When the children of wealthy people all used to study Latin at school it was widely assumed that Latin must be generally good for mind. Rigorous research into this assumption by one of the first experimental educational psychologists, Edward Thorndike, found no such result (1923). Success in Latin did not translate into more general success in learning other subjects or measures of general thinking ability. The same results, or rather, a lack of result, have been found for maths, Logic programming, chess and any and all the other content areas put forward as offering a source for general thinking skills (Perkins and Salomon, 1992). Some have argued from this research that it is not possible to teach for general thinking skills at all. But that is the wrong conclusion. That is not what the research said. In fact, even the well cited Perkins and Salomon paper above pointed out that transfer of this kind is possible depending on the way that subjects are taught. Just teaching a logic programming language such as Logo in schools, for example, did not have an effect, but teaching this same content with dialogues bringing out the general thinking strategies involved and exploring how these bridge to help solve other problems in other areas of life does lead to transfer (Wegerif, 2002). There is overwhelming evidence that it is possible to teach for general thinking skills such as critical thinking (Abrami et al 2008). And on the whole the evidence suggests that the teaching for general transferable thinking skills turns out to be not so much about what you teach as about the way that you teach it.
Despite the lack of hard evidence perhaps there was something behind the intuition people had that learning Latin was good for them. After all Randomised Control Studies are a very blunt instrument focussing on correlations and not always bringing out the impact of different ways of teaching and learning - or what could be called the causal mechanisms linking teaching to learning. In Thorndike's day those who argued in favour of Latin as a training for the mind focussed on the rigour of the grammar. This was shown to have no general impact but something else not looked at then might have had an impact - this was the way that Latin was sometimes taught with discussions around interesting ancient texts. Most people who study Classics in a traditional University, learn through talking together in small groups. They are not just taught facts and correct interpretations they are asked to question, to explore alternatives, to build on ideas, to challenge and to provide reasons for claims. This kind of 'dialogic' education in the Classics has a long tradition. Recent evidence suggests that it is precisely this kind of pedagogy that can help people learn to think in a way that transfers to support thinking in every area of life (Gorard et al 2015, Sun, Wang and Wegerif, 2020). By dialogic education I do not just mean education that transmits knowledge through the means of dialogue but, much more importantly, education that teaches students how to be better at dialogue, better at asking good questions, better at listening not just to what people say but also to what they might mean, better at comparing and better able to make creative leaps in order to see things as if through other's eyes (Wegerif 2017).
Research on teaching for thinking and creativity suggests strongly that general thinking skills, strategies and dispositions can indeed be taught and that the best way to teach them is by drawing students into dialogue in a structured way (Resnick, Asterhan and Clarke, 2015). This can be done in the way that you teach Classics or algebra, but it can also be done in the way that you teach almost anything at all. Design and technology (D&T) in schools, for example, could be taught in a very 'direct teaching' sort of way, showing students exactly how to make a functioning pencil case. Apparently this is still what happens in many D&T classrooms. It is this kind of teaching and learning that people seem to be thinking about when they assume that vocational education is somehow less intelligent than a more academic education. The alternative is that D&T could be approached in a more dialogic and creative way, drawing children into a participatory design process involving promoting empathy with users and collaborative creativity in order to solve real world challenges (e.g Bill Nicholl and Ian Hoskin's work on D&T here at Cambridge Faculty of Ed shown in a short clip here https://youtu.be/cW0OYpcE9tE see Nicholl et al 2013).
Gavin Williamson claimed, in the speech referred to above, that we need a more 'German-style' model for vocational education. Superficially the German model does seem better than the UK approach but this model also has its problems. It involves specifying occupations - 325 of them - many of which might be due for redundancy as growth in AI transforms the world of work (Seldon & Abidoye 2018). The way to overcome this challenge is to have a vocational education that focusses on general transferable skills such as learning to learn, team work, collaborative creativity and just, well, how to act intelligently both when alone and when working together with others. These kinds of skills, strategies and dispositions, now often referred to as 'future skills' teach how to thrive in a time of rapid change. They promote a culture of enterprise which is not only about fitting students into existing jobs but also about equipping them with the skills to see new opportunities and to create new jobs.
We are exploring ways to make this kind of vocational education work currently in a project funded by industry partners, BT and Huawei, to develop 'virtual internships' (https://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/vip/). These Virtual Internships involve learners – initially in Year 7 or 8 from secondary schools in areas of low social mobility in England – working in small teams role-playing being ‘interns’. Students learn about the world of work while engaging in scenarios and activities designed to develop the kind of ‘complex competencies’ (or 'future skills') often emphasised as desirable by employers but also desirable for participation in citizenship and in lifelong learning. Specifically, they design and develop solutions that respond to real-world challenges proposed by the companies we are working with. Although currently we are just working with two companies, we think that this could offer a more general model for building bridges between schools and the world beyond school.
Teaching for creativity and general thinking skills can be done. I suspect that this has been done quite successfully in Universities like Cambridge for centuries. That was probably the real point of sitting around in seminars discussing different interpretations of passages from Herodotus or Horace. Now that we know that we can extract this way of conferring intellectual advantage from its location within the traditional class system, as a benefit only available for the children of the 'leisured class', and apply it more generally to provide an intellectual upgrade for all, including those studying vocational subjects that might more directly help us solve the many real world challenges that we face. The secret to teaching thinking lies in the way that subjects are taught and learnt and not in the content. This is not to say that content knowledge does not matter, you have to think about something and be creative within constraints (Phillipson & Wegerif, 2016). The point is that, in order to teach intelligence, it does not matter if you are discussing poetry or if you are discussing football, cordon-bleu cuisine or how to design a better Internet of Things, the secret lies in the quality of the dialogue.
Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M. A., Tamim, R., & Zhang, D. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1102-1134.
Gorard, S., Siddiqui, N., & See, B. H. (2018). Philosophy for Children: Evaluation report and executive summary. https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/32011/1/EEF_Project_Report_PhilosophyForChildren.pdf
Nicholl, B., Flutter, J. A. E., Hosking, I. M., & Clarkson, P. J. (2013). Transforming practice in Design and Technology: evidence from a classroom-based research study of students' responses to an intervention on inclusive design. Curriculum Journal, 24(1), 86-102.
Perkins, D. N., & Salomon, G. (1992). Transfer of learning. International encyclopedia of education, 2, 6452-6457. Pergamon press. (PDF Online)
Phillipson, N., & Wegerif, R. (2016). Dialogic Education: Mastering core concepts through thinking together. Taylor & Francis.
Resnick, L., Asterhan, C., & Clarke, S. (2015). Socializing intelligence through academic talk and dialogue. American Educational Research Association.
Seldon, A., & Abidoye, O. (2018). The fourth education revolution. Legend Press Ltd.
Sun, M, Wang, M., Wegerif, R. (2020) Effects of divergent thinking training on students’ scientific creativity: The impact of individual creative potential and domain knowledge. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 37 Online https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tsc.2020.100682
Thorndike, E. L. (1923). The influence of first-year Latin upon ability to read English. School and Society, 17, 165–168.
Wegerif, R. (2002). Literature review in thinking skills, technology and learning. Nesta Futurelab. https://www.nfer.ac.uk/media/1838/futl75.pdf
Wegerif, R. (2017) https://www.rupertwegerif.name/blog/defining-dialogic-education