Short review: “What if everything you knew about education was wrong?” by David Didau (@LearningSpy)

What if… by David Didau

I’ve rarely found the time (or inclination) to blog or write a book review, but this book is special.

First, a disclaimer: this is not an easy read. Not because of the style of writing (David Didau’s style is clear and enjoyable to read) but because

  1. it’s a big book (for an education book anyway)
  2. for many teachers it will challenge an awful lot of what we believe/assume to be good teaching practice.

Didau starts off by explaining how the human brain is pretty bad at making rational, evidence based decisions due to significant cognitive bias: “we make decisions on emotional grounds and then justify and rationalise our choices after the fact“. I was aware of many of these psychological principles before reading this book, but Didau summarises them brilliantly. This is almost like tenderising a steak before cooking; knowing how bad our decision making can be is essential if we are to make it through the cognitive dissonance we are about to experience…

Didau then carefully dismantles large swathes of what is standard (and considered to be good or outstanding) practice in many classrooms across the country. I won’t/can’t go into more detail here, as I feel I wouldn’t do it justice, but it’s really quite an uncomfortable experience. As a teacher who has made a very successful career utilising a “progressive” teaching style, the amount of cognitive dissonance I experienced whilst reading this book was massive. It’s clear that Didau has been through the same process himself. He does, thankfully, offer plenty of ideas (backed up by evidence) for how to improve teaching and learning.

There have been a few education books I’ve been positively evangelical about throughout my teaching career, either because they’ve summarised my beliefs about education or they’ve been immensely useful.  Inside The Black Box (Wiliam/Black), Essential Motivation In The Classroom (Gilbert), The Teacher’s Toolkit (Ginnis), How To Teach (Beadle), Visible Learning (Hattie) and Evidence Based Teaching (Petty) are all books that I’ve ended up buying for others, or raving about to schools and teachers, particularly those new to the profession. What if everything… joins that list (and at times, contradicts some of the content of the other books). However, it will be my more experienced colleagues to whom I’ll be recommending it most; we have the most cognitive dissonance to experience. This is essential reading for all who work in education (particularly school leaders). Providing a copy for staff and giving them two days inset to read (and act) on it would probably be the most effective CPD a school could do. Sadly I can’t see that happening in many schools, as those higher up in schools probably have the most dissonance to experience and the most to lose…

The challenge I now face is to take what I’ve learnt from this book and apply it to my day to day practice. I can already feel the “experienced teacher” part of me itching to start the term teaching in the way I find comfortable. The scientist/rational part of me needs to fight that. It won’t be easy (most of our education system encourages my old habits), but then (and this is a key theme of the book) learning should be hard.


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