Snake OilMarch 14, 2009
There are a lot of people out there making money from selling schools “big ideas”. Unfortunately, these are never ideas that involve sorting out discipline and reintroducing academic standards. They are more likely to be about “teaching and learning” and in the first instance involve lots of extra meetings and then often fade into nothing. Sometimes they are actually followed for a few years before they fade away.
After a while you begin to notice when your latest initiative is snake oil. There are distinctive features in anything that is designed to convince school managers, and other credulous teachers, to part with money in the hope of miraculous results, rather than to actually do any good.
The latest initiative to come my way is called “Building Learning Power”, a scheme for encouraging students to become better learners. Having read the manual – Claxton (2002) – I have noticed a number of the familiar features. The following are the signs that seem to apply to all educational snake oil:
Publications for People who Don’t Read Books
It is no good writing an academic treatise if you want people to part with cash. The BLP manual is glossy, brightly coloured, and set out like a cross between a gossip magazine and an Argos catalogue. The main body of text mainly appears on alternate pages, with quotations, diagrams and anecdotes filling in the gaps. Both this, and the anecdotal style of writing, makes it quite clear that this isn’t aimed at the sort of person who learns by reading books or journals. Or to put it another way, it is not aimed at the well-educated.
Nothing decorates bullshit better than a new vocabulary and mindless slogans. In the BLP manual we find section headings such as “Getting Learning Fit”, “The Four R’s of Learning Power”, “Meta-Learning”, “Reciprocity”, “WILF and TIB” and “The learning power palette”. In the text we have even worse examples. We are to develop “learning muscles”; headteachers are to become “head learners” and in one example we are told about a teacher who now calls her classroom “the mind gym”.
Claims to Scientific and Academic Credibility
BLP scores highly here, with the author being described as “Professor Guy Claxton”. However, no doubt for the benefit of anyone aware how little a position in an education department of an English university is actually worth in academic terms, the book makes every additional effort to claim the credibility it doesn’t deserve. Hence we are told BLP is based on “solid science” and that “BLP is based on an extensive body of research. The new sciences of brain and mind are revealing just how learnable learning is”. Claims are made about research, yet strangely there is no direct reference to the publication the research was published in and no mention of whether the results of the research have been disputed.
Contempt for Academic Education and Expertise
Although snake oil salesman are the first to trumpet their own qualifications, it would be self-defeating to suggest that qualifications are particularly valuable in the present age, or that experts offer the best advice. After all, in a school the teachers most qualified to comment, (e.g those with expertise in relevant fields such as psychology or philosophy, and those who get the best results) might be the first to dismiss the latest fad. The usual line is to stress uncertainty about the future and distrust of what is already known. Inevitably, BLP has to avoid focussing on qualifications, saying “to thrive in the twenty-first century, it is not enough to leave school with a clutch of examination certificates” and those who experience BLP will “take away from school not just a few certificates, but greater confidence, competence and curiosity to face the uncertainties that life will surely throw at them”. Just in case the anti-achievement message isn’t actually clear enough, we are told (incredibly): “Research tells us … High achievers are not necessarily good real-life learners.”
As for experts and their academic knowledge it is suggested that: “Just because Howard Gardner is a Professor at Harvard, it doesn’t mean that there are only seven forms of intelligence in this part of the world. Maybe Year 11 at St Edmund’s can come up with another one.” Apparently, we should spread a similar view of expertise to students, telling them the Theory Of Evolution “… is one way of looking at the situation (and Muslims or biochemists or creationists have a different view)”. Academic knowledge is not too be valued highly; it is bad that in education “The emphasis has remained firmly on the content to be learnt”. As ever the first step to improving learning is to devalue the difficult bits. In the brave new world that BLP is aiming to equip us for “Algebra and parts of speech can seem a little beside the point”. Just as inevitably, this is for the sake of the children’s happiness: “We want them to be able to make successful relationships, to be capable of being (and disposed to be) loving and kind … We want them to live, as much as they can, without fear or insecurity. We would like them to be happy. … Education has to take a step back”.
Statements of the Obvious
In the absence of a clear evidence base, it is usual for the peddlers of drivel to spend plenty of time pointing out the obvious. BLP is no exception, and many of their insights into what makes a good learner will provoke nothing more that the words: “Tell me something I don’t know”. Far more time is spent explaining what would be good, no matter how obvious, than suggesting how to achieve it. That said the “No Shit, Sherlock”-award has to go to this line from the BLP book “Research shows, for example, that people who can make a reasonable estimate of how long a task will take are more likely to finish on time …”
Failure to Confront the Discipline Crisis
Anyone in education with even half a brain knows that the collapse of civilised behaviour in our secondary schools is the main obstacle to children learning. This is not a message Senior Managers are willing to buy into and so it will not appear in the rubbish marketed to managers. Most references to behaviour will be to suggest that it results from a failure to realise the wisdom of the latest fad. As well as many comments which suggest this, BLP actually goes further and suggests students should misbehave if they are not taught in the way BLP suggests: “More adventurous teachers can [even] encourage their students … to refuse to undertake an activity till they know what the purpose and the value are.”
The Usual Nonsense
Invariably the latest piece of rubbish bears a strong resemblance to the last. And so “project work”, “problem-solving”, “collaboration” and “circle-time” pop up like toxic pennies. For some reason new methods of teaching never seem to involve setting work from a textbook, giving a lecture, getting kids to copy notes off of the board or punishing heavily those who won’t do what they are told.
One of these days I should try and market my own revolutionary teaching method. I will call it “The Teacher As Expert” and it will be based on the brilliant scientific insight that kids learn more if they shut up and listen to somebody who knows what they are talking about.
Claxton, Guy, Building Learning Power, TLO, 2002