  They also need to be able to consider varying opinions that they might meet on the internet.

Teachers are permitted to have lesson plans where the students research their own information; the teachers just can’t impart knowledge directly to their students

Educators today believe that when students independently research, the learning is more engaging.

Students today are encouraged to go out and find information for themselves.


Why is “You Can Always Look It Up” a myth?

There is some truth in the above myths – technological advances are amazing.  We now have fast access to knowledge.  And more people can access it at the same time.  However, it is not true that students don’t need to remember anymore.

The time that teachers once used for imparting knowledge is now used by students researching information for themselves.  No time has been saved.

We’ve already learned that long-term memory is essential to mental processes (and learning).  Students need long-term memory to solve problems.  The more knowledge they have in long-term memory, the more problems they can solve.

We can not rely on our environment for knowledge because our working memory is limited to merely 3 to 7 pieces of new information.  We can’t outsource memory to Google as we need knowledge in long-term memory to free up working memory for processing.

For example, when solving 14×7 mentally, only three pieces of information are needed if you know your times tables and addition facts.  You need 10×7, 4×7 and the ability to add their answers mentally.  However, if don’t know your facts, you’ll have a lot more steps to work out the multiplications and addition.  In fact, you’ll end up forgetting the first bit before getting the second bit (or need a piece of paper) because too much is being expected of your working memory.  Without knowledge in long-term memory, your working memory will be overloaded and unable to solve problems (or move new information into long-term memory ie learn).

Even if students understand something conceptually, it’s important to memorise it, especially if you use the information repeatedly eg facts, spelling etc.  Looking them up is a hindrance to working memory, not a help.

Also, looking up something presupposes a lot of other knowledge.  To understand the entry, you need a lot of knowledge from long-term memory.  If you don’t have any background knowledge, you’ll struggle to understand what you’re reading.  Students need a reasonable amount of background information about a topic in order to understand it.

It takes knowledge to gain knowledge.  If educators de-emphasise factual information, they are actually disabling a child from effectively looking up information in books and on the internet.   We need a store of information in long-term memory to be able to understand what we read in those books or on the internet.

Having student research on their own is actually an ineffective information-gathering strategy (if they don’t have a broad knowledge base).  Often, students, left to independently research, fall into the habit of copying and pasting large chunks of information.  They also tend to gather irrelevant information, as they have no ability to work out what is relevant, as they have no related background knowledge in their long-term memory.

Research says that we need to know 95% of the vocabulary/concepts in a new text in order to understand it well enough to learn from it.

Students need to know something about the topic they are looking up, in order to understand it.  They also need some background knowledge on the topic in order to best phrase their search terms and locate suitable information sources.

Research skills are important but those skills are heavily dependent on broad previous knowledge.

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Posted by on October 2, 2017 in Homeschooling Thoughts


Myth 3

Time for Myth 3 in my summary series of the book “Seven Myths of Education”.


Myth 3:  The 21st Century fundamentally changes everything

Theoretical Evidence that this myth exists:

It is claimed that economical and technological change is the reason that we shouldn’t teach facts, that 21st Century kids need a totally different education from the one kids received in the past.

“21st century skills” is the buzzword to indicate that kids need something different.

The skills they are referring to are generally identified as “problem solving, critical thinking, creativity,  and interpersonal communication”.

It is claimed that kids don’t need to ‘remember’ anymore as we have created ‘external storage’ for those things (ie internet/computer), so, apparently, they don’t need to memorise and they don’t need facts.  This frees them up to focus on skills.

We are reminded that industries nowadays are quickly changing and often ceasing to exist all together.  Therefore, whole bodies of knowledge are becoming obsolete.  Eg.  In the 70s, students used to take secretarial classes, but, in many cases, nowadays, computers have replaced the need for secretaries.

Curriculums called these 21st century skills things like ‘core competencies’ or ‘transferable skills’ [or, as in the case of the Australian National Curriculum – General Capabilities]

Economic change is driving educational change.  The idea of a ‘job for life’ is apparently almost extinct nowadays, so, instead, educators are told to aim for ’employability for life’.  To do this, educators are supposed to focus on teaching these ’21st century skills’ because the education of the past, usually referred to as ‘the education used during the industrial revolution’, is apparently not sufficient.

Modern employers desire employees who can adapt, see connections, innovate, communicate and work in teams.  These are the things that are essential for economic success.  These skills are also transferable from one job to the inevitable next.  Hence, educators are expected to teach them.

When talking about new ideas (such as teaching 21st century skills), those that are embraced are generally those that make it into the minds of the public.  Sir Ken Robinson’s views on 21st century skills have reached millions worldwide.  His TED talk, “Changing Education Paradigms“, talks about how educators, in a fast changing world, should educate when they don’t know what the future will hold.  His answer was that students need to be taught collaboration and creativity.  He also has a talk called, “Do Schools Teach Creativity?“.  Basically, Sir Ken says that, since you can’t predict the future, you can’t predict what children will need to ‘know’ in the future.

Another highly popular presentation called “Shift Happens” [original version; 2017 version] makes similar claims – a fast changing society means that what you learn at the beginning of a degree could be outdated before you graduate, hence there is no point in teaching knowledge.  Simply focus on skills.

A teaching association published a paper titled, “Subject to Change”.  It says, “A twenty-first century curriculum cannot have the transfer of knowledge at its core for the simple reason that the selection of what is required has become problematic in an information rich age.”  Basically, we can’t teach knowledge because we don’t know which knowledge to teach, so let’s not teach any.

An organisation for economic co-operation and development says, “As access to information becomes easier and less expensive, the skills and competencies relating to the selection and efficient use of information become more crucial…Capabilities for selecting relevant and disregarding irrelevant information, recognising patterns in information, interpreting and decoding information as well as learning new and forgetting old skills are in increasing demand.” Basically, modern students need to be able to work with information – select it, interpret it, decode it etc – but they don’t need to know or remember the information because they can look it up somewhere.


Evidence that the belief persists in Modern Practices:

Modern curriculums are written with the goal of equipping students for societal and technological changes.

The 21st century skills vary slightly from place to place.  The RSA curriculum, “Opening Minds” has 5 essential skills that they use to organise their curriculum – citizenship, learning, managing information, relating to people, and managing situations.  This RSA curriculum does not teach subjects but rather organises learning into ‘projects’.  A school, called “School 21” (to highlight that they focus on 21st century skills), has 6 essential skills – professionalism, eloquence, grit, spark, craftsmanship and expertise.

[The Australian National Curriculum’s 21st century skills are literacy, numeracy, information and communication technology, critical and creative thinking, personal and social capabilities, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding.]

The UK’s national curriculum says that educators must improve the motivation and achievement of students, especially less able students.  They say this can be done by making lessons more dynamic and productive.  They say that the learning should happen in real contexts, for reasons that are made clear to the students and that the learning is relevant to the students’ lives.

Another teaching association said that we need to focus more on like skills and then seriously wrote a whole paragraph about the life skill of walking and how students need to be aware of the different types of walking necessary for different occasions eg strolling with no purpose, compared to rushing to get to the train on time.


Why is “21st Century fundamentally changes everything” a myth?

The author says that these skills, every one of them, are indeed important, but that there is nothing ’21st century’ about them.  Didn’t people in ancient and medieval times also need to solve problems, communicate, innovate, collaborate and think critically?!  So these skills are important and, perhaps, more so than ever before, as less skilled jobs are taken up by computers and robots.  This is to say that children need to be educated more than ever, and that they need the education that the elite received in the past, a traditional education.

Creativity and problem-solving have always been important skills but they are not unique to the 21st century.  In fact, the methodology supported by proponents of 21st Century skills, removing knowledge/content, will most certainly ensure that children don’t receive those essential ’21st century’ skills at all.

There is one way that things are different in this century – technology is playing a larger than ever role.  However, this truth has led to a number of fallacies.  It is falsely believed that there is no need for children to memorise when they can ‘Google it’.  It is also falsely believed that traditional knowledge is outdated, and, what currently isn’t outdated, changes so often that there is no point in learning it.  In the presentation, “Shift Happens”, it says that 1.5 exabytes of unique and new information is added to the world every year and that technical knowledge doubles every year.  It goes on to say that, because of this pace of information creation, information would be outdated before students graduated.  But that’s not completely true.  Lots of this new information does not disprove or supersede the previous information.  It builds on or requires the previous information in order to make sense of the new information.  Foundational information is rarely disproved so the statements on “Shift Happens” are hugely exaggerated.  Archimedes’s principle still holds true, Pythagoras’ theorem is still good and Newtonian physics is doing quite well also.  In fact, in Math, there is even less change, only extensions and refinements.

Given how much new information is being created each year, it is more important than ever to prioritise which knowledge is essential for children to learn.  There is so much information in the world that our students need mentors/teachers, more than ever, to guide them to the foundational information which they should start out with.  A kind of sorting of the wheat from the chaff.

The author also points out that most ‘first’ scientific discoveries for scientists used to happen around the median point of their career, after the scientist had acquired significant amounts of information within their field of study.  Nowadays, that age is being pushed further and further back as more information demands to be learned before those first discoveries can happen.  Therefore, more information doesn’t mean that we need less of it.

Once again, it seems that ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ is essential for continued progress as a civilisation.  Modern folk have benefited from the centuries of accumulated knowledge from billions of people.  The rapidity of achievement, in modern times, isn’t because people are getting smarter.  It’s because of what has been passed down to us and the fact that we stood on the shoulders of these people of the past so that we could see further and do more.  We know things that the greats of the past didn’t know, because they weren’t aware of it, however, we are throwing away that advantage when we don’t teach knowledge to our students.  We can not stop passing down this accumulated inheritance to our children.

The historian, John Roberts says that civilisation is the result of ‘the accumulation of a capital of experience of knowledge’.  If we stop passing on this accumulated knowledge to our children, what does this mean for civilisation?  We are already able to see the beginning of that answer in our current society and schools.

Job-related knowledge and skills do change and outdate, but, the foundational knowledge and skills do not.  Educators should teach this foundational knowledge and leave the job-related stuff to be learned on the job.  One co-founder of Wikipedia said that it was better to learn history than computer programming.  History will stay basically the same but programming will definitely change, probably several times.  It’s also been noted that newer ideas tends to change or become obsolete more often than older ideas.  Older ideas have already stood the test of time and will more than likely continue.  Despite this, current education systems rest in the idea that education must remain constantly new and up to date.  The irony of this is that this idea isn’t even ‘up to date’ or ‘new’.  Educators at the turn of the 20th century were saying exactly the same things.  They wanted 20th century skills to be taught to their students.

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Posted by on September 30, 2017 in Homeschooling Thoughts