A Review of Tom Bennett’s Teacher Proof

[D]on’t let the fashions crush you. And so many of them are so, so very bad. 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, has proven the undoing of us, and will undermine us further if we let it. So we mustn’t let it. (217)

teacherRarely in my 20 years of teaching have I read a book that is actually written by a teacher, for teachers and in defence of teachers. Tom Bennett’s Teacher Proof is an invigorating breath of fresh air that deftly counter-attacks the onslaught of dubious educational “research” that bedevils our profession, and places pedagogical leadership back into the hands of those who understand education best: the front-line classroom teacher. Teacher Proof is a witty, defiant, thought-provoking and practical call-to-arms. As a result, it’s a book that new teachers will likely never be assigned in teachers’ training programs, even though every teacher ought to be compelled to read it by threat of a good horsewhipping.

To outsiders, especially in North America, educational politics are characterized by struggles over testing, labour contracts and government cutbacks. However, there is another struggle within the profession that pits teachers against teachers, and teachers against education “experts”. This struggle is over pedagogy, which we can define as the skills and theories of good teaching practice. Bennett’s book focuses largely on this struggle, from the point of view of an active British educator. His central thesis is that “educational science” is a problematic field of academic research, and its application to everyday teaching practice should be viewed with a great deal of skepticism. Instead of relying on people who are unfamiliar with the classroom to show teachers how to teach, front-line educators should look to themselves for professional improvement:

My opinion is this: there are few things that educational science has brought to the classroom that could not already have been discerned by a competent teacher intent on teaching well after a few years of practice. (64)

Bennett begins in an unexpected manner: he doesn’t really talk about education, but about the scientific method. Given my own training in social science and the philosophy of science, I think Bennett’s summary is clear and pithy, and simplifies the field for non-experts without being overly simplistic. Of course, readers may wonder why they are reading about biased agendas, “cargo cult” science, small sample sizes, lack of control groups, the Hawthorne effect, the appeal to novelty, and confirmation bias, but it becomes clear that these concepts are central to his analysis of educational research. For those who feel the urge to skip this section, I recommend paying attention to the first chapters; they are invaluable to his critique.

And the critique begins in earnest with an assault on Multiple Intelligences, which postulates that there are many types of intelligence (interpersonal; bodily kinaesthetic; spiritual; moral) that exist beyond the traditional measurement of IQ. Like so many of the theories that follow, MI posits a theory of intelligence that is largely untestable and deeply value laden. As a result, MI really has no scientific basis. Even Howard Gardner, according to Bennett, has admitted to the dubious scientific basis of the theory that Gardner has championed: “‘At present it must be admitted that the selection (or rejection) of a candidate’s intelligence is reminiscent more of an artistic judgement than of a scientific assessment.’ So just to be clear, he [Gardner] admits that this is an aesthetic taxonomy, not an objective definition and guide. Some would describe that as ‘opinion’” (73).

From there, Bennett sets his sights on a series of theories that are pillars of modern educational theory: Brain Gym, group work, Emotional Intelligence, 21st century skills, the digital classroom, multiple learning styles, gamification, learning to learn, school uniforms and De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. All of these are reviewed with a skeptical eye, and bludgeoned with highly critical meta-studies, their own lack of substantive scientific evidence, and/or Bennett’s keen Humean suspicion. Cooperative learning, as an example, is examined through the filter of Bennett’s own experience:

Loads of kids really really do like working in groups – witness the phenomenon when you have a group of agreeable, biddable kids who get on with each other and want to show what a great bunch of pals they are by making the best poster. I’ve seen it happen a lot. But this appears to put the strategy benefit before the horse; the point of group work is that it is supposed to develop and encourage these skills of interactivity and motivation. But in the examples where it seems to work best, these qualities and skills have to pre-exist the activity. Which seems to make the whole thing pointless. (85)

In terms of multiple learning styles, the major research in favour of this theory (by Dunn) is based on preferences rather than replicable and measurable data: “The problem with the Dunn research is that they mistook expressed preferences for learning, for real modalities. Just because someone claims they learn better one way, means very little” (159). And after reviewing the literature on learning to learn (L2L), Bennett finds that, so far, “we have precious little research to suggest that children actually can improve their learning by learning about learning, or even that conceptually, such a thing might exist” (176). Bennett thus makes the following conclusion: “Wishy-washy pseudoscience has infected the everyday idiom of educational discourse, so that even the language we use is based on the Orwellian absurdities and inanities of the quacks and hucksters trying to hustle the latest fad and fashion” (210).

In the final section, Bennett offers us common sense advice that is instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent significant time in the classroom. I won’t go into too much detail, but he discusses such basics as attendance, punctuality, behavior, feedback, solid subject knowledge and classroom experience (much akin to Aristotle’s conception of phronesis, or practical wisdom). Bennett also encourages teachers to exercise autonomy and integrity: “Up to a point, you have autonomy. You don’t always have to use the latest technique or fad, even if the school recommends it. In fact, I would wait until the school demands you do something specifically before you follow the fashion” (216). If you have to “feed the beast” to temporarily satisfy the so-called experts, then so be it, but then “completely ignore it for the other 99.5 per cent of your career” (ibid).

I come away satisfied though not completely without concern. Bennett’s Humean skepticism parallels my own worldview, so I wonder if I’m a victim of confirmation bias (which Bennett discusses so effectively) and if I agree with Bennett simply because of the shock of recognition and the realization of kinship. I also wonder if his critiques, particularly of theories without critical meta-studies, are thorough enough to convince the Believers. As Hume might ask, has Bennett supplied enough inductive evidence to be persuasive? To be honest, while I completely agree with Bennett’s criticisms of cooperative learning and 21st century learning, I don’t think he offers the strongest arguments against these trends. (I’ve discussed these movements in a modest way on my own blog, in posts such as Questioning Progressive Education’s Sacred Cows and Same Coin, Two Sides: Resurrecting the Liberal Arts Ideal.) And I suppose my own academic training unfairly discriminates against a writer whose caustic humour belies the serious nature of the topic.

Nevertheless, Bennett manages to cover a lot of ground with insight and courage; Teacher Proof is, on the whole, a well-argued jeremiad that effectively responds to the tsunami-like waves of dubious innovation that continually buffet the teaching profession.

 

Please feel free to read my other posts on education.

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And here are more quotes from Tom Bennett’s Teacher Proof:

That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.’

[T]he generation of teachers working today (or trained in the last ten years) are barely taught anything other than the latest dogma and cant. Newer teachers I talk to are astounded by any presumption that these paradigms might be questionable.

What’s important is that we (and by we, I mean anyone in the teaching profession) are aware of how easy it is for a value or hunch to become a hypothesis that, untouched by credible testing, can escape the laboratory and run amok in the real world.

But even more important than all that is the experience of teachers, the great collective ocean of understanding that is treated as mere anecdote by many in the research industry, which is ironic when you consider how much is published that simply reflects intuition and personal prejudice dressed up in 10,000 words with references. That ocean of experience is hard to access, however; while most teachers are trained in the context of in-school tutors and mentors, the rot has set in so firmly in some schools and training institutions that dogma is often quoted as solutions to specific problems when what is required is personal experience, transmitted by expert professionals, one to the other.

Here’s what I believe; this informs everything I have learned in teaching after a decade: Experience trumps theory every time.

Bluntly, in a group, lazy kids get a chance to really spread their lazy-ass wings and reach heights of doing absolutely nothing.

[On 21st century learning] [T]his appeal to the terrifying unfamiliarity of the future is a sham nestled in a half-truth.

For a start, it generates the myth that what we teach children (content, facts, etc.) is less relevant, because everything’s changing so frightfully fast; so why bother teaching them anything? This leads to the second danger: the idea that if content is irrelevant (we can Google it after all) then what we should be teaching children is versatility, the ability to think on their feet, the ability to think creatively and adapt to the chaotic culture and fluid job market that our children will enter. Why, it’ll be barely recognisable! Who needs history or formulae when the inheritors of tomorrow will need all their wits about them just to inhabit the cybersphere?

The suggestion that the contemporary curriculum is somehow the death-knell of creativity is nonsense. It’s a bona fide saviour: millions of children exposed to a spectrum of art and opportunity that our grandparents would have drooled over.

But I tire of someone who has never been a classroom teacher telling me what classroom teaching is like, or how children should be taught. If I can paraphrase – I suspect – Christopher Hitchens, 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. His good intentions and intuitions can’t replace the real experience of teaching children. Well-meant aphorisms about arming children to engage with the new learning society are easy to find inspirational, but they’re empty. It’s far harder to inspire someone with concrete and practical ideas. And abstracts, though they sound beautiful, are harder to both prove and disprove.

We learn through content; any skills of manipulating that content can only come about through familiarity with the content.

[On educational research] Enthusiasm trumps evidence.

Good teaching relies on things that have been around for millennia: good subject knowledge; good classroom control; good communication skills; heart and guts. You don’t need anything else. Maybe a pen, if you’re feeling profligate. Everything else is chaff. Everything else obscures the teacher. I don’t need a damn thing other than my voice and a room full of kids. The rest is bull, dressed up as Buck Rogers.

The push for digital literacy is simply a push for conventional literacies using new delivery mechanisms, and don’t rely on anything ground shaking. In essence digital literacy is simply regular, ready-salted literacy with a funny hat.

There’s another trap for teachers here, beyond the obvious ones of falling for yet another faddish piece of educational moronism: the trap of exhaustion, self-blame and guilt. We work hard enough as it is to try to make the lesson accessible to everyone, brainiac or blunt instrument. The added requirement that we tailor things for every individual learning style really is too much. You can hear teachers cracking from the effort.

As Stahl mentions, after a year, most people who attend courses on VARK usually end up, within a year, not using it.

What I’m very prickly about are spurious claims about the efficacy of a project without any evidence to back it up. This article seems to me to be a piece of advocacy and speculation, and that’s absolutely fine. What I don’t think it is, is proof of any kind, and I’m sure the authors didn’t intend it to be either.

What every paper cited seems to do is to draw useful links between the way they believe people learn, and the features of video games, or games in general that could either correlate or support them. Which is very interesting – genuinely. But none of this points to anything other than speculation.

We simply have no credible data to suggest in what ways gamification could help us in the classroom.

I suspect that children learn when they are told stuff, and forced in some way to remember it, and practise it.

The idea that a child, left alone, would teach itself language, poetry, art and music is palpable guano.

This paragraph is essential:

Even the earliest days ‘in the field’ convinced us that this was too simplistic. Schools, particularly at this time, are experiencing such a plethora of initiatives that isolating ‘our’ interventions would be extremely difficult.

In other words, we realised quickly that we couldn’t just see if it was our project that was having an effect, or other projects. Aren’t humans just frustratingly complicated?

The researchers make these findings:
Pupils’ measured academic performance varied between project schools. These results need to be treated with caution as possible outcomes of the project.

The four-year project found that L2L wasn’t a discrete skill, but ‘a family of learning practices that enable learning to happen’. So it isn’t a thing. It’s a bundle of things. I could probably have told you that diligence, liking your subject, dedication, effort and focus were good ways to behave as a learner, but apparently we need millions of pounds to tell us the obvious.

Reference was made to the Halo effect, where our judgement of someone is influenced by our overall opinion of someone – so for example we might not believe someone is lying because we find them attractive, or we believe school uniform helps students with behaviour because we remember seeing well-behaved students in uniform.

As I have been at pains to mention, this is not an all-out assault on all educational research. This is an assault on bad research, because it is not carbon neutral; it does not exist in a vacuum. Make no mistake: it hurts us. It makes my job more difficult, and it makes children’s lives harder.

One of the things that repels me at times is that the author is telling the reader to do things their way, when doing things their way is only achievable for … well, them. That’s why I don’t try to flog anyone the Tom Bennett Teaching Tool Kit; I only ever advise people to do things that I think the vast majority of people could do. I once got a kid to stop playing with a mobile phone by implying he was playing with himself. Job tightrope klaxon. But I got away with it because of the extremely good relationship I had with my class. I would never recommend it as a course of action for someone else.

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1 Comment to "A Review of Tom Bennett’s Teacher Proof"

  1. Maxwell Downham's Gravatar Maxwell Downham
    December 20, 2014 - 4:02 pm | Permalink

    People like Bennett and John Taylor Gatto in the US are gaining ground over the mess
    that’s become modern public education. I agree with Gatto that if we junked the whole thing tomorrow morning, our civilization would be able to heal itself free of obstruction. These fellows wouldn’t have to sound the alarm if everything was fine and dandy. Clearly, it isn’t. Change is on the way.

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