Teacher agency and educational fads

At a recent conference the head of research at OFSTED, Danial Muijs warned that “There is still a big issue in education in terms of being still susceptible to various fads…“. This unsurprisingly has led to a lot of discussion about what counts as a “fad” and who should make a decision about what will work in their classroom.

The question of what counts as a “fad” is probably the easier of the two questions. A bit like art we know it when we see it. As a working definition I’ll go with “A strategy or idea imposed on teachers that leads to ineffective and/or inefficient teaching”.

Ignorance as a barrier to agency 

Now for the more tricky question. Who decides what counts as a fad and on what we do in the classroom? My impulse is always to say “the teacher”. I believe that when left alone, teachers find effective practice. Most do some sort of retrieval at the start of a lesson, some teacher input on a new idea, get pupils to apply what they have been taught and then check for learning and give feedback. Training and reflection is important to refine this approach but as a rule teachers are fairly good at avoiding gimmicks and fads when left alone. (For more see Is there a best way to teach?)

That, however, is a pretty big caveat as teachers are so rarely left alone. As a profession, we have been given poor advice and lied to over the years. Agency only works if people have the information to act on it. I think an apt analogy would be the vote on Brexit. People were given agency, they had the power to make a decision on whether we should stay or leave the EU. The problem is, few of us had the information with which to make this decision. The misinformation was huge. People voted to leave so the NHS could get an extra £350 million a week, because of refugees from Syria and due to straight bananas. I am sure the lies on the other side must has been as great but confirmation bias makes it harder to remember. So who had the agency? Us or the press who misled us?

Misinformed and misled

Teachers should make the decision on what to do in their classrooms but this decision needs to be informed. When I started teaching I decided to limit how much I talked because “pupils only remember 10% of what they are told”. I relied heavily on badly implemented enquiry learning because I was taught this way of teaching geography was the only way to do it. I differentiated by task (by learning style and target grade) because I  was told it was what good teachers did. And so the list goes on.

In theory I had agency. I could have made different decisions (although I would have had to face the consequences if observed by SLT or OFSTED who at the time looked for those things) but I made them based on the flawed information I had. So who had the agency? The teacher or the consultants and leaders who misled us?

Myths and misinformation is embedded in the profession. Just a year ago I saw the cone of learning used in a presentation to justify telling teachers to talk less. A couple of years ago I moved my tables into rows and was asked “is that a good idea? Don’t pupils learn more sat in groups?”. A book was published in its 4th edition last year that still contained a chapter on how to differentiate according to learning style.

We tend to see a lot of top down imposition in the classroom. We are told what we should do but aren’t shown why we should do it. It is this approach that leads to fads like dialogic marking with different coloured pens, schools insisting that iPads are used in every lesson because the pupils have them, the introduction of knowledge organisers with no thought into how they are actually used or the need for “Nando Style” differentiated activities. We have been deprofessionalised and need to start to take the power back. But we can’t do that from a position of ignorance.


This is why I think it is important for us, as professionals, to discuss effective and efficient teaching methods. We shouldn’t simply be left with these misconceptions directing our practice but should always seek to be more informed. We need to find and expose the misinformation so that we can take back the power over our profession. That is true agency.

4 thoughts on “Teacher agency and educational fads

  1. I think this is true, but it’s not limited to ‘interventions’ and ‘techniques’ (not suggesting you think this by the way!). We need strong disciplinary knowledge, and knowledge about curriculum formation too.

    Liked by 2 people

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