John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.
Some discoveries, notably those of Galileo and Darwin, revolutionised knowledge. In education, L S Vygotsky’s discovery of the internal language of our minds, and his analysis of the transition from spoken language to literacy, changed our understanding of early intellectual development. The discoveries of Stanislas Dehaene, the French neuroscientist, are of comparable importance. Like Galileo’s telescope, his scanning technology enables him to see directly what is going on in the brain, and, as with Darwin, his analysis creates a new picture which is based on observation.
Dehaene begins by showing how babies form ideas of what to expect (hypotheses) on the basis of their experience – for example, of familiar and unfamiliar faces – and responding differently, by hesitating or changing their facial expression, when something doesn’t fit. They then expand their idea of what is likely, in order to take account of it, making new connections in their brain’s neural network. This, in essence, is how we learn. We start with what we know, and must constantly adjust and refine it in the light of new information and knowledge. Vygotsky’s analysis of the transition from learning the sounds of speech, to seeing these represented in writing is consistent with this theory, as is his further argument that, as we become more literate, the features of language that we meet in reading and writing feed back into our spoken language and develop it beyond the everyday. Spoken and written language are intimately related.
It is difficult to see an area of learning to which Dehaene’s analysis does not apply. As we apply our brain to any new area, we must build specialised networks, which is harder work than consolidating and extending what we already know. So, in reading, the first adjustment is the link between what we hear and what we see – phonics – and it invariably begins with connections that are clear and consistent. My preferred resource for this, the Ditties in Ruth Miskin’s Read, Write Inc, makes the process crystal-clear by including only completely consistent words. As we know from the history of language, this is not always the case in English, and so we must make a further adjustment to take account of patterns that involve combinations of letters, some of them far removed from the original correspondence between single letters and sounds. Most children can make these adjustments for themselves. Those who can’t are likely to be assessed as dyslexic. Explaining the process of adjustment is often the key to solving the problem.
Similarly, most music teaching starts in the key of C major, which proceeds logically from one note to the next, with no sharps or flats. Move to the key of G, which has a sharpened F, and we have to adjust our thinking, a process that continues to almost infinite degrees of refinement. Adjustment does not always move in a straight line. Much music depends on movement to the fifth note in a scale, which, repeated, forms a cycle that includes all possible major chords and returns to the starting point. The adjustment from moving from one note to the next, to moving to the fifth note, is comparable to that involved in moving from counting to the five-times table. Consolidating the new network with practice adds the insulator myelin, which speeds everything up, and, according to Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, enables brain cells to grow new connections, like buds on a tree.
The implications are clear. Mastery approaches – those that work, such as Hegarty maths – ensure that new knowledge has a secure base in what is already known. Attempts to scaffold learning, such as “keep up, not catch up” in maths, do not ensure that the knowledge necessary to support new learning is in place, and lead to failure. Anyone doubting this should spend a day with a resit maths class in FE.
If Dehaene has challenges for Conservatives – he opposes the traditional French “cours magistral”, which does not allow students to ask questions – he raises even more problems for our “progressive” opponents. Since the 60s, they have seen mixed ability teaching as the path to equality, and have bought the neo-marxist, Pierre Bourdieu’s, idea of ability grouping as “symbolic violence”, even if this involves additional lessons to ensure that children can read. They have a point, in that the long working hours, limited education, and poor housing experienced by lower-income families create conditions that impede intellectual development of children, and leave children two or more years behind by the time they start school. Their approach, though, prevents them from receiving the closely-focused teaching that they need in order to make progress, and this is the major factor in the disaffection and poor behaviour – exacerbated by covid – that is plaguing many of our schools. Despite all attempts to replace it, literacy remains the foundation of education. Children who can’t read and write fluently can’t do their school work, and, as I recently argued, if they can’t do the work, why should they go to school?
The way forward is the flexible grouping system for maths developed by Dame Alison Peacock and her colleagues. Groups offered different levels of difficulty, and pupils were given a choice, so that the work gave them the right balance of challenge and success. I used a similar, but less sophisticated, approach to English in a primary school while working for Essex. Pupils do not have a fixed level of ability, but they do have a starting point. The brain research evidence shows that teaching not matched to this will not work, however much is spent on it, and however much energy expended in promoting it. Labour, in the box seat, remains dominated by the thinking that has failed it in all of its attempts to improve education since the days of Wilson and Crosland. If and when it returns to power, we can expect it to repeat its mistakes, and to continue to blame everyone but itself.