In my last post, teacher agency and educational fads, I suggested that we as teachers had spent years having misinformation and lies thrown at us and that this was distorting our practice. This led Paul Garvey to ask
Like many of Paul’s questions (See – The best way to teach) this needs some unpicking.
Teaching has clearly improved
Has teaching clearly improved? It is a question that is impossible to really answer. Some people have memories of terrible teaching in the past, others remember it fondly. I went to school from the mid-1980s until 1999 and can’t say my lessons stood out as being particularly good but I have little to compare it to. The teaching I did, and saw, in the early to mid-2000s was certainly a lot worse than the teaching I see and do now but I am working in a different school and with years more experience.
We could look at OFSTED reports, but the criteria shifts over time. We could look at GCSE results but much the same applies. As Tim Allwood pointed out – international results don’t show any improvement.
So we don’t know that teaching has improved. If you didn’t like the teaching you received as a child you might think it has but we are relying on anecdote.
Let’s set this aside for now and continue with the assumption that teaching has managed to improve during this “time of fads”. How is this possible?
What is a ‘fad’ anyway?
We need to make sure we are talking about the same thing. When I talk about a fad I mean “A method of teaching that has been imposed on teachers despite not being especially effective and/or efficient”. I also like Chris Moyse point that it is likely to have been introduced as a “quick win” by school leaders.
I would suggest that there are two types of fads.
Fad Type 1 – method divorced from meaning
You sometimes hear it said that one person’s fad is another person’s effective practice. In this case it isn’t a fad. It becomes a fad when it is taken out of that context and imposed on other teachers. The problem is that the method often becomes divorced from its reason. In this way perfectly good ideas quickly become fads.
Let’s take the example of knowledge organisers. I have written about knowledge organisers before and how I use them. I find them useful as a way to showing pupils what they need to know, to support them with revision for retrieval practice and to help them develop independent study skills. But you can see them becoming fads.
These methods become fads when they become divorced from the reason behind them. I have seen people on teacher facebook groups posting that they have been told they have to create knowledge organisers for every topic and asking whether someone can send the ones they use to save them the job of creating them. Well… no. Not unless your curriculum is identical to mine and the act of creating them is an important part of the process.
You can see the same thing happening in classrooms up and down the country: with revision clocks, the use of digital technology, retrieval quizzes that have become assessments. The “what” has killed the “why”.
Fad type 2 – Junk science
The second type of fad is perhaps more pernicious and tends to hang around for longer. These are the fads that come simply from a poor understanding of how pupils learn. Differentiating by VAK, not talking because pupils only remember 10% of what they hear, BrainGym, a serious misapplication of Growth Mindset etc etc etc. These ideas then lead to fad methods that desperately try to implement them.
How can teaching improve whilst these fads exist?
So, lets return to Paul’s question. If we accept that teaching has improved, how is this possible during a time when fads are so prevalent? I have a simple answer. Teachers are brilliant.
In his work Visible Learning, Hattie carried out research on 800 meta-analyses of over 50 000 research articles and found something shocking. Almost everything works. Just about everything teachers do leads to some sort of improvement in pupil outcomes. We make it work. If we are told we have to provide differentiated activities based on a pupil’s preferred learning style we find a way to do it that minimises the harm it might do, we try and do it in a way that means pupils learn successfully. If we are told all pupils must have a knowledge organiser, we find a way to make it work. If we are told we have to talk less to our pupils, we find a way to work around it.
We are also quite good at ignoring fads. We pay lip-service to them when we have to and stop doing them as soon as we can. Most teachers know that these fads come and go (that is the point of a fad) and that if we wait long enough and do the absolute minimum to keep people off our back, we can probably wait it out.
So why do fads matter?
Surely this should mean that fads don’t matter. If teachers can strategically ignore them and make everything work, then surely we can just happily continue. Well, no.
Although “everything works” not everything works equally well. If we are told our school is now a “Growth Mindset school” and as such we have to spend hours putting up a growth mindset display, those are hours not spent doing something that could lead to a better education for our pupils. If we spend hours creating knowledge organisers, without fully understand how to use them, we are wasting hours that could be spent on planning. If we turn retrieval quizzes into a form of assessment for tracking pupils we are missing a great opportunity to use them well.
So fads have an opportunity cost. There is also a cost in terms of workload and a loss of agency and these costs are driving teachers out of the classroom. Tell a teacher to waste their time and they might do it there and then, but will they still be in teaching in a couple of years? I doubt it.
Many things that get labelled as “fads” might work for an individual teacher (although many things might work better) but they only become fads when divorced from their original meaning and then are spread around and are imposed on other teachers. Teachers, being brilliant, are able to make these things work as best they can, or at least to minimise harm, but they still have an opportunity cost. Worst still they add to our workload and drive teachers out of teaching.
The solution is to give teachers time to study how pupils learn and time to reflect on and discuss their own learning – and then to allow them to teach. If someone wants to discuss a new method then that is wonderful; but it needs honest critique and the ideas behind it need to be explored.