Teacher Proof: Why
Educational Research doesn't always mean what it claims, and what you can
So, I have a book out. It's been a long time coming. Since I
started teaching, I knew there was something suspicious about what I was being
told worked in classrooms, and what actually happened. It started in teacher
training, as well-meaning lecturers and reading lists advocated apparently
cast-iron guarantees that this method of educating children, or that way of
directing behaviour, would be efficient. It continued on DfE sponsored training
programs where I was taught how to use NLP, Brain Gym, Learning Styles and soft
persuasion techniques akin to hypnosis.
Then I began teaching, guided by mentors who assured me that
other contemporary orthodoxies were the way to win hearts and minds. It took me
years to realise that thing I could smell was a bunch of rats wearing lab
coats. And why should any new teacher question what they are told?
Establishment orthodoxies carried the authority of scripture. And often it was
justified with a common phrase- the research shows this.
I remember reading Ben Goldacres Bad Science, and being
amused and horrified by the cavalier ways in which science could be hijacked
by hustlers. His harrowing of Brain Gym
led me to wonder what else, like Descartes, I needed to question. What I
discovered led me to write Teacher Proof.
First of all I
discovered that a lot of what was considered to be absolute dogma by many
teachers, was built on quicksand.
Learning Styles, for example, were almost universally accepted by every
teacher who trained me. It was a Damascan epiphany to find out that there was
hardly a scrap of evidence to substantiate it, that the serious academic community had washed its hands of it long
ago. But it lingered on, a zombie theory, staggering from classroom to
classroom, mauling lesson plans.
Once I had peeled one strip of paper from the wall, I could
do nothing else but keep pulling, and see how much came off. Much, much more,
it turned out. First of all, I entered the world of pseudo-education, where
optimistic internet sites boasted of Olympian gains to made by the adoption of
this pill (often Omega 3), that smell (sometimes Lavender, sometimes not) or
even this sound (the Mozart Effect, for instance). These, at least, seemed to
be obvious pigs in pokes. Other companies sold hats- literally, thinking hats-
of various colours, or exercises that promised to boost brain power. But they
asked customers to gamble a lot more than a stamp, as Charles Atlas innocently
Unfortunately, it was often just as bad when I progressed to
the realms of alleged propriety; I found that a lot of what was practically
contemporary catechism, was merely cant. Group work, three-part lessons,
thinking skills, multiple intelligences, hierarchies of thinking like Blooms,
all- at least to my poor eyes- appeared to rely on opinion and rhetoric as much
as data. Delving deeper, I found that this was an affliction that affected the
social sciences as badly as the natural sciences- perhaps worse, as natural
sciences are at least readily amenable to verification. But any social science-
from economics to sociology- is subject to inherent methodological restrictions
that makes any claims to predictive or explanatory powers intrinsically
Which isnt to say that social science isnt a powerful and
urgent device with which to accrue an understanding of the human condition. But
merely to require that its claims be interpreted appropriately. It is a very
different proposition to claim, for example, that water boils at 100 degrees
Celsius at sea level, than it is to say that children learn best in groups. The
first can be at least disputed immediately, or not, by testing. The latter
requires a plethora of causal factors to be adjusted and accounted for. And to confound matters
further, humans are notoriously hard to fit on a microscope slide. Nor are we
always the most reliable of subjects.
Sometimes this was the faulty of those writing the research;
sometimes the research was, as Richard Feynman describes, Cargo Cult Science;
sometimes the writers appeared to have no idea what the scientific method was,
believing it to be some kind of fancy dress with which one clothed a piece of
journalism; sometimes allegedly sober pieces of research were simply
misinterpreted by a willing media; sometimes it was the teachers themselves
that had misappropriated the findings; sometimes it was the policy makers who
were hungry for a magic bullet and had already made their minds up about what
they were buying.
Whatever the reasons,
it was clear: the educational research we were asked to assimilate in schools
was often more like magic beans than magic bullets. Thats unhealthy. There
are armies of earnest, dedicated professionals working in educational research
who are horrified by some of the fantastical or flimsy claims made by the
hustlers and their PRs. If educators want to get past this unhealthy system of intellectual bondage, we need to
become more informed about what the research actually says, and what good
research actually means; about how hard it is to say anything for certain in
education, and when claims can be ignored, and when they should be listened to.
So I wrote Teacher Proof. Its aimed primarily at people who
work in schools, but its also for anyone involved in education, research and
policy. I am, unashamedly, a teacher. I admit I have entered a world- of
educational research- in which I am only a guest. I am aware that in my travels
I may be more of a tourist than a native. But I have tried to write as honestly
and as plainly as I can, about matters that affect me deeply- the education of
children. If I have made any errors- and Im sure that I have- I welcome
correction, and discussion. I cant shake the feeling that teachers would do
well to make research more of their business, get involved, participate in
studies, and perhaps even conduct some of their own, with guidance. Id also
like to think that researchers would be well advised to ensure their theories
are tested objectively, with an eye to disproving them, in classrooms with
meaningful sample sizes. There is a great deal of good that the two communities
can do together.
Perhaps then teachers can look forward to hearing the latest
research, and run towards it; and researchers can see classrooms not as awkward
inconveniences between data sampling and publication. Theres an awful lot of
good research out there, but it gets drowned out by the bad.
Good ideas, like decent whisky, need time to settle and
mature. I suspect that we need to develop more of a critical faculty to sift
the ideal from the merely idealistic. Maybe then well be immune to novelty and
fashion in pedagogy. Or, as I call it, Teacher Proof.
On Tom Bennett's
"Teacher Proof" : voorstelling boek
Tom Bennett Teacher Proof: why research in education doesn't
always mean what it claims, and what you can do about it London/New York;
Routledge, 2013It is about what the subtitle says on the tin.
acknowledges Ben Goldacre, and he has taken up the baton of a Bad Science for
education; indeed, he limits his discussion of Brain Gym (R) [there's always
that (R); is this totally discredited "brand" so litigious that its
mark has to be acknowledged on every utterance? Or are they taking the p***?]
he limits that to less than a page on the grounds that there is nothing left to
say after Goldacre.
down later into a much more relaxed informal style. Perhaps the jokey asides
are just his way of trying to make epistemology and the philosophy of natural
science and social "science" palatable. It's a courageous way to
start such a bookit's almost guaranteed to put some readers offbut don't skip
it because Bennett, like any good teacher, knows that he has to have the
foundations in place before he can get on to the more exciting stuff. And,
asides aside, he explains very clearly and well, and these chapters could even
be used as recommended reading for introductory research methods courses.
Bennett then applies
this critique to what he calls "voodoo teaching". (This is the second
part of three: he deliberately and ironically follows the standard school
three-part lesson structure which he critiques later.) He first takes on "multiple
intelligences" (Howard Gardner). He comprehensively rubbishes the idea, of
course. But then he concedes that there may well be something in itit's just that
it's not at all new. Substitute the terms "abilities",
"capacities" or even "talents" for
"intelligences", and that's it. Bennett is also careful to be fair;
he allows Gardner to point out how the ideas have been misrepresented (a sound
and recurrent theme through the book, where applicable). That slightly blunts
the edge of his battle-axe, but he makes up for it with the way he wields
itand in the body of the book there are fewer digressive jokes.
And so to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (and the derisive nod
in the direction of Brain Gym). There is no need here to temper his demolition
with respect for a professor at Harvard (as Gardner is). It is clear that NLP
is simply rubbish, although he does stop short of calling Bandler and Grinder
outright charlatans. I was a little disappointed that he did not take on the
whole "Accelerated Learning" scam of a few years ago, of which Brain
Gym was but one egregious aspect, but he's still got a lot to get through...
Next: group work. I
was a little surprised to find that here, but then my background is in
post-compulsory, higher and adult education, and much of what I teach is
debatable (Bennett would not be able to stop himself mentioning that can be
taken in two senses), so groupwork is a natural and appropriate tool. In
schools it often isn't, and yet thanks in large measure to Ofsted, it is rammed
down teachers' and pupils' throats. And there is no evidence to support it.
Bennett refers earlier to Richard Feynman's idea of "Cargo Cult
science", and in the following chapter to the principle of "turtles
all the way down" (where there is no foundation to an idea other than
"the literature", which is in turn based on more literature... ad
infinitum). These are two of his most effective weapons, and he deploys them
very well. And of course his feet remain firmly on the groundhe particularly
warns newly qualified teachers against using group work, unless they are fully
confident in their class management, for example.
Emotional Intelligence? I've always thought that just means
being "grown up". Again, Bennett demonstrates the sloppiness,
unfalsifiability, and value-laden assumptions of the idea, but takes care not
to tangle with its originator, Goleman.
"Buck Rogers and
the 21st-century curriculum": Turtles all the way down; beneath the claims
that technological change demands a whole new curriculum focusing on resilience
and adaptation and change and ... Bennett gets as political as he can managehe
shies away from any real discussion of the political implications of
anythingwhen he points out in this chapter and the next one, how this agenda
is being promoted by the big technology companies, on the push to sell
unnecessary technology to schools. But Bennett is working up to tackle the big
one. Sir Ken:
"I find it impossible not to like Robinson. [...] He is
charming, erudite, quick-witted [...] But [...] while I agree with him on many
things, there are many ideas he promotes that, while well-meant in root, bear
potentially dangerous fruits." (p.117)
As ever, he is polite but still devastating. The rudest he
gets is:"being told how to teach by a non-teacher with a PhD in education
is a bit like being told by a virgin how to get laid." (pp. 119-20)(He
attributes that to Christopher Hitchens.) He lets Robinson off too lightly.
The following chapter
is about de-bunking the claims and gimmicks of digital technology in the
classroom, and demonstrating that the claimed research base is at best flaky and
possibly fraudulent. He touches on the vested interests in the game, but does
not pursue them.
Next: the myth of the
three-part lesson. It's only in the past few years that I have come across
this, and discovered the stranglehold which itenforced by Ofstedhas on the
compulsory and FE sectors. I've actually made desultory efforts to trace its
research base, with little success. Bennett has traced its base, but it is not
in research:"...there's loads of research that teachers need to have a
structure to their lessons. What there isn't, is any appreciable evidence that
having three parts to a lesson lead to any kind of measurable
Bennett even confesses:"I might notwhisper itI might
not even put my aim on the board because sometimes I want kids to work out what
we're trying to do for them." (p.141) At one level, heretics must die! At
another, where have we got to when (despite the mock-heroic style) anybody
thinks such trivia matter?
Learning styles: to me, this is shooting fish in a barrel.
Bennett cites the standard refutations, and one or two more I was not familiar
with, and is unequivocal. Learning styles are "demonstrable guano"
(p.151). But while he cites Coffield et al. (2004) he does miss out on their
effort to explain why "bad ideas won't quit". Without that context,
it does rather look as though teachers are simply gullible. Coffield points out
the ideological convenience of learning styles theory: it is the
get-out-of-gaol-free card for politicians, policy-makers, managers, and all; if
children are not learning it is all the teachers' fault for not differentiating
enough on the basis of a spurious and unsubstantiated load of hogwash...
And so the list goes
on and the chapters get shorter, which he explains; we are into the minor
leagues. Gamification; it draws on principles of online game design to
reward/reinforce learning in a way children can relate to. I know nothing about
this, but his analysis seems sensible. Learning to learn: that, and
"lifelong learning" are both shibboleths of adult education, and
often meaningless rhetoric. Then we get into the freaky, faddy fringe,
concluding with de Bono's "learning hats" and school uniform.
The third section is a short and eminently sensible and
positive piece on how to respond to all these panaceas/prophecies of doom.
The book does betray some hasty editingsome repetition,
evidence of passages being swapped around (with vague cross-references which
don't work), some weird grammatical constructions, but nothing important.
What is important is
that it is a necessary corrective to the egregious bullsh*t which passes for
educational research, and an important text for all teachers who have more
common-sense than their managers and inspectors (and even tutors, I'm afraid)
who pump out, endorse and even insist on this misguided material. It's not
merely that it is wrong and unsupported by evidence and only works, if at all,
by accident (Bennett rightly insists that evidence and experience trump theory
every time) but that its power is simply (and only) to undermine teachers'
confidence in themselves and what they can see for themselves does work.