In 2019, I attended an international conference that was headlined by Stanislas Dehaene (of Reading in the Brain fame). A tough act to follow, that’s for sure, but one of his supporting speakers gave an address that I’ve never forgotten, because it went straight to my teacher-core. Here was a teacher-researcher, still wrangling adolescents in an inner London classroom, taking a swipe at a range of unrealistic “educational innovations” that his school had attempted to implement. This guy was speaking my language, albeit with a Scottish accent.
After almost bringing the house down with his highly entertaining portrayals of programmes such as Brain Gym, 21st century learning, Six Thinking Hats, and “group-work gone wrong,” Tom Bennett then activated his methodical, scientific side and coolly took these novelty learning programmes apart, bit by bit, using hard evidence and the benefits of meta-analyses. He was ruthless, but he did it all in an easy, teacher-to-teacher manner that was a breath of fresh air.
Tom is still teaching part-time in a secondary school. He loves it, but he is currently directing more of his energy into his ResearchEd organisation—a voluntary, collaborative meeting place for classroom teachers and non-school-teaching, academic researchers in the field of education. They meet on Saturdays and trade ideas. How civilised. Through such discussions, he is determined to make teachers more “research literate” and “pseudo-science proof,” and researchers more aware of the “impurity” and the absolute unpredictability of daily classroom realities.
I bought and devoured his book, (Routledge, 2013), over the following days. Here, he describes how a great deal of what we think we “know” in teaching hasn’t been proven at all. His pet hate—and mine—is the seductive expression, “Research says.” (See Pauline’s article in this issue’s “Perspectives on Reading Research.”)
The first part of the book provides readers with a highly readable revision course on the scientific method and the ways in which we come to “know” anything. He runs us through all the common fallacies of pseudo-science and compares scientific methods of research to research in the social sciences and education. He is not at all kind to the latter, finding a lot of it to be (1) demonstrably untrue or (2) patently obvious to an experienced teacher (p. 57). He writes with humour and the healthy cynicism of an experienced classroom operator. This part of the book alone should be compulsory reading for budding researchers on the limitations of various research methods and on the dangerous intrusion of personal values into the interpretation of results.
The central section, the bulk of the book, carefully and methodically examines a number of educational fads and theories that Bennett calls “Voodoo Teaching.”
One by one, he examines the research data (or lack thereof) that have been used to support (and critique) these pedagogical “magic bullets.” He takes a research-seeking microscope to Multiple Intelligences, Neuro Linguistic Programming and Brain Gym, group work, emotional intelligence, “21st-Century learning,” digital everything, the three-part lesson, learning styles, the gamification of learning, learning to learn, sensory learning, the six “thinking hats,” and the widely touted “behavioural advantages” of school uniforms.
How did such “novelties” gain entry to our classrooms? Bennett suggests that it’s “the thrill of innovation, the desire for simple answers, and the mistaken belief that educational research will shine a guiding light to a smarter, more efficient system” of education (p. 206). He laments that teachers (and education administrators) too often turn to people who are unfamiliar with the daily realities of classrooms to show them how to teach. In his view, “there are few things that educational science has brought to the classroom that could not have already been discerned by a competent teacher intent on teaching well after a few years of practice” (p. 57). Absolutely! No one knows their students’ learning proclivities better than their daily teachers.
The third and final section of the book offers some sage advice to teachers to exercise their own autonomy and integrity and not to be led into merely “following the fashion” or trying to implement whatever “research says.” This particular expression should immediately be met with the question, “what research?” When pushed into taking on flimsy innovations, he recommends that teachers pay just enough lip-service to “keep the boffins happy,” without giving up on what they know is grounded in years of hard work. Finally, he reminds us that innovations do not automatically bring about improvements, and his personal mantra is that “experience trumps theory every time” (p. 59).
Tom Bennett—and his book—are highly recommended.
Pauline Bunce is an Australian teacher of English as an Additional Language to young adults. She has taught in Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Sri Lanka, and Hong Kong. She has published and presented widely on the specific needs of biscriptal English language learners and her handbook, According to the Script (2016), has been widely used in Australia.