Month: December 2016

A Christmas present from a tweeter

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You make a casual remark on twitter and before long demands are made to defend a researcher’s methodological approaches.

It started innocently enough:

At this point I have to state that I know Jo, know some of her work and worked with her at Sussex for a few years. That said I am not a maths ed expert, neither do I subscribe to or have expertise in her methodological approach to maths ed research. She does large scale longitudinal studies, I am more case study in history of science ed., though I also research creationism and evolution from the standpoint of the nature of science and scientific understanding.

I made a casual remark in reply – a disagreement of the opinion (remember it was Tom’s opinion) given.

Twitter, as we know, is imperfect in conveying subtlety in what you write. I said ‘mostly good stuff’ (that means the stuff I know about) yes, I admit it can be read that I am trying to defend nearly everything she has ever written which of course I have not even read, not being maths ed. I did add I don’t agree with 100% but that seems to have been lost in subsequent exchanges.

So let me state. I’ve read some of Jo’s work, I thought some of what I read was good stuff (note I’m not saying true, universally applicable, incontrovertible, God’s (if you have one) gift to maths education or a ‘paradigm shift’ in maths teaching and learning). I’m also not saying her epistemological, ontological and axiological positions are 100% and not to be disagreed with. It was a ‘casual’ comment where on reflection I should have said ‘some’ not ‘most’ – my bad!

I then had the temerity to say this which starts a mini twitter storm (actually more a brief gust in an alley)

So right from the start I say I’m not maths and I defer to maths experts

I do rate her research in that some bits that I found interesting also worked in a science classroom but not in a way that could be reported in a peer reviewed journal. I do rate her methods – longitudinal studies using hundreds of students (though again I have not studied in depth her methodology for every study she has undertaken) but in general longitudinal studies are good – aren’t they?

Queue entrance of Twitter’s very own @oldandrewuk asking how I adapted her work in science ed.

So I said what I did

OK he thought initially I was ‘defending her research methods’ but as I clearly stated I was not, I was talking about a teaching method I found interesting and that I did a small bit of action research with a few science trainees about 6 years ago.

I also posted this, knowing the vile attempts that have been made to attack her personally, professionally and how spiteful and vile some ‘experts’ in US maths have been towards her.


This prompts OA to write:

Which is NOT what I said, though it’s useful to characterise me as doing this and so cast me as unwilling to acknowledge that there are any proper dissenters to her views on teaching and learning maths, nice one OA good set up.

But no, it won’t wash.

I am happy for there to be debate on the pros and cons of any educational activities, but the attacks MUST be about the issues and not the person, when it strays to the personal and attempts top get people sacked because you don’t like their views, or charges of intellectual dishonesty which were investigated in full, then dismissed, but continue to be made knowing they’ve been fully investigated and dismissed that crosses a line. I refer to the unprofessional hounding of a professional by two other maths experts who happen to disagree with Jo and what she does.

I won’t bore you with the full exchange, but it resulted in demands for me to defend her methods and research or admit I have failed to do so. I defended one aspect of the work she conducted by reproducing it in small scale. It was group work in explaining a difficult concept in a mixed ability setting. I know enough about research to know that what I did was not robust enough for me to publish myself, so I did not. I also said that the approach was interesting (which it was).

The full exchange reminded me very much of the sorts of exchanges that I frequently have with creationists on twitter – the creationist evangelicals. I don’t know OA personally, have never met him, have no idea what he is like at teaching maths. It strikes me that his approach to debating on twitter (though I could be way off the mark) is somewhat akin to an evangelical creationist in maths education terms. That is there is a right and fully evidenced and scientifically robust way of teaching and everything else is wrong. Try to even suggest that something like mixed ability teaching in maths or group work could work or be a valid way of teaching and I will challenge you to the death to prove it beyond doubt in peer reviewed scientifically valid and robust terms that can have no doubt or any flaw in its approach or else you MUST admit defeat and admit that I am right and you are wrong. What happened in the end is also what happens with many evangelical creationists – they block when you try to have a reasonable conversation and put the view that perhaps we don’t know everything, and that things could happen but it doesn’t mean you have to abandon your faith to see that other things could happen.

One further example of ‘extremis’ in OAs arguments is seen in this tweet and his response to my tweet to another tweter about science being about finding the ‘truth’. I said that only maths can claim to find the ‘truth’ science can never do this. His response to this conversation with the other tweeter was:


He either does not understand science and the methods of science or is deliberately trying to get me to say that science is really lies so the can come back and prove me wrong.

Science is about the ‘best explanation’ we have for anything. At no point can we claim that explanation to be ‘the truth’ as new evidence can always contradict our best explanation – at which point we must modify the explanation or abandon it completely for a new one. So no, science does not tell ‘lies’ but neither can we claim ‘truth’ for science. Our best explanations are the theories in science.

I don’t know why OA plays these games as it always ends (with me) with him going off in a huff and blocking. He did it before then inexplicably unblocked me. I don’t know why he bothers at all with me, he clearly will not bother to engage in a proper conversation, but always makes demands and tries to ‘win’ all his arguments at all costs.

So thank you OA for the xmas present of not having to respond to your demands (not that I was going to anyway – it was not necessary and it’s not my field of expertise). It’s a pity you despise Jo and her work. She is a wonderful person, warm dedicated and always thinking of how to improve maths education for all children. No she doesn’t always get everything right, none of us, including you OA can ever do that, but at least she tries and at least she is not a vile, nasty, unprofessional maths expert, unlike her US tormentors.Creation_of_Adam

Whose Knowledge is best?

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By Frits Ahlefeldt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Recently, Nick Gibb MP gave a speech in which he advocated a ‘rigorous knowledge -based curriculum’



Gibb was addressing the launch of a new organisation, Parents and Teachers for Excellence (PATE).

There’s a narrative, mostly found on Twitter, but also evident in other social media and education commentary in the press, that teachers somehow eschew teaching ‘knowledge’. That knowledge is almost incidental to ‘better’ ways of teaching like group work, problem solving etc. On top of this, teacher training, we are told by others, teach theory like ‘Bloom’s taxonomy’ which is also ‘anti’ knowledge.

Such attacks are convenient sticks with which to beat the ‘progressives’ who, themselves, it is claimed, are anti-knowledge. To be honest, I’m getting quite tired of this obviously flawed logic and rhetoric.

Teachers are teaching ‘knowledge’ all the time – regardless of the methods they use. Even in group work knowledge is being delivered. I’ve yet to see any curriculum document that does not contain some form of knowledge. I’ve yet to see a lesson where a child has never engaged with any knowledge at all.

To imply that teachers – any teacher – does not deliver knowledge in teaching is frankly silly.

So what is the argument really about?

The argument is about ‘what’ knowledge is delivered and to whom it is delivered. Even Nick Gibb had to imply that there was something special about what he called for. It wasn’t just a knowledge based curriculum, oh no, this is a Conservative rigorous knowledge based curriculum and so the absurdity continues. Now, it’s not just knowledge that has to be taught, but rigorous knowledge.

What is the difference between knowledge and rigorous knowledge?

By NBC Television (ebay item front back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Is my knowledge of Star Trek rigorous? Does the fact that I know Captain James T. Kirk’s middle name is Tiberius, after his grandfather who admired the Roman Emperor Tiberius, make my knowledge of Star Trek rigorous, or would people say that no knowledge of Star Trek is worthy or rigorous, as it is just a TV/film science fiction franchise and so unimportant in knowledge terms?

Knowing or not knowing facts about Star Trek is for the most part irrelevant. Though the science of Star Trek is worthy of note as they employ real astrophysicists while writing their scripts and bring real scientists into their narratives.

For example, is Star Trek frivolous when they go to the trouble of name checking Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of evolution with Charles Darwin, correctly describing his view of the likelihood and probability of alien life existing in the Universe?

What it all boils down to is a value judgement and the power of a ruling elite to control what is taught (and therefore, by definition, what should be learned) by our children.

Gove was a control freak on this aspect of education – he wanted to define what history was taught and how, and  strip our curriculum of American literature in favour of more British literature.

What we teach our children is not what is always useful or important.

By W.J. Morgan & Co. Lith. of Cleveland, Ohio. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Somebody, somewhere, decides that teaching Shakespeare, Dickens etc. is a necessary part of a good English education. As a scientist I ask why do we not study Newton’s Principia or Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle instead of Shakespeare and Dickens? We can learn as much, if not more, from these two classic science texts as we can from the literary classics.

The answer is that someone somewhere, who probably didn’t study the history of science, deemed them unimportant, perhaps too difficult, or boring – whatever, they didn’t make the cut into any ‘rigorous knowledge’ curriculum. Shakespeare and Dickens did.

Poetry corner

Byron, By Richard Westall (died 1836) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I also saw a tweet that recommended children should learn poems off by heart as this was good for them.

Why is this good for them?

I am now going to show my abject ignorance. I don’t know a single poem by heart. I have fragments of lines of poems. I can do a few bits of random Shakespeare – but not because I learned it in school for English literature, but because I acted in Shakespeare as a youth.

I also fail miserably to identify songs correctly and music from the era of my youth – the 70s and 80s – some may say this is a good thing. But I’m pretty good on show tunes from musicals.

This is what puzzles me. Why is being able to identify Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto in B flat minor opus No. 23 a sign of a good education?

Correctly naming “La Cage aux Folles” as the musical which contains the song ‘I am what I am’ or knowing that ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ started life, not as  a football song, but in the musical Carousel  is not, it seems, the sign of a ‘good education’. Why?

Why is knowing key quotations come from the Bible or Hamlet a sign of a good education and perhaps rigour, yet being unable to correctly identify the man who gave us one of the most important phrases in science, the ‘survival of the fittest’ unimportant? By the way, it wasn’t Charles Darwin though many people think it is. The phrase finds its way into everything, from t-shirt slogans to the clarion call to arms of those who take part in TV shows like Gladiator and Ninja warrior.

Whose curriculum is it anyway?

Gather 100 teachers and ask them to construct a whole-school curriculum and what they insist ‘must be taught’ will result in a set of knowledge requirements that cannot be met.

We first did this in the 1980s with the National Curriculum (NC). Look at the various drafts and track its evolution from its inception through the various iterations and you will see the problem revealed. There is just too much knowledge for us to teach.

In the 16th Century, a Natural Philosopher (scientist) would have a good grasp of the entirety of scientific knowledge of the day. By the 19th Century, the exponential growth in our knowledge (which carries on to this day) didn’t just outstrip the mental capacity of the natural philosophers (by this time now being separated into the various disciplines we see today) but it began to overwhelm all major disciplines.

During the twentieth Century – starting from a baseline of a relatively stable unchanging corpus of knowledge within the different disciplines – we encountered issues over diversity of knowledge in the various examination syllabuses.

Surprisingly, it took until 1976 and Jim Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech to initiate the ‘great debate’ over what we should teach. This was the conception, though the gestation and birth took another 12 years, of the NC. The idea that we should have a core set of subjects with specified content that all children should be taught.

It was Kenneth Baker who acted as the midwife and brought into the education world ‘The National Curriculum’. Baker’s baby, however, went much further than his boss,the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, wanted. She envisaged a small core curriculum of maths, English, Science. Baker was much more ambitious and wanted every subject covered. He got his way when he threatened to resign as Secretary of State for Education unless the NC was implemented in full. Such a resignation, so close to the launch of this major curriculum reform, some say the most important education initiative since the 1944 Education act, would have seriously embarrassed the government, Thatcher’s government.

Since that day the curriculum has undergone numerous reforms and, in my own subject area, science, has been both concentrated, diluted and re-ordered to such an extent that, to use an evolutionary analogy it could be deemed to be ‘not fit for purpose’ and doomed to become extinct. The difference between the initial document and the present day ‘animal’ is much like the relationship between the early mammals and current Homo sapiens. I can see commonalities and links, but the fundamental differences make us very different species.

I have no objection to the teaching of ‘knowledge’. Even in Bloom’s Cognitive domain, if you think about what it is actually saying, rather than what you might think it is saying, things like synthesis, evaluation, application (higher up the domain) cannot be achieved without the foundation of knowledge. Yes, knowledge is ‘at the bottom’ because it recognizes that without knowledge there is nothing to synthesize, or apply, or even evaluate. When it comes to those, oh so despised (by evangelical traditionalists), activities like group work, problem solving etc. none of that can happen without knowledge.

Knowledge is vital in any teaching and learning. The debate is not about whether we have a ‘knowledge based curriculum (even a rigorous one) or not’ knowledge in teaching should be a given foundation.

The debate must be on what knowledge we teach, whose knowledge deserves to be foremost in our various subjects and why that knowledge, above all the other knowledge that could be included, should be prized.