The Bad Boy of British Education

Jul 9, 2011 by


Festival of Education, at Wellington College, England, supported by Microsoft, Pearson, McKinsey &Co, on 25th-26th June 2011.

A second report by our British and Foreign Correspondent

Colin Hannaford


Professional advancement and recognition in a science depend solely on approbation by one’s peers, not on communicating with or approval by non-scientific outsiders.

Carl Djerassi1


The Bad Boy of British Education’

In my first report from Wellington College, I told of my pleasure on finding immensely powerful magic in this famous school: a magic capable of clearing away much of the mess created by decades of government and academic interference in British and American schools.

That both have been well-intentioned is not disputed. It is also not to be disputed that thousands of young people are leaving our schools barely able to read or write. Or that many others are beginning university courses for which they are neither intellectually nor emotionally prepared to continue.

If this appears to you too extreme, please reflect on the following.

In North America including Canada, and in Europe including Britain, there are approximately six and a half thousand universities.

In the past fifty years the majority of these universities have opened departments to study education. Most are staffed with one or more full professors, a larger number of associate professors, lecturers, assistant lecturers, research assistants, etc.

It is surely fair to presume that in all this time most of these academics have been working to improve education, especially in our schools.

Now ask yourself: has education improved in our schools?

Unless your experience is very unusual indeed, I think your answer is no.

Will you then suggest the reason why it has not improved, but, in many instances, has obviously deteriorated?

Isn’t it because so many school teachers are inadequately prepared; that they do not work hard enough; that they are unable to keep order; are lazy, feckless, burn out too soon?

But: wait a moment! Who prepares these teachers; who qualifies them to teach; who inspects and supports them as they are teaching? Aren’t they the very same people who tell us that the teachers are the cause of failure in our schools?

This is all very odd. This is rather like sheepdogs blaming the sheep for not running straight.

But, more to the point, surely we should be asking: if they bear no responsibility for this decline, what exactly have all these thousands of academics been doing all this time?

They will answer: they have been doing research.

Research: into what? Why: research into improving education, of course!

This is even stranger. Perhaps we should have asked why so much time has been devoted to research.

Once we know that reason, we can then ask why hundreds of thousands of hours of research has not been able to prevent all those teachers from making the situation worse. These two answers may be related.

In my first report I began by identifying what I called the Sacerdotal Model of teaching. This was in order to remind you that for a very long period in Europe virtually every teacher was a priest.

Except in the minority of highly religious schools, this is no longer true. And yet the pattern of instruction in even the most secular school is largely unchanged. Teachers are still given a kind of sacerdotal authority. It still expected that their pupils, their flock, will sit and listen to them pontificate as if to save their souls.

This simple system of education served most countries perfectly well throughout the 19th century. But at the beginning of the 20th century an immense tragedy destroyed people’s confidence in the ability of many governments to continue to make decisions as they had in the past.

Millions of young men – the young lions, they were called: young lions, commanded by donkeys – marched into the swamps of blood and mud of the First World War and millions disappeared.

Science had provided their commanders with the means of their death. Many now began to wish for a new kind of science; that there should be a science of government.

In 1917, Lenin announced the science of dialectical materialism.

In 1923, Hitler announced the science of Aryanism.

In 1924 modest young Swiss psychologist called Jean Piaget announced the science of intelligence. A science has to be researched. Research requires researchers; researchers require assistants; the results of their research must be expounded by lecturers, who, incidentally, may also require assistants, to students!

Students, students! Students to be taught; students to be examined; students to be qualified; and over them all, lots of new professors of this new science.

Jean Piaget was born in 1896. Whilst still at school he published two scholarly papers on molluscs. By 1921 he had published twenty-five more, still on molluscs, before turning his attention to humans. In 1923 he was appointed Director of Research of the International Bureau of Education in Geneva. In 1940 he became president of the Swiss Society of Psychology. In 1942, during the Nazi occupation, he lectured at the Collège de France.  These lecture notes became one of his most famous books: ‘The Psychology of Intelligence’. In 1948 he became President of the Swiss Commission of UNESCO; in 1952, a professor at the Sorbonne.  In 1955 he created the International Centre in Geneva for Genetic Epistemology. In 1956 he created the School of Sciences at the University of Geneva. He was a giant.

After forty years studying his work, Dr Howard Gardner, of Harvard declared Piaget: ‘still a giant,but wrong on every detail’.

Even less flattering was a later comment by another professional: “Piaget’s work on children’s intellectual development owed much to his early studies of water snails”2

This was meant as a serious observation.

Piaget believed that children begin life with the same low degree of one kind of intelligence; that in children, not molluscs, this will increase predictably with age in the manner of a spiral. Ordinary experience will cause understanding to increase, predictably, along the turns of spiral; but an entirely new and surprising experience may force a child’s understanding to jump from a lower to a higher conceptual level, achieving, or creating, new knowledge.3

Everyone can recognise this part of his theory. Most of us will have experienced what the great American Nobelist Richard Feynman called ‘the joy of finding things out’.

But I remember being made aware of its supposed application to teaching in the first months of my Cambridge training.

One of our lecturers showed a video of himself teaching a mathematics class. About a dozen very young boys sat in two neat rows in their neat uniforms, listening raptly to his explanation.

Whilst we watched, he explained that the aim of his lesson was to increase the tension in these young minds between their past experience and the new until this sparked new understanding. “If you listen” he told us, “you can hear the neurons growing, reaching out to make new connections.”

That’s not what he said. I just made it up. It’s what I might have said.

In any case, sure enough: suddenly a hand shot up, and a boy’s voice gasped out a revelation: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line!

Within minutes excitement at this discovery spread through the class as all his little boys grasped this new concept. Again our lecturer explained: he had simply created the tension. The boys’ minds had made the expected connection.

And this, he concluded, is all that we must strive to achieve with our classes in our future careers. First create the tension: then wait for revelation.

I had left the army the year before. When working as their instructor, my students had worn uniforms, but had been powerful young men. Nonetheless, I felt my experience must be significant. I protested “But very few young people can learn like that! Some may try, but most cannot.”

This video was his star turn, and my protest was not well received. His experience, with small classes of small uniformed boys, completely confirmed Piaget’s theory. This was the result that he expected. There had been no jump in his mind from a lower to a higher level: of understanding: that when you set up an experiment to prove what you expect – hoopla! – this is often what it proves.

Professor Martin Haberman, founder of the Haberman Institute in Houston, has pointed out another weakness of Piaget’s methods. Following Piaget’s example, virtually all subsequent research on learning has focused on single year groups, and even on single children.

This is certainly how Piaget came to his first conclusions, and he clearly never felt it necessary to revise them.4 Unfortunately for many millions of children, his first and last ideas were not challenged systematically until after his death in 1980.

There are several good reasons at this point for howling with grief whilst pounding holes in concrete. As any disinterested person will realise – as any parent will know – the difference between children singular and children plural is not trivial. It is crucial. Ignoring it is one of the main reasons why our schools are failing.

In fact it is not too much to claim that is why our schools are being made to fail. It is another case of lions being commanded by donkeys.

Dr Howard Gardner, the Harvard scholar who found ‘all the details wrong’, experienced his first crisis of faith in Piaget’s ideas when he realised:

a. that he could identify at least seven kinds of intelligence: linguistic; logical; musical; spatial; kinaesthetic; interpersonal; intrapersonal.

b. that all children possess different degrees of these;

c. that they do not become apparent at the same age;

d. that experience does not modify them in the same way;

e. that children, therefore, do not mature at the same rate.5

In other words, and as any mother might have told Dr Piaget, or his later followers, all his years of research were not worth a bucket of cold tar.

But, of course, when dealing with giants: there is always more.

Rather weirdly – since all the evidence available to mothers as well as common sense says differently – children are still believed to learn from their teachers.

Did you pause at the end of that line, thinking that you had misread it? This is a measure of how deep this nonsense is embedded in the universal mind.

The great majority of children learn very little from their teachers.

Throughout their years in secondary school, children are entirely accustomed to being addressed by name: that is, as individuals.

This is fundamental to the Sacerdotal Teaching Model. Every soul is an identity: but not different.

Actually – and also very consciously – children in school are always members of a group: of their class.

This is even more important than their possession of multiple intelligences developing at different rates.

In 2002 another Harvard psychologist, Stephen Pinker, attracted fierce criticism for explaining the effect on children of simply belonging to a group.

The mind of a child, he insisted, is not the tabula rasa of ancient wisdom, the blank slate on which societies inscribe all knowledge. Some of this may happen. But far more important for every child is what they learn: not from their teachers, or parents, or other adults – but from their peers: from their group.6

This is another of those details the Devil delights in.

The knowledge which children learn from their peers is far more important to them than anything in the school’s curriculum. They learn their attitudes to one another; then their attitudes to outsiders; to teachers; to authority; whether to say yes or to say no; their ambitions; and, finally, their willingness to learn.

What this means is simple and stark. It cannot be supplanted by any exciting new initiative. No matter how eager a government may be to build ‘on the rock of well-educated and productive workers rather than the sand of financial speculation.’ 7

Heads up! As my friend Mary D might say: Now hear this!

Unless a child’s whole group is engaged in learning – that is, in learning as a social activity – no one in that group’s class will willingly learn, except those whom the group has excluded. If their relations with authority deteriorate more, it may become a matter of honour to learn nothing at all.

No-one may doubt that Piaget remains important. Even though most of his ideas have been found to be wrong, thousands of university departments of education are still researching the science of education that he founded.

But now is the proper time to ask the second of our questions. Let me remind you. Why, with so many decades of research behind them, can these university researchers not show the many thousands of over-burdened, over-stressed, and constantly denigrated teachers to teach more effectively? Why?

The answer is surprising. It is because they cannot work as scientists.

Richard Feynman used to explain that it is not sufficient in a science to conduct experiments which aim to produce the result a theory has predicted. It is essential to do exactly the opposite: to conduct experiments aimed at proving that a theory is inadequate, or is misguided, or is just plain wrong.

This demand is impossible in a science of education.

Imagine the university education department’s spokesperson explaining the purpose of one of these crucial experiments to parents: ‘When the teachers we have instructed exactly follow our directions, we expect all your children to fail.’

Professor Carl Djerassi has pointed that unless unusually determined and courageous, scientists are habitually cautious about declaring against their own peers’ consensus. This is the group think problem again. But, given the near impossibility of creating substantive evidence against the consensus, this habitual caution is an even more serious constraint for educationalists than for others.

This has a further consequence: one well known to us all. Since it is virtually impossible scientifically to prove that a method is inadequate, or misguided, or wrong which they have all decided to support as scientists, when it fails to work as expected, it is always easier, and is far, far safer, to blame the teachers.

Education allows an enormous range of possibilities of error – as well as possibilities of success. Very few theories can be tested at length, with many children in many classrooms, over periods of years; and, at best, involving generations.

Because of this, the most extreme conditions must be fulfilled to test a theory properly. Let me try to list some of the most obvious.

The experiment must be conducted throughout an entire school.

Its director must enjoy the confidence of the governors, teachers, and parents.

The director must possess extraordinary conviction and powers of persuasion.

The pupils must accept being the subject of the director’s experiment.

The pupils must participate willingly.

And finally, anyone satisfying all the conditions must expect a great deal of criticism – and not be disturbed.

On first arriving at Wellington College, I expected to meet its Master, Dr Anthony Seldon. I had already asked to interview him.

It was early afternoon when I walked through a great press of cheerful parents and pupils into the College, to notice a slim young chap in a crumpled suit and open white shirt simultaneously and rather ludicrously attempting to eat a large apple in his left hand whilst adjusting a microphone on a stand with his left. He had an untidy shock of dark hair: clearly a senior pupil deputed for this task.

Suddenly, whilst still holding his apple, this slim figure clicked on his microphone, and began thanking everyone for coming to the College, promising us that the next day would be even more enjoyable.

This was the Master of Wellington College.

As he stepped away from his microphone, I asked if he was ready to be interviewed. “Not now,” he replied. “Later.” And, like a small and much darker White Rabbit, he hurried away.

The next day I arrived much earlier, wearing my badge, and found him in much the same position as the day before, although this time without the apple. His glance took in my name tag. He spoke perfectly calmly before I could: “Colin, I am currently occupied as you can see with an event involving a great number of people. I cannot talk with you now.”

An excellent interview with Dr Seldon – but not by me, and not for, but for The Sunday Times – can be found below.8

I never did get my interview. Every time I met the Master he was hurrying from one point to another. There were over ninety Festival speeches, presentations and stalls. Before leaving, I visited several of these, but I also interviewed a number of teachers, pupils, and others. They did not hide their opinions.

They made clear to me that the Master of Wellington College is the greatest magician in British education today.

He is British education’s main Bad Boy.

He does what others dare not do.

His most dramatic innovation at Wellington has been to persuade its governors, teachers, pupils, and parents of the importance of the same ideas that I and my colleagues have been urging academic educationalists to accept for the past fifteen years. Namely that children of all ages and all levels of intelligence learn best through discussion.

He even encourages lessons on happiness. On happiness! When this fact was first announced in the British press, it greeted with ridicule. He became the only man in the ranks not in step with the rest. One might suppose that an important aim of other schools is to increase humanity’s unhappiness. Perhaps this is an accident.

But most unusual of all for school headmaster – I discovered – is that Dr Anthony Seldon is much loved.

He is a most remarkable gentleman’ one of the College officers murmured to me as we followed him around his College.

It was not in jest.

It is wrong to say that instruction is always ineffective. It is not wrong to emphasise that if it is to be effective there must be an unusual degree of rapport between instructor and instructor, and that this rapport is very difficult to sustain in a classroom day after day. Sooner or later the attention of even a most sympathetic audience will begin to drift.

In contrast to this, one of the girl pupils I spoke with lit up with enthusiasm while telling me about the lessons in which her class was encouraged to discuss different issues. “We get to talk,” she told me, “about our feelings!”

These are lessons to encourage the growth of the linguistic, logical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligence which majority of children need most of all. Once established, other intelligences have room to grow.

I believe that the Iron Duke would approve of this approach being extended to mathematics lessons in the college that is his national memorial, but I have written too often about this to repeat the reasons here. (But see EducationNews passim!)

There is clearly change in the air. On the second day I met an old friend, Roger Sutcliffe, president of SAPERE, the UK charity for Philosophy for Children and previous President of ICPIC, its international equivalent.

Roger has battled academic uninterest for a quarter century. He told me that his movement is now growing apace.9 He expressed his eagerness to help move mathematics education away from boring and ineffective instruction, to explore the Socratic Methodology, learning from discussion, instead.

In the morning I enjoyed the pleasure of interviewing Ms Bettany Hughes, an internationally celebrated classical historian, speaking about her latest book, The Hemlock Cup, on the life and the death of Socrates.

To study Socrates is to love him, she told me and then delighted me further by explaining a fact which has always puzzled me as its must puzzle many.

We would know very little of the thinking of most influential philosopher in history if his friend Plato had not capture them in writing.

She explained why this was: “Socrates believed that real intelligence was only created in discussion. He hated written words. He would say, they cannot speak and are dead. To be useful, discussion must be face-to-face. 10

And Roger Sutcliffe was equally encouraging: “When I began, I thought that it would take fifty years to change education for the better. We are half-way there!”

We shall need more magicians, of course.

Join us: there is a future to be won.



Colin Hannaford,

Oxford, 8th July.








1 Djerassi C., Stanford University: synthesised the first female oral contraceptive; awarded 1973 National Medal of Science, 1991 National Medal of Technology, 1992 Medal of American Chemical Society. From the preface of his sixth novel NO, page 2.

2 Satterly, D. in Oxford Companion to the Mind, OUP, 1987.

3 Piaget concluded [that] intellectual development [is] an upward expanding spiral in which children must constantly reconstruct the ideas formed at earlier levels with new, higher order concepts acquired at the next level. Piaget, Wikipedia.

4 From a biography by Boeree C., 1996: ‘Piaget began to research the reasoning of elementary school children in 1921.  This research became his first five books.  In 1925, his first daughter was born; in 1927, a second; and in 1931, a son. They became the focus of intense observation by Piaget and his wife.  This research became three more books!’

5 Seven Kinds of Intelligence, Gardner, H., 1983

6 The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Pinker S., 2002 (Pulitzer Prize finalist 2003)

7 The golden boy and the blob, (commenting on Dr Arne Duncan), The Economist, May 9, 2009.

8 By Richard Wood,

9 Sutcliffe, R.,

10 Read her recent book, ‘The Hemlock Cup’, Hughes, B., 2011.

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