What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? (Paperback edition)

By: David Didau


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Size: 234 x 156mm
Pages : 464
ISBN : 9781785831577
Format: Paperback
Published: September 2016

Forewords by Professor Robert Bjork and Emeritus Professor Dylan Wiliam.

If you feel a bit cross at the presumption of some oik daring to suggest everything you know about education might be wrong, please take it with a pinch of salt. It’s just a title. Of course, you probably think a great many things that aren’t wrong.

The aim of this book is to help you ‘murder your darlings’. David will question your most deeply held assumptions about teaching and learning, expose them to the fiery eye of reason and see if they can still walk in a straight line after the experience. It seems reasonable to suggest that only if a theory or approach can withstand the fiercest scrutiny should it be encouraged in classrooms. David makes no apologies for this; why wouldn’t you be sceptical of what you’re told and what you think you know? As educated professionals, we ought to strive to assemble a more accurate, informed or at least considered understanding of the world around us.

Here, David shares with you some tools to help you question your assumptions and assist you in picking through what you believe. He will stew findings from the shiny white laboratories of cognitive psychology, stir in a generous dash of classroom research and serve up a side order of experience and observation. Whether you spit it out or lap it up matters not. If you come out the other end having vigorously and violently disagreed with him, you’ll at least have had to think hard about what you believe. 

The book draws on research from the field of cognitive science to expertly analyse some of the unexamined meta-beliefs in education. In Part 1; ‘Why we’re wrong’, David dismantles what we think we know; examining cognitive traps and biases, assumptions, gut feelings and the problem of evidence. Part 2 delves deeper – ‘Through the threshold’ – looking at progress, liminality and threshold concepts, the science of learning, and the difference between novices and experts. In Part 3, David asks us the question ‘What could we do differently?’ and offers some considered insights into spacing and interleaving, the testing effect, the generation effect, reducing feedback and why difficult is desirable. While Part 4 challenges us to consider ‘What else might we be getting wrong?’; cogitating formative assessment, lesson observation, grit and growth, differentiation, praise, motivation and creativity.

There is also a hardback edition available, ISBN 9781845909635.

What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? (hardback edition)
What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? (hardback edition)

Picture for author David Didau

David Didau

David Didau is Senior Lead Practitioner for English at Ormiston Academies Trust and a freelance writer, blogger, speaker, trainer and author. He started his award-winning blog, The Learning Spy, in 2011 to express the constraints and irritations of ordinary teachers, detail the successes and failures within his own classroom, and synthesise his years of teaching experience through the lens of educational research and cognitive psychology. Since then he has spoken at various national conferences, has directly influenced Ofsted and has worked with the Department for Education to consider ways in which teachers' workload could be reduced.

Read this article on the 3 reasons why you need to buy The Secret of Literacy.

Read this article on David Didau's journey to becoming an edu-sceptic in Schools Week.

On this episode of the Mr Barton Maths Podcast, Craig Barton speaks to David Didau.

Click here to read David Didau’s blog.


  1. The title indicates that David Didau is ready to smash idols. Fortunately for us, he creates more than he destroys, deftly assembling findings from the learning sciences to build a path toward more effective classroom learning.
  2. In short, this is my new favourite book on education. If I was still running a PGCE programme it would be required reading for my students, and I can think of no better choice for a book-study for experienced teachers. Anyone seriously interested in education should read this book.
  3. This is a great book. Read it. David Didau has done exactly what anyone who knows his work will expect: to write convincingly, knowledgably, engagingly and provocatively about the interface between research and teaching. Almost everyone will find something to disagree with in this book, something to upset you, challenge your beliefs and either make you angry or make you think. However well-informed you are, Didau finds a crack, a weak point from which to infect you with doubt. Nothing is sacred: formative assessment, effect size and growth mindset all come under attack. But there is wisdom on every page, worthy of more detailed thought and study. If you can get beyond the feelings of uncertainty and challenge, you can learn a lot.

    This book contains the most classroom-focused presentation I know of the importance of key findings from cognitive psychology, such as the need for teachers to understand forgetting, spacing, testing and desirable difficulties. Didau is at heart a teacher; he understands teachers, classrooms and schools. But he understands research too and blends these elements into a coherent whole.

    Of course, I found a few things to quibble with: confusions over effect size and the difference between working and short-term memory, for example. But even those made me think again about things I thought I had resolved.

    This is the kind of book you could read quickly, but probably shouldn't. You could read it ten times and each time find something new. There is a canon of about a dozen books that I recommend to teachers - most of which are cited in this one. My essential reading list has a new entry.
  4. David Didau has written a truly remarkable book. No other book that I know of manages to integrate an in-the-trenches classroom-teaching perspective with an accessible coverage of critical findings from cognitive-science research.
  5. David Didau's new book What if everything you knew about education was wrong? is potentially a difficult read.

    It's not difficult because of convoluted jargon or purple prose. In fact, one of Didau's great skills is in his ability to present complex ideas in an accessible and enjoyable way.

    It's not difficult because it's uninteresting or monotonous (many education books take a straightforward theory or premise and overextend it so it meets the 100,000 word count). In fact, Didau's book is utterly compelling from start to finish; there isn't a superfluous word in it.

    Didau's book is potentially difficult because it confronts the reader - which we'll assume to be largely teachers - with a series of challenges to some of the longest held and strongest held beliefs in education. As the author points out in his book, having our beliefs challenged is at best troublesome and at worst an act of heresy.

    Yet this potential difficulty is soothed away by the author. Whilst knowingly presenting the reader with the eddying experience of cognitive dissonance, Didau holds our hand and explains that he is just as susceptible as us mere mortals.

    Whereas some tomes in the recent rise of edu-mythbusting have been difficult to swallow for many and have often been divisive, Didau's charming and avuncular style mean that this book will perhaps reconcile the divide where other books in the tradition have maybe struggled.

    Indeed, his self-deprecation and affability means that we nod along when he presents us with potentially abrasive truths such as this one: “If your beliefs won't bear up under close critical evaluation then maybe, just maybe, you believe something silly.”

    And it is truth that is at the heart of this book. One gets the sense that this book has been a personal quest for the author. A quest in which he has had to challenge his own assumptions and beliefs. Didau could quite easily present this book as an assertive reportage of his findings, but thanks to his convivial approach, it feels like we are on that quest with him.

    This quest sees him taking on the full scope of current edu-discourse, and the journey through cognitive science that takes us through the central part of the book is absolute gold. Along the way he confronts the gamut of topics, from sacred cows such as group work (“A class of 30 individuals working in silence on a controlled assessment is still a group”) to recent fads like SOLO taxonomy (“Suffice it to say that I quietly took down my SOLO displays, put away the hexagons and went back to teaching pupils how to get better at reading and writing”), and this might cause some readers to turn on our hero. But it is the incredible depth and breadth of the author's own reading that gives us faith in the pursuit. Didau has clearly done his homework. What is more, he's done ours for us as well, the blooming swot. He's even deferred to experts in their field - Jack Marwood and Andrew Sabisky - to contribute extensively on the topics of data and educational psychology respectively.

    Where Didau has littered his book with references, I realise this review is found wanting. Normally when reviewing a book, I'd make references to the highlights and point out the parts that I found troubling. Yet what I found troubling about this book is that on every page is a highlight. I made notes and marked pages as I read it, thinking about what I'd like to share with colleagues. It was a pointless task: I could only conclude that I want to share it all (although -˜Chapter 21: Why observing lessons doesn't work' in particular will definitely be finding its way to senior colleagues). In short, I urge people: read it.

    This book could change hearts and minds. It should change hearts and minds. It may be ironic then - in the Morissette sense of the word - that a reason some minds might remain unchanged will be due to one of the biases that Didau identifies early on in the book - the backfire effect. I hope that the author has done enough to pierce this common yet pernicious barrier. As he warns us:

    “Despite what we may think, most of our beliefs are founded on faith not logic. We have faith in what we believe because it's what we believe. To have our most deeply held convictions attacked is intolerable and it forces us into a corner. You cannot sway someone's faith with evidence and we rarely win arguments with logic.”

    The reason this book ultimately succeeds, though, is because David never actually asserts that he is right. What he does is present very convincing - and often indisputable - reasons why we might be wrong. It leaves the reader thinking: but what if everything David Didau thinks about education is right? And that can only be a good thing.
  6. Didau scours current thinking on education to expose bad ideas masquerading as common sense, arguing that much of what we believe is unexamined.
  7. The compliment that any commentator might make on a writer's voice that it is -˜inimitable' is usually dispensed via the back of the hand. But the satirical intent backfires, it falls flat, as being inimitable is, of course, what every writer wants: to have a voice that is so fully their own that no one else would be able to produce it. It also implies that one might find reason to want to imitate it. Finding such a voice, so I have read, takes training, working on your scales, night after night; it takes time shackled to the desk, tapping away with ideas that half work; it takes perhaps years of daily commitment to a form that eludes you only to wake up and discover (one morning) that the scales are automatic and that you can really sing.

    At some point during the mammoth amount of work David has done on this hugely ambitious and quite brilliant book, he has awoken to find that the scales were automatic and that he can really sing. His work has always had the grain of a real singer, but the voice in which this is written is virtuosic, finely nuanced; it is elegant and, yes, it is inimitable.

    There is little point, though, in wasting a good voice on a rotten song. And stronger even than the writing is the material that David has constructed, filtered, thought about, judged and very finely argued. Each paragraph contains at least one sentence that will have you putting the book down and thinking two things: firstly, “Man, that's a very fine sentence!” and, secondly, “Do I agree with this?”

    The book presents the findings of cognitive psychology and looks at how they might affect educational policy and the practice in classrooms. He presents information that threatens value systems by entering a dialogue with the reader, meeting them half way in order to guide them to new understandings. The book is entirely on the side of the teacher and is expressly good at pointing out some of the fallacies on which educational orthodoxies are based: he takes on the cult of outstanding, the false deity of false interpretation of useless data, observation grades and the notion of learning as being observable: no darling is left un-murdered, no hogwash left standing on its three feet. And it is written in a way that avoids hectoring, or casual expressions of ideological bigotry. As a result, even the hardiest of progressive will find things to agree with here, or a subtle way of shifting their beliefs. I have closed the book twice in partially angered disagreement, and then gone back to read the section again and find that I was (probably) wrong.

    I predict that this book will remain influential for many years, decades even. Posterity will judge it a seminal text, and it will remain on teachers' bookshelves even after someone has written a newer or better version of it. However, from this evidence, I think it likely that the only British educator capable of writing a more satisfying, more important, more tree-shaking book than this is Didau himself.
  8. In his new book, `What if everything you knew about education was wrong?`, David Didau implores the teach'­ing community to “murder [its] darlings” -namely, the “certainties” that find their way into the policies and practices of teaching.

    The scope of the project is ambitious: to reveal the constructed certainties of thought shaping education in England. In doing so, Didau marshals his experiences as a teacher, punctuating the book with nice Gladwellian narratives.

    Two themes, not explicitly shared by the author, structure the book First is the insight that poor leadership practices in schools reduce the capacity for really effective teaching in classrooms. The other is that reason and science might have the answers. What Didau is clear about is that we are some'­times wrong, especially in how we think about education.

    As a call to read, question and think more, the book's argu'­ments cannot be faulted. What often limits his attempt at deconstructing certainties, however, is Didau's own certainties. One example is the citation of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky. The positioning of Vygotsky as a supporter of group work shows a tenuous understanding of his “zone of proximal devel'­opment” research (which looked at what learners can achieve with or without help).

    Black and white

    The fourth chapter increases the “certainty” count by setting up the author's core beliefs as unquestioned truth. The clearest expression of this occurs when he lists behaviours that we should not compromise on. Didau invokes Hegel's dialectic in terms that would be alien to the German philosopher.

    The author then compares the “straightforward” representa'­tion of Hegel's dialectic with the key intellectual device for the book, John Keats' complex poetic idea of “negative capability”, but without a detailed explanation. There may be a way that these two distinct and interesting ideas work together, but readers are asked to accept the link on faith.

    Didau is most engaging when discussing contemporary con'­cerns in education, such as attribution theory by Carol Dweck, the use of praise, lesson observations and research on memory and learning. But the discussion is again dulled by its ongoing certainty -while also asking us to rethink everything.

    This is an ambitious and beautifully flawe_d book. I recom'­mend it to educators suffering from restrictive managerialism, as well as colleagues entering the profession to provide a start'­ing point for their own reflection.

    What they do afterwards is a different matter. Didau's book is shaped by a concern around systems, but it does not provide a way for readers to think about the very human work of winning hearts and minds and effecting change.
  9. Didau's book has created quite a storm on social media, gaining both a hashtag and a Twitter account of its very own. The publicity surrounding its launch and the forewords from Dylan William and Robert Bjork have cemented its academic credentials before one begins reading. As a teacher, I initially looked at David's book with interest but felt it too -˜meaty' to engage with; at 408 pages long with every page pressing the reader to think, challenge ideas and find a riposte to those that David presents, the book demands time to be read to its potential. If you are able to put aside that time, it is well worth the investment.

    Despite the somewhat cocky yet catchy title, it is clear from the onset that Didau is not aiming to talk down to his readers. His opening line of “this is a book about teaching, but it is not a manual on how to teach” sums up the next 400 pages perfectly; the book wants to critically examine ideas and plays devil's advocate by facing the fact that there is potential for us as educators to hold incorrect beliefs, whatever our reasons. This is an uncomfortable thought. If any of my beliefs about education are fallible, what does this say about me as a teacher? Have I been letting my learners down?

    The style of the text is rather yin and yang. This is a text about the good, the bad and the unknown, which together make up the any educational landscape. David invites you to preserve your own ideas if they can stand critical examination and to engage with his if you cannot find fault with them. I think what makes this a hard-hitting book is the acceptance that there are commonly established practices such as the way we currently do lesson observation or the way we measure progress that could be giving false impressions. These practices are so integral and ingrained within the profession to conceive that they may be frail inevitably has repercussions. He also discusses some of the most topical issues around education at the moment such as grit, creativity, motivation and praise, offering insightful analyses supported by clear, rational thinking. The reasoning is presented so effectively that in places, it is easy to allow yourself to be led by Didau instead of critically engaging which ironically is not what the writer sets out to do. A main aim of the book, in Didau's words, is to raise our awareness of “concepts and ideas that we accept so unquestioningly that we've stopped thinking about them because we think with them”. As readers, the responsibility lays with us to remain on point and think about what David is discussing, not simply agree with his view without due consideration.

    When reading this tome, it is hard not to take the unwavering focus on validating your own ideas personally, even though the author invites you reciprocate with his own views; as readers we bring our identities to the pages and without realising offer one of the most personal parts of ourselves to the author's narrative; our psyche. With this in mind, it is easier to see why Didau's book could cause annoyance, despite the fact it shouldn't. Nobody likes to have their values questioned do they?

    Although there is a fair smattering of psychological principles throughout the text and several studies discussed, it is dubious whether this can be considered a criticism. Teaching in the current climate is requiring a variety of roles such as counsellor, social worker and healthcare assistant to name but a few. Knowledge of psychology and how our own psychology influences our practice ought to contribute to us becoming better teachers, regardless of whether we agree with them or not the fact is we will be informed enough to know which ideas are relevant to us and which ones aren't.

    Personally, I found this a challenging yet necessary read. Although it is of an academic disposition, I recommend anyone who has been involved with education for two or more years reads it. It is for educators who are comfortable with being uncomfortable and open to remoulding their stance should they find their views melt under the heat of David's fire.

    Without realising, our beliefs and values can start to bed in a little from this time; based on previous experiences we become more self-assured about the jobs we do and how we do them, our classrooms have our -˜stamp' on them and routines in our educational lives are more established. These reasons are precisely why this book is a worthy read! Our professional identities require stimulation. If we do not take the time to consider what we think and why, what does that say about us as educators?

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