One of the most frustrating things about being in education, and especially being a schoolteacher, is that one is sometimes required to do things that have no basis in research whatsoever. The latest thing that seems to have gripped the imagination of some senior leadership teams is marking in different coloured pens, and its associated workload-inducing “deep marking”, in which students are encouraged to write written comments in response to the teacher’s comments. The idea reminds me of looking in a mirror in which there is a reflection of yourself in another mirror in which… ad infinitum.
What Bennett has attempted to do in this book is highlight some of these popular ideas that, in fact, have never arisen from any proper research.
The idea is a worthy one, and made even worthier by the first chapter, in which Bennett sets out the nature of knowledge and knowing, according to people like Descartes and Hume. That provides a good, theoretical foundation for what follows.
The three part lesson, group work and other canons of our age are all put under scrutiny, and found wanting. Take group work:
“If you give a task to three or four people, it takes the couch potatoes about half a second to realise it’s time for a cuppa …, because there will usually be one or two others who will design the logo/poster/remix of the Ten Commandments. Their indolence is hidden behind a cloud of other people.”
Absolutely spot on. Once I’d grown up as a teacher, I realised that the only way to make group work work is to assign different tasks to each person in the group, or have them do that themselves — which really meant that they were not doing group work at all, but working as individuals towards a common problem.
In any case, it is notoriously difficult to assess people in group work situations. In one class of mine, one boy would chat to his friends in another group about football, but every so often he would look over his shoulder to his own group and say “Why not try X?”. The suggestions he made were invariably brilliant and invariably acted upon. Simply put, he was the laziest person in the class, but the main reason his group succeeded was because of his ideas. How do you meaningfully assess that?
There is a good section on flawed research, such as proposing an hypothesis that is unfalsifiable. The author might also have mentioned the fact that search engines are by their very nature liable to provide one with biased data.
Much as I like the book, and the premise of the book, there are some things I dislike about it.
First, although in general I enjoy Bennett’s writing, at times it seems to become rather self-conscious, and too erudite for its own good. My view is that as soon as you start to consciously notice the writing, the author has failed. I liken it to watching a play, TV drama or a film. You’re supposed to get caught up in it, and forget that it’s not real. Once you start noticing the acting, the spell has been broken.
Second, the opening of the chapter on Digital Natives in Flipped Classrooms (in which neither of those things are mentioned, bizarrely), he states:
“… school IT had taken a disastrous turn, focusing on end-user applications. Kids were getting a lot of training about how to use Excel and PowerPoint, and not a lot about coding.”
This is an astonishing claim to make about nearly 25,000 schools in England, with no research cited to back it up. Not only does that break Bennett’s own rule, that statements should have a basis in research, but it’s lazy.
For a start, the subject hasn’t been called IT for around 25 years. While that may seem a trivial point to pick up on, the small details matter because if someone gets those wrong, what other things is he mistaken about?
Moreover, while some schools clearly did offer their students a diet of Microsoft Office applications, by no means all of them did, and the Programme of Study for ICT certainly didn’t specify them. It did stipulate computer programming, or coding as many people now refer to it.
A more accurate statement in my opinion would be to say that in some schools ICT was taught poorly because of a lack of qualified staff or CPD to enable them to improve.
In fact, the whole chapter is disappointing because it is really all about how the use and implementation of education technology in schools has been, to use Bennett’s words, “an enormous con”.
He is indubitably right about the facts that some people have been too easily convinced (or have convinced themselves) into buying equipment they don’t need or that is not fit for purpose, and that there is little convincing research into the benefits of using education technology. However, there are also studies that are convincing on that score.
There is also at least one study that has found that the way teachers have their students use education technology, which is based on the teachers’ views of what effective teaching is and what role technology could play in that process, affects the learning and achievement of the students involved.
In other words, this seems to be an area in which one could cherry-pick research studies to support one’s preconceived ideas, but the book does not make that clear.
Third, the advice to teachers is good, but also, I fear, wishful thinking. Bennett suggests that if you are being asked to do something utterly pointless, then do it while you are being observed, and ignore it the rest of the time. He also suggests raising issues in staff meetings and so on.
Good suggestions, but not if you have an overbearing bully as a line manager, and/or you have only just started your teaching career. In my experience of talking to young teachers who have complained about the ridiculous things they have been instructed to do (such as, in one case, having to abide by a school rule that stipulates that all worksheets be prepared using a high-end desktop publishing program — for which no training has been given), they are too frightened even to ask “Why?”.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any good answers to this myself, except to ignore the stupid rules while faking adherence to them — which is really what Bennett is advising. But you need to have a certain degree of self-confidence (or stupidity) to be able to do that.
So, would I recommend this book? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is “yes”. While there are aspects I disagree with, I am very much in agreement with the spirit of the book. The sections on the nature of knowledge, fallacies, and the tearing apart of some published research studies should all provide the reader with enough know-how to be able to scrutinise other research findings for themselves.
At heart, this book is all about research literacy: being able to look at a reported finding and ask awkward questions like, “How do they know?, Who did they ask? How many people did they study? Did they interpret and report the results accurately? Did they, perhaps inadvertently, influence their findings?”
When I was teaching Economics ‘A’ Level, I did everything I could to ensure that my students didn’t take anything at face value — including anything I told them, and certainly not what the textbooks said. Teacher Proof, I feel, has the same worthy aim. By and large, it succeeds.
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