Ouroboros: a review
I’ve been following Greg Ashman‘s writing for some years and have always been struck by his clarity, precision, humour and single-minded sense of purpose. I haven’t always agreed with everything he’s written but I’ve been persuaded by an awful lot. Naturally, when I discovered he was writing a book I was keen to read it.
The concept or conceit of Ouroboros is that education is constantly eating its own tail. New ideas are old ideas repackaged for a new market; lessons are not learned; the past is forgotten and the future is always new and exciting. As Greg says in his introduction, this “represent the antithesis of progress – we cannot move forward if we are going round and round.”
It’s a short book – less than 30,000 words – and can be consumed in a single sitting. But this belies the depth of Greg’s thinking. To explain something well you have to know it inside out and upside down and in his arch, sometimes terse style, Greg takes us through several years worth of thought and struggle.
The book is unashamedly ideological, but it deftly avoids becoming polemical. In his critique of the ‘trendy teaching’ he experience as a student, he starts as he means to go on. In subsequent chapters he explores the contradictory messages he received in teacher training, the guilt he experienced at teaching explicitly and his frustration with the constant representation of failed ideas. He takes on the bogies of project work and discovery learning, refuting the assertions of their advocates with a knock-out combination of ‘in the wild’ research in schools and the controlled findings of psychology labs. He unpicks some of the flawed assumptions about expertise and explains the limitations of working memory for novice learners with remarkable clarity. All this is done with patience, good humour and élan.
Much of this will be familiar to those who have followed the various debates in education over the past few years. There’s little which is genuinely new but then, that’s kinda the point of the book. Greg extends his metaphor to unpick how our ouroboric tendencies to constantly reinvent might be harnessed for good, salvaging the best from AfL and the sequential acquisition of expertise. Of particular interest is his treatment of the way expert teachers may suffer from the ‘curse of knowledge’ (the tendency to overestimate what others know) and novice students might fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect (overconfidence based on ignorance).
The chapter on rubrics is especially good and successfully builds on much of the current thinking on assessment, presenting some clear-sighted alternatives to the way we currently go about teaching and assessing students.
In short, despite being determined to find something in this book to disagree with, I found myself nodding along with tedious frequency. Although I consider myself more than a little familiar with Greg’s thinking, I still found plenty of fresh thought and experienced a couple of ‘A-ha!’ moments as concepts I’ve been mulling over for some time settled neatly into place. The point being, however much you think you know, you’ll probably learn something from this book. And if you’re a new-comer to the Ashman oeuvre then you’re in for a treat. Best of all, it costs less than a fiver!
You can buy it here.