Over the past three decades, what fads do you think teachers have wasted their time doing the most?
Teachers don’t need fads. What teachers need are pragmatic strategies for the classroom; ideas that work for their pupils.
This post was written in 2016 after being inundated with replies; updating it for 2019 following another flurry of opinions and again for 2021. For the purposes of the post, I have defined the following:
- Myth: Lacking in any rigorous educational research
- Hearsay: Latest buzzwords and/or policy promoted by the government.
- Fad: Hearsay ideas rolled out as policy which little or no correlation to teaching or educational research.
1. Learning styles
Research from both ends of the progressive and traditional spectrum state that there is no such thing as ‘learning styles’ (Riener and Willingham 2010), although you would be hard-pressed to find this quashed in USA.
This UK report (Coffield – 2004) examines 13 models of learning style and concludes that it matters fundamentally which model is chosen. There is a helpful summary by Harry Fletcher-Wood and questions taken from Bill Cerbin (2010), Five Ill-Conceived Ideas about Student Learning, as well as Learning styles from Dan Willingham.
The result? It’s a myth; although there is much research, the contention here is that there is no correlation to learning.
2. Three-pronged lesson objectives
The framing or copying of lesson objectives in still commonplace today; “All, most, some students will …” results in teachers recording two or three variations of their lesson aims onto lesson plans or whiteboards in a bid to differentiate.
The result? It’s a myth. Lacking any rigorous educational research.
3. Progress in a lesson
… stipulated by English inspection (~2011) that students must show ‘rapid progress’, interpreting the Ofsted handbook, teachers were expected to show ‘students making rapid progress’ in lesson observations. This soon filtered down to schools asking teachers to show progress of some kind in a 20-minute observation!
I’ve received stories from many teachers saying they were deemed unsuccessful by observers who had not seen any pupil progress in the first 5 minutes of a lesson!
The result? Hearsay; rolled out as a by-product of school inspection.
4. Learning outcomes
… once the lesson was taught, students were required to recap on what their learning outcome was. This was further proof for the observer and for inspectors that teaching and learning were synchronised in perfect harmony.
If only we focused on what the research suggests about retrieval practice instead of appeasing observers?
The result? It’s a myth.
5. APP (Assessing Pupil Progress)
When I first came across APP in 2008, an enthusiastic teacher demonstrated how the assessment was measured using a fancy piece of software. I looked on in horror at the countless sub-levels of data, entered into a database to record the knowledge and skills demonstrated by a single child.
APP was developed for use in schools to enable them to apply Assessment for Learning (AfL) consistently across schools. Just turn up to the BETT Show to see how unwieldy this has become. No wonder Dylan Wiliam is frustrated!
The result? This is definitley another myth.
6. Chinese teaching
The television series ‘Are Our Kids Tough Enough?‘ was entertainment and was never going to provide us with a true perspective. Despite the research, high-profile celebrities and politicians proclaiming the wonderful work of our Shanghai counterparts, at no point did anyone proclaim that in order to achieve these high-standards, teachers only teach two lessons a day.
The promise of ‘maths teachers and Shanghai teaching methods showcased to UK teachers in [a school near you].’ I kid you not, they all appeared in my work ‘inbox’ on several occasions throughout 2014. Whilst some methods have their merits, cherrypicking ideas from overseas without implementing them in the same conditions will unlikely have success.
The result? Hearsay!
7. PLTS (Personal, Learning, Thinking Skills)
Consigned to the National Archives – that says it all really – PLTS provided a framework for describing the qualities and skills needed for success in learning and life. If only we knew the secret for adulthood, teaching and successful relationships too?
Nice idea, but impossible to put a framework in place to determine the skills a child needs to become successful. Maybe now replaced by ‘character education’? In fact, one day we’ll just call it ‘teaching’!
The result? One more hearsay to add to the list!
Nick Gibb has been obsessed with textbooks being used more widely by teachers in the classroom, but it was advocated long-before the not-missed-at-all Elizabeth Truss was given her marching orders. She made a number of speeches in 2014 in which she advocated a return to the regular use of the textbook.
Politics aside, the problem is the knowledge-base of most subjects has now become so extensive, that it has become increasingly difficult for teachers to cram everything into the limited number of periods a week they have with each class, let alone from a textbook!
You only need to take a closer look at the publishers and their relationships with those that promote them to find this ideology is all a little incestuous. Textbooks in the classroom? Yes, but let’s leave politics and contracts well away from the classroom and let teachers decide.
The result? This is political hearsay.
It has a place, is expensive and I have seen it work well, but I’ve also seen it lead students down the ‘garden-path’ and have seen teachers get frustrated with the technology and students to turn to ‘Google’ for the answers all-too-often.
Whilst we cannot deny that technology will permeate our schools in due course, show me the research from a challenging state school that it enhances pupil knowledge?
The result? The jury is still out …
10. Seating plans for rows or groups?
I have seen teachers sit students in rows or groups of tables in all sorts of subjects. Maths, technology, art and English. Some working with great results, others not-so-much.
It is the duty of teachers to reflect on techniques used in their classroom – even the seating plan – if they are detrimental to the teaching and learning of the class. Nobody seems to know what layout is best to use for a PE or drama lesson though…
The result? Where is the evidence? A myth (for now)…
Every school wants good behaviour which promotes learning and aims to cull disruption or defiance. The most reputable research organisations in England published research in June 2019: “There are no high-quality studies of ‘zero tolerance’ completed in English schools.”
If a school promotes a ‘zero tolerance’ approach, what are the completion rates for pupils at these schools?
The result? Political hearsay! Don’t fall for it…
12. Brain Gym
The program has been criticised as pseudoscience, designed by Paul Dennison who worked as a public school teacher in the 1960s, researching more effective ways to help children and adults with learning difficulties. The studies themselves have received polemic feedback from supporters and critics.
The consensus is Brain Gym activities are poorly designed and that the work is not supported by peer-reviewed research. When questioned, Dennison said that he “leaves the explanations to the experts.”
The result? At present, it’s simply bad science. A myth!
13. Four-Part Lessons
Including 3 and 7 parts or whatever number you’ve been told! There is little or no evidence to suggest any suitable model works other than quality first teaching from the outset.
Whilst breaking up the lesson has some merits for cognitive load and retrieval practice, constraining teachers to do this religiously every lesson is nothing less than whole-school compliance.
The result? Another fad which blights teacher autonomy.
14. Lollypop-stick questioning
It is absolutely essential that a teacher asks lots and lots of questions to assess the learning. How they use any mechanism to do this and find a student to answer is a little more complicated. Used by many teachers, lolly-sticks are a neat little method to ensure that every pupil takes part in the lesson from being quizzed.
However, where the teacher is going and what the teacher assessing by using this method is yet to be evaluated. We know that it is the quality of the question, not the frequency, and what a teacher does with this information that matters. Observers who ask teachers to do this simply to appease engagement and participation need to think a little harder.
The result? It’s a myth – show me the research?
15. Teacher talk
I once blogged about teacher-talk from a traditional versus progressive (false dichotomy) method or otherwise, and what might make for an interesting debate when underpinned by evidence. To put it another way, pupils need facts, but they also need to develop the skills (procedural knowledge) to use those facts.
We know that classroom dialogue relies on the quality of direct-instruction and teacher-clarity which can have a significant impact on student progress. Provide instructions poorly, whether for a long or short period of time will leave your students with no clarity or direction. Over time, this is likely to have a detrimental effect on learning and long-term memory.
The result? Hearsay. Talk for as long as you want, as long as teachers check that students have made a change in their long-term memory…
16. Lesson planning
Yes, believe it or not, some teachers are still required to write detailed lesson plans (2-3 A4 pages) for every lesson and submit them to their line manager for lesson observations.
Although the myth of writing detailed lesson plans is largely debunked, there are strong rumours that many schools still ask their teachers to submit weekly lesson plans to their line managers. The result, teachers spend their entire Sundays writing weekly planning sheets to submit on a Monday morning for people who won’t be in the lesson!
The result? This could be a myth, hearsay and a fad all in one. Yet to find any research to suggest lesson planning leads to better outcomes must make this a fad.
17. Verbal feedback stamps
I can’t believe after almost 10 years I still need to write about this one!
Stamping or recording ‘VF’ in a student’s book to indicate that verbal feedback has taken place adds little value to learning. If the stamp is merely to serve as an indication to an observer when looking through pupils books, then those teachers have not been supported by their school leadership team and is undermining the value of a teacher’s work.
If we hope that the VF stamp is to aid a pupil’s progress alone, well, show me the research?
The result? One of the worst myths in education to appear in classrooms over the last two decades.
18. Triple marking
This idea was originally designed to reduce marking and make more use of key assessments. It may have stemmed from someone’s interpretation of the School Inspection Handbook (2015).
After posting this blog, the origins of the idea have come to light and have been clarified by the person who claims to have promoted the original idea which has been lost in translation. Thankfully, Ofsted has also started to publish their own Ofsted_inspections_-_clarification_for_schools_270718 and they could not be clearer.
The result? Started off as conference hearsay, and slowly has become a fad due to inspection preferences. Ten years later, we are still unpicking the damage.
19. Starters, Middles, Plenaries
We’ve all created them, acted them out for observations and inspections when in reality we’d rather just get on with teaching! The research is now clear, a quick review of learning that has gone before (retrieval practice) is the perfect medicine for long-term memory.
The result? Show me the research please … but consider a retrieval practice quiz or lesson review. It’s a tricky one this strategy to consign as a fad.
Here are some updated ideas I’ve added recently…
20. The purple pen of progress
When marking policies stipulate frequency and colour, this is largely derived for compliance rather than educational research. Why anyone believes pupils respond to a purple pen in an exercise book I have no idea.
However, whilst useful for directing a pupil’s focus and offering a rehearsed feedback-methodology, as with most things in education, when strategies are introduced on all teachers, potentially good ideas become a burden.
The result? The jury is still out …
One of the worst by-products of school inspection, evident in English schools for almost 25 years since Ofsted was founded. MockSTEDs (mock inspections) have been growing in popularity over the last decade and have since become a lucrative option for some dabbling between leadership life and a healthy HMI salary.
The result? The money potentially spent on mock inspections versus ‘actual’ school improvement will be tough to evaluate, but it’s a myth, have no doubt.
22. Work Scrutinies or Book Looks
I’ve conducted every possibility known to a headteacher. What impact it has on learning is yet to be determined! Useful for short-term teaching improvements, and also for widening bias in lesson observation (without triangulation), looking in pupils’ books without a focus (or data) is like finding a needle in a haystack.
The result? Designed for teacher sccountability and raising pupil standards (What’s not to like?), this myth lacks any robust research to suggest it actually improves learning. The jury is still out…
23. Growth mindset
In research engaged schools, conditions are created for teachers “to learn through conducting research or by using existing, published research” and whilst ‘mindset’ has its merits, the dangers with any research is that it can be misconstrued.
The result? This is a tough one and the jury is still out …
24. Knowledge organisers
What once had theory and practice to support classroom pedagogy has become a mandate for ‘the use and production of knowledge organiser‘ on all teachers says teacher, Sam Hall, once an avid fan.
As with all teaching theory, original concepts can be lost in translation and may fail to take off with pupils in another context.
The result? Whilst, I’m a fan, what scheme of work doesn’t have this covered? This is a tough one and the jury is still out despite some emerging academic research…
25. Performance-related pay
I think it’s safe to say, PRP is fueling teacher workload, attrition and mental health, and any major changes to school policy in the future should see PRP binned forever. Take a look at my research-summary.
The result? This is hearsay of the highest order, rolled out as policy which little or no correlation to teaching or educational research.
26. Lesson observation grading
New research among 200 schools suggests the traditional lesson observation is changing, and this post examined the three main reasons for this shift.
However, despite my work on social media (and others) to quash this one-off fad that you can reliably evaluate the quality of teaching from a single lesson observation, 30% of schools still
We may discover in the next few years, the Ofsted gradings, mindfulness and even the role of regional school commisioners are the next set of fads and gimmicks.
What’s missing? Write your answers in the comments below…