Musings: Making Kids Cleverer by David Didau

The book

Didau, D. Making kids cleverer: A manifesto for closing the advantage gap. 2019. Crown House Publishing. 

My reading viewpoint

I was very lucky to receive a review copy of Making Kids Cleverer courtesy of Crown House Publishing. Having read some of his tweets and blogs via Twitter, I was curious to read his book. In the often polarising world of Twitter, Didau is a ‘Trad’ (or considered to be, I wouldn’t want to label!) and, while I won’t get into the ins and outs of that particular debate, I am not sure that I fall into that category. However, I am keen to learn and listen and understand viewpoints that differ from my own, so naturally Didau’s book was a good place to start.

Summary

Didau’s premise is seemingly a simple one: “our best bet for making kids cleverer is to increase the quantity and quality of what they know.” (p.250) In my experience, having visited many primary schools in the last three years, many schools know this and I doubt many teachers would deny that their purpose, or part of their purpose, is to teach kids stuff. Didau takes this premise and leads the reader through a carefully sequenced argument of why this is important and how it might be done. He argues that there is a connection between intelligence (IQ) and people having a happier, longer, healthier life and, since that should be the aim for all pupils, schools should work to make pupils more intelligent. Having set out his stall, so to speak, Didau sets out his manifesto for how this could be achieved.

The text itself is easy to read: I enjoyed his style and the way in which he intertwined research and analogies in a way that was easy to follow and understand. His arguments are logical; they make sense. Whether you agree with them or not is not really the point, I don’t think, because Didau makes a compelling argument for knowledge based curriculum, careful consideration of the knowledge to be taught and the use of explicit instruction (laced with cognitive load theory input) as the way in which to ensure pupils learn that knowledge. For more on this, see my takeaways below.

The chapters are laid out in a way which makes it easy to read. Each begins with questions to ponder, which are answered within the chapter. Each chapter ends with a bullet point list summarising the key points of each chapter, followed by a short paragraph which links the arguments of the chapter to the next. As I said, the book is organised in a logical and structured way, and the format of the chapters supports this. The summaries at the end are particularly useful, I found, as a way of matching my key takeaways of the chapter with the intention.

My key takeaways

1. Intelligence can be seen as ‘fluid intelligence’ and ‘crystallised intelligence’ and it is likely we can develop one and not the other. While this is laid out in much more detail by Didau, I will attempt to summarise and explain why I felt this was important. He reasons that we are unable to do much about fluid intelligence, which includes the capacity of working memory. What we have is what we have, and we are unable to change this. He argues that we can develop our crystallised intelligence, defined as “the ability to access and utilise information stored in long-term memory.” (p.117) Throughout the book, he uses research to argue that by increasing our knowledge base, our schema, our understanding of domains, we are able to more easily chunk this information in order to work with it. Developing deep subject knowledge means you are able to work with it and manipulate it, whatever your ‘fluid intelligence’ may be.

2. We need to think carefully about what knowledge we give, and in what order. Didau makes the case for a knowledge rich curriculum which, while remaining broad and balanced, focuses on teaching pupils knowledge. In this way, pupils are able to be creative and problem solve within that domain because they have knowledge to do so. However, he recognises that there is a huge amount of knowledge to know, and that choices have to be made. Careful thought needs to go into not just what the pupil is taught, but also in the order that it is taught in. He identifies some knowledge is ‘foundational’ and should be taught first.

3. How knowledge is taught is key. Like Craig Barton, Didau talks about aspects such as deliberate practice, worked examples, explicit instruction, reducing extraneous load and retrieval practice as the way to impart knowledge to pupils. He says “a knowledge-rich curriculum and explicit instruction will make children cleverer and increase the likelihood that they live happier, healthier and more secure lives.” (p.276) It is worth noting that he does recognise this as a need for novice learners and not all learners, but it is still, I feel, a contentious claim. Having said this, I do believe that these aspects should be part of the ‘teaching toolkit’ of all teachers, even if they believe that including more ‘discovery learning’ approaches are also beneficial. While Didau’s conviction that this is the way to do it makes me slightly uncomfortable, I absolutely see the sense and logic of it through his book. As I said earlier, he makes a compelling argument.

4. Problem solving and creativity is domain specific and probably cannot transfer. Interestingly, I cannot decide if this is obvious or not. Didau makes the case well: if you do not have deep subject knowledge you cannot solve problems or be creative, and therefore if you do not have a deep subject knowledge in a different domain you can be creative / a great problem solver in one area without being so in the other.

I think you should read this book if…

  • You are SLT, a subject lead or department lead looking to or being asked to introduce a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum within school.
  • You are a teacher working in a school with a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum.
  • You are interested in cognitive load theory and its related ideas, have a little background knowledge on this and want to consider how they would apply within the classroom.

 

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