The “Ability to Think”

John Rentoul
Gove 300x225 The Ability to Think


I am writing to warn of the dangers posed by semi-literate academics writing letters to national newspapers warning of the dangers posed by Michael Gove’s not being as left-wing and right-on as they are. This is the third sentence of their letter:

This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.

The syntax is hideous but, worse, it betrays an inability to think clearly. What does “critical understanding” mean? Why is “creativity” “included” in either “thinking” or the “ability to think”? It is garbage and, worse than that, it is wrong. The letter can be boiled down to one banal statement: that Gove is putting too much emphasis on children learning “endless lists of spellings, facts and rules” and not enough on the “ability to think”. It is a false and patronising contrast.

The one thing in the letter with which I have sympathy is that the national curriculum “demands too much too young”, although without a comma that sounds like the Specials song from 1979 (“when you could be having fun with me”). However, that has been a deep problem of British primary schools since 1870.

Gove’s curriculum changes, they say, “will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding”. It then proceeds to use the jargon of modern education, as if learned by rote: “inappropriate”; “the learner”; “young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity”; “parents, teachers and other stakeholders”.

The letter misuses “amount” for “number” (the curriculum, “in its amount of detailed instructions”), and accuses Gove of having “repeatedly ignored expert advice”. If that advice is as poorly thought-out and presented as this, that is entirely to the Education Secretary’s credit.

Update: Toby Young completes the job of textual criticism here.

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  • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

    “the syntax of a sentence (which by the way is perfectly comprehensible in context)”

    I don’t think so, it’s a confusing jumble.

  • Charles Hedges

    Johnny Rentoul pimps for Blair
    For the poor he just won’t care.
    Grasp it Rentoul, prasing Blair is mental
    Disappear mate go on disappear.

    Come out as a true Tory, hang out with Duncan Smith
    Kick hard at the disabled, you know that’s what you wish.
    Keep telling us you’re “real.” Keep spouting “Times have changed”
    It’s traitors like John Rentoul who keep us all deranged.

  • NicoleS

    Follow the link to Toby Young’s article for convincing evidence that the letter writers are wrong.

  • Brian Sharland

    I’m quite happy with my word order. If that’s the only comment you saw fit to make in response perhaps you should have saved yourself the trouble,

  • Jim

    Kind of got away from you there, didn’t it: that first sentence. It starts out solidly enough as a jolly little parody, but then it leaves you dangling in mid-air: suspended, much like Wile E. Coyote, before plunging bathetically to the abyss of 1980s cliché. Right-on? There’s a term which surely deserves to be consigned to the banned list. Left-wing? Educational theory doesn’t generally deal in wings (unless you’re talking about a Marxist approach to the sociology of education, which isn’t really anything to do with the subject at hand).

    However, it would be childish of me to dwell too much on a poor turn of phrase. What of the meat of your argument? How do you dissect, discredit, and otherwise refute the content of the letter? Well, you don’t really, do you? Sure, you pick apart the style, but that’s hardly an achievement. It’s an absolutely ghastly piece of writing (more on that subject later). You would have to be a complete buffoon to miss a target of that size. Which makes it all the more inexcusable that not all of your barbs hit home.

    The third sentence of the letter, which exercises you so greatly, is, as you say, syntactically hideous. However, you overreach when you take the individual elements in isolation, in order to hold them up to ridicule. “What does ‘critical understanding’ mean?”, you ask, as though it’s some piece of impenetrable jargon; it means, quite simply comprehension achieved through careful reasoning and analysis. It is the antithesis of an all-you-can-cram buffet of ‘facts’.

    And why, you scoff, should ‘creativity’ be “‘included’ in either ‘thinking’ or the ‘ability to think’?” Perhaps, if the word creativity conjures for you only images of potato-prints or finger-paintings, you might struggle to see its relevance in this context. But creativity of thought is what allows for adaptation and innovation. It is the stepladder from which Newton climbed onto the shoulders of giants. Creative thinking is penicillin; it is graphene. It is also the breeding ground of empathy; it allows some of us to understand the desire of LGBT people to marry, without the need to have a son who comes out as gay. It might also lead one to go beyond mere annoyance at the grammatical shortcomings of the letter, and consider the mechanism of its construction.

    As a part-time academic yourself, you must surely have experience of the cat-herding skills required to get 100 professors, readers, and senior lecturers in a line. Can you not imagine the endless bickering about tone, style, length, etc.,? The five thousand word dissertation favoured by an Oxford professor shouted down in favour of a shorter, more generally accessible form. Words and sentences inserted, removed, and endlessly reorganised until the final product appears, as you say, to be the work of someone only semi-literate. That this is a letter produced by committee is self-evident; the camel shows us that such creatures tend to be lumpy. Should those involved have realised this failing, and nominated a single editor to produce a coherent letter to which they could all affix their names? Of course they should. Nonetheless, they didn’t. Get over it.

    Once we strip away all of the carping about style, your whole piece can, somewhat ironically, be boiled down to two sentences at the end of your second paragraph:

    “The letter can be boiled down to one banal statement: that Gove is putting too much emphasis on children learning ‘endless lists of spellings, facts and rules’ and not enough on the ‘ability to think’. It is a false and patronising contrast.”

    In this, you seem to join the DfE, whose spokeswoman claimed that: “This distinction made by the signatories between knowledge and skills is a false dichotomy.” Curious, then, that the letter does not see this as a dichotomy. Toby Young, in the article you have linked, constructs a similar straw-man when he argues that ‘rote-learning’ is both necessary and complementary to higher-order thinking skills. No-one, to my knowledge, is claiming anything different. What they are concerned about is that an over-emphasis on such fact and memory based learning will leave precious little room in the curriculum for the development of any skills beyond simple recall.

  • porkfright

    I am writing to warn of the dangers of a random collection of Toffs spread over three main parties making any more of a mess of any other damned thing in this country.

  • Aleksander Vatov

    There is a difference of emphasis between the two; both are equally correct.

  • Pacificweather

    Mr. Gove has never made clear what it is he is trying to achieve and why the steps he is taking will lead to that achievement. It therefore seems that he is acting instinctively and that is bound to invite criticism, especially as he seems to be following Mrs. Thatcher’s political path.

    The fears that children taught by rote will not learn to think are groundless. They will think, but what they think about will be different. If you are only required to follow a process that you don’t fully understand that makes little difference in the work place where you may be required to follow a process that you fully understand is flawed but can do nothing to change.

    Many entrepreneurs have been successful precisely because they had no idea that their business model was flawed. Some change the model in time, some sell out before others notice and some eventually go bust. Ignorance can be a great asset in starting a business. It is less useful in running one successfully for decades.

  • Steve Cooke

    The poor-quality, knee-jerk, critically-inept articles, laden with political-and-social-bias, and rounded-off with a smattering of fallacies [hows that for syntax?] presented by the author leaves me with the impression that to him journalism is an activity to be undertaken over a bowl of cereal in jim-jams whilst watching Kilroy or the like.

  • Colin Trudgen


    I wonder if you have read Don Watson’s Weazle Words or Death sentence? Appropriate reading for this subject.

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