The Test of Time

I was reading the introduction of Making Every Lesson Count this morning and came across a list of activities considered by the Sutton Trust’s research to be ineffective.

  • Praise for low achievement,
  • Attempting to improve motivation before starting to teach a topic,
  • Grouping pupils by ability,
  • Teaching by learning styles,
  • Encouraging pupils to discover new ideas for themselves,
  • Using “active learning” to help pupils remember.

I read them nodding along. Of course they were ineffective. They are self evidently ineffective. No one could think otherwise. And then I remembered.

I had flashbacks to my first few years of teaching starting back in 2004 and those hours and hours of CPD instructing us to use these very same methods. In my first school all pupils were tested to see if they were visual, audial or kinaesthetic learners. This information was then put on a sticker to go on the front of their books for every subject and we were expected to differentiate accordingly. It is a blessing the kinaesthetic learners weren’t asked to permanently mime their prefered learning style at all times.

This was then taken further and learning styles were broken down further into 8 now thankfully largely forgotten categories, until researching this piece (although I remember one being “natural” which was diagnosed through responses like “I agree that I like the sound of bird song”) and again differentiation was expected. I cannot start to work out just how many hours was spent on this ineffective strategy.


The others in the Sutton Trust’s list have all likewise had their place in the sun. We were told to use praise for motivation rather than reward. We grouped by ability to make differentiation easier (by which we meant scaffolded sentence starters). Teacher input was frowned upon as though the expert imparting knowledge was somehow cheating.

Even Brain Gym was given a full day of CPD and a working party. Thankfully Ben Goldacre came along and put that one to rest. 

I should point out that I wasn’t teaching in some sort of commune but an inner city comprehensive in Southampton. This was the norm.

It is difficult to look at what is considered to be good practice at any given moment and predict how it will be perceived in a decades time. I think one thing that is changing is that teachers are more insistent on asking for evidence based research to support any new initiative. The Internet has also helped to make the testing and trialling of teaching ideas easier and the findings faster to disseminate.

We are also able to look at the messages that have been consistent over time. I think these boil down to;

  1. Have high expectations,
  2. Give clear instructions,
  3. Know your subject and pass on your enthusiasm,
  4. Give clear feedback and opportunities to improve.

Who knows though. Maybe in 12 years I’ll read this again and hit my head against the desk in dispair.

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