Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

12.19.13A Few Minutes with Daisy Christodoulou

Seven MythsLast June at a dinner in London with colleagues from the UK’s incredible and inspiring ARK Schools, the buzz was all about a book called Seven Myths About Education. It was only available in e-book; I was pretty sure it would describe things i kind of already “got” … moderately useful, I thought.  Note to self: read sometime.

When it finally came out in print I read it. And it blew me away.  Elegant in its crisp logic, it was a combination of thunderbolts from the blue and crystallizations of half-developed thoughts I’d been wrestling with- particularly about knowledge and whether we (our schools) were doing it (knowledge) justice.

Seven Myths About Education turned out to be one of the best reads of the year. Its author, Daisy Christodoulou is a former teacher with a passion for logic and research. She’s London born and bred–supports West Ham, if you’re interested–and brings humility, humor and humanity to her work.  I’m now a bit of a “follower” of her smart blog posts & useful tweets. I began hawking her work on street corners and outside supermarkets until I realized that a nice sit-down Q and A would be a better way to introduce folks to Daisy than would chasing cars through parking lots waving copies of her book.

Daisy was kind enough to suffer my questions, so here’s a transcript of her responses.  Hope you enjoy it and take the opportunity to read her outstanding book.


I have to say I kind of expected to nod sanctimoniously right through the book. I imagined I’d read “Seven Myths” and enjoy a really good lambasting of defunct ideas other people ascribe to. But in fact, even though I am aligned with you on the importance of content knowledge and though I thought I understood the issues involved, I found myself realizing that I was still quite beholden to some of the logical flaws you describe.  The veil, as they say, was lifted.  And it was me standing there.  Do others have that response?  And how have people responded to the book?

Well, it’s fair to say there has been a varied response! Some people have reacted very angrily to what I’m saying. Others have really liked it because they say that it confirms what they felt was true all along.

But there have also been a lot of reactions like yours, and actually those are the ones I am most interested in. In  a funny sort of way, your reaction is the same as mine before I wrote the book.  I had read some works on the importance of content knowledge and knew from my own experience how important it was. I had a set of phrases which I knew people said all the time, and which I knew were wrong. But when I started reading more and building up my case against these myths, I realized that these myths had affected my practice in ways I didn’t even realize. For example, a part of me had always thought that getting pupils to do work above their age grade was a good thing – it was a sign of stretch and challenge. But actually, the evidence I was reading pointed out that this could be really damaging – you can’t teach novices as though they are experts. Likewise, I thought that the best way to get pupils to write essays was to get them writing lots of essays. But again, that might not be the case – writing an essay well is composed of a lot of small chunks of knowledge which need to be taught individually. And I used to think that if we could encourage pupils to read more, we’d solve a lot of problems. But most pupils get a lot of encouragement to read, and they know it’s important. And yet they still don’t read. It could be that they don’t read because they lack important vocabulary and background knowledge, which is a vital part of being able to read well. Of course, we should still encourage pupils to read, but that has to go hand in hand with teaching pupils the vocabulary and background knowledge that will actually make it possible for them to read and understand texts.

Reading the book made me want to ask you more about your own experience as a teacher, which you discuss briefly at the beginning of the book.  You describe poignantly how the more earnestly you tried to do what you were “supposed to do” the more wrong things got.  When and how did you start to realize that the myths you describe in the book exist and what made you realize it? And what were you like as a teacher in other ways?

I was very lucky that I worked in an excellent English department and had a brilliant mentor who had been teaching for 15 years and treated a lot of educational orthodoxy with healthy skepticism. When I was training, there would be a constant tension between doing the kinds of things that were recommended in the training, and doing the kinds of things that my mentor knew would work and would help. I can remember the first lesson of hers I observed. It was a lesson on Dulce et Decorum Est with a year 9 class (grade 10). She led the class through it brilliantly. But that was it – it was a teacher-led lesson. She was describing and explaining what was happening, telling them about the First World War, explaining what certain words meant and the role of Latin in public schools in the early 20th century. It was great and they loved it. But it would never have got a good inspection outcome, and I hadn’t had any training or any help in trying to set up lessons like that.

Even once I had finished training, the tension was still there – except this time the tension was between what Ofsted said was a good lesson, and what you all knew deep down would help pupils to learn. Ofsted are the schools inspectors in the UK. To begin with I really tried hard with the Ofsted methods. There was this huge pressure from them not to talk too much, and especially not to transmit facts. The ‘transmission’ model of teaching was really frowned upon. It was really difficult and time-consuming to set up lessons that didn’t involve ‘transmission’, but even once you had set them up, what was so frustrating was that the pupils didn’t seem to learn! It was maximum effort for minimum – even negative – results. It was the same with group work. I would set up group activities where pupils had images and text and they had to infer from those sources the key knowledge I wanted them to learn. A lot of the time, it just didn’t work, and even when it did it was so inefficient and inconsistent. Worse, the pupils who particularly struggled at these activities were the ones who were already struggling. What I really wanted to do was to try and copy the kinds of lessons my mentor was teaching, and in the end that was what I did – although of course when Ofsted visited I would go over to their methods!

I think a real light bulb moment was when my mentor came back from a meeting about Ofsted inspections which had largely focused on the importance of independent learning – which in this context basically meant discovery learning –  and said ‘Ofsted need to decide. They can either have independent learning, or they can have good exam results. Which is it to be?’ That really crystallised the issue. Ofsted wanted independent learning, and good exam results, and they thought that one led to the other. But that’s not the case.

But you are so busy when you are teaching that you don’t have the time to properly explore this kind of doublethink. You just live with it and try to make it work. My attitude was that of a medieval peasant being told of the arguments about whether the earth was round or flat. Who cared about that – I just wanted to try and get the harvest in. So really at that stage, I just had these nagging doubts and skepticism. It wasn’t until I took a year out and had the time to think and read that I was properly able to work out what the problems were.

When I started teaching I was particularly interested in teaching the older age ranges and teaching literature. I got a promotion to be in charge of A-level English Literature at my first school. I enjoyed it a lot – I got to design the schemes of work and create a lot of resources. But I also realized that so much of what determined the students’ success at this stage had already happened. So I began to take more of an interest in the earlier years at secondary, in primary, and in teaching language.

In the book you quote Richard Hofstadter on John Dewey: “Far more probable than the thesis that Dewey was perversely distorted by obtuse or overenthusiastic followers is the idea the unresolved problems of interpretation to which his [writings] gave rise were tokens of real ambiguities and gaps in thought.”  In other words, people will blame anyone but Dewey for flaws in Dewey’s premises.  Why do you think Dewey has such a hold on the popular imagination of teachers? Why is he above reproach?

It’s interesting – I don’t think he is quite so prominent or well-known in the UK as in the US. But he’s still certainly very well-respected in this country, and as you say, seems to be completely above reproach. I think maybe it is partly because Dewey really did have noble aims. As I say over and over again in my book, I agree with the aims of most of the educationalists I criticize. Dewey had really noble aims. He did care about liberty and democracy. So I think it is hard for people to admit that a man who was motivated by the right ideas was still nonetheless wrong about how to achieve those aims. In fact, that’s one of the good and bad things about education. I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t desperately want their pupils to do well. Very few people are in education for the wrong reasons. But it isn’t enough just to have good intentions – you have to have the right methods too! And when people have good intentions and the wrong methods, it often makes it really hard to criticize them, because they so obviously are motivated by the right aims. So that makes it very hard to correct error and to move forward.

You also talk about how simplistic and isolated facts are presented as a proxy for knowledge and then dismissed.  It’s a recurring trope to pull a single obscure fact—the date of the battle of Waterloo, say—and point out that it is useless to know such a thing when that isn’t really “knowing.”  This becomes an argument to dismiss the importance of a broad-based knowledge of facts.  I loved your response which was to point out that this is a way of reducing the idea to absurdity.  That the power is in in fact in systematic knowledge. You write: “Of course pulling one fact out like this does seem rather odd, But the aim of fact-learning is not to learn just one fact- it is to learn several hundred which, taken together form a schema that helps you understand the world.  Just learning the date of the battle of Waterloo will be of limited use.  But learning the dates of 150 historical events from 3000BC to the present and learning a couple of facts about why each event was important will be of immense use because it will form the … basis of [a broad and widely applicable] historical understanding.”  Can you talk a bit more about that?

My current favourite analogy for this is brushing your teeth. Suppose you are trying to persuade a child to brush their teeth, and they say, ‘well, I brushed my teeth once this month but my teeth are still in bad shape’. You wouldn’t say ‘oh dear, the tooth brushing strategy has failed, better try another one!’ You’d tell them that they need to brush their teeth twice a day! Of course, you can skip brushing your teeth now and again and still have healthy teeth, just as you can be vague on a couple of dates and still have good historical knowledge. Essentially this problem comes down to a misunderstanding of the relationship between knowledge and skills. The best way to think of skill is as a web of knowledge. Knowledge causes skill. I think in many ways, we are sometimes like the child who doesn’t want to brush their teeth. We want a short cut. We want to be told, if you use this magic toothpaste, you will only have to brush your teeth once a month! Or even just once a year! And that’s the dream of skills-based instruction – if you teach these magic how-to lessons, you don’t have to worry about the slow accumulation of knowledge. There is no magic how-to lesson. Not only that, but actually, the slow accumulation of knowledge is really enjoyable. It’s wonderful to learn new knowledge. It is time-consuming, but it is a great way to consume time!

You give another example: “Just learning 4*4 is useless but knowing all of the 12 times tables and learning them all so securely that we can hardly not think of the answer when the problem is presented is the basis of mathematical understanding.” It also strikes me that we actually tend to be more comfortable with the idea that math requires automaticity to free the mind up for deep insight than the idea that history does, say.  A lot more people get that argument than get the idea that knowing history ”cold” allows for deeper insight.   You’re saying that unless it’s in our long term memory, accessing it takes up finite processing capacity and drives out other analytical thought.  Deep insight comes suddenly and fast. To be able to say “Aha! He sounds just like Napoleon at Waterloo,” you have to think of the similarities automatically, without deciding to do so.  Is that the idea?

Yes, if you have lots of historical knowledge, then you can make analogies like that a lot more quickly.  You can see this if you read any great work of historical scholarship. I just finished reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, a history of the causes of the First World War. Clark’s analysis of a complex historical problem derives from his mastery of the facts. You can’t separate the analysis from the facts. The two are bound up with each other.

And having historical knowledge down cold also means you have a grasp of chronology, which is vital for understanding one of the most important historical concepts of all: causation. I frequently came across pupils who had no idea of when really big world inventions such as gunpowder, the printing press and the railway had happened. If you don’t know that, then you can’t really understand how they might have caused certain changes, and why certain things maybe couldn’t take place until they had been invented. So you know, you are discussing the Battle of Hastings, and looking at how King Harold marched his troops down from Stamford Bridge to Hastings, and why that was such a big deal, and someone says why didn’t they get the train?

I think the best way to give pupils this historical framework – the grammar of history, if you like – is through a narrative like Ernst Gombrich’s A Little History of the World or Susan Wise Bauer’s books. I think if you supplemented a narrative like that with the key dates I talked about above, you would have a really good one year introduction to the grammar of history.

I think you are right that people have a harder time accepting this for history, and indeed for grammar/language than they do for maths. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps it’s because with maths, because it’s quite abstract, people are happier to accept the idea that the facts are the building block. Whereas with history, and also with language and literature, narrative and story are so important, and people worry that focusing on facts will kill the joy of the narrative.

I think the biggest epiphany in the book, for me, came when I read your “chicken-and-egg” passage: “This kind of activity [independent work where students work on their own to apply understanding and problem solve] is meaningful if you already have knowledge …  But if they have always been taught via this method, it is unlikely [students] will have extensive knowledge of the topic. Pupils will be caught in a chicken-and-egg scenario: unable to work independently because they do not have necessary background knowledge, but unable to gain that background knowledge because they spend all of their time working independently.” I read this while I was rewriting TLAC and it made me think especially about Ratio.  Can I ask you to provide further thoughts on how you’d strike the balance between knowledge assimilation and relatively independent application of knowledge in rigorous and relatively autonomous tasks?

I think you make this point brilliantly when you talk about scrimmage and drill. The sportsmen who are best at scrimmage are the ones who do a lot of drill in their practice time. The pupils who are the best independent learners are the ones who have had plenty of dependence and direction in their lesson time. Interestingly, the detective novelist Dorothy Sayers nails this point in an essay she wrote on education in 1948. Sayers says that ‘It is as though we had taught a child, mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play “The Harmonious Blacksmith” upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized “The Harmonious Blacksmith,” he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle “The Last Rose of Summer.”’  I think this is the reason why pupils end up at 6th form unable to learn independently. We’ve been teaching them complex tasks – such as playing a song on the piano, or writing an essay – without breaking the complex task down into its component parts. You’re completely right to flag up the importance of practice. But you have to practise the right things, and confusingly, those things might not look like the final performance or the final task. Sayers’s piano teacher might respond by saying ‘I am getting my pupils to practise! They’re practising the songs they’ve learnt.’ And in a way they are right – their pupils are practising.  The problem is that they are practising the wrong thing. I think the things you need to practise are the grammar of a subject. I’m using grammar in the broadest sense here – every subject or discipline has a basic grammar. In maths it’s the times tables, the number bonds, and basic maths facts. In history it’s dates, in geography it’s place. In English it is actual grammar. In music, as Sayers suggests, it’s the scales and musical notation.

So when it comes to individual lessons, for me the important question is not about the balance between knowledge assimilation and application. In order to transmit knowledge to pupils properly, you have to get them to apply it. The important question is, what kind of knowledge are you getting pupils to assimilate and apply? Have you broken it down into the smallest possible chunks? To begin with, that application should be done on the smallest chunks possible. So I would always have knowledge application, but it wouldn’t be independent or real world until quite late on.

Phonics teachers are very good at this. They break the knowledge you need to be able to read down into the smallest possible chunks. Then they teach it in ways that are quite teacher directed, but do involve a lot of pupil participation. The best phonics programmes I have seen involve lots of pupils chanting sounds, practicing sounds with each other and responding to questions from the teacher. Pupils don’t move on to real world independent decoding until much, much later – until the teacher can be sure that they aren’t going to fail completely at it! But then having said that, whilst all this does take a lot of time, in the scheme of things it isn’t that lengthy. A good phonics teacher will take a pupil from zero to independent reading in about two years.

One of the challenges of teaching content is that it’s tied to decisions about curriculum and standards that are sometimes not entirely within the control of a given teacher. So while being more intentional about teaching content is a critical step,  can you describe some actions teachers might take to change how they approach teaching—particularly when they are reading—to better build and reinforce content knowledge?

I think one of the best and simplest things that you can do, whatever curriculum you have to teach, is to read Isabel Beck’s book Bringing Words To Life. It’s all about good vocabulary instruction. Whatever subject you teach, you could introduce some of these activities to get pupils to learn new words. And they are very flexible activities – you can fit them in whatever the curriculum. Every time you ever read anything aloud to pupils, in advance pick out a couple of words that they might not know or that they will only know vaguely. Then design some of Beck’s activities around those words.

In other ways it can be harder. If you are preparing pupils for a reading test, for example, often you will be instructed to do lots of past papers. The past papers will often be on a random array of topics. When I did this, I would always try and fold in some valuable knowledge about whatever that paper’s topic was. So we once read an exam text that was an extract from a Bill Bryson essay about Bradford. When we were discussing it, I was able to tell the pupils some interesting things about Bradford. But this is quite ad hoc, and it means a lot of knowledge is presented randomly and without an overarching pattern. Still, if you don’t have control of the curriculum, it is all you can do, and it is better than nothing.

Are there any other widespread myths that you considered writing about—or that you’ve come to recognize since, that didn’t make the cut/final list of 7?

I am quite pleased with the selection of 7 because whilst there is a lot more I could have written about and a lot of examples I could have given, the 7 categories do seem pretty comprehensive and do cover most of the other things that I might have written about.

The one thing that I hardly touched on in the book but which is really important is assessment. In lots of ways assessment has gone badly wrong in the past few decades, and it is having a really negative effect on classroom teaching. I actually think that one of the reasons for this is because of this misconception about knowledge and skills – if you think skills can be acquired in the abstract, then all your test prep will essentially revolve around doing lots and lots of past papers, rather than breaking down the knowledge you need to do well on those past papers.

But that is just one aspect of what has gone wrong with assessment. I recently read an excellent book by a professor of assessment at Harvard. It was so interesting, because he was talking almost entirely about the problems there have been in the US with assessment in the past few years. And yet the problems are almost identical to the ones we have in the UK!

What are you going to write next?

I don’t have any definite plans. But in the longer term, I’d like to write something about something about assessment, as I’ve just discussed. I would also like to write something about teaching grammar. I think there is an idea that the only reason for learning grammar is so that you can be picky and pedantic. Actually, grammar is important because it allows you to express yourself clearly. I didn’t properly realise this until I started teaching, and saw that pupils don’t just spontaneously pick up correct sentence structure.

10 Responses to “A Few Minutes with Daisy Christodoulou”

  1. Shloe Kerness
    December 19, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    I am curious what “past papers” means? I have never heard that term before. I am also curious how best to blend Constructivist learning and direct learning in the elementary years. Obviously, students need factual knowledge and direct instruction is a proven teaching strategy, but they also need opportunities to explore, discover, and learn how to answer their own questions…. this is of particular importance to me as I am helping a charter school that uses Montessori and Project Based Learning as core instructional approaches but the students must also be ready to pass state testing in a couple of months with serious consequences if they don’t do well…

    • Doug_Lemov
      December 20, 2013 at 3:46 pm

      Hi, Shloe- Not to be flip but i’d say the answer lies within your question. to quote you back to yourself: “students need factual knowledge and direct instruction is a proven teaching strategy, but they also need opportunities to explore, discover, and learn how to answer their own questions.”

      i wrote something to this effect while drafting TLAC 2.0 this morning. the list of things you should do is not a hierarchy. One’s not necessarily better. They need each other but the one that’s likely most valuable is often the one you think of last… becuase it’s possible it’s your blind spot (at least i always tell myself that) So if you’re all about discovery consider whether more direct instruction makes sense. Or if you’re all about direct instruction consider whether some more engaged applicaiton makes sense.

      But i do think that Daisy’s killer point is that “opportunities to explore, discover, and learn how to answer their own questions” are only rigorous if they are predicated on and come in the wake of systematic instruction about knowledge. that’s the “chicken and egg”issue daisy writes about and i thought it was the best part of the book.

      • Shloe Kerness
        December 20, 2013 at 4:08 pm

        Thank you for your response, Doug! The UPS man just delivered “High Impact Instruction” by Jim Knight… just made a cup of coffee and started reading about 20 minutes ago… between your work, what I gleaned from the conversation with Daisy, and Jim’s work, I think I am coming to understand what I want to know… if you look at Jim’s map called “Personal Bests” (pg. 1), he clearly articulates that high impact instruction is a blend of “Intensive-Explicit” and “Constructivist” approaches… I am developing a professional development framework for a charter “district” that was one school last year, 3 this year, and will be 6 next year… and they are having difficulty articulating who and what they are so that new administrators and new teachers can run these replication schools without changing what the original charter is… a very unique blend of both approaches… trying to wrap my head around how these approaches come together without one stepping on the toes of other. And the greatest challenge is how to staff these schools with newly qualified teachers who are trained in very explicit methods but who can learn how to (or who are willing to) alter their conception of how to approach instruction with a more constructivist approach. It is a very complex problem for this school. Hoping to see you in January in Tarrytown… doing a training using the CFU materials I picked up in Albany on January 6th!… Merry Christmas… hope you have some time away from the revision work to enjoy your family and the season… it is all about balance… Unfortunately, I am not finding personal balance right now with the dissertation under way… here is a picture of what I am reading right now! (smile)

        • Jack Pruitt
          May 7, 2014 at 12:01 pm

          It is amazing – in the worst sense – how many of you need to re-take your English GCSEs.

    • Adam
      January 22, 2018 at 10:13 pm

      “Past papers”: Exam papers from previous years.

  2. Max Tuefferd
    December 20, 2013 at 4:24 am

    Is there any way of getting one’s hands on this book before mid-March 2014?

    • Doug_Lemov
      December 20, 2013 at 3:48 pm

      checking with daisy. and hi, max.

  3. Adam
    January 22, 2018 at 9:51 pm

    Just a quick (very belated) FYI: “Year 9” in the English school system is equivalent in age to Grade 8 in the US (age 13 to 14). English children start school a year earlier. Year 1 is from 5 years old, and the final year is at Year 13.

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