Nick Gibb, Minister for Schools has again sounded off about the virtues of formal didactic teaching of knowledge and has lampooned discovery learning. Hiding behind the views Professor Willingham, he cites a lesson the professor wrote up in his book ‘Why don’t students like school’ . In this lesson,apparently, a teacher focused so much on making the subject matter relevant to her pupils, that none of them learnt the required knowledge. In a lesson on the Underground Railroad – the secret network of routes and safe houses used by African American slaves to escape to Free States – the teacher had pupils bake biscuits similar to those used for sustenance by escaping slaves. Whilst pupils were clearly engaged in the lesson and were enjoying making biscuits, they were not thinking about the Underground Railroad and therefore were not going to remember the key facts about the event.Professor Willingham concluded from his observation that pupils had spent 40 seconds considering the relationship between the biscuits and slaves and 40 minutes thinking about making biscuits. It is not hard to imagine what pupils took from this lesson.
This is the sort of lesson that Gibb seems to think is prevalent in Britain’s education system. If he didn’t think that why is he criticising it. Ironically, the example he so enjoys recounting comes not from the UK but from the US and in all my 20 years of inspecting and advising in school and a further 12 teaching, I have never seen a lesson like it. The article from which this example comes, sets out to exhort the vale of evidence based research. What a pity Gibb didn’t do any research himself before passing off ludicrously extreme cases as if they were the norm.We don’t need the Minister for Schools to tell us wha it bad practice, but we do expect him not to generalise from the anomalous.