Superman likes Kryptonite – my response to Howard Scott

Last Friday the TES featured an article of mine based on 5 myths that I believe exist in Further Education. I really thought that in writing it, I had put the cat amongst the pigeons, yet the vast majority of those that have read the post have willingly shared within their own network, often writing positive comments in agreement with my points. I was always expecting a reply from one individual that was sure to challenge my thinking however… He’s like my kryptonite; but in a good way. He questions my views and often provides a well informed and considered counter argument. Unlike Superman, I like this. Why? Well it makes me read more to find out what the hell he is talking about, but also keeps me from having a blinkered view of education, namely learning. Here is Howard’s reply.


In response to each of Howard’s points, I would now like to respond in order to answer his questions:

Myth 1

With regards to a making a choice between knowledge and generic skills, there shouldn’t be one and that’s the point I’m trying to make. We can’t (as far as the research I’m aware of is concerned) explicitly teach generic skills and should instead focus on knowledge. We need domain specific knowledge to enable us to teach the domain specific skills you refer to in the English lesson (now I appreciate that there’s a wealth of research debating what a ‘domain’ is). Attempting to teach a skill to be used across domains is absurd in my opinion (based on my understanding of the research) and is often encouraged/prescribed in FE institutions through teaching in novel ways.


Tricot and Sweller (2014) cite Geary’s (2008) evolutionary psychology which asserts that we have two types of knowledge: biologically primary knowledge that we have evolved to acquire over many generations and biologically secondary knowledge that has become culturally important, but that we have not specifically evolved to acquire. Essentially, the secondary stuff is the domain specific information we need to teach (subject knowledge) and the primary stuff is that which is naturally acquired (skills). The more secondary knowledge we have, the greater we are able to draw upon the primary – being able to problem solve or be critically analytical (skills) – this may include both generic and domain specific skills, but it is naturally acquired – not achieved through instruction.


With regards to ‘instruction’, I didn’t use that term and have been misquoted, but that’s beside the point. I am happy to read evidence to the contrary, rather than an anecdote of the Beatles in a studio. Here’s what Tricot and Sweller say about biological primary knowledge:

‘While biologically primary knowledge may be unteachable, it does not follow that it is unimportant to instruction. It can be important in at least two respects. (1) People may learn the different contexts in which an already acquired generic skill can be applied. Learning the contexts in which a generic skill can be applied provides another example of acquiring domain-specific knowledge. In other words, general problem-solving strategies are “teachable” in a very restrictive sense, i.e. indicating to learners that a primary, general problem-solving strategy, already acquired by the learner, is usable to solve a specific academic problem. (2) In addition, biologically primary knowledge may facilitate the acquisition of biologically secondary information that provides the subject matter of instruction. Pointing out to learners that a biologically primary skill that they have can be used to assist in a biologically secondary task may be useful. Similarly, instruction that is organized in a manner that facilitates the use of primary skills in the acquisition of secondary skills may be beneficial (Paas & Sweller, 2012). In other words, while primary skills may be unteachable because they have already been acquired, they may be useful in leveraging the acquisition of secondary skills.’


I concede that we can develop skills within a domain as Hattie, Biggs and Purdie tell us. Let’s use my mechanic and problem solving. We can support them to follow a particular process, but (1) it requires them to have knowledge still, and (2) it isn’t something they can easily go and apply in another context; their maths lesson for example. I may be completely wrong and am open to the research, but am yet to find anything convincing. This is corroborated by the National Research Council 2012:

‘Research to date provides little guidance about how to help learner’s aggregate transferable competencies across disciplines. This may be a shortcoming in the research or a reflection of the domain-specific nature of transfer’.


Myth 2

If there is an overlap between units delivered, then that’s great. It’s when a module is taught and not revisited that I take issue with. This is particularly prevalent on BTEC’s and the like.


Myth 3

Firstly, this point ‘don’t OFSTED approve of multiple activities taking place in classrooms, rather than one steamrollered practice?’ Ofsted approve of many things that lack sufficient evidence base and continue to be debunked (grading lessons, progress etc.), so I’m not going to go there with this one.


Having read more around this subject, I think the term individualised instruction is better suited. There is a bit of a ‘jangle fallacy’ with this and in FE the term personalised learning is used as opposed to individualised instruction. My understanding of it is giving learners different learning activities to do within the same lesson to either reach the same or different outcomes. Essentially, the teacher is spread far more thinly than when the group moves at a similar pace with whole class instruction. Yes, you’re right about the research being in school, but there is no evidence to support its use in any setting, and that is my point. Why is it so prevalent with such little evidence?  I think in some cases, it may be beneficial, but it seems the fad of the moment – the ‘in’ thing, and we need to be careful with it.


Myth 4

Again, in some cases, this may be beneficial, but current research shows that student control over learning is good for student motivation, but not so effective for learning. It will be interesting to see the outcome of research using technology in this area. To clarify student control over learning, it is not too dissimilar to the above – choice over methods and over content. Have you ever given learners the choice of something to go away and research, for them to come back with a poor or complete misunderstanding of it? I certainly have. We (the teacher) know what is needed, so why waste valuable learning time ‘facilitating’ learners to get there, when we can be more direct using methods that have shown to be more effective?



I’d like to quote your point about the opportunity for innovation: ‘Are we as professionals afforded some opportunity for innovation that allows that to happen – rather than subscribing to or being prescribed with what is tried and tested?’ Yes and no. I’m getting at that point somewhat in the article, but feel that it is far safer to use the ‘tried and tested’ methods in order to do best by our learners. Can we continue to trial and prescribe methods with little evidence at the risk of damaging the young people we serve? Sometimes I feel that we may be widening the gap, not narrowing it for our learners.


The essence of the article isn’t about me being right, because I am open to different ideas and accept that there isn’t a best method – everything works for someone and something works for everyone. The article is really a reflection of my feelings about the FE sector. A sector that buys into the latest fads and gimmicks and rarely challenges the top down prescription of these. We need to be able to explore the evidence and rationale for the methods and if we decide that it isn’t right for our learners in our contexts, then dump it – not follow the crowd.


The purpose of FE is always going to be debatable as it has become a ‘Jack of all trades and master of none’ (are we that different to schools by the way? – I’m not so sure). I think you make some salient points about being the bridge to employment and that it may be better ‘looking different’, but it is what it is and we have to do the best we can for the learners that we serve. Let’s use what we know to our advantage.


Thanks for being my kryptonite and taking the time to read the article and post a well-articulated reply which has challenged me greatly.



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