24 January 2014

On Tom Bennett's "Teacher Proof"

(Links have been collected at the end; by default they go to my own thoughts elsewhere on the topic and then to source material)

Tom Bennett Teacher Proof: why research in education doesn't always mean what it claims, and what you can do about it London/New York; Routledge, 2013

It is about what the subtitle says on the tin.

Bennett explicitly acknowledges Ben Goldacre, and he has taken up the baton of a Bad Science for education; indeed, he limits his discussion of Brain Gym (R) [there's always that (R); is this totally discredited "brand" so litigious that its mark has to be acknowledged on every utterance? Or are they taking the p***?] he limits that to less than a page on the grounds that there is nothing left to say after Goldacre.

The blurb calls it "unremittingly entertaining"—and Bennett tries too hard in that respect in the first section, with too many forced jokey footnotes, but settles down later into a much more relaxed informal style. Perhaps the jokey asides are just his way of trying to make epistemology and the philosophy of natural science and social "science" palatable. It's a courageous way to start such a book—it's almost guaranteed to put some readers off—but don't skip it because Bennett, like any good teacher, knows that he has to have the foundations in place before he can get on to the more exciting stuff. And, asides aside, he explains very clearly and well, and these chapters could even be used as recommended reading for introductory research methods courses.

Bennett then applies this critique to what he calls "voodoo teaching". (This is the second part of three: he deliberately and ironically follows the standard school three-part lesson structure which he critiques later.)

He first takes on "multiple intelligences" (Howard Gardner). He comprehensively rubbishes the idea, of course. But then he concedes that there may well be something in it—it's just that it's not at all new. Substitute the terms "abilities", "capacities" or even "talents" for "intelligences", and that's it. Bennett is also careful to be fair; he allows Gardner to point out how the ideas have been misrepresented (a sound and recurrent theme through the book, where applicable). That slightly blunts the edge of his battle-axe, but he makes up for it with the way he wields it—and in the body of the book there are fewer digressive jokes.

And so to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (and the derisive nod in the direction of Brain Gym). There is no need here to temper his demolition with respect for a professor at Harvard (as Gardner is). It is clear that NLP is simply rubbish, although he does stop short of calling Bandler and Grinder outright charlatans. I was a little disappointed that he did not take on the whole "Accelerated Learning" scam of a few years ago, of which Brain Gym was but one egregious aspect, but he's still got a lot to get through...

Next: group work. I was a little surprised to find that here, but then my background is in post-compulsory, higher and adult education, and much of what I teach is debatable (Bennett would not be able to stop himself mentioning that can be taken in two senses), so groupwork is a natural and appropriate tool. In schools it often isn't, and yet thanks in large measure to Ofsted, it is rammed down teachers' and pupils' throats. And there is no evidence to support it. Bennett refers earlier to Richard Feynman's idea of "Cargo Cult science", and in the following chapter to the principle of "turtles all the way down" (where there is no foundation to an idea other than "the literature", which is in turn based on more literature... ad infinitum). These are two of his most effective weapons, and he deploys them very well. And of course his feet remain firmly on the ground—he particularly warns newly qualified teachers against using group work, unless they are fully confident in their class management, for example.

Emotional Intelligence? I've always thought that just means being "grown up". Again, Bennett demonstrates the sloppiness, unfalsifiability, and value-laden assumptions of the idea, but takes care not to tangle with its originator, Goleman.

"Buck Rogers and the 21st-century curriculum": Turtles all the way down; beneath the claims that technological change demands a whole new curriculum focusing on resilience and adaptation and change and ... Bennett gets as political as he can manage—he shies away from any real discussion of the political implications of anything—when he points out in this chapter and the next one, how this agenda is being promoted by the big technology companies, on the push to sell unnecessary technology to schools. But Bennett is working up to tackle the big one. Sir Ken:
"I find it impossible not to like Robinson. [...] He is charming, erudite, quick-witted [...] But [...] while I agree with him on many things, there are many ideas he promotes that, while well-meant in root, bear potentially dangerous fruits." (p.117)
As ever, he is polite but still devastating. The rudest he gets is:
"being told how to teach by a non-teacher with a PhD in education is a bit like being told by a virgin how to get laid." (pp. 119-20)
(He attributes that to Christopher Hitchens.) He lets Robinson off too lightly.

The following chapter is about de-bunking the claims and gimmicks of digital technology in the classroom, and demonstrating that the claimed research base is at best flaky and possibly fraudulent. He touches on the vested interests in the game, but does not pursue them.

Next: the myth of the three-part lesson. It's only in the past few years that I have come across this, and discovered the stranglehold which it—enforced by Ofsted—has on the compulsory and FE sectors. I've actually made desultory efforts to trace its research base, with little success. Bennett has traced its base, but it is not in research:
"...there's loads of research that teachers need to have a structure to their lessons. What there isn't, is any appreciable evidence that having three parts to a lesson lead to any kind of measurable improvement." (p.141)
Bennett even confesses:
"I might not—whisper it—I might not even put my aim on the board because sometimes I want kids to work out what we're trying to do for them." (p.141)
At one level, heretics must die! At another, where have we got to when (despite the mock-heroic style) anybody thinks such trivia matter?

Learning styles: to me, this is shooting fish in a barrel. Bennett cites the standard refutations, and one or two more I was not familiar with, and is unequivocal. Learning styles are "demonstrable guano" (p.151). But while he cites Coffield et al. (2004) he does miss out on their effort to explain why "bad ideas won't quit". Without that context, it does rather look as though teachers are simply gullible. Coffield points out the ideological convenience of learning styles theory: it is the get-out-of-gaol-free card for politicians, policy-makers, managers, and all; if children are not learning it is all the teachers' fault for not differentiating enough on the basis of a spurious and unsubstantiated load of hogwash...

And so the list goes on and the chapters get shorter, which he explains; we are into the minor leagues. Gamification; it draws on principles of online game design to reward/reinforce learning in a way children can relate to. I know nothing about this, but his analysis seems sensible. Learning to learn: that, and "lifelong learning" are both shibboleths of adult education, and often meaningless rhetoric. Then we get into the freaky, faddy fringe, concluding with de Bono's "learning hats" and school uniform.

The third section is a short and eminently sensible and positive piece on how to respond to all these panaceas/prophecies of doom.

The book does betray some hasty editing—some repetition, evidence of passages being swapped around (with vague cross-references which don't work), some weird grammatical constructions, but nothing important.

What is important is that it is a necessary corrective to the egregious bullsh*t which passes for educational research, and an important text for all teachers who have more common-sense than their managers and inspectors (and even tutors, I'm afraid) who pump out, endorse and even insist on this misguided material. It's not merely that it is wrong and unsupported by evidence and only works, if at all, by accident (Bennett rightly insists that evidence and experience trump theory every time) but that its power is simply (and only) to undermine teachers' confidence in themselves and what they can see for themselves does work.


1 comment:

  1. I agree Robinson needs more commentary. I wrote a few posts on how he has affected my own classroom.


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