The echo chamber of progressivist ideas, also in Dutch Platform Education 2032 report?

  • I have trawled through the century finding constant repetitions of these same beliefs about learning. I can’t see that I need to drag you through this echo chamber. What is slightly odd is that the constant re-echoes of these ideas tend to be presented as the novel, radical, insights of the echoers. [Kieran Egan, 2002, p. 49]

‘These same beliefs’ are the beliefs covered by the label of progressivism, many of them recognizably present in the Dutch Platform Education 2032 Advisory Report. Progressivism is an educational ideology, rooted in the 19th century, that proved to be immune to even the science of psychology of the end of the 19th century (William James, Edward L. Thorndike), let alone that of the beginning of the 21st century (John Anderson, Stellan Ohlsson, Michelene Chi, John Sweller, to name but a few). Everybody, even a Platform member, is free to choose ideology rather than science to guide one’s thinking. The Platform, however, should make it abundantly clear where it borrows its ideas from: science, or ideology. In the quest for scientific underpinnings of the Platform’s report, it is fitting to identify any claims that probably are rooted in progressivist ideology. This blog will do so only by quoting some examples that deserve critical attention, if only because the Platform refrains from indicating its sources.

The kernel of progressivism is the idea that all learning should come naturally, like the learning of one’s mother tongue. Mere exposure to the world, to relevant experiences, should suffice. Therefore the project method in progressivist education. Therefore also the bashing of everything rote or algorithmic in education. These ideas sound attractive, romantic also (sure, some of its roots lie with Jean Jacques Rousseau). Empirical psychology, however, shows these ideas to be huge mistakes (see also at the end of this blog the distinction between primary and secundary biological abilities). To get a feeling of the magnitude of the progressivist misconception, read the important book by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool (2016) on the lessons from decennia of research on expertise, in sports as well as in academia.

A clear example of progressivist ideology is to be found in this explicit statement, a key principle in the Platform’s advisory report:

  • Based on its activities to date, the Platform identifies the defining features of the education of the future as follows.
    1. Knowledge and skills based on creativity and curiosity
    Education must cultivate and encourage students’ curiosity; their innate inquisitiveness. They learn to ask relevant questions and to develop strategies which will arrive at answers. By so doing, they will develop knowledge which will enable them to establish connections and form further insights.
    [Advisory report p. 21]

Progressivism has its main roots, not in works on education by John Dewey, but in that of Herbert Spencer, in his influence on education the ‘Sir Ken Robinson’ of the 19th century, writing about 1860. According to Herbert Spencer, in the words of Kieran Egan:

  • . . . the teacher must be ever aware that the child’s instinctive tastes are the ultimate determiners of what is appropriate food for them; it is childrens’ questions, their interests, and their constructive, inquiring intelligence, that are the sole adequate engine of educational progress. [Egan p. 20]

The Platform does not indicate any specific sources for the claim quoted. No indication at all is given that this vision of education for the future probably is a copy of that of Herbert Spencer, a century and a half in the past.

What about that progressivism, why would progressivism be at all relevant to the Ducht debate on education sparked by this Platform report? Look, no hands!

  • The answer Spencer proposed [to failures of schooling, b.w.] was to devise methods of instruction, learning environments, and a curriculum that did conform with the underlying laws of children’s learning and development. Once methods and curricula more hospitable to children’s natural modes of learning were in place, their desire for knowledge would be released, and a revolution in learning would occur.
    The progressive movement in particular, but many others too, have been convinced of this idea, and in the twentieth century immense amounts of time, energy, ingenuity, and money were expended on trying to make learning in schools match children’s spontaneous learning in household, street, and field. The holy grail of progressivism—to let the metaphors run free—has been to discover methods of school instruction derived from and modeled on children’s effortless learning and so bring about the revolution promised by Spencer and by progressivists throughout the twentieth century. In spite of all this ingenuity, effort, and money, the revolution hasn’t shown much sign of occurring.
    [Egan blz. 38 (text ch 2, part 1)]

How to single out statements in the Platform report that reflect progressivist thinking? Being versed in John Dewey’s educational writings helps, of course. For the psychologist it is a piece of cake: the above qoute ‘Knowledge and skills based on creativity and curiosity’ is psychological gibberish, therefore it might be ideology. Because it is a key statement in the report, if it is not supported by science while it should be, it must be ideology. Does that ideology have a name? Yes, it is well documented, and it is called progressivism. Other names are used also, such as constructivism, situationism, and Stone’s developmentalism. Stone (1996) summarizes the progressivist take on education as follows.

  • Developmentalism assumes that the developmental directions issuing from the child’s native tendencies and characteristics are optimal because they are a part of “nature.” Although their concepts of development differed, Rousseau, Dewey, Piaget, and all other developmentalists share this premise. For Rousseau, nature was God’s work untainted by human influence. In his view, the optimal developmental progression was simply the emergence of native tendencies and characteristics unfettered and unspoiled by society. By contrast, Dewey and Piaget considered the child’s tendencies and characteristics to be the product of Darwinian evolution. Native tendencies and characteristics were desirable because they had survived the process of natural selection. Unlike Rousseau, Dewey and Piaget held that the optimal progression depended not only on successful maturation but on a natural process of interaction wherein the native characteristics selected-for by evolution were enhanced by the naturally occurring experiences to which they were fitted (Kohlberg & Mayer, 1972). Thus originated Dewey’s emphasis on authentic educational experience. Evolution equipped humans to learn by solving problems, therefore learning in the context of problem solving was optimal. Although Rousseau’s development was more exclusively a matter of maturation, he too treated social and educational influences as having the ability to either facilitate and nurture, or to corrupt and misdirect the optimal progression to which nature was postulated to tend. [Interesting detail: Stone attributes to Dewey what Dewey took from Spencer, without acknowledging his intellectual debt: “(…) because the words contained in books can be rightly interpreted into ideas, only in proportion to the antecedent experience of things. Observe next, that this formal instruction, far too soon commenced, is carried on with but little reference to the laws of mental development. Intellectual progress is of necessity from the concrete to the abstract.” Spencer, 1860] ”

Of course, progressivism is a container concept. Not every progressivist position will exhibit all its elements or aspects. The advisory report of the Platform, even while staying away from pedagogy and concentrating mainly on curricular matters, furnishes many examples of progressivist thinking, never or almost never identified as such in the report. I should do a small inventory on them. Let’s look at the advisory report’s summary, and mark the phrases that might have been taken from the scriptures of Spencer or Dewey. (Remember, they’re philosophers; what they tell us does not rest on anything remotely resembling controlled psychological experiment.) If the Platform’s summary is not a progressivist program, I’ll eat my hat.

  1. This mandatory ‘core curriculum’ will be restricted in scope and content, whereupon schools and teachers will have more time and opportunity to address the individual needs, ambitions and personal talents of their students by means of a discretionary or ‘elective’ curriculum, to be designed at the local level. [“That up to the present time the weakest point in progressive schools is in the matter of selection and organization of intellectual subject-matter is, I think, inevitable under the circumstances. It is as inevitable as it is right and proper that they should break loose from the cut and dried material which formed the staple of the old education.” Dewey 1938]
  2. Students must also acquire the knowledge they need to understand the world around them and make a contribution. [key concept in situationism. “Spencer also argued for an increase in mathematics, focused on what students would need in their everyday lives.” Egan, p 122; ‘realistic math education’ (RME) avant la lettre]
  3. To ensure that students appreciate the significance and future relevance of their education . . . [“There is, I think, no point in the philosophy of progressive education which is sounder than its emphasis upon the importance of the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his activities in the learning process, just as there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active cooperation of the pupil in construction of the purposes involved in his studying. But the meaning of purposes and ends is not self-evident and self-explanatory. The more their educational importance is emphasized, the more important it is to understand what a purpose is; how it arises and how it functions in experience.” Dewey 1938]
  4. Students will acquire in-depth knowledge of selected topics within each domain. [The ‘project curriculum’ started off with research fraud by William Heard Kilpatrick’s student Ellsworth Collings]
  5. They will also learn to interconnect knowledge in different disciplines as they examine various social or societal issues from different perspectives. [“Almost everyone has had occasion to look back upon his school days and wonder what has become of the knowledge he was supposed to have amassed during his years of schooling, and why it is that the technical skills he acquired have to be learned over again in changed form in order to stand him in good stead. (… ) These questions cannot be disposed of by saying that the subjects were not actually learned for they were learned at least sufficiently to enable a pupil to pass examinations in them. One trouble is that the subject-matter in question was learned in isolation; it was put, as it were, in a water-tight compartment. (…) But it was segregated when it was acquired and hence is so disconnected from the rest of experience that it is not available under the actual conditions of life. It is contrary to the laws of experience that learning of this kind, no matter how thoroughly engrained at the time, should give genuine preparation.” Dewey 1938]
  6. schools must also instil [sic] the general ‘interdisciplinary’ skills which are required across the board: learning skills, creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and cooperation. [“While the rule-taught youth is at sea when beyond his rules, the youth instructed in principles solves a new case as readily as an old one. Between a mind of rules and a mind of principles, there exists a difference such as that between a confused heap of materials, and the same materials organised into a complete whole, with all its parts bound together. Of which types this last has not only the advantage that its constituent parts are better retained, but the much greater advantage that it forms an efficient agent for inquiry, for independent thought, for discovery—ends for which the first is useless.” Spencer, 1860] [“ Examinations being once passed, books are laid aside; the greater part of what has been acquired, being unorganised, soon drops out of recollection; what remains is mostly inert–the art of applying knowledge not having been cultivated; and there is but little power either of accurate observation or independent thinking. To all which add, that while much of the information gained is of relatively small value, an immense mass of information of transcendent value is entirely passed over.” Spencer, 1860]
  7. challenging and relevant curriculum in keeping with the specific characteristics of their students [“There is a spreading opinion that the rise of an appetite for any kind of information implies that the unfolding mind has become fit to assimilate it, and needs it for purposes of growth; and that, on the other hand, the disgust felt towards such information is a sign either that it is prematurely presented, or that it is presented in an indigestible form. Hence the efforts to make early education amusing, and all education interesting.” Spencer, 1860]
  8. Dutch education consistently achieves high rankings in various international comparisons. Nevertheless, various social developments now compel us to reconsider what students should be expected to learn at school [An old song. This is the kind of politics that endangers those high rankings: Finland (Sahlberg blog), China (Yong Zhao 2014), Quebec (Haeck, Lefebvre & Merrigan 2011), The Netherlands (competence-directed education)].
  9. Current education policy and the resultant curriculum place a strong emphasis on cognitive performance. [“What avail is it to win pre scribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur?” Dewey 1938]

I am really surprised to see so clear a line of progressivist thinking in the report’s summary. Shocked describes it better, I am afraid. The Platform will have some explaining to do: how is it possible that it has produced an advisory report sporting important characteristics of an educational ideology that has its back turned on science? Without even once mentioning the fact. On the contrary, the Platform claims priority of its educational ideology: “A new direction for education demands a new and modern approach to teacher education.” (p. 56) This position of the Platform is scientifically controversial, to say the least (see Chall, 2000), and the Platform should have informed the public of it.

A strong conviction with progressivists is that all learning should come as natural as learning one’s mother tongue. Everything that is not that natural, like phonics, or learning the tables, is suspect and had better be removed from the curriculum. And replaced with problem based, project, discovery or self-directed learning. Yet that conviction is mumble jumble, a fallacy, and where it is clad in scientific clothes it is pseudo-science. Experimental research shows it so, next to the psychological literature mentioned earlier see Stone 1996, Geary 1995 (on biologically primary and secondary abilities), Sweller & Tricot 2014 (on Geary’s work). Read this blog back, knowing that distinction between what is biologically primary and secondary, and the whole progressive program will be crystal clear to you. You will know that the progressive program can do great damage to education, and to equity.

references & additional literature

John Anderson (2007). How Can the Human Mind Occur in the Physical Universe? Oxford University Press. info

P. De Bruyckere, E. Struyf, en D. Kavadias (2012).
Rousseau en Arendt in de iPad-klas, de oudere wortels
van hedendaagse discussies over technologie op school. Pedagogische Studiën, 92, 202-212. open access

Jeanne S. Chall (2000). The Academic Achievement Challenge. What Really Works in the Classroom? The Guilford Press. info

  • A book-length treatment of the effectiveness of traditional versus progressivist education; what educational research has to tell us.

Michelene T. H. Chi website. For example: (2013). Two kinds and four sub-types of misconcieved knowledge, ways to change it, and the learning outcomes. In S. Vosniadou: International handbook of research on conceptual change (2nd ed., pp. 49-70). pdf

Jack Crittenden & Peter Levine (2013). Civic education. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. webpage

Patrick Deneen (February 2, 2016). How a generation lost its common culture. essay

John Dewey (1916). Democracy and education. : An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. The Macmillan Company. pdf or in Project Gutenberg download

  • John Dewey is a great philosopher and prolific writer. His political philosophy of education is also called progressivist; that surely is not the progressivism of Herbert Spencer, the social Darwinist. Dewey’s ideas on learning etcetera owe much to Spencer’s thinking, yet Dewey does not give Spencer his due. See Kieran Egan on the complex relationship between Spencerian and Deweyan educational ideas.

John Dewey (July 9, 1930). How Much Freedom in New Schools? New Republic, 204-206. here

John Dewey (1938). Experience and education. here

Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool (2016). Peak. Secrets from the new science of expertise. info

  • Ericsson & Pool interviewed here

Kieran Egan (2002). Getting it wrong from the beginning. Our progressivist inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget. Yale University Press. previews

  • Kieran Egan (not dated). Getting it wrong from the beginning. The mismatch between school and children’s minds. paper

David C. Geary (1995). Reflections of evolution and culture in children’s cognition. Implications for mathematical development and instruction. American Psychologist, 50, 24-36. pdf

David C. Geary (2005). The origin of mind. Evolution of brain, cognition, and general intelligence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. info

David C. Geary (2007). ‘Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology’, Ch 1 in J. S. Carlson & J. R. Levin: Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology. Information Age Publishing. [info on the book] Chapter 1: pdf

David C. Geary & Daniel B. Berch (2016). Evolution and Children’s Cognitive and Academic Development. In David C. Geary & Daniel B. Berch: Evolutionary Perspectives on Child Development and Education. Springer. abstract & references [ boek is als eBook in KB te ‘leen’ ]

Catherine Haeck, Pierre Lefebvre & Philip Merrigan (2011). All students left behind: An ambitious provincial school reform in Canada, but poor math achievements from grade 2 to 10. Leuven: Center for Economic Studies discussion paper. pdf.

E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (2016). Why knowledge matters. Rescuing our children from failed educational theories. Harvard Education Press. isbn 9781612509525 prologue pdf

  • The book was published only on September 20, 2016. I was surprised to read how Dewey’s progressivism is related to the emphasis on skills in progressivist writing. Yes, indeed, 21st century skills in the early years of the 20th century. Another big, big surprise: the ‘natural experiment’ in France, the sudden nation-wide replacement of traditional education (a common curriculum for all) with progressivist education, US-bred (individualistic, pupil-centered, skills-oriented, every school its own specific profile). The empirical data are in, here showing dramatic declines in achievement over a twenty year period. Declines for low SES students being much sharper than those for elite children.

William James (1890) The principles of psychology.

Adrianus de Kock, Peter Sleegers & Marinus J. M. Voeten (2004). New learning and the classification of learning environments in secondary education. Review of Educational Research, 74, 141-170.

  • Dutch secondary education faces large-scale changes aimed at the creation of learning environments intended to stimulate new forms of learning, based on the idea that learning is a social-interactive, contextual, constructive, self-regulated, and reflective process (Simons, 2000). The stimulation of these new forms of learning can be seen as a demand of modern society, and they are propagated for a variety of reasons (Bolhuis, 2003). First, there is an economic argument: The capacity for self-directed learning is needed because knowledge creation has become very important in Dutch society, in which knowledge productivity is at the core of economic development. A second argument is that Dutch society is part of a global village in which there is continually a “confrontation with other truths” (p. 328); individuals are called upon to deal with such confrontations. A third argument stresses that the stimulation of self-directed learning supports the development of a democratic society, in which all citizens have equal possibilities to function well. And fourth, there is an important internal educational argument, which stresses that students in Dutch secondary education have to be better prepared to function in higher education, which requires the development of competencies for self-directed learning. These four arguments form the main motor for the large-scale educational changes that are faced by Dutch secondary education. [p. 141]

Lawrence Kohlberg & Rochelle Mayer (1972). Development as the aim of education. Harvard Educational Review, 42, 449- 496. pdf

Philip Lieberman (2016). The evolution of language and thought. Journal of Anthropological Sciences, 94. pdf

Stellan Ohlsson (2011). Deep Learning: How the Mind Overrides Experience. Cambridge University Press. info

  • Follows up on Allen Newell’s (1990). Unified theories of cognition. info as a 3rd generation information based cognitive psychology. Especially on ‘non-monotonic learning’: problem solving, creativity, belief change.

D. C. Phillips & Harvey Siegel (2013). Philosophy of Education. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. webpage

Robert Peal (2014). Progressively worse. The burden of bad ideas in British schools. Civitas. info

Jean Piaget (1964). Development and learning. In R. E. Ripple & V. N. Rockcastle Readings on the development of children. (7-20). pdf

Platform Onderwijs 2032 Advisory Report

Helen Pluckrose (March 2017, 2017). How French “intellectuals” ruined the West: postmodernism and its impact, explained. blog

Robert-Jan Simons, Jos van der Linden & Tom Duffy (Eds.) (2000). New Learning. Springer. chapter previews

  • Amazing list of contributors to this volume!
  • The book you are now reading aims to bring together research and theory on “new learning, “which is the term used to refer to the new learning outcomes, new kinds of learning processes, and new instructional methods both wanted by society and currently stressed in psychological and educational theory.

Herbert Spencer (1960). Essays on Education and Kindred Subjects. Everyman’s Library. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Essays on Education and Kindred Subjects by Herbert Spencer. webpage

  • What knowledge is of most worth? 1-44
    Intellectual education, 45-83
    Moral education 84-115
    Physical education 116-152
    Progress: Its law and cause 153-197

J. E. Stone (1996). Developmentalism: An Obscure but Pervasive Restriction on Educational Improvement. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 4, Number 8 April 21. free access

John Sweller (February 10, 2016). Story of a research program. Education Review webpage

John Sweller (2016). Cognitive Load Theory, Evolutionary Educational Psychology, and Instructional Design. In David C. Geary & Daniel B. Berch: Evolutionary Perspectives on Child Development and Education. Springer. abstract & references [ boek is als eBook in KB te ‘leen’ ]

André Tricot & John Sweller (2014). Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work. Educational Psychology Review
preview & concept

Edward L. Thorndike (1903). Educational Psychology. webpage.

Yong Zhao (2014). Who’s afraid of the big bad dragon? Why China has the best (and worst) education system in the world. info

blogs in the traditionalism – progressivism debate

It is helpful to see the controversy traditionalism – progressivism spelled out in social media or the blogosphere. These are the issues the Dutch Platform should have explicitly dealt with, but didn’t. Instead, the Platform’s advisory report presents examples of schools already implementing measures the Platform proposes: measures that are progressivist in character.

Greg Ashman (December 7, 2016). What does PISA tell us about inquiry learning in science? blog

  • An ‘unexpected result’ of PISA 2015: inquiry learning correlates negatively with PISA results, in a rather spectacular way. In the cognitive psychology community such a result is not ‘unexpected’ at all, of course 😉

Greg Ashman (December 31, 2015). Can a false choice be an object of research? Filling the pail blog

Greg Ashman (January 2, 2016). I refute it thus. Filling the pail blog

Greg Ashman (Feb. 7, 2016). Six signs that you’re a progressive educator. Filling the pail blog

Greg Ashman (April 18, 2017). Why progressivism matters. Filling the pail blog

Paul W. Bennett (August 1, 2015). Flipping the System: Where Should Ground Up Education Reform Start? blog

  • One of the studies unearthed by Ashman is an October 2011 research report, “All students fall behind,” providing a critical independent assessment of the Quebec Ministry of Education progressive reform, Project-Based Learning initiative from 2000 to 2009. The Reform was implemented top-down and right across the board in all grade levels with little or no input from classroom teachers. Comparing Quebec student performance in Mathematics from Grades 1 to 11, before and after the “constructivist” Reform initiative, Catherine Haeck, Pierre Lefebvre, and Philip Merrigan document a steady decline in scores, compromising that province’s status as the leader in Mathematics performance. “We find,” they concluded,” strong evidence of negative effects of the reform on the development of students’ mathematical abilities.” [quote]

Paul W. Bennett (Sept 5, 2016). Back to School Euphoria: What’s New about the “New Pedagogies of Deep Learning”? blog [Canada, Michael Fullan, NPDL, progressivism, Barber/Pearson]

David Didau (May 9, 2017). The Great Education Debate. blog

  • The pendulum is swinging and the debate on social media and blogs over the past five years or so has had a profound effect both on policy at the highest level and, whether teachers are aware of it or not, in classrooms. Reforms and myth-busting from Ofsted and DfE are far from panaceas and there is still a great deal to be done, but the debate is, slowly but surely, winning hearts and minds. The fact that some people want to shut it down or hurl insults is testament to their fear at losing influence and credibility.

    Here is a summary of what I’ve learned through debating ideas in education.

Heather Fearn (December 18, 2016). Herbert Simon and evidence-based education. blog

Michael Fordham (2016). Guided bibliography for the traditional teacher. pdf

Barry Garelick (December 5, 2016). How attempts to force equity in math classes can protect kids from learning. blog

  • I currently teach math at a middle school. I teach in the manner that I learned: a traditional form that has served many people well over the years. The traditional mode of teaching has been under fire for two to three decades as having “failed thousands of students.” Certain practices such as tracking students—particularly minorities—are considered part and parcel to traditional modes of teaching.

    Tracking typically means placing students into classes at their ability level, rather than their grade or age level. This has come under criticism and is often derided for “reinforcing inequality.” While such practices are no longer implemented as they once were, they exist in other forms as unintended consequences of those who seek to protect students from the ravages of the much derided traditional modes of teaching.

    Over the past several decades students have been so “protected” with the goal of eliminating the so-called “achievement gap.” The result is that the achievement gap is being eliminated by eliminating achievement.

  • This quote is only the beginning of this informative blog. See also the numerous comments on it.

E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (2013). Why Was It Called ‘Progressive Education’? blog

Horatio Speaks (January 1, 2016). blog

Andrew Old (July 29, 2015). The Trendiest Current Arguments For Progressive Education Part 1 blog & Part 2 blog

Jane Robbins (June 17, 2016). Seven Deadly Progressive Education Myths. blog

  • Daisy Christodoulou wrote Seven Myths About Education after teaching for several years in a British secondary school (British schools, like American, are controlled by the Hive). As a teacher she wrestled daily with “astonishing evidence of the pupils’ low levels of basic skills and knowledge” and began researching why the dominant pedagogy wasn’t working.

Audrey Watters (December 19, 2016). Facebook’s Plans to “Personalize” Education. [blog series ‘Technology and the Ideology of Personalization’] blog

Joanna Williams (January, 2015). Teaching is about what you know. William Kitchen vs education’s child-centred, anti-knowledge orthodoxy. Spiked Review of Books blog

Ben Wilbrink
  • ‘Platform Education 2032’ is a committee installed by Dutch education minister Sander Dekker. The Committee, chair Paul Schnabel, reported to the minister on the kind of curriculum that would prepare students well for the year 2032 (and further).

first series of blogs in reverse chronological order

Personal development: OECD’s social and emotional skills. Is it science?

  • ‘Platform Education 2032’ is a committee installed by Dutch education minister Sander Dekker. The Committee, chair Paul Schnabel, reported to the minister on the kind of curriculum that would prepare students well for the year 2032 (and further).
Ben Wilbrink, May 17, 2016

‘Personal development’ is at the top of the list of the Platform, yet it is difficult to gather what exactly that personal development might be. Exemplary for the fuzzy writing in the report is this quote

  • A relevant curriculum
    The personal development of students draws upon all components of the curriculum and demands education which is relevant and meaningful to the student. It should invite and encourage the student to ask questions, to probe on the basis of his own creativity and curiosity, thus developing enterprise and flexibility. At an early age, the student will learn to take and act upon his responsibility. He will feel engaged and appreciated.

The report does not explain much, the only references being to two OECD reports on social and emotional skills. Those skills get mixed up, in the Platform report as well as in OECD 2015d, with curiosity and creativity; curiosity and creativity seem to be the key to everything, influence of Sir Ken Robinson? Questions on scientific underpinnings of this personal development thing then boil down to the even bigger questions of scientific underpinnings of OECD positions. This blog will not give any answers, instead it will do some preparatory work by noting some peculiarities in the OECD position. For an impression of that position, read this post by OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, summarizing the review findings in the OECD (2015f) report. A quote from that text exempt of anything that might be recognizable as scientific humility:

  • [The report] documents methods to measure social and emotional skills and it uses innovative analytical methods to show how social and emotional skills are drivers of social outcomes, such as health, civic engagement, and subjective well-being.

    Perhaps most importantly, the report indicates that social and emotional skills are not just measurable, but also malleable. That means that schools, families and communities can play an active role in fostering these skills, they can be taught at home and school through adequate practices.

Scanning the OECD 2015f report, it is perfectly clear that there are at least two big issues regarding its scientific standing. The very first issue is the position of economists publishing on ‘non-cognitive skills’. The Bereiter-Scardamalia quote in the preceding blog already made it clear that ‘non-cognitive skills’ do not exist: there is no such thing as ‘non-cognitive’, and personality traits surely are not skills. It might just be the case that psychological claims by economists such as Heckman, Borghans and Ter Weel lack scientific grounding. Of course, economists can use results from psychological research. Research by Angela Duckworth on what she calls ‘grit’, or Carol Dweck on ‘growth mindset’, seems to be irresistible to scientists not schooled in psychology and its methodology. What economists, and the Platform Onderwijs 2032, conclude from psychological research might just be somewhat problematic, future blogs will have to go into that question. In the meantime: read some blogs that are critical on ‘non-cognitive skills’, see at the end of the references section. Today’s post by Kirschner & Neelen on motivation in education, for example, offers an apt illustration of misuse of the motivation concept, and of its debunking.

The second issue in the OECD report is the question whether these correlations of personality and measures of success in school and life are causal relations? If they are, which is not at all probable, the next question must be whether these personality characteristics can be influenced, trained, nudged, whatever. Can they? Psychologist intuition says there is not much room for influencing of any sort. Let alone the ethics of such invasion of privacy.
The idea of character education is not a new one, of course. Some critical thinking on the malleability of character by Edward L. Thorndike in his 1903 Educational Psychology: it is easy for educators to get the impression that character growth is a result of education, even if in fact education does contribute little or nothing. Personal development in the school years is an issue that lends itself to empirical research. The question then is: what does the research tell us about it? We know already what OECD’s Schleicher thinks of this question, or rather of its answers. Let’s however investigate ourselves, in a series of blogs to come.

some references from the OECD reviews, and related ones

Phillip L. Ackerman (2018). The Search for Personality–Intelligence Relations: Methodological and Conceptual Issues. Journal of Intelligence, 6 open access

  • Now, where are those soft skills economists like Heckman (and in his following the OECD) are boasting of? Read the article: no grit, no mindfulness, no growth mindset to be found. Conscientiousness, one of the Big Five personality factors: no relation with intelligence.

Wiljan van den Berge, Remmert Daas, Anne Bert Dijkstra, Tahnee Ooms & Bas ter Weel (2014). Investeren in skills en competenties. Een voorstudie voor programmering van onderzoek en beleid. get pdf

  • [skills-platform, an initiative of the Dutch Department of Education OCW]
    Leden van het skills-platform: Jaco Bron (SLO), Lex Herweijer (SCP), Edwin Hubers (Nationaal Regieorgaan Onderwijsonderzoek), Monique van der Hoeven (SLO), Hans Kuhlemeier (Cito), Diederik Schonau (Cito), Monique Turkenburg (SCP), Monique Volman (UvA) en Jan van Weerden (Cito). Opdrachtgever (Directie Kennis OCW): André de Moor, Vera Pieterman en Merel Schogt.

Lex Borghans, Ron Diris & Bas ter Weel (2014). Persoonlijkheid voorspelt succes. Vermijd eenzijdige focus op cognitie. Investeringen in persoonlijke ontwikkeling verbeteren sociaal-economische uitkomsten. CPB Policy Brief. donload pdf [Twin study, in English: Kautz and others (OECD report), below).

Lex Borghans, Angela Duckworth, James J. Heckman & Bas ter Weel (2008). The economics and psychology of personality traits. NBER Working Paper 13810. pdf also published in The Journal of Human Resources abstract.

Character education conference: contents now available including the Geneva Declaration. website.

Angela Duckworth (2016). Grit. The power of passion and perseverance. New York: Scribner. info

Angela L. Duckworth and David Scott Yeager (2015). Measurement Matters: Assessing Personal Qualities Other Than Cognitive Ability for Educational Purposes Educational Researcher, 44 237-251. open access

Angela L. Duckworth, Christopher Peterson, Michael D. Matthews & Dennis R. Kelly (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1087-1101.pdf

H. C. J. Duijker (1976). De ideologie der zelfontplooiing. Pedagogische Studiën, 53, 358-373. open access

  • Samenvatting In vele geschriften over de reorganisatie van het onderwijs worden als belangrijke, veelal zelfs als primaire doelstellingen genoemd: zelfverwerkelijking, zelfontplooiing e.d. De betekenis van deze termen wordt niet uitgelegd, doch blijkbaar als bekend voorondersteld. Als men echter de herkomst dezer begrippen nagaat, ontdekt men dat zij stammen uit een veelszins omstreden, empirisch nauwelijks gesteunde theorie. Aanvaarding van deze theorie heeft bovendien consequenties die in strijd zijn met hedendaagse opvattingen inzake gelijkheid en gelijkwaardigheid. Gewezen wordt op de gevaren die aan het ondoordacht gebruik van deze termen kleven; het onderwijs krijgt taken toebedeeld, wier uitvoering, bij gebrek aan hanteerbare maatstaven, niet anders dan op willekeurige, oncontroleerbare, dat wil ook zeggen: op potentieel onbillijke wijze kan plaatsvinden. Die gevaren worden te ernstiger, naarmate de school zich meer lijkt te ontwikkelen in de richting van een ‘total institution’.

Carol Dweck, Gregory M. Walton, & Geoffrey L. Cohen with the valuable assistance of David Paunesku and David Yeager (2014). Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning. Paper prepared for the Gates Foundation. get pdf

Will Hazell (Nov 10, 2017). Carol Dweck: the three biggest misconceptions about growth mindset. tes blog

James J. Heckman & Tim D. Kautz (June 2012). Hard evidence on soft skills. NBER Working Paper No. 18121. get pdf

James J. Heckman, Rodrigo Pinto & Peter Savelyev (2013). Understanding the Mechanisms Through Which an Influential Early Childhood Program Boosted Adult Outcomes. The American Economic Review, 103, 2052-86. pdf [“Experimentally induced changes in personality traits explain a sizable portion of adult treatment effects.” ???? ]

James J. Heckman, Jora Stixrud & Sergio Urzua (2006). The effects of cognitive and non-cognitive abilities on labor market outcomes and social behavior. Journal of Labor Economics, 24, 411-482. get pdf

Willem K. B. Hofstee (1994). Who should own the definition of personality? European Journal of Personality, 8, 149-162.

    Testing for personality characteristics —soft skills — is tricky business. So, what are people like Heckman talking about, really?

Tim D. Kautz, James J. Heckman, Ron Diris, Bas ter Weel & Lex Borghans (2014). Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success. OECD Education Working Papers, No. 110, OECD Publishing. get pdf

Patrick C. Kyllonen, Anastasiya A. Lipnevich, Jeremy Burrus & Richard D. Roberts (2014). Personality, Motivation, and College Readiness: A Prospectus for Assessment and Development. Educational Testing Service ETS Research Report Series ISSN 2330-8516. download here

Patrick C. Kyllonen (2016). Designing tests to measure personal attributes and noncognitive skills. In Suzanne Lane, Mark R. Raymond & Thomas M. Haladyna Handbook of test development (190-211). proof

  • A useful but technocratic — ethical concerns are absent — review of the literature. Noncognitive skills here are, for example, attitudes, personality characteristics. Problematic are the causal roles attributed to noncognitive skills (no scientific support). For example, the opening sentence of the Summary and Conclusions section: “The importance of noncognitive attributes, such as personality attitudes and values, and social, emotional and self-management skills has long been acknowledged because of their role in driving success in education and in the workplace.” I am not sure what Kyllonen is hinting at here: does he only mention a piece of folk psychology, or does he himself believe in this causal relation and its direction? In the balance: this is a highly informative chapter, gives many crucial insights. Keep thinking critically, however, while reading. For example, mention is made of publications by Heckman and others, without any indication of the tense relation, if a relation there is, with mainstream psychological and educational research.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Michaela Horvathova, Consultant, Directorate for Education and Skills) (2015). Review study OECD Dutch Curriculum: Onderwijs2032. Personal development. pdf (review study commissioned by the Platform Education 2032) d

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2015). Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills. Paris: OECD Publishing. get pdf f

  • Increasing deciles of cognitive skills has a strong impact on enhancing access to education and labour market outcomes, while increasing deciles of social and emotional skills has a strong impact on improving social outcomes such as health, experience of anti-social behaviour and subjective well-being. (…) Successful interventions tend to focus on raising skills that enable people to achieve goals, work with others and manage emotions, with conscientiousness, sociability and emotional stability appearing particularly important. [from the lead, chapter 2]
  • Social and emotional skills play a particularly important role in skills formation since they not only drive future development of social and emotional skills but also cognitive skills. (…) Programmes specifically designed to raise social and emotional skills in schools have shown positive results in the short term but there are rarely long-term rigorous evaluations. [from the lead, chapter 4 Learning contexts that drive skills formation

Platform Onderwijs 2032 Advisory Report

Andreas Schleicher (March 8, 2015; revised May 8, 2015). Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills. huffingtonpost

Edward L. Thorndike (1903). Educational Psychology. webpages.

Paul Tough (2012). How children succeed. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt. Dutch edition: (2015). Een kwestie van karakter. Waarom doorzettingsvermogen en nieuwsgierigheid belangrijker zijn dan IQ. Business Contact.

David S. Yaeger, Carol S. Dweck, and others (2016). Using design thinking to improve psychological interventions: The case of the growth mindset during the transition to high school.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 108, 374-391. Special Section: Motivating Classroom Learning. researchgate

blogs critical of character education (involving grit, mindset)

Greg Ashman (March 24, 2018). We don’t need no Sir Ken Robinson. blog

Scott Alexander (April 8, 2015). No clarity around growth mindset. blog [more than 200 comments]

Julian Baggini (January 15, 2016). State school pupils lack confidence – you won’t fix that in the classroom. opinion

Štěpán Bahník, Marek Vranka (2017). Growth mindset is not associated with scholastic aptitude in a large sample of university applicants. Personality and Individual Differences, 117, 139-143. abstract

  • The applicants, of course, are self-selected. In the group of applicants individuals with fixed mindsets as well as low academic achievements might be missing, underrepresented. bw

Gert Biesta (6 oktober 2015). Onderwijs moet de leerling meer vormen. pdf

Carl Binder (1988). Precision Teaching: Measuring and attaining exemplary academic achievement. Youth Policy, 10(7), 12-15. pdf [via @ThinkReadTweet]

Adi Bloom (February 12, 2016). Government plan to teach children grit is flawed, suggests global education expert John Hattie. blog TES

Donald Clark (January 7, 2015). Character education – an assassination. blog

Marcus Credé (May 18, 2016). No evidence that grit improves performance, Iowa State analysis finds. post

  • Marcus Credé, Michael C. Tynan & Peter D. Harms (accepted 2016). Much Ado about Grit: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis of the Grit Literature. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. accepted version

David Denby (June 21, 2016). The limits of “grit”. The New Yorker culture desk blog

David Didau (July 10, 2014). Grit and growth: who’s to blame for low achievement? blog

David Didau (October 24, 2015). Is growth mindset pseudoscience? blog

Benjamin Doxtdator (April 23, 2017). The Mindset Mindset: Passion and Grit as Emotional Labour. blog

Angela Duckworth (March 26, 2016). Don’t Grade Schools on Grit. Sunday Review, opinion opinion

Angela L. Duckworth and David Scott Yeager (May 2015). Measurement Matters: Assessing Personal Qualities Other Than Cognitive Ability for Educational Purposes. Educational Researcher, 44, 237-252. abstract [ook in]

Jon Severs (July 4, 2019). Carol Dweck: where growth mindset went wrong. TES interview

  • Implementation of growth mindset is more complex than anyone imagined, explains academic Carol Dweck, but she believes we are getting closer to getting it right

Carol Dweck (January 18, 2017). Growth mindset is on a firm foundation, but we’re still building the house. blog

Kathryn Ecclestone (2007). Resisting images of the ‘diminished self’: the implications of emotional well-being and emotional engagement in education policy. Journal of Education Policy, 22, 455–470. abstract.

Heather Fearn (June 1, 2015). The Hydra. blog [“. . . or ‘Weikart and Schweinhart’s [Perry] High/Scope Preschool Curriculum comparison Study Through Age 23’ and Lifetime Effects: The HighScope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40 (2005)” critical of Heckman’s work on ‘non-cognitive skills’]

Shane vander Hart (June 28, 2016). Activists Challenge Plan for NAEP to Assess Student “Mindsets”. blog

John Hattie (June 28, 2017). Misinterpreting the Growth Mindset: Why We’re Doing Students a Disservice. EdWeek. blog

  • Before I revealed my concerns about the generalised claims about growth mindsets, Carol said that in every session she talked about under what conditions growth mindset can work, what kinds of people it best works with, and she noted that developing a “growth mindset is the most fixed mindset idea” of the lot.

Carl Hendrick (2019). The growth mindset problem. A generation of schoolchildren is being exhorted to believe in their brain’s elasticity. Does it really help them learn? blog

Christian Jarrett (2016) Twin study raises doubts about the relevance of “grit” to children’s school performance. post

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen (May 17, 2016). Close the stable doors: Effects of motivation and engagement on learner achievement? post

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen (July 5, 2016). To Grit or Not to Grit: That’s the Question blog

Alfie Kohn (August 16, 2015). The perils of “Growth Mindset” education: Why we’re trying to fix our kids when we should be fixing the system. How a promising but oversimplified idea caught fire, then got coopted by conservative ideology. blog

Diane Ravitch (January 27, 2015). Jeff Snyder: What’s wrong with teaching “grit”? blog

Jason Rentfrow & Robert de Vries (January 14, 2016). A Winning Personality. post

Kalli Rimfeld (February 12, 2016). Why a bit of grit won’t get children higher grades. blog

  • Kaili Rimfeld, Yulia Kovas, Philip S. Dale & Robert Plomin (2016). True Grit and Genetics: Predicting Academic Achievement From Personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Now available free access pdf.

Ethan Ris blog (Post written by Ethan Ris, a doctoral candidate in education at Stanford University. His research is on the history and practice of reform in both K-12 and higher education.)

Jane Robbins and Karen Effrem (October 19, 2016). Schools ditch academics for emotional manipulation. The Federalist. blog

Nicole Shechtman Angela H. DeBarger Carolyn Dornsife Soren Rosier & Louise Yarnall (2013). Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century. U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology. pdf of draft

Lisa G. Smithers, Alyssa C. P. Sawyer, Catherine R. Chittleborough, Neil M. Davies, George Davey Smith & John W. Lynch (2018). A systematic review and meta-analysis of effects of early life non-cognitive skills on academic, psychosocial, cognitive and health outcomes. Nature Human Behaviour, 2, 867-880. 10.1038/s41562-018-0461-x  abstract & references &

Nicholas Tampio (June 2, 2016). Teaching ‘grit’ is bad for children, and bad for democracy. blog

Stephen Tierney (). Growth Mindset: The Latest Silver Bullet? blog

Jerry Useem (May 2016). The problem with teaching ‘grit’ to poor kids? They already have it. Here’s what they really need. Is Grit Overrated? The downsides of dogged, single-minded persistence. blog (The Washington Post, Valerie Straus) (Might there not be more problems with ‘grit’ than problems ‘grit’ helps solve? ‘One issue only’ ed psychology. b.w.)

Alderik Visser (2016). Persoonsvorming als curriculaire uitdaging?! Een conceptueel vooronderzoek. SLO. rapport

  • Dat is een nuttig stuk van Alderik. Hij maakt zich alleen veel te makkelijk af van het gedoe van Dweck en Duckworth met resp. ‘mindset’ en ‘grit’. Daarmee werken is aantasting van de persoonlijke levenssfeer van leerlingen. En van leraren die erop worden afgerekend (in de VS).

Johannes Visser (18 mei 2016). Hoe de regering de macht over het onderwijs kwijtraakte. De Correspondent artikel

Johannes Visser & Kauthar Bouchallikht (10 december 2018). Wie je bent, bepaalt je succes (maar wat moet het onderwijs daarmee?). De Correspondent blog

  • Niet alleen je schoolcijfers, maar ook je persoonlijkheid bepaalt of je succesvol wordt in het leven. Daarom komt er in het onderwijs steeds meer aandacht voor persoonsvorming. Dat lijkt nobel, maar uiteindelijk is kweken van economisch productieve werknemers het doel.

Russell T. Warne (Jan 3, 2020). The one variable that makes growth mindset interventions work. blog

  • For a few months, I puzzled over the contradictory literature. The studies are almost evenly balanced in terms of quality and their results.
    Then I discovered the one characteristic that the studies that support mindset theory share and that all the studies that contradict the theory lack: Carol Dweck. Dweck is a coauthor on all three studies that show that teaching a growth mindset can improve students’ school performance. She is also not a coauthor on all of the studies that cast serious doubt on mindset theory.
    So, there you go! Growth mindsets can improve academic performance–if you have Carol Dweck in charge of your intervention. She’s the vital ingredient that makes a growth mindset effective.

Herman G. van de Werfhorst (2016). Vocational and Academic Education and Political Engagement: The Importance of the Educational Institutional Structure. Comparative Education Review abstract & full text temporarily

Grover J. ‘Russ’ Whitehurst (June 9, 2016). More on soft skills: Time to Flit the grit. Brookings. blog

Ben Wilbrink (May 2016). Duckworth: ‘Grit’. The 1st words: psychology the science of secret of success. & Duckworth found it. Twitter feed

Ben Williamson (September 14, 2015). Feeling Machines: The Psychopedagogies of Emotion-maximizing Media. blog

Ben Williamson (Nov 13, 2017). Selling Social-emotional Learning. blogs

  • Its origins are in psychological theories that emphasize personal qualities and character strengths rather than challenging the social, political and economic determinants of inequalities in student outcomes, and which are now shaping practices in classrooms at large scale. [Social Emotional Learning] SEL is the focus for concerted lobbying by organizations which wish to hold schools accountable to standardized social-emotional outcomes, and which have begun to script standards for SEL programs and applications. It has become a priority for policy influencers and government departments which see SEL interventions as ways of cultivating “valuable” qualities in young people — such as military-style service or skills for the digital economy.

Ben Williamson (Jan 16, 2018). PISA for personality testing – the OECD and the psychometric science of social-emotional skills blog

Ben Williamson (March 23, 2018). Learning from psychographic personality profiling blog

  • Deeply disturbing attacks on basic human rights.

Daniel T. Willingham (Summer 2016). “Grit” Is Trendy, but Can It Be Taught? Ask the Cognitive Scientist blog

David S. Yeager and many others (2019). A national experiment reveals where
a growth mindset improves achievement, Nature open access

Kate Zernike (February 29, 2016). blog (The New York Times)

first series of blogs in reverse chronological order

21st century skills in Dutch ‘ed reform 2032’. OECD in denial of psychological research?

Ben Wilbrink

What is going on here (in Holland)?

‘Platform Education 2032’ is a committee installed by education minister Sander Dekker. The Committee, chair Paul Schnabel, reported to the minister on the kind of curriculum that would prepare students well for the year 2032 (and further). The claim by the Platform and its chair that the report is based on sound science has been challenged by many, among them math teacher Karin den Heijer in a high profile TV discussion (in Dutch) with Paul Schnabel. The purpose of this blog series is to check on the committee’s claim of scientific support. For starters it is to be established what the committee’s take is on important themes 1) knowledge, 2) 21st century skills, and 3) personal development.
This blog is about the committee’s take on 21st century skills, as well as the contrasting position of cognitive psychology on the topic of these generic skills. This blog will not attempt any further critical analysis yet, that is for future blogs to do. The blog will make it clear that the position of the Platform on 21st century skills is copied from that of the OECD, that the OECD position does not square with insights from experimental psychology that there are no such things as a generic skills. This blog therefore will end with the question: is the OECD’s position wrong, or what?

interdisciplinary skills

The remarkable fact is that the Report avoids using the standard terminology ‘21st century skills’, instead calling them ‘interdisciplinary skills’ or avoiding any labels at all. So, be aware of ‘skills’ that are meant to be generic. Of course, ‘interdisciplinary’ is not exactly what psychologists call ‘generic’. This idiosyncratic terminology introduced by the Platform will obstruct a clear debate on the Platform proposals. The 21st century skills are introduced in one place in the report (pp 42-43), referring to only one source—OECD reports solicited by the Platform.

  • interdisciplinary skills
    The Platform believes that certain interdisciplinary skills must also be included in the core curriculum for all students. Today’s society and employment market call for skills which are not unique to any particular discipline but which support lifelong learning and ongoing personal development. Students must acquire these skills if they are to function effectively in society. [OECD 2015a, b. c. d] The Platform has identified five specific skills to which attention should be devoted:

    1. Learning skills Students should develop strategies which will enable them to acquire new knowledge and skills throughout their lives. ( .. )

    2. Creativity Students should be encouraged to devise innovative new solutions to existing problems. ( .. )

    3. Critical thinking Students will learn to form, express and defend their personal opinions. ( .. )

    4. Problem-solving ability Students will learn to identify and define problems whereupon they can implement a structured plan to arrive at solutions. ( .. )

    5. Cooperation Students will develop the ability to work alongside others in pursuit of a common goal. ( .. )

    [Report, pp 42-43]

Throughout the Report these generic skills get mentioned without much in the way of explanation or justification. That is quite remarkable, evidently the Platform judges these generic skills not to be in need of much further explanation. Except this quote (p. 43) (meaning exactly what?):

  • The Platform wishes to note that the above skills are not independent competences which can be learned in isolation. They are only meaningful when linked to concrete subject matter knowledge.

Let us therefore look into the OECD reports, f.e. from the Conclusion of report #1 the following quote

  • An increased number of occupations in the future will involve complex problem solving and creative thinking and require complex social interactions. Facing the challenges of the 21st century requires deliberate effort to cultivate in students these skills and competencies to respond to the needs of the labour market. One of the questions education systems will need to debate in order to prepare students for the future, is whether they should consider removal of obsolete topics to make room for new, relevant and interdisciplinary areas of knowledge combined with increased focus on teaching higher-order thinking, social and emotional skills and metacognition. Cognitive skills matter, but higher-order thinking skills, social and emotional skills and metacognition are just as important and therefore all of them need to be fostered for individuals and societies to prosper.

The OECD position papers are very rich in data and references, it should definitely be possible to get a handle on the OECD position that 21st century skills, generic skills, are crucial for Western economies to survive in global markets. Do they exist, then, these generic skills?

psychology: generic skills (the 21st century ones) do not exist

The OECD claims generic skills to be important as hell, the Platform follows the OECD, while psychology claims generic skills to be non-existent. If both parties here claim to have science on their side, and they do, it must be a fascinating exercise to sort this out. Future blogs will try to do so. For now, let it suffice to present a few representative quotes on the generic skills conundrum, arising from rather different lines of experimental psychological research. At the very least, these quotes show any claims of generic skills to be scientifically controversial, the Platform as well as the OECD ought to have warned that this controversy exists. Didn’t they know their psychology?

General psychological expertise has it as follows:

  • Designing education to meet the emerging needs of a knowledge society is a priority of education systems worldwide. At this writing, it appears that these efforts are dominated by test-driven ‘21st-century skills’ approaches, often sponsored by major corporations. In recent months, however, we have found education officials in widely separated jurisdictions resonating to the idea of ‘beyond 21st-century skills.’ Although no one is likely to question the value of creativity, problem solving, collaborativeness, and other items that are central 21st-century skills, ‘21st-century skills’ enthousiasts tend to gloss over serious questions of teachability, transfer of learning, and test validity. Experienced educators recognize that tacking the word ‘skill’ onto a desirable human trait does not make it teachable, and so they are likely to find expressions like ‘empathy skills’ ludicrous. Furthermore, to educators who have been in the business for enough years, the skills movement evokes a ‘been there, done that’ reaction. It is not much different from ‘higher order thinking skills’ and related movements that have come and gone over the past six decades.
    Scardamalia & Bereiter (2014) pdf of earlier 2006 chapter version]

Already about 1900 experimental research showed beliefs in generic thinking skills (in 19th century faculty psychology) to be false. Thorndike’s work had an big impact on the place of Latin in US curricula: why stick to it if it does not teach any thinking skills, except Latin itself? Thorndike explains also, in his Educational Psychology, the origins of misconceptions of the acquisition of generic skills. Quite amusing (via link in this quote). Edward Thorndike, by the way, was an educational psychologist who really revolutionized the American curriculum in the first quarter of the 20th century.

  • One of the quarrels of the educational theorists concerns the extent to which special forms of training improve the general capacities of the mind. Does the study of Latin or of mathematics improve one’s general reasoning powers? Does laboratory work in science train the power of observation for all sorts of facts? Does matching colored sticks educate the senses for all sorts of discriminations ?
    Thorndike 1923

The next quote is from the research by (among others) Anders Ericsson on what it takes to become an expert, especially a top expert. Inevitably, being aware of the results of experimental psychology in general, this line of psychological research on the acquisition of expertise confirms Thorndike’s results.

  • . . . a crucial fact about expert performance in general: there is no such thing as developing a general skill. You don’t train your memory; you train your memory for strings of digits or for collections of words or for people’s faces. You don’t train to become an athlete; you train to become a gymnast or a sprinter or a marathoner or a swimmer or a basketball player. You don’t train to become a doctor; you train to become a diagnostician or a pathologist or a neurosurgeon. Of course, some people do become overall memory experts or athletes in a number of sports or doctors with a general set of skills, but they do so by training in a number of different areas. Ericsson & Pool (2016) p. 60

Working from cognitive load theory and evolutionary psychology, again generic skills are shown to be elusive. With an evolutionary twist:

  • Abstract Domain-general cognitive knowledge has frequently been used to explain skill when domain-specific knowledge held in long-term memory may provide a better explanation. An emphasis on domain-general knowledge may be misplaced if domainspecific knowledge is the primary factor driving acquired intellectual skills. We trace the long history of attempts to explain human cognition by placing a primary emphasis on domain-general skills with a reduced emphasis on domain-specific knowledge and indicate how otherwise unintelligible data can be easily explained by assumptions concerning the primacy of domain-specific knowledge. That primacy can be explained by aspects of evolutionary educational psychology. Once the importance of domain-specific knowledge is accepted, instructional design theories and processes are transformed.
    Tricot & Sweller (2014) concept version

At last, a quote connecting the creative event with solid knowledge. From the best book available on the kind of cognition that is implied in creative solutions and in true problem-solving, called ‘non-monotonic change’ by the author:

  • When we list the factors that affect the probability of non-monotonic change, its low probability of occurrence ceases to be mysterious: Minds are programmed by evolution to push forward before drawing back to leap, the relevant cognitive processes are not under voluntary control and the occurrence of a change requires the simultaneous occurrence of multiple conditions. The latter may be hindered or facilitated by cognitive parameters like working memory capacity and retrieval thresholds. Even with favorable values on the architectural parameters, non-monotonic changes are unlikely unless a person undertakes projects that require such changes, works hard at them, engages in extensive preparations, subjects himself to varied experiences and exposes himself to negative feedback. Taken together, these factors explain why nonmonotonic change is difficult even in the presence of cognitive mechanisms that make such changes possible. Alternative theories of deep learning are no doubt possible, but any satisfactory theory must explicate this dialectic between difficulty and possibility.
    Ohlsson, 2011, p. 388. The closing words of the book.

Is the OECD’s position wrong, or what? That is the question to be answered in blogs to follow. What I suspect to be the case: OECD claims regard issues inherently psychological, yet not rooted in the science we call psychology.


John Dewey (1910). How we think. D. C. Heath. [Hirsch note 37] [Dover editie als eBook in KB]

  • preface
    OUR schools are troubled with a multiplication of studies, each in turn having its own multiplication of materials and principles. Our teachers find their tasks made heavier in that they have come to deal with pupils individually and not merely in mass. Unless these steps in advance are to end in distraction, some clue of unity, some principle that makes for simplification, must be found. This book represents the conviction that the needed steadying and centralizing factor is found in adopting as the end of endeavor that attitude of mind, that habit of thought, which we call scientific. This scientific attitude of mind might, conceivably, be quite irrelevant to teaching children and youth. But this book also represents the conviction that such is not the case ; that the native and unspoiled attitude of childhood, marked by ardent curiosity, fertile imagination, and love of experimental inquiry, is near, very near, to the attitude of the scientific mind. If these pages assist any to appreciate this kinship and to consider seriously how its recognition in educational practice would make for individual happiness and the reduction of social waste, the book will amply have served its purpose.
    [p. iii]

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool (2016). Peak. Secrets from the new science of expertise. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. info

David F. Feldon (2006). The implications of research on expertise for curriculum and pedagogy. Educ Psychol Rev. pdf

E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (2016). Why knowledge matters. Rescuing our children from failed educational theories. Harvard Education Press. info, and especially its free access prologue pdf [missing the 40 footnotes, reason to mention most references in this blog, and extending them with links and other publications of interest]

  • Fascinating is to learn from Hirsch that the idea of ‘21st century skills’ can be traced back to Dewey (1910): he needed the skills idea to justify the inevitable fragmentation of the progressivist curriculum: knowledge is not important in itself, only for teaching generic skills of problem solving, critical thinking and creativity.

Addie Johnson & Robert W. Proctor (2016). Skill acquisition & training. Achieving expertise in simple and complex tasks. Routledge. info

  • Just take a look at its content listing. Remark there is no mention of ‘21st century skills’, ‘soft skills’, or ‘generic skills’. Indeed, skills are domain specific everywhere. However, there is a section on problem-solving skill. Guess what? It is domain-specific, heavily contingent on long term memory knowledge. Many topics regularly in discussion on Twitter and in blogs on social media are treated here in a professional manner, yet accessible.

Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap (OCW) Skills Platform (november 2016). Skills voor de toekomst: een onderzoeksagenda. download

  • This one deserves a blog of its own. Terrible.

OECD, Michaela Horvathova (2015). Paper #1: Evidence about knowledge and skills for work and learning. pdf
OECD position papers for Platform Onderwijs 2032 webpage

Stellan Ohlsson (2011). Deep Learning: How the Mind Overrides Experience. Cambridge University Press. info

Platform Onderwijs 2032 Advisory Report

Andrew J. Rotherham and Daniel T. Willingham (2009). 21st-Century Skills. The Challenges Ahead. Educational Leadership 67(1), pp. 16–21. article

Marlene Scardamalia & Carl Bereiter (2006). Knowledge building: Theory, pedagogy, and technology. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 97-118). Cambridge University Press. concept

Mark K. Singley & John R. Anderson (1989). The transfer of cognitive skill. Harvard University Press. isbn 0674903404

  • The theory we present here can be viewed as a resurrection of Thorndike’s theory of identical elements, with production rules and their declarative precursors taking on the role of the elements. p. vi

Skills-platform (1 november 2016). Skills voor de toekomst: een onderzoeksagenda. Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap (OCW) ophalen

Edward L. Thorndike (1903). Educational Psychology. archive.
Edward L. Thorndike & Robert S. Woodworth (1901). The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions. First published in Psychological Review, 8, 247-261.
webpage 1webpage 2webpage 3

André Tricot & John Sweller (2014). Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work. Educational Psychology Review preview & concept

Daniel Willingham (2007). Critical thinking, why is it so hard to teach? American Educator, summer 2007, 8-19. pdf

blogosphere & other

Greg Ashman (July 4, 2016). Assessment distorts the curriculum and it’s about to get worse. blog

Dirk van Damme (Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD) (April 11, 2017). Does the world need people who understand problems, or who can solve them? blog

  • The OECD’s confused (in the sense of cognitive psychology) vision on problem solving as a generic skill. Published a few days before Dutch Parliament distanced itself from these ‘21st century skills’.

Tomi Dufva & Mikko Dufva (2016). Metaphors of code – Structuring and broadening the discussion on teaching children to code. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 22, 97-110.
free access

Mirjam Neelen and Paul A. Kirschner (November 1, 2016). 21st century skills don’t exist. So why do we need them? blog

Andrew Russell & Lee Vinsel (7 April 2016). The maintainers. Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more. blog

Andreas Schleicher (2016). The case for 21st-century learning. OECD blog

  • Just plain psychological obscurantism by the PISA boss.

John Sweller (8 September 2017) Tes talks to . . . John Sweller. free article

  • [lead] The godfather of cognitive load theory writes that teachers need to recognise the working memory limits of their students and that this dictates that problem-solving, inquiry-based learning and other common pedagogies have no place in the classroom.

Marjan Vermeulen & Emmy Vrieling (2017). 21e-eeuwse vaardigheden: achtergronden en onderwijsimplicaties in zeventien vragen en antwoorden. Marjan Vermeulen & Emmy Vrieling (2017). pdf

  • Onverholen onderwijsideologie in universitair jasje. Wanneer neemt de academische wereld deze misstand eens serieus? Dat de ideologie niet is verstopt, maar openlijk wordt beleden (‘het nieuwe leren’ en zijn hedendaagse varianten, valt dan weer te prijzen bij deze auteurs. Maar zet ook eens de volgende stap, want dit soort ideologie hoort niet de academie thuis. Nergens, trouwens.

Daniel T. Willingham (2015). Do Students Remember What They Learn in School? Ask the Cognitive Scientist blog

Ben Wilbrink (accessed November 2016). 21st century skills: we can write and talk about them; they do not exist otherwise. webpage

  • Literature base. ‘21st century skills are like fire without fuel. A fantasy.’

first series of blogs in reverse chronological order