Junk Science that Infects Teaching

I trained in Swansea over ten years ago. On the whole, I would say that my initial teacher training was good. Now though, I am in a position to sort through the things they taught me into three distinct categories: useful stuff I still do, stuff that is just not for me and WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY THINKING?

The last category is interesting. Tom Bennett mentioned at the ResearchED conference on Saturday that one of the catalysts to starting his movement was the insistence at teacher training college that group work was good for all students at all times for all types of tasks.

There was a definite disconnect between what I saw in classrooms during my observations and what they were telling me at college. I was also told to do group work as much as possible. Meanwhile, in the classrooms, group work was limited to the sharing of equipment during practical activities in labs.

The story of me working out how to wield group work as a tool without cutting my own hand is long and would take more than one average 80’s montage sequences to capture. And what I learned was the same as Tom: this message about group work is not universally true.

So, “group work is good for all students for all tasks” was not true. What else did they tell me?

We had several sessions on learning styles and multiple intelligences. Tailoring your teaching for a student’s learning style or intelligence has no evidence for working but plenty of teachers swear it “works”. Why do they think so? Pedro de Bruyckere suggests because teachers are mixing things up, the relationship between students and teachers increases in quality. This does correlate with better learning in the research which leads to confirmation bias. You think it works, it appears to work, you continue to think it works.

We were given a learning pyramid with some neat percentages of how much you retain from reading, listening, teaching and so on. Pedro has an incredibly entertaining story of trying to track down the references for those data. Apparently, it is supposed to be seen as a “metaphor” with no factual base in the literature. How did it get into my teacher training?

All this contributed to was a suspicion of research. From what I could make out, since the stuff I was learning in college was not being applied in schools (or where it was, it was not working better than not using it), then the academics were just idiots who did not know what they were talking about.

It was not until I discovered Hattie’s meta-analyses of educational research that I started to trust academia again. And even then, what he has found out has been distorted and oversimplified for consultants to earn massive training fees in schools.

David Didau gave a great talk on Saturday but one thing that really resonated was how people have interpreted Hattie’s result that feedback gives the greatest effect size (as in, how much students learn compared to students without the particular intervention), so we need to give as much feedback as possible. This oversimplification of the research is coming from a place of sincere desire to make learning better but is missing the nuance of Hattie’s original position that feedback is powerful alright: Powerfully positive and powerfully negative.

There is more! There is always more. Pedro De Bruyckere wrote a book called Urban Myths about Teaching and Learning, David Didau wrote a book called What If Everything You Knew about Education Was Wrong and Tom Bennett wrote a book called Teacher Proof. (On payday, I will be loading up my e reader.)

So how do we keep nonsense out of our heads? We can ask for evidence. We can try to be careful when we attribute cause and effect. We can question what we know to be true. This is hard! Especially since people get really attached to their ideas and see them as part of their identity. Unlearning is not only hard intellectually but also emotionally.

One model I learned in the context of learning how to have productive professional conflict without it turning into personal conflict is the “inference ladder”. I don’t know if it is based on any sort of research, I doubt it, I think it’s one of those “metaphor” things we hear so much about. But. I find it illustrative.


Image credit: pivotalthinking.wordpress.com

We need to be careful about how high up the ladder we get when confronted with new information and not race to the top. We as teachers need to be better at understanding how our minds work, so that we can stay low on the ladder of inference without losing face.


For more:
@researched1 http://www.workingoutwhatworks.com/ Tom Bennett
@LearningSpy http://www.learningspy.co.uk/ David Didau
@thebandb http://theeconomyofmeaning.com/ Pedro De Bruyckere

pivotal thinking.wordpress.com

Apparently, it is a pretty widespread human nature tendency to quickly climb what Chris Argyris coined the “ladder of inference” – to jump from observed facts to conclusions and actions that are largely based on stories we quickly create to explain the observations, and which are biased considerably by our own frames of reference.

Many of us find it very challenging to be maintain genuine curiosity as we quickly leap to the top of the ladder.  Instead, we generally assume that we have all the facts, and our beliefs about those facts are the truth, and that this truth is obvious and shared by everyone.

Have you ever jumped to a conclusion about the behavior of a colleague or loved one, only to find out that you were way off base?

If you have a favorite strategy or reference for keeping an open and curious mind in the face of seemingly inconsiderate or incompetent behavior, please share it in the comments.




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I wrote this for another blog a long time ago. I think about five or six years ago?
One thing that is hard about “unlearning” for bloggers, is that you leave a trail of your old attitudes and thoughts across the internet. This can lead to holding more static opinions than you would if there was no proof you thought the way you did in the past.

In this case, while I do not think I would write the same thing again, it gets to the heart of why the evidence based teaching movement is important to me.

This is a post about getting ready for a 6 hour training session on Learning Styles.

In schools, there are learners and there are teachers. With me so far?
Teachers must, through appropriate selection of task and objectives, lead the learners to acquire new knowledge, skills and understanding.

Some teachers only present new information in limited ways. For instance they might only speak to the class or only write on the board etc. They might only have a few tasks in their repertoire e.g.: do questions from a book, do a practical, answer questions outloud.

These teachers are “bad” and their learners suffer for it. Doing the same sorts of things is bad for the brain. The brain craves novelty like you would not believe. The brain also likes a bit of routine, it would be no good if one day a teacher pogo-ed in to the lesson, the next taught from the vantage point of a unicycle, the next perched on a high wire.

The balance that most “good” teachers achieve is having a variety of tasks to choose from and a selection of ways of presenting new material. They mix these up as appropriate but are consistent with other factors.

Now, could someone please give me a consultancy fee because I have just summarised the “learning style” movement for you. I am happy to provide examples and for instances of different tasks and information presentation if that sweetens the deal, though I doubt any Learning Styles trainer will get as far as that.

On Thursday I will have a six hour training session all about learning styles. I could weep with frustration. I did a little temper tantrum in the staff room. Eyebrows were raised

“You might learn something new…”

“What’s wrong with a variety of tasks?”

In the UK, at least, there is no other training session likely to raise my blood pressure than bloody learning styles.

There are powerpoints where someone who hasn’t taught for a long time, reads from them. The irony is lost on them. They are lecturing us about not lecturing children. They tell you how important it is to do it but they give no practical examples, no proof in the literature that they are right, no handson experience and no troubleshooting.

The simplest model covered is VAK.

Visual, auditory, kinaesthetic. Never has such a sensible idea been so stretched beyond use than “learners need to see, hear and do.”
I have worked in schools where children are given a 10 question questionnaire with gems such as

“I learn better by
a) Reading
b) Listening
c) Experimenting”

And then they get told they are ONE OF THREE possibilities. Teachers have to write it in their mark book, I am not even lying, and children feel entitled to say “I can’t do this experiment, I am a visual learner”
Never mind that thick kids who can’t read get called “kinaesthetic” which doesn’t allow for the fact that as soon as they can read they might be visual. Never mind that some people vary their learning style across the course of the day/depending on subject/as they age.

It has been diluted like so much homeopathic tincture and we all know that makes it even stronger, don’t we?

It is hard to know how to take it. On one hand it angers me that teachers, graduates of a great range of subject areas, swallow this without question. On the other hand it angers me that adults responsible for filling young minds with the gift of education, spoonfeed this crap straight into their trusting mouths.

The original idea is okay. It has been distorted by some thickwad trainer because they don’t know any bloody better.

Another version is a bit better in terms of complexity. There are seven styles, like “musicality” and “inter-personality” and you have to draw a seven pointed star which shows you which ones you show a preference for.

But still, it is limited because
1) It is too hard for the people supposed to train you in it (they end up telling you that people like David Beckham are “spatial learners” but miss out his “inter-personal” preferences)
2) It doesn’t encourage teachers to help children improve their weaker styles
3) Some subjects simply do not lend themselves to certain styles and what then? Oh yeah, you do what you always have done.

The third is completely ignored by trainers and it is my favourite. When I am feeling arsy, and you know Gentle Reader that is most days, I write it on my lesson plans or bring it up in meetings.

“That class is mostly made of concrete random learners so I chose THIS task”

There are four types of learner in this model and two variables. Concrete-abstract, random-sequential.

To me, it makes the most sense in terms of helping the teacher mix up the variety of tasks. So WHAT if sometimes they read, sometimes they listen and sometimes they act if every time they follow sequential instructions? That is no variety at all.

It is completely out of vogue but I am not sure if it has been discredited or is just too hard to understand because of the ten dollar words.

Anyway, Thursday will let me know how good Denmark is at avoiding the mistakes of other countries. If they have a well balanced, sensible and thought out training programme which not only gives me examples of tasks I could try but also proof of how they improve results; then we know that Denmark takes its teacher education seriously.

If we have some guy reading his powerpoint for 6 hours about how we really should think about having variety in our lessons, then they are just as susceptible to snake oil salesmen as their cousins in the UK.

Checking through my personal blog, I never wrote up the follow up post about how the training session went. It was run by a woman that came and lectured us for several hours about how there were four learning styles: visual, auditory, tactile and kinaesthetic. Her proof: some people were knitting as she spoke.

I remember she brought some interesting tools for formative assessment that were a bit more interactive than the usual “asking a question to the whole group” but she left it too late to let us have a play with them.

After the training session, my colleagues said “Yeah that’s great. I am not doing any of that.” Not because it was rubbish but because they already liked their own way of teaching well enough.

So, while Danish leaders are just as susceptible to fads and trends, the teachers are change resistant enough to let it all wash over them and just do what they have always done.

ResearchED Scandinavia

Funny story: I put ResearchED Scandinavia in my calendar months ago. I sort of forgot about it and when the day got closer I thought I probably would not go. I live in Aarhus, Denmark and Gothenburg might as well be on Mars. Anyway, I saw my calendar and asked a couple of colleagues if they wanted to go. I knew one of them would definitely be down for it but the other one probably wouldn’t be. To my surprise, they both said yes. When we got on the ferry, the colleague I thought would not be interested, shared that she had thought I was pulling her leg. In her defence, I do have a dry sense of humour.

This is probably the largest effect my sense of humour has had on another person, though. 

The conference was a lot of fun. I have been really jealous of the UK and the evidence based movement going on there. Now I don’t need to be.

I went to talks about the movement itself, continuing professional development, urban myths about learning, the science about learning (particularly the role of feedback), teaching digital literacy, action research and a case study about teacher learning communities.

There is a lot to process still. My takeaways were how we need to let go of identifying ourselves with our beliefs and be more open minded about what we know and what we think we know. I also saw a common thread of how key senior management (and higher), are to what improvements can be made.

One thing that I cannot stop thinking about is how vulnerable to flim flam men and snake oil salesmen the educational system is. Part of it is how everyone is vulnerable to them, persuasiveness and certainty is alluring and we can all be fooled. I think also there is an issue with learned helplessness. Teachers are treated like crap in many countries. Why that is, I could talk about for years. But this leads to bruised and tired professionals who are more susceptible to pressure. 

Considering how much junk science made it to my initial teacher training just over a decade ago, I wonder why my teacher trainers were not more careful. Why didn’t they vet their curriculum more carefully? They were scientists, it should have occured to them. I was also taken in and did not think critically. I gave the things they insisted worked a good go. How frustrating now that it was misplaced effort. Why didn’t I notice that my excellent, inspirational mentor Huw was not doing all that stuff and doing fine? Better than fine! Exceptionally. I got as far as expressing cynicism in the physics prep room but no further. I just got the impression that the idea that reliability in educational research was a mirage and abandoned it all, just playing things by ear until I was happy with my craft.

I was inspired by the message at the ResearchED conference that we can give our profession herd immunity against bullshit ideas. Though it reminded me of a time in a North London school where the deputy head introduced the marking policy and cited Black Box as rationale. At the end, three of us got up and said “actually, no it doesn’t say that” and he said “I know. This is still our policy though.”

Would we have been inoculated from the time wasting rubbish we had been asked to do had we raised our hands in the middle of the presentation and embarrassed him? Why did we accept “I know” as an acceptable answer?

I would like to say that it is all over and wonderful now I am in Denmark but I had to sit through three hours of VAK training after I knew it was nonsense and all I did was blog about it in my private blog. Also, there are some practices which do not have the greatest evidence base that are required in my current school. What am I going to do about it? What can I do about it?

Big Bang Aarhus 2016 

Thursday and Friday, part of the teacher training campus in Aarhus was taken over by Denmark’s annual science teacher conference.

Along with the usual conference fare of suppliers and stalls, there were workshops, hands on demonstrations, lectures and keynote speeches.

One of the most difficult decisions to make was how to distribute my time. I was visiting the conference alone so I couldn’t coordinate with a friend. 

I attended a discussion about a European space competition, a demonstration of an evolution activity, a workshop on recycling, a workshop on teaching students to code and a lecture on a project evaluating the quality of geography teaching of climate.

Mostly what I got from the event was inspiration. The evolution activity was too slow and too complicated for the age group I teach but maybe I could make them a spreadsheet to automate away the tedium. The recycling workshop was more for a design teacher but I did find out heaps about inspiring innovative thinking. The coding workshop was marred by unfriendly people who sat at my table and refused to look at me (so I left and played with robots on the exhibition floor) 

The climate lecture was my second choice because the physics fun workshop was too popular and despite getting there 20 minutes early, other conference goers were more willing to shove me out of the way than I was willing to shove them. I thought that the lecture would give me tips on what to do based on brand new research but it was just an outline of what is wrong with teaching in Denmark with little editorialising on how to improve. 

My favourite bit was playing with robots, especially when the project leader told me anout a school project where students designed robots to help residents at a care home. Sounded really inspiring and exactly what I want to do with my classes.

So, next year I will: stick to workshops and avoid lectures. Take a colleague with me. Get more freebies.

Science Fair 2016 Part 1

This year, I have been really tight with deadlines. This has left my procrastinators with no time to do what they do best. I also made the students assign their roles at the beginning so there is someone to hold responsible for what they have and have not done. It has been a learning curve but hopefully it will push my students into greater independence and self sufficiency.

I am so proud of my middle students. The youngest group are having a hard time because of their age and maturity (but they are stepping up to the challenge). My oldest group have a bad case of the teens, and have been really disorganised and lackadaisical. My middle two groups are rock stars. 

The main benefit of doing a Science Fair is that I get to teach skills and content in an authentic way. A lesson on reading ammeters is forgettable even if the current you measured was in an interesting circuit. But, students having to set up data loggers to graph the current provided by a solar panel for their robot, well that is useful and therefore memorable.

science fair-039
Project from previous year

The project ideas are mostly good, solid ideas straight from an inspiration website. Testing the 5 second rule with agar plates, making batteries from fruit, testing the nutrients in different foods. The most inspired ideas are the ones where the groups struggled for a long time to think of something. There are two reasons for that happening: the students are very bright and knew they needed something to challenge them or the students feel rejected by science and scientific thinking, so they could not be inspired by a webpage because the ideas did not mean anything to them.

These projects include designing a Martian robot, testing the use of decorative water balls for vases in food growing, testing windmill stability and power output and seeing if food provokes emotion even if you cannot taste it. There are many more like that.

My greatest challenge is getting students started at the beginning of lessons because there can be a lot of setting up and finding equipment but now we have had a week of practicals, this is coming down.

We are an IB World School so we are inquiry led. It is really great to let students take the lead on this and really investigate something they are interested in.