The Guardian has obtained a copy of Dominic Cummings' Some Thoughts on Education. Pulbished just after ten o'clock last night, it had generated well over 1,000 comments by 6am this morning, a remarkable feat since the document is 267 pages long, leading to the conclusion that none of the people commenting on the document had read it. By this evening, it had attracted more comments than any other Guardian article I've read, (almost 3,000), and visits to this website were a record for one day at over 500. I've started to read the document, and it's slow going. I have to check references to everything from chimp politics to areas of mathematics, the existence of which I'd never have suspected. I spend what may be seen as a disproportionate amount of time on the two times table, because children tend not to know it.
The reason for the flurry of comments is that Cummings mentions genetics, and is hence decried as an elitist at best and a eugenicist at worst. I'm still on the part where he talks of the difficulty of understanding and controlling complex societies and organisations beyond the "zero sum" of tribal cultures, and proposes what he calls an Odyssean education that might begin to equp people with the tools they need in order to do so. I've found a mention of the "bell curve" - more jerking knees - which I'm by no means sure applies in education - but not yet followed it through.
The Guardian's clever Patrick Wintour suggests that the paper is likely "to pass over most readers' heads", without letting us know whether or not it has passed over his own. I'm not sure whether it's passed over mine or not - at the moment it feels more like a collision. But I like the Odyssean idea, and agree with him on the inherent mediocrity of too much that goes on in education, particularly when the boss's errors are not challenged. Mediocrity plus authority makes a truly stifling combination, perhaps especially when energy is added to the authority. The Army had its Col. Blimps. We have our complacent local authority officers, our Plowdenites and the legacy of Anthony Crosland.
Mr Cummings sets great store by randomised controlled trials to demonstrate what does and does not work. I've discussed these in two technical papers, the more recent of which is here, with a link to the first. I argue that randomisation is only one factor in the design of educational research, and that progress in surgery, notably Lord Lister's discovery of antisepsis, has come from clinical methods that provide another legitimate route to knowledge. Some of those proposing randomisation as the touchstone of truth have either carried out no such trials themselves, or have botched them. It is certainly no panacea.
Mr Cummings is on stronger ground with Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian of the Peloponnesian wars, and the earliest analyst of realpolitik. Neutrality was neither possible nor permissible. Cities that were not for Athens would fall to its Spartan opponent. Machiavelli could have taken lessons.
He also slams into the philosophy, politics and economics course that has become the training ground - I almost said breeding ground - for our political masters in all parties. It gives its students a smattering of philosophy and too little grounding in maths to enable them to tackle the complex problems of modern societies. Sixty per cent of MPs, he says, could not solve the simple probability question of the odds against two consecutive heads when tossing a fair coin (3-1, to the best of my calculation). The politics part is interesting - students spend much of their free time contesting elections for union and political society positions, a ferocious exercise that prepares them for life in the Westminster village and careers in PR (my view, not his). PPE has much to answer for - it continues the vice of philosophy, "Queen of Disciplines", in making its students think they know everything about everything, or can if they give it five minutes of their time, and dresses it up in modern-sounding theories. It produced several variations on the two Edwards - eg Heath and Balls.
I agree with:
Newton - excellent illustration of the limitations of Newton's theories when multiple forces interact.
Universities - a lot of students are not doing enough academic work. This saves universities money and leaves students time to work in bars to make ends meet.
Excellence in teaching can't be the norm. A pity Labour took descriptions of it out of inspection reports, and conflated the excellent with the very good in school reports.
The prevalence of mediocrity and the need for reform. This is a view shared by the Labour and Conservative parties, since Alistair Campbell's dismissive remark about "bog standard" schools in the nineties. They agree also that Mossbourne is an example of a successful approach.
But not with:
We are governed by universal mathematical laws. Impossible to prove, particularly in the question of where and how far they apply. Applying the Bell curve in A level grading led to manipulation of mark boundaries to fit the percentages dictated by the curve. This was nonsense.
Genetic determination of ability -"g" increases from 20% in infants to 60-80% in middle age. This seems impossible to prove, unless the argument rests on a cumulative marginal advantage in interaction with other factors