pedagogy · Policy

On Dom Cummings and the truth about direct instruction


I should not find Dom Cummings interesting, but I do. He has interesting things to say about programming, analytics and the research that integrates human thought and action with new technologies. He is also a straight talker and tells the truth. You get the feeling he would tell you he is going to lie before doing so.

Thanks to Dom Cummings, here is the truth about direct instruction:

Perhaps we should also stop discussing schools as if we are going to have a quarter of a million ‘brilliant’ teachers and instead think about what to do with tens of thousands of roughly averagely talented people.

While some children will always be blessed by a brilliant teacher, by definition this is not a scaleable solution to our problems: real talent is rare, mediocrity ubiquitous. Whilst heads need to be flexible enough to allow talented people to experiment, we also need schools in chains that spread proven approaches (and ‘90% solutions’) without relying on innovation, inspiration, and talent. ‘Direct Instruction’ (DI), in which teachers follow tightly constrained rules to deliver lessons, is generally ignored in English education debates despite its proven effectiveness in randomised control trials around the world. However, standards might improve substantially if thousands of roughly averagely talented teachers simply used DI instead of reinventing square wheels. It will also be possible for teachers to learn alongside pupils using MOOCs.

Yes, that’s right many of you are pretty average.

My advice is to ignore the guff about evidence, experimental researchers often demonstrate little knowledge of alternatives to direct instruction; consequently, many randomised control trials I have seen compare direct instruction with unguided learning. 

Let’s be honest; it is not about evidence. The point Cummings makes is that even bog-standard instruction is better than mediocre teachers. The last sentence about MOOCs is also somewhat strange; “Learn together”? Your guess is as good as mine, but it sounds to me like a euphemism for online delivery of instructional content. I don’t disagree, but there is hardly a need for teachers to deliver direct instruction when technology does it better. Teachers need to re-define their role to enhance automationteaching and learning is not dead but it will be if teachers become simple implementers of a curriculum.

According to Cummings, brilliant teachers are rationed for richer families:

Such developments could provide at least a partial escape from traditionally insoluble bottlenecks such as a small number of brilliant teachers mostly rationed for richer families.

The evidence suggests otherwise, outcomes controlled for socio-economic factors show there is little difference between selective schools like grammar schools and state schools.

Cummings has exciting ideas and if he influences policy towards technological innovation, STEM, the creative and design humanities then we may see progress. Unfortunately, he manages to combine a genuine appreciation for technology with an advocation of subjects like Latin. Often his prose reminds me of John Hughes’ coming of age brat pack movies where the characters dream of future successes in a world where people are either brilliant or irrelevant.

Sadly, his previous influence on the DfE isn’t promising. We now have overly simplistic behaviourism, scripted direct instruction and a thinly disguised technophobic traditionalism. It is difficult to see how this approach will produce innovative thinkers in the future.

My fear is that underneath the glitz, Cummings is more of an ideas salesman than a genuine innovator. I hope I am wrong and we see more of the visionary Cummings hinted at in his essay. He promises to shake things up and I hope he does, but it has to be meaningful change and not the ideological privatisation of education, which sees structural change but no improvement to practice.

2 thoughts on “On Dom Cummings and the truth about direct instruction

  1. Thank you, Peter. I find your writing informed,informative and refreshingly honest and I completely agree with your hopes and reservations in this piece!

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