Education Myths: takeways and questions from the researchEd guide

Here are some takeaways followed by some questions from reading The researchED guide to Education Myths,: an evidence-informed guide for teachers published by John Catt. I won’t go through every chapter; rather, these are themes that seemed to run throughout the book. 

It’s a well-written, easy to read book that only runs to 100 pages but gives plenty of food for thought.

Teachers can be taught badly about good and bad teaching

Even though educating children (and, in some cases, adults) has been going on for thousands of years, the significant debates about how best to do it are still very much alive and kicking. (Tom Bennett, Introduction, p8). 

It would be great if we had a definitive, absolutely clear answer on the single best way to teach in every context and for every type of content. It’s not that simple, although there are definitely much better ways and much less good ways. 

The situation, however, has been much more unhelpful than that. 

  • The debates over the most effective way to teach have been hidden from a lot of teachers. It’s perfectly possible to have gone through teacher training (and years after that) and never have been exposed to some of the discussions over pedagogy and over the aims of education that have been going on for decades. 
  • What that means in practice is that the perspective of the person doing the teacher training (whether an individual or an institution) is presented as fact, and is unquestioned because the trainees, unless they have been particularly keen and doing some extra reading or research, don’t realise there are other options. This form of bias is sometimes a deliberate promotion of a particular pedagogy and philosophy of education at the expense of all other forms, but at other times it is just a failure to acknowledge or outline the landscape of the debate (which is an ironic failure for people training others on how to educate). This is something Craig Barton picks up on: ‘Some of what I now consider to be myths were explicitly presented to me as fact by authority figures.’ (Introduction, p11). 

The need for humility

I appreciated the efforts made by some of the authors to add nuance to their statements, and to acknowledge that it isn’t as simple as ‘we’re right, they’re wrong’. It would be very easy for a book titled ‘Education Myths’ to end up in full-on bashing of those who would disagree. 

Image result for researched myths

Engaging with those on the other side  

But Tom Bennet, in his introduction, is clear that those on the other side of the debate, who may have a different philosophy or promote things that aren’t based on evidence, aren’t ‘evil’ and don’t automatically have bad motives.  

“Which isn’t to say the people promoting it were charlatans, or insincere. They were simply mistaken, or careless, or their reason slept.’ (Introduction, P8). 

In a similar vein is Harry Fletcher-Wood, in his closing chapter Don’t shoot the messenger. He urges those on both sides of any debate about pedagogy to begin by understanding the opposite position, and re-expressing that position to them so well and so clearly that they thank you. Only then can you engage with them in a way that does their position (flawed as you think it might be) justice. And when presenting evidence to support your position, he encourages us to present it ‘humbly and gently’. 

The whole final chapter is a helpful template for conversations about a whole range of things, and as a whole the book is a refreshing antidote to exchanges on Twitter, where limited characters and limited time spent before people type those characters results in heated exchanges. We need to learn that mocking people or trying to beat them into submission with superior knowledge (even if our position is right) isn’t the most helpful thing, and that ultimately we’re all supposed to be on the same side.  

Engaging with different pedagogies

In the same way the kinds of pedagogies or specific activities (e.g. group work) that can be held up as a waste time in some quarters were treated with slightly more subtlety.

  • “Now, these pedagogies aren’t, strictly speaking, junk science – in fact in many contexts they are very useful tools – but the way they were over-sold was as if they were innately and intrinsically superior.” (P8) 

If you go all guns blazing against group work, for instance, you end up shooting yourself in the fight by presenting it as having no value. I think it does have value in the right context and with the right expectations. But I wonder whether Bennett has hit on something here: one of the issues comes from the fact that things are given a status, urgency and priority that they don’t warrant. That doesn’t mean they are wrong. So, group work or flipped learning or projects can all be useful without being the silver bullet that is always the best way pupils learn. Even with things that have a huge wealth of evidence behind them, like retrieval practice, this can easily become the case. 

I found this same restraint in Clare Sealy’s chapter on Memorable Experiences. She accepted that you could have a best/more effective way to teach and learn, without discounting any value in other experiences inside and outside of the classroom. At the same time she understood why educators had come to a different view from her (‘All of which leads to us making the entirely reasonable hypothesis that if we want students to remember what we teach them, then we need to make our lessons more like this spectacular one-off special events – or, at the very least, involve something specially selected because it’s exciting and possibly unusual.’) (p37). She then goes on to show why she believes this to be flawed, but there is an understanding of why the mistaken view has come about. 

Bringing perspective

Tom Sherrington does a great job of showing the flaws in both extremes of the debate. This includes those so in favour of ‘student-led’ learning that those who want to emphasise the value of a teacher are presented as some kind of control-freak demon. (p72). But he also takes on the hard-line critics of student-led approaches. 

  • “Some opponents of student-centred approaches are so absolute in theri position, they appear not to be able to countenance the notion that students can reasonably be said to lead their learning at all.” (p73) 

His response, which I cover below, is a refreshing one.

Certainty is overrated

I appreciated the comment that ‘certainty is overrated.’ That methods based on evidence are still able to fail and may work better in some circumstances than others. ‘We didn’t mean that we thought this was easy, or the answers were simple, or neat, or certain.’ (Introduction, p10)  ‘Nothing here is incontestable. Nothing here is sacred. That’s the point.’ (Introduction, p10) Again, it would be easy to present the arguments in a book like this as ‘done and dusted’ – “the research is clear, the evidence has spoken: game over”. I don’t think that would be a helpful approach, and that isn’t the approach that is taken. However, there is still a clear and focused rebuttal of some of the education myths that continue to fly around the educational world. 

Tom Sherrington, in his chapter, applauds the humility of Hmelo-Silver et al. in their work on problem based learning:

  • “Here is a welcome knowledge of a grey area; a lack of clarity and the need for more detailed understanding.” (p75) 

I didn’t agree with everything in the back. In fact, there are a couple of things that were stated that I’d actively disagree over (e.g. a minor comment about GCSE predictions in Chp 1). But the articles certainly raised questions and kept pushing me back to thinking through why we do what we do, and what the evidence is behind it. 

I thought the approach of the book was a balanced approach to various issues that it can be very easy to treat in an unbalanced way.  

Rousseau, ideology and pedagogy

At some point I’d like to read a biography of Rousseau, because by all accounts he’s had a pretty big (and perhaps pretty negative) impact on education and therefore on a large part of my life.  Here’s how Mark Enser summarises Rousseau’s thinking on education: 

  • “Rousseau warns against teachers being a figure of authority with expertise and knowledge to pass on. Instead, he insists, teachers should only be on hand to guide their pupil as they discover for themselves all they need to know, led by their own natural curiosity, and at their own pace.”
  • “If you have an ideological view that is troubled by the idea of the teacher as an authority figure and a belief that children learn best through discovering things for themselves, you will opt for the second option [creating an education myth that there is something inherently wrong with teachers explaining things.]” (p20)

I think this is the shadow battle in discussions about pedagogy. And it’s not one that is directly addressed by evidence-informed principles. Some of the differences between the traditionalist and progressive sides of the debate are because one side has a more traditional ideology and the other side has a more progressive ideology. I’d agree that the evidence is more one side than the other, but I wonder if the evidence was somehow completely taken away whether there would still be this divide. 

Going back to teacher training, I think a crash course in the history of education is a must. Not just ‘here’s what one thinker thinks and here’s what another thinker thought’ but an actual history that tracks thinkers, works, movements, government policies and consequences, right up to the present day. That’s not to say teacher training should force a particular ideology on anyone (although it’s hard for ideological views to not come through) but, again, to lay out the landscape of the debate.

The need to understand why

For me, Mark Enser’s chapter on ‘Education Myths: an origin story’ is one of the highlights of the book. Again, it is a nuanced approach to evidence-informed practice, as it highlights the way even things that begin as effective teaching and learning strategies rooted in solid evidence can morph into something else. The answer to this is to know where strategies that are being promoted come from. 

  • “By exploring the origin story of education myths, we can drag them out into the light to be exposed for what they are.” (26) 

I think I would add that teachers also need to understand the whys of good practice, the things that haven’t morphed yet. Too often teachers are told to do something without having more than a vague idea of why it’s effective. That’s ok for a bit, but comes a cropper a few months or years down the line, by which point everyone is being made to do things that have morphed subtly from the original purpose and are no longer as effective. 

Enser uses the example of whole class feedback (p22), which is a brilliant strategy, and one I’ve been thinking about recently. I used to think I knew what it is but now I’m not sure – my original impression of it was that it combined good, simple, to-the-point feedback with less marking/better teacher wellbeing. Now some whole class feedback strategies I see are so complicated with so many stages you may as well go back to writing essays in red pen on individual work. 

Knowing what they know (and the occassionally counter-intuitive nature of CogSci)

This is blindingly obvious, but memory is central to learning. That means that understanding how memory works is central to effective teaching. Which is why the Bjork’s chapter on blocked v interleaved practice and Claire Sealy’s chapter on semantic and episodic memory were so helpful.  

I was reminded in chp1 that the end of the lesson is a bad time to check learning. This both runs against the expectations of lots of schools and seems counter-intuitive. I can fully understand why teachers (and observers) expect to see what students have learnt during and at the end of a lesson. I think this is where an understanding of cognitive science makes a huge difference. It is counter-intuitive some of the time. 

  • “The end of the lesson is a terrible time to try to see what a pupil has actually learnt. You don’t know if they have actually learnt something or whether they are simply mimicking what they have just heard. (Enser, p25)
  • “Performance is what we can see happening during teaching. Learning, on the other hand, is something invisible that goes on inside children’s heads. We cannot observe learning; we can only infer it. Frustratingly, current performance is a terrible guide to knowing whether or not learning has actually happened or not. Teachers and leaders are at risk of being fooled by current performance and think that change in the long-term semantic memory (AKA learning) has taken place.’ (Sealy, p35)

This is an area I want to think more about. It has huge implications for plenaries, lesson expectations, observations and the increased value of data and assessments

Mode A and Mode B (Yep, I’m sold)

Tom Sherrington’s chapter on ‘Teacher-led instruction and student-centred learning are opposites’ is brilliant – he takes a step back and offers a thoughtful path through the two extremes.

  • “My contention is that the opposition is largely misplaced, with the true level of disagreement exaggerated by poorly defined concepts and de-contextualised generations. In reality, in a school curriculum that is rich and broad, leading to deep learning, both teacher-led learning and student-centredness will be woven together; blended and sequence; integrated in a proportionate manager.” (Sherrington, p73) 

Teacher- led instruction ‘…is the bedrock of ensuring that learning happens successfully.’ (p75) However, the research and thinkers that support this (Rosenshine, Willingham, etc) aren’t ‘in opposition to student-centred learning because successful learning is always inherently student-centred’… ‘To me, this is what student-centredness is about: it puts the emphasis on the leaning that is taking place, not the activities or tasks teachers are engaging in.’ (p76)

So where does the myth come from? It comes from confusing thinking this student-centred learning can happen without any teacher input. (p77) That might happen more with some students than others, but for all students to make successful progress teacher-input is essential. 

Sherrington finishes with outlining his Mode A and Mode B approach that is present in his The Learning Rainforest. I absolutely love the way he lays this out. I think it is a big picture approach that captures a significant amount of what we both want to be happening in classrooms as pupils are learning, and what needs to happen for them to learn. Everything good that can happen within a lesson and within a scheme of work can be found within the combination of Mode A and Mode B, with Mode A foundational, particularly for novice learners. It can see the value and contribution of a range of strategies and experiences. My head of department at school is doing a lot of thinking at the moment about how we really tap into both these Modes in the best, most fruitful (to keep the tree analogy going!) way possible (we’re very strong on Mode A and want to develop Mode B).  For new teachers who are feeling a bit lost about what, when and why they should be doing things in their classroom, this is the one-stop shop I would probably point them to.   

Evidence-informed practice and staff wellbeing

As someone with responsibility for staff wellbeing in a school the link between pedagogy and teacher wellbeing interests me. This came up a few times in passing:

  • If spectacular, exciting experiences are a more effective way for pupils to learn then teachers need to keep coming up with spectacular, exciting lessons! (Chp 2) 
  • If whole class feedback needs to be detailed, written and stuck in every book it increases marking time for teachers. (Chp 1)

I’m sure there are more I’ve forgotten. It’s worth measuring the impact of our pedagogy and our philosophical approach to teaching. That doesn’t mean we should choose the philosophy and pedagogy that’s easiest, but I’m interested whether there are pedagogies that are unhelpful and are also detrimental to staff wellbeing.

A couple of questions

As with any book I read, if it leaves me with more questions it’s probably done a good job. Here are a few from Education Myths

  1. Would Doug Lemov change anything in his chapter Screentopia after seeing how the Covid pandemic has played out? He is critical of schools that issue devices to all students but our students have benefitted massively from already having individual chromebooks. Obviously ‘global pandemic’ isn’t something you’d normally factor into the debate, but I’d be interested to know.
  2. Every time I read about interleaving (The myth that blocking one’s study or practice by topic or skill enhances learning by the Bjorks in this book) I keep hitting the same couple of questions. 1) Is there research on its impact on studying humanities subjects? As an RE teacher I’d be interested to see that. I’m not doubting that it is really effective (and we utilise it) but a lot of the examples seem to be from sports, writing (not studying English literature) and Maths. 2) How different or related should the interleaved content be? That’s one we’ve discussed in school before and it feels like we’re shooting in the dark at the moment.
  3. How can we continue fruitful discussion of those issues in arenas such as Twitter without it descending into something profoundly unhelpful?

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