Lies, Damned Lies and Things You are Told During Teacher TrainingJuly 24, 2013
This is intended as a short warning for those who have just started, or are just about to start, being trained as a teacher. I don’t want to tar all who train teachers with the same brush, but certain claims are all too commonly made to those training which should be treated with scepticism or even outright denial. I’m not going to argue against them here, just suggest that if you hear any of these you look into it yourself.
I’ll start with those I find most dishonest.
1) The effectiveness of phonics is not supported by the evidence. People are still being told this. Sometimes it’s obscured by talk of “mixed methods” or phonics methods which aren’t synthetic phonics, but basically it is a lie. There is nothing else in education research to compare with the overwhelming evidence for phonics. Some denialists are just misled, but many, particularly those in universities, appear to be just lying. Argue with them and they will soon resort to the same weasel words and half-truths that homeopaths and other pseudo-scientists use.
2) The evidence shows mixed ability teaching is more effective than setting or streaming. The sad fact, and this is an indictment of education research generally, is that there hasn’t really been much in the way of decent evidence on this question. Most studies are just garbage (although I quite like this one); some, like Jo Boaler’s, are more propaganda than evidence and provide a case study in how not to do research. The meta-analyses I’m aware of vary between finding effects indistinguishable from 0 and a small positive effect for setting but every trick in the book is used to claim otherwise. Don’t believe it.
3) Certain psychological theories from 50 years ago or more are still authoritative. I’m no expert on psychology but even looking at Wikipedia is enough to reveal that none of the following are particularly widely accepted in psychology now:
- Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956)
- Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943)
- Piaget’s theories of development (1920s onwards)
- Vygotsky’s theories of development (1920 onwards)
Yet, to varying extents, all four still seem to be in common currency among educationalists. Now. of course, it is in the nature of an applied discipline that theories can gain a life of their own but too often these are treated as sources of uncontested, basic information about the psychology of learning. There are more dubious theories out there (multiple intelligences, VAK, behaviourism) but more tends to have been written about what is wrong with them, whereas the above theories are not so much debunked as left behind in favour of better theories by the psychological mainstream but preserved in the amber of education where no idea ever dies out as long as it has enough jargon to fool the uninitiated.
Now all three of the above are, in my view, beyond the pale. Other things you might hear while being trained as a teacher are more within the realm of opinion, but you may find that you don’t get to hear other opinions or even any acknowledgement that there are any cases where popular assumptions should not be made. I’m not going to claim any of the following are necessarily false but none of them should ever be assumed to be true without qualification:
- Children learn better when they are happy.
- A good lesson is entertaining.
- Good lessons result in good behaviour.
- Behaviour is determined by the relationship between student and teacher.
- Lessons need a variety of activities.
- Learning will result from discussion between students.
- Children are more interested in topics relevant to their lives.
- Knowledge and understanding can be distinguished and taught separately.
- Children like using technology.
- If you teach well, your students will like you.
While these statements are not necessarily false (some are too vague to ever be disproved), I would expect an experienced teacher to be able to think of a dozen examples (or more) of cases where they didn’t appear to be true. Nevertheless these are often claimed and often, and this is more likely to be absorbed by a trainee, implicitly assumed to be true.