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Lies, Damned Lies and Things You are Told During Teacher Training

July 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:

  1. Children learn better when they are happy.
  2. A good lesson is entertaining.
  3. Good lessons result in good behaviour.
  4. Behaviour is determined by the relationship between student and teacher.
  5. Lessons need a variety of activities.
  6. Learning will result from discussion between students.
  7. Children are more interested in topics relevant to their lives.
  8. Knowledge and understanding can be distinguished and taught separately.
  9. Children like using technology.
  10. 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.

38 comments

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


    • I find Bloom can be useful but make no further claims for him. I saw a workshop once where staff were asked to design questions and/or activities for highly able pupils. Then the staff looked at where their suggestions featured on the taxonomy. All to many came out only in the middle of the hierarchy. Using the taxonomy can help pitch the work.

      Donald Clark presents a balanced look at Bloom here:http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=bloom

      He covers a number of educational theorists (listed on the side of his blog)


  2. I’m a fan of using Maslow as a checklist if things are not working out well in a classroom (issues such as peer relationships are often overlooked by teachers yet can have a serious impact on learning) but you’re right that anyone saying it is a ‘scientifically proven’ or authoritative theory of human motivation (or, heaven forbid, a theory of learning) is incorrect. For anyone unconvinced, this document is very useful: http://larrybridwell.com/Maslo.pdf


    • I just can’t see any justification for that. I mean “sexual intimacy” is on the list. How are you going to check that one off the list?


      • You can check by seeing if any problems in your classroom are being caused by sexual desires. For example, is a student desperately showing-off in order to gain the affections of another student? Does you current seating plan have a ‘couple’ sitting together? Is that a good thing? And so on….


  3. This is an interesting post but just stating ‘this is not true’ doesn’t really get me anywhere. Could you please link to evidence for the claims you’re making?


    • I left research to the reader, as if I had done that as well it would have taken dozens of blogposts. If anything’s actually controversial I’m quite willing to discuss it in the comments.


      • Hmmm, if anything is controversial? Well who decides that? Here are some I would like to see the evidence for, thanks.
        The effectiveness of phonics is not supported by the evidence
        The evidence shows mixed ability teaching is more effective than setting or streaming

        The idea that “Certain psychological theories from 50 years ago or more are still authoritative” is odd. I think it might just be clumsy, but “from 50 years ago” seems to suggest that old theories are no good due to being old. I’m sure Newton and Einstein would disagree, were they not dead.

        Also Maslow (on wiki) has a small section of ‘Criticism’, for example:

        The order in which the hierarchy is arranged (with self-actualization described as the highest need) has been criticized as being ethnocentric by Geert Hofstede.[19] Maslow’s hierarchy of needs fails to illustrate and expand upon the difference between the social and intellectual needs of those raised in individualistic societies and those raised in collectivist societies. The needs and drives of those in individualistic societies tend to be more self-centered than those in collectivist societies, focusing on improvement of the self, with self-actualization being the apex of self-improvement. In collectivist societies, the needs of acceptance and community will outweigh the needs for freedom and individuality

        My instant reaction to this though would be -is Hofstede in any position to talk? And if we go to his “cultural dimensions” wiki page we find yet more criticisms of his theory. So one criticised theory being used to debunk another….ugh, my head hurts…this could go forever like Russian dolls. Can’t you help a guy out here? I’ll eat all this stuff up with a spoon, -just give me a spoon!

        I’m as happy as the next guy to jump on the “everything you thought is wrong” debunking train, -in fact it’s my whole shtick (points in the direction of blog) but you’d be really helping your audience out with a few hyper links or references, otherwise it’s tons of searching around for me.


        • “Hmmm, if anything is controversial? Well who decides that? Here are some I would like to see the evidence for, thanks.
          The effectiveness of phonics is not supported by the evidence
          The evidence shows mixed ability teaching is more effective than setting or streaming”

          You appear to be asking for evidence for the very things I have said aren’t true.

          “The idea that “Certain psychological theories from 50 years ago or more are still authoritative” is odd. I think it might just be clumsy, but “from 50 years ago” seems to suggest that old theories are no good due to being old. I’m sure Newton and Einstein would disagree, were they not dead.”

          I don’t think it does suggest that. The thing about old theories is that people have had time to collect the data which would validate them. If the data isn’t there, or the data contradicts the theory, then they are rejected.

          “Also Maslow (on wiki) has a small section of ‘Criticism’, for example”

          I’ll cut this bit short. You appear to be cherry-picking. Why skip Whaba and Bridwell?

          “I’m as happy as the next guy to jump on the “everything you thought is wrong” debunking train, -in fact it’s my whole shtick (points in the direction of blog) but you’d be really helping your audience out with a few hyper links or references, otherwise it’s tons of searching around for me.”

          Good. I want people to actually look into this stuff for themselves. I have carefully picked things that are pretty hard to dispute (which is why most of the opposing arguments so far have tried to rewrite what I claimed, rather than argue against it).


  4. I agree with most of what you say. I think if we haven’t moved on as a profession since Piaget in 1920s then we deserve much of the criticism thrown at us. ‘The child learns best when happy’ is certainly untrue. I know this first hand. I always learned better and still do when I was a little afraid of the consequences of not learning.


    • I always learned better and still do when I was a little afraid of the consequences of not learning

      Well that’s different. I have never in my life met a person with an active interest in education who has honestly believed this. But there you we are all different.


  5. Obviously I’m not in teacher training but having been taught in two different schools with many varying teaching methods, the last ten comments hold no sway from personal experience, two teachers in two schools can teach the same subject in the same format and have completely varied outcome. For example, being taught algebra in both schools by similar teachers in an engaging lesson, attempting not to make it a “boring” subject. In one school possibly 60% of the class were talking, arguing and basically ignoring the lesson, in the other everybody focused on the lesson and engaged.


    • And you think student willingness to ignore the teacher is down to how interesting the teaching is?


  6. “Nevertheless these are often claimed and often, and this is more likely to be absorbed by a trainee, implicitly assumed to be true.”

    I used to find this sort of comment incredulous – during my training I thought that surely, like me, none of us believed this pseudo-scientific babble? We’re all just going through the motions to get the tick in the box, aren’t we??

    But, all too often since qualifying, I’ve been stunned to find that many of my colleagues actually believe in much of it. English teachers who tell me “phonics is only one of a range of ways to learn to read.. many kids learn best with ‘whole books’ (or whatever)”. Management who require teacher planners to indicate how the lesson will be differentiated for VAK.. and maths teachers who really believe maths is some sort of collective activity where mixed ability groups support each others’ progress.

    I don’t really understand how degree qualified adults can be so gullible..


  7. I thought that Piagetian lesson schemes came out in the top 5 of Hattie’s influential factors?

    http://geordiescience.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/ase-conference-and-purpose-of-science.html This is a link to my write up of Michael Riess’s lecture in which he stated this.


    • Trying to trace any evidence for this claim and failing.


      • That is was said in January by a Professor at the IoE is good enough for me.


        • I think my whole point is that it shouldn’t be.


          • Hi. I have a copy of Hattie’s ‘Visible learning for Teachers’ and looked up Piaget in the index. I think there may be some tentative endorsement if you read to the end.

            On pages 38-9 he outlines the four stages Piaget argued that a child’s thinking goes through. He makes the point that there have been many ‘critiques, modifications and enhancements’. He says that one of the main criticisms has been of the idea of fixed stages tied to ages because ‘it is argued that students can be in multiple stages.’ He says that Piaget argued this as well and that Piaget said the stages are not necessarily tied to these ages and that the were just guides. For Hattie the key issue is that children ‘may think differently from adults/teachers, which means that attention needs to be given to how and not only what the child is learning.’

            On pages 92-5 he returns to Piaget. He rehearses the stages again, and says ‘being aware of the student’s stage…is among the most critical sources of knowledge. This knowledge not only helps the teachers to optimize the point at which the student is starting, but is also the key to knowing the next higher level of the thinking processes towards which the student should be moving.’

            He introduces Shayer and Adley (1981) who termed this assistance as ‘cognitive acceleration’, based on three of Piaget’s main drivers of cognitive development.

            He then describes their three drivers (forgive me for not copying it all out here)

            ‘They were careful not to align these three drivers to ages…Further this is not discovery learning or peer collaboration without intervention’

            He concludes: ‘Their intervention programs regularly effect sizes of between 0.3 and 1.0 in achievement.’

            He seems to endorse their work and their work is based on Piaget’s so perhaps this is what the lecturer was referring to.

            Hope this helps.


  8. 1) I’m an English teacher with no issue with synthetic phonics.
    2) This area is very much context dependent. Cherry picking one study seems rather odd. What matters far more is getting the right teacher in front of the students, not the composition of the students. Also, the attitude of the teachers to what is the ‘right’ grouping matters just as much as the grouping composition itself.
    3) The debunking argument seems a sweeping statement to me. I don’t disagree wholly, but you conflate significant theories that still bring informative and useful ideas to new recruits. Surely, a good training institution raises these theories alongside competing theories, adaptations, refutations etc., requiring students to evidence their own research. I have never used Bloom’s Taxonomy, but I have seen some people use it and find it helpful in regard to question formulation. I think Vygotsky’s ZPD is a very helpful concept for training teachers…and me. When I choose reading material for my English classes I have the proximal development in the forefront of my mind.

    The list is of course a simplification and requires much qualification! I am interested in the behaviour/good lessons debate. Whilst the primary driver of good behaviour is whole school systems driven and supported by leadership and maintained relentlessly, to consider that good lessons (therefore good teaching) doesn’t have an impact on lessons surprises me. Perhaps it requires the qualification of what you define as a good lesson? For me, a good lesson encompasses getting students purposefully on task; formatively judging how well students are learning and responding with future planning; modifying the lesson related to the progress of students; managing behaviour skilfully and promptly during lessons etc. I would therefore argue that good lessons greatly enhance the likelihood of good behaviour.

    I would also argue at relationships do matter to behaviour, alongside all the other aspects I mentioned in the previous paragraph. It is a complex and nuanced combination of factors, with some primary drivers. In my experience, if students respect (I have no interest in being ‘liked’) a teacher then at teacher can typically elicit better behaviour than when a teacher is not respected. It is simply a case of actively listening to someone you respect which carries long term benefits to learning.

    I think your top ten would be a good starting point for discussion for trainees, as would statements the proffer the opposite. The debate is the thing. Lots of new teachers bring their idiosyncratic learning experiences and ideologies to teacher training that often supersedes the values and ideas of the course instructor. Frankly. I remember very little of my PGCE lectures. I remember a great deal about my struggling with very challenging classes! You are right to offer a wider range of opinions to new teachers – to avoid a narrowing of ideology, method or knowledge of our craft.


    • If people find a theory useful then so be it, but then some people find horoscopes useful. The issue here is when these theories are presented as authoritative, as a means of determining what is true or false about how we learn or behave, even in cases where there are decades of more illuminating data to look at.

      With regard to the “Behaviour is determined by the relationship between student and teacher” statement being contentious, it is my belief that the relationship between the student and the rest of the class and with previous teachers in that subject/school is also important. There are a lot of kids we get on fine with one-to-one who are a nightmare with an audience or in a particular lesson where their past expectation is that they don’t have to behave. Yet we still have commonly given behaviour advice that is all about the relationship between the teacher and one individual student.


  9. Very enjoyable to read.

    Take this: The evidence shows mixed ability teaching is more effective than setting or streaming.

    However, how can you make a judgment on this when there are so many other factors involved in teaching For example, the quality of the discipline in the lessons, the quality of the teaching?


  10. As always, OA raises an interesting issue that hopefully will attract a good deal of discussion. For me, the use and abuse of academic work by managers, teachers, professionals and other academics is requires examination.

    As is often the case I believe the devil is in the detail. Although most of OA’s post was music to my ears, the excerpt below was for me less convincing.

    “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.”

    I think a greater degree of precision is required before one can say that “none of the following are particularly widely accepted in psychology now”. I think it would be difficult to produce a rational argument that any of the above 4 should be taught in their entirety and in their original form on ITT in 2013.

    I also think it would be difficult to produce a rational argument for excluding the above 4 in their entirety for ITT in 2013.

    Key issues for me are:

    a. Which parts of the above 4 are used in ITT in 2013 and how are they applied.

    b. How has the work of the original researchers and those that have followed/developed their work subsequently influenced how these things are taught on ITT in 2013 e.g. many people who talk about “Bloom’s Taxonomy” these days are not actually talking about “Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956)” at all.

    c. “None of the following are particularly widely accepted in psychology now”. When I look around I see that some aspects of all 4 of the above are actually still used in psychology in 2013.

    d. All 4 of the above have been used out of context and/or misrepresented, and sometimes it is in misrepresented forms that they are criticised. Bloom said that his handbook was …. “One of the most widely cited yet least read books in American education.”

    Can Maslow’s initial and subsequent work illuminate the issue of motivation and hence add value to education, I believe so.

    Can Bloom’s original and subsequent work illuminate the issues of alignment of outcomes, instructional and assessment, I believe so.

    Can Piaget’s original and subsequent work illuminate the issues of schemas and the formation of knowledge, I believe so.

    Can Vygotsky’s original and subsequent work illuminate the issues of the importance of existing knowledge, I believe so.

    Clearly current research is providing insights into learning, but i have’nt read anything that indicates that any of the above 4 are worthless in their entiretly.

    A great issue and one that I hope attracts some comment from ITT people on either side of the discussion.


    • I haven’t actually claimed “worthless in their entirety”. My claim is only “not authoritative”. The problem is when claims are justified by reference to these theories, not by what is currently known.


  11. I was making the point that I have not seen anything that would indicate that any of the 4 are worthless in their entirety. I was asserting that if not rendered useless in their entirety then they might still be authoritative in parts. I would be interested to see in each case what it is that is “currently known” that has rendered them unauthoritative.


    • “I was making the point that I have not seen anything that would indicate that any of the 4 are worthless in their entirety.”

      And I just made the point that I didn’t claim they were.


  12. I’m very much enjoying the cut&thrust of debate in the comments although I’m still waiting for names/theories to replace Bloom, Maslow, Piaget and Vygotsky etc with in my ref list! All very non-PC now and dishonest you suggest. I guess that you’re not a fan of Learning Styles either.

    However, I did find that what all these have said has been useful as input when thinking through any solutions to enquiries about providing for learning … not as off the shelf answers in themselves, but as reference points to check ideas against. One is always aware that things change, IT for example, has altered many aspects of the teaching and learning environment, and what was said may need to be rethought in light of these changes, but one has to start somewhere.


    • I don’t endorse any over-arching theoretical framework, however, if you want to read up-to-date work applying psychology (as it is now) to education then I would suggest the work of Dan Willingham.

      Learning styles have never been anything other than pseudo-science.

      I really don’t mind people reading and thinking about the work of the theorists I mentioned. The issue is where they are presented as current scientific orthodoxy.


  13. When my neice did Psychology A level she was taught learning styles were nonsense. When doing her PGCE she was told taking account of them was a very useful way of differentiating. It is amazing what clings on in the world of education long after it has been discredited elsewhere.


    • I do indeed have Dan Willinghams books and I read his website and blog. I refer to the book regularly and there are some interesting ideas therein.

      I am unable to identify anything in the book which indicates that the revised Bloom’s taxonomy and it’s foundations are no longer authoritative. In fact I have scoured the internet to find such and I am unable to.

      You started off talking about “left behind in favour of better theories by the psychological mainstream but preserved in the amber of education where no idea ever dies “.

      You are now talking about “current scientific orthodoxy”. I am still waiting for you to indicate which ideas have left Bloom’s behind. If you are suggesting that the original Bloom’s is of minimal value now then I would tend to agree, however I don;t find many ITT providers selling original Bloom’s as current scientific orthodoxy. If you are suggesting that revised Bloom’s is such then I would be interested to know how it has been left behind.

      Clearly some parts have been illuminated more recently but I am starting to wonder whether you really have any evidence for your assertions here. I am sticking to Bloom’s here as looking at all four simply allows lack of focus.

      I believe noone would argue that current psychology must have a place but you do seem to be saying (as suggested earlier) that just because it is old it must lack authority.

      As far as learning styles are concerned , your arguments here do seem often to take a very simplistic and narrow view of the teaching and learning process. I quite often use multi-media/video resources for my own learning given the choice and find that doing so affects my motivation and hence learning outcomes.

      Learning styles have been researched for some while and some theories have enjoyed more support while others much less. Clearly VAK is one of the less useful theories especially if you try to adapt teaching to individual learning styles in the classroom. If a kid is motivated to get engaged by certain types of presentational device then for me, I am happy to adapt what I do if it means the kid learns but otherwise wouldn’t.

      The other big issue would be, to what extent “current scientific orthodoxy” should fashion teaching prartice for most kids in most classes.

      Great discussion here.


      • I claimed that Dan Willingham’s book was a good place to read about up to date aspects of cognitive psychology that were relevant to teaching. I didn’t claim it was a debunking of Bloom’s.

        That said, I imagine it would be hard to miss the conflict between Bloom’s positioning of recall at the bottom of the hierarchy of thinking, and Willingham’s contention that other types of thinking are often based on memory, or even “remembering in disguise” and that memory is one of the results of thinking.

        For your other point, which I’m not sure what’s it’s actually got to do with anything, I am highly suspicious of any claim that an approach to teaching increases motivation and therefore learning. It might make sense regarding choices in a particular lesson with a particular class, but what motivates is often far less universal than how they learn.


    • My PGCE had a compulsory lecture by the head of the university neuropsychology faculty detailing exactly why learning styles were nonsense. Quite how he managed to get it past the politically correct halfwits who ran the course I’ll never know, but it was about the only word of truth we ever heard on that course.


  14. Just re-read this and noticed:

    Some denialists are just misled, but many, particularly those in universities, appear to be just lying.

    It got me wondering. Usually there is a reason for telling a lie (e.g.to cover up what we have done wrong etc.) Here we have a number of people who are lying over something that has serious consequences for children. They (presumably) have academic qualifications (so should respect academic truth/search for knowledge etc) and an academic reputation to maintain. They risk losing credibility once it has been proved that they were not mislead (fair enough; we can all be wrong) but actually lying.

    Has any one got any ideas what their motivation is? Why are they telling these lies? Is there any reason why university lecturers in particular seem to be more likely to lie over this issue? Do they have a financial interest in promoting other methods? Writing schemes, perhaps?

    Any suggestions?


    • My impression is that they believe that in a ‘big picture’ way they are right so inconvenient contradictory evidence can be ignored. Also maybe they think that evidence showing other methods are more effective can be ignored if they consider those methods ideologically unacceptable. I would feel I hadn’t really won the argument if I won through deception and struggle to picture how people could just lie but then I suspect kids find me ridiculously easy to con with their excuses…


  15. […] Lies, Damned Lies and Things You are Told During Teacher Training […]


  16. […] Lies, Damned Lies and Things You are Told During Teacher Training […]


  17. Hi the link to the study you have posted on point #2 is dead, please could you update it? I am interested to read about mixed sets vs. streaming.

    As for the psychological perspectives, I am in undergrad ITT currently and we have almost exclusively studied the perspectives you have mentioned in our psychology module, even the ones you say are more dubious!



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