Archive for November, 2015


Learning Styles Strike Back

November 30, 2015

One of the few signs of progress in changing the debate in education had been a concerted rejection of the most obviously pseudo-scientific parts of the education climate, namely Brain Gym and learning styles. The greater involvement of cognitive psychologists in education, (e.g. Dweck and Willingham), challenges from outside education (e.g. Goldacre) , the creation of ResearchED and the opening up of debate on social media had helped create a climate where these most obvious frauds could not hope to flourish. Even those conducting and promoting rotten research would use opposition to learning styles and Brain Gym to signal that they were not complete charlatans.

Sometimes the picture of progress was mixed, particularly for learning styles. Evidence suggested teachers still believed in them. University PGCEs continued to recommend books that encouraged their use, but a growing number would also include a lecture denouncing them. Some would even show Dan Willingham’s video on the subject:

Textbooks used in teacher training still mentioned learning styles, but they might at least signal that there was some debate around them. There were frequent stories of schools and colleges still using VAK tests or putting VAK boxes on lesson planning forms but they were no longer ubiquitous. I did highlight some cases of the continued promotion of learning styles here. I can add to this. When the College of Teaching announced its trustees, one was described in the TES as having “enjoyed carrying out research into learning styles”. A recent OFSTED report for Bedford Academy contained the following comment:

Teachers use class-context information to support their planning so that individual needs and pupils’ preferred learning styles are taken into account.

So the myth was not dead, but it was at least something that turned up unexpectedly, rather than being all over the place. At the very least, where people were familiar with the debate, there seemed little dispute about which side was supported by evidence and which side was, either accidentally or deliberately, spreading lies.

However, over the weekend, a concerted backlash to the rejection of learning styles appeared on Twitter and in blogs. Most of it followed the standard ploys used against scientific evidence (and involved the usual fallacies):

  1. I may have no evidence for my position, but you can’t prove it wrong to my satisfaction (shifting the burden of proof).
  2. The words used to describe my position might mean something else other than their usual meaning (equivocation).
  3. I am offended by your challenge to my position (objection to tone or ad hominem).
  4. Lots of people agree with me (argumentum ad populum).
  5. You are not qualified to question this. (ad hominem or appeal to authority).
  6. It works for me (anecdote).
  7. It’s all just a matter of opinion (relativism).
  8. The challenge to this is just a bandwagon (ad hominem).
  9. I am being persecuted by being challenged (argumentum ad misericordiam).
  10. Testing my empirical claims with science is positivist/evil/right-wing/attacking teachers (poisoning the well).

I’m not going to explain why each of these fallacies is a fallacy; that can be found online or in any good book about pseudo-science or valid and invalid arguments. But I will make a simple point about why this matters. Learning styles are not simply a misconception, like discovery learning, that spread before people had a chance to check the evidence. They are not a hypothesis, like Bloom’s Taxonomy, that was proposed with the absence of evidence admitted. The dominant ideas about learning styles stem from a well-known body of fraudulent theory (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and from rewriting the ideas of Howard Gardner without his agreement. Learning styles tools have been invented and sold by people who had no reason to claim they work. Therefore, it is fair to say that the claims about learning styles are not simply wrong, they are lies. I don’t hesitate to claim that most of what teachers have been told about learning styles is simply a pack of lies. In education it is a given that we might disagree; that we might think other people are wrong. But this is different. This is about whether it is okay for people to spread lies in education, whether deliberately or through having been fooled themselves. It is worth asking what future we have as a profession if teachers or educationalists are complacent – or indifferent – about lying.

Update: I posted this just now, without adding the following important point. If any of the people who denied that learning styles were bogus, were actually right then they need to explain why they haven’t attempted to claim the prize offered to anyone who can demonstrate a useable system of learning styles. It currently stands at $5000. Details here.


Why I Am Against Mixed Ability: Part 2

November 29, 2015

Last weekend, I spoke at the Debating Education event, at Michaela School, opposing mixed ability teaching. Hopefully the video of the event will appear in the next week or so. The following is a rough summary of what I said (i.e. it’s me going back over my notes and reconstructing my argument but nothing like my exact words). Obviously, it is in no way intended as a research article on mixed ability teaching or a summary of the evidence, just an explanation of my views. This is continued from Part 1.


Like a lot of trainee teachers, I was told on my PGCE course that the empirical evidence strongly supported mixed ability. It was a bit of a shock to look at this evidence and see how poor much of it is. A number of studies consist of tiny trials, where two schools (one with ability grouping, one without) are compared and the results of those schools reported back. Or in the case of Jo Boaler’s research, the actual results are ignored and mixed ability is reported to be better regardless. Even when you look at meta-analyses which include small trials like this, the outcome tends to show either virtually no impact, or a negative effect, for mixed ability. One of the few meta-analyses that suggests ability grouping is marginally harmful is Slavin (1990) though this was after including some remarkable outliers that others might well have ignored. Overall, Hattie combined the meta-analyses to find ability grouping to have an effect size of 0.12. Much of the so-called research in this area is little better than propaganda, declaring mixed ability to be right and attempting to shift the burden of evidence to its critics. Slavin, above, springs to mind as an example of this, his meta-analysis declared, a priori, that ability grouping was “anti-democratic” and “anti-egalitarian”. Betts et al (2000) also identified a tendency for research to compare progress for high and low ability sets with entire mixed ability sets (i.e. not just the high or low ability students in that set), and declare that this showed that while high ability students might do better in ability groups, low ability groups did worse. A trivial outcome that results from not comparing like with like. If there is any good research on setting, it is the randomised control trial conducted in Kenya by Duflo et al (2008) and it found a positive effect for ability grouping for students of all abilities.

It is sometimes claimed that ability grouping leads to stigma and labelling, i.e. that students in the bottom set will feel worse about themselves as a result. On the one hand I doubt this, because students are often even more acutely aware of their lack of ability when in the same class as their more able peers. But I would also look at what’s happened in the years since ability grouping became less popular. Far from refusing to identify the highest attainers as better, they have been listed as “gifted and talented”. Rather than ceasing to single out low attainers we now have 1 in five children identified as having SEN, often for nothing more than low academic attainment. This is not removing stigma; it’s ensuring that differences that could have been accommodated within the curriculum are now seen as problems that require more labelling and more treating students as fundamentally different.

Finally, it is often claimed that if education is focussed on equity, then that would give us reason to avoid ability grouping. It is claimed that it enables us to help the students who are most behind to make the most progress. But if we do want to help the least able, ability grouping favours that aim and mixed ability hinders . With ability grouping, schools can make conscious decisions to make the bottom sets smaller, or provide them with more resources, if they so choose. Mixed ability actually hinders support for the least able as they are split between different classes and dependent on different teachers. If we want to help the weakest, then ability grouping helps us meet their needs. You wouldn’t send everyone to hospital in order to avoid letting the ill and injured feel excluded. You wouldn’t send everyone to court or to prison, so that those who are actually accused or convicted of a crime can avoid stigma. If you set up a food bank, you would put it where the hungry could get to it, you wouldn’t just go from door to door in the nearest street giving everybody a sandwich. You don’t meet needs by ignoring them. Identifying what students need, and providing it, is the aim and ability grouping helps us achieve that.



Why I Am Against Mixed Ability: Part 1

November 27, 2015

Last weekend, I spoke at the Debating Education event, at Michaela School, opposing mixed ability teaching. Hopefully the video of the event will appear in the next week or so. The following is a rough summary of what I said (i.e. it’s me going back over my notes and reconstructing my argument but nothing like my exact words). Obviously, it is in no way intended as a research article on mixed ability teaching or a summary of the evidence, just an explanation of my views.


I’ve hated mixed ability teaching since I was 12. As a year 7 student I had the misfortune to be in a mixed ability French class where many of my peers had learnt some French at their primary school. I hadn’t. Worse, these were the days of the “immersion” method of language teaching where the teacher would speak French at us in the hope we pick it up. I couldn’t understand a word of it, while others could. The presence of more able students didn’t allow me to catch up, it just meant that for a year I got further and further behind. The following year we were allowed to do another language; I did Latin, and was amazed to learn it wasn’t that I was terrible at languages, it was simply that I was in a mixed ability French class where I couldn’t learn. I always think of this when people tell me that mixed ability classes are good for the self-esteem of the least able. That nightmare did nothing for my confidence with French, and I gave up the subject at the first opportunity.

As a teacher, I’ve experienced mixed ability classes a number of times, even as a maths teacher. Often, some newly promoted manager declares “we should try something different with year 7” before introducing an experiment with mixed ability, problem-solving, group work in maths. An experiment which is invariably abandoned at the end of the year due to low academic progress. I’ve also had the experience of being told to teach foundation and higher maths simultaneously to a mixed ability year 10 class, and been handed two different curriculums and two different schemes of work, to be taught at the same time to the same class. I’ve also seen what happens when schools keep kids in mixed ability form groups for much of KS3 and they become so used to being together that any teacher is seen as an invader on their territory, and their disruptive behaviour is honed to perfection in the many hours they have together.

Now, of course, these anecdotes of bad mixed ability teaching, could be balanced by examples of bad setting. But I would argue that we tend to find that stories about the failure of ability grouping are actually about failures to ability group enough. I am not going to defend all practices that might be classed as ability grouping, so I will be very careful to make it clear what I am arguing for. I am using “ability” in the usual way, of referring to what somebody can currently do. I am not using it to describe innate ability. I am not claiming it to be fixed and defending setting which does not allow movement. I am only arguing against teaching an unnecessarily wide range of ability. I am not interested in situations where the range of ability is already narrowed, say in a grammar school, or on a university course, or for that matter in a country where the weakest students are held back a year. I am arguing for a narrow range of ability in classes in English secondary schools. Now when you hear complaints about students losing out due to setting, it is, more often than not, about sets where the range wasn’t narrow; where students didn’t get to move, or where some classes were neglected. Where ability grouping fails it is because there was too little, not too much, ability grouping, and this is in contrast to where mixed ability fails, which is usually because of, rather than in spite of, the wider range of ability, and is very often blamed on the teacher.

I prefer a narrow range of ability because it makes the two most important parts of teaching easier and more effective. Firstly, it makes it easier to teach students the knowledge they don’t have, if they start from roughly the same level of prior knowledge. Secondly, it makes it easier to practise knowledge and skills to achieve greater fluency if the levels of fluency the students already have are about the same. Because these two vital parts of teaching are limited by mixed ability, support for mixed ability is usually combined with advocating some pretty ineffective or impractical teaching methods. For instance, using massive amounts of different, personalised worksheets, asking students to learn from each other (rather than the expert in the room) or focussing on skills instead of knowledge.

Continued in Part 2


Top Blogs of the Week : Schools Week (October 2015)

November 18, 2015

I appear to have forgotten to share this last month, so I’d better do that now. A few weeks back, Schools Week  published my review of the best blogs of the week.

Andrew Old picks his top blogs of the week 23 October 2015

Is there such a thing as a crap school?

By @SurrealAnarchy

Sometimes it is the most obviously true statements that are the most controversial. To say that some schools are terrible can lead one to be accused of attacking teachers or children.



Teachers Should Welcome Open Debate: Part 3

November 16, 2015

Continued from Part 2 here

Since I wrote part 1 of this series of posts  there have been a number of blogposts from teachers appearing (for instance, herehere and here) commenting on teachers’ use of social media. All three of those posts are noticeable because, on the one hand, they described insults and personal attacks online, but also described those who simply disagreed with them, were negative or (in one of the posts) just used the wrong tone. The authors of the posts drew no clear dividing line between correspondence where they disliked the style or substance, and correspondence that was insulting, personal and possibly even criminal. Even worse examples (which I won’t link to) of  failing to distinguish between these types of behaviour have appeared on social media since then, where named individuals (including me) were directly (and indirectly) accused of abusive behaviour without even one actual example being provided.

If the line between debate and abuse is being muddied, the most obvious reason is that while people wish to silence debate, there is still some degree of embarrassment connected to simply saying “I don’t like it when people disagree with me”. People feel obliged to give some greater objection, no matter how unjustified.

Here is a quick guide to the most common ways in which people in education seek to demonise a challenge to their ideas.

    1. Imagined insult. People who have had their ideas challenged, particularly if they are not used to it, often become convinced they have been insulted. Sometimes it may be a sincerely held delusion. Their own self-worth might be so tied up in their philosophy or pedagogy that challenging their ideas feels to them like you are exposing their failure. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell if somebody’s irrational beliefs about the world are grounded in equally irrational beliefs about themselves, without challenging those beliefs directly, by which point they will already feel insulted. However, one of the advantages of social media is that it does keep a record of most communication, so it always pays to ask where and when the insults and abuse are meant to have happened. 99% of the time this will lead the “insulted” party to change their story to one of the other complaints below. Never take seriously complaints about insults and abuse in education social media without first checking what was actually said.
    2. Personalising the debate. This is closely related to the above point. Again, a debate about the world suddenly turns out to be a debate about the people making the argument. Sometimes its defensive: “You are saying I’m a bad teacher”, sometimes offensive “You are saying that because you are a white male”. In the worst possible cases, they will try to make the discussion about their own children, something which can never end well. Either way, it serves to divert attention away from the ideas that are being debated, and invites people to ignore what is actually true, in favour of who they sympathise with.
    3. Hurt feelings. This has now become central to the armoury of progressives on social media. Whenever debate is to be shut down, whenever actual insults are thrown, whenever a witch hunt is organised against somebody who dared challenge them, the progressive responsible was only acting because their feelings were hurt. Never mind whether those  feelings stem from pride, selfishness, thwarted vengeance or shame, the mere fact the feelings were felt is presented as a reason for why they should have been indulged. Julie Burchill wrote a great article earlier this year about the Cry-Bully, an aggressive individual who, nevertheless, loudly  proclaims their own victimhood. I don’t agree with all the examples she gives (though Clarkson seems a perfect target) but it is a good description of those who seem to think that it is cruel to stand up to them when they behave atrociously.
    4. Unprofessional. The use of the word “professional” to mean “never expressing one’s own views”, which is pretty much the opposite of its actual meaning, has been a common means of shutting down debate in schools for as long as I’ve been teaching. This now seems to have spread online, where disagreeing with the orthodoxies of the day, challenging other’s opinions or telling the truth about what happens in schools can be dismissed as unprofessional. The best response to being told to be professional is to claim to be holding onto one’s amateur status in order to compete in the teaching olympics.
    5. Tone. This is used where complaining about insults really isn’t going to convince. The advantage of complaints about tone is that it is so subjective that almost any style of disagreement can be objected to on this basis. Here are the basics of tone policing in a diagram:
      Tone PoliceThe red boxes show the choices you can make with your words. If you make your point directly, then you have chosen to be Blunt. If you conceal it among compliments and irrelevancies, then you have chosen to be Polite. If you have used words that credit the listener with knowledge, or an understanding of academic discourse then you have chosen to be Formal. If you phrase it as you would in casual conversation or to a non-specialist, then you have chosen to be Informal. The words in yellow show what will be said to be wrong with your tone depending on which choices you made. There is no way out of this. After years of trying other approaches, I have largely settled for being blunt and informal.
    6. Anonymity. This one doesn’t affect me now I’m not anonymous, but it is still used on others. Ultimately, it comes down to declaring that anyone who does not identify themselves is doing so because they are somehow ashamed, embarrassed or doing something wrong, rather than because the attempts by others to shut down debate have made it impossible to be open about who they are, or made them fearful about retaliation. I’m still hearing of bloggers and tweeters being told in the workplace that they should no longer express their views on social media, and that’s without those whose freedom to speak out is only restricted by informal pressures to conform.
    7. Conflict. Finally, the last complaint is that by speaking out, or not censoring those who do, one is creating conflict in the blogosphere. Of course, conflict is usually just a weasel word for debate. Where people are free to disagree and debate rationally and sensibly there is often no conflict worth speaking of, and even if there is, it is usually still preferable to the conflict between those who wish to see open and honest debate, and those who want to present a lie about how everyone believes the same thing. Nobody should be ashamed to be in conflict with somebody who is lying or silencing dissent.
      Tone Policing. The only motive is to end debate.

      Tone Policing. The motive is to end debate.



Teachers Should Welcome Open Debate: Part 2

November 11, 2015

As I explained last time, I think there should be open debate in teaching. I think this is true even if ideas are debated in front of new teachers and trainees. I think this is true even if contentious things are posted to websites by people who don’t agree with them. I wouldn’t phrase this as being about freedom of speech, but about freedom of thought. To form our own opinions, we need to hear and think about the alternatives. J.S. Mill captures this idea well in On Liberty:

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.

We learn from debating our opinions. We learn most about our opinions from debating those who are the most insightful critics of them. Those opinions which cannot be defended, should not be believed. There are plenty of debates in teaching, but that does not mean that good ideas require protecting from the alternatives. We should feel confident that our best chance of getting to the truth is from debate, not from its absence.

This is particularly important when many of the “authorities” in education have been spreading some of the worst ideas. Brain Gym, learning styles, discovery learning, Bloom’s Taxonomy and many others fads, have all been promoted by those who were meant to have been “experts” in teaching. A supposedly “expert” perspective on education, is not always one that is honest, fair or true. Perhaps one of the ironies in criticism of both Starter For Five and Labour Teachers is that those calling for views to be censored so as to enforce an editorial line are those least likely to agree with my selection of posts if I were to enforce my opinions. Those who want to end the debate, never want it to be their side that is silenced. Indeed, often the demand that I censor views they don’t like is combined by an unevidenced and untrue allegation that I must also be censoring the views they do like. The possibility that I might share all points of view is seemingly unimaginable to some.

The years between 2004 and 2010 were some of the worst for debate in teaching. The National Strategies, government guidance, the GTC, local authorities, teacher trainers and the inspectorate generally stuck to a remarkably narrow range of views. Learning styles were in. Group work was in. Teacher talk was out. Prolonged practice was out. And the management systems in schools gradually converged to emphasise compliance and conformity to this model. It became possible for a teacher whose classes were learning (and doing well in exams) to be told they were teaching the wrong way and even be forced out of their position. Even things that were abundantly obvious, like the failure of inclusion, the breakdown of discipline,  the money wasted on interactive whiteboards or grade inflation in exams, were considered unmentionable for teachers, even if they made it into the media. The legacy of that time is still with us in many schools and among many managers. But many teachers no longer feel obliged to play lip service to any of it, particularly on social media. We can (generally) say in public what we believe, and we can challenge each other when we disagree. This is our greatest safeguard against those who would happily see the system return to where it was in 2009. It’s the best chance we have for a system that improves because new ideas are tried and tested. Open debate among teachers is also the greatest protection we have against the next fad being imposed on us. The question: “Is this the next brain gym?” will be addressed to anyone publicly recommending a gimmick, as long as we are free to ask that sort of question.

Let’s keep the debate going; let’s encourage it. I am not threatened by hearing the opposing view, only by having my view silenced. If you don’t feel the same way – if you feel uncomfortable being disagreed with – then you should consider the possibility that it’s because you know your stated beliefs will not hold up to scrutiny.


Next time I will consider some of the reasons people use to justify silencing debate.



Teachers Should Welcome Open Debate: Part 1

November 8, 2015

You may be aware that I am involved with a number of blogs other than this one. The Echo Chamber family of blogs shares links to other people’s posts, either on the basis of my preferences, or in ways that might be useful for particular audiences. I also edit/co-edit two blogs that take regular submissions from other people:

Both of these blogs take an inclusive approach, not requiring adherence to any editorial line, only to the guiding principles of the blog. Labour Teachers is open to teachers on any wing of the Labour Party, and so might contain differing views on any number of issues that Labour supporting teachers might reasonably disagree on. I have never rejected a post for Labour Teachers on the grounds of it being something I disagreed with. If it comes from a Labour supporting teacher, is a reasonable length, and hasn’t been published before, it goes on the site. This caused all sorts of accusations to begin with. People would wait for a post they disagreed with (usually something traditionalist on education or centrist on party politics) and denounce, not only the author, but Labour Teachers for being a right-wing conspiracy. My favourite accusation was the claim that the blog was a “false flag” operation, just pretending to be Labour. Much of the vitriol came from people who weren’t even in the Labour Party at the time, but considered themselves authorities on what principles the Labour Party should have. Curiously, nobody seemed too concerned about any posts that were left-wing or educationally progressive. The mere fact that certain views were not censored was enough to taint the whole enterprise. When this blogpost sharing a mix of  reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership contest was published, one tweeter took a screenshot of the most anti-Corbyn comment and shared it as the views of Labour Teachers, despite the same post also including very positive reactions to Corbyn’s victory. The idea that one might tolerate a range of opinions within the same blog was simply not considered.

At the time I put it down to the peculiar prejudices and paranoia often found in left-wing politics which seems to attract people unable to grasp the idea that somebody could disagree with them without being either evil, right-wing or engaged in a plot to subvert the Labour Party. But now I have the curious case of Starter For Five. As I explained when it began, the original idea was that if new teachers or trainees wanted advice on a teaching topic they’d be able to find it “from several experienced teachers”. This was never meant to be one person’s opinion on what trainees should think. You could read somebody’s advice and reject it, offer your own advice on the same topic or add a comment beneath it. It was crowd sourced advice that was to reflect the diversity of the crowd. Again, I have never censored a post simply because I disagreed with the content. And again, people have failed to get this idea.

A huge Twitter row has erupted since a post advising teachers not to believe KS2 results are accurate or useful. The fifth point is phrased in a way that’s rather blunt, but the post contained nothing that hasn’t been said by many secondary teachers, and most of it by a fair few primary teachers too. It was not an attack on anybody. It was advice. Whether it is good or bad advice is up to those reading it to decide, but it fitted the criteria for the site exactly.

Some primary teachers decided to take personal offence. I don’t particularly understand this. When the shameful inaccuracy of GCSE coursework and controlled assessments came to light in the last few years, I not only didn’t take offence, but I helped publicise it. The truth was more important to me than shielding teachers in my own sector from blame and responsibility. The truth was more important than arse-covering. And there were very few arguments claiming that the post was not true (and there were good reasons to believe it) only arguments that it was offensive, and showed a hidden agenda on the part of those of us behind the website. Basically the same complaint as with Labour Teachers:

  • You published it;
  • we didn’t like it;
  • therefore we don’t like your site.

So that’s the background. That’s why I feel the need to defend the value of open debate in education and my efforts to make that debate open. I will attempt to make this defence in Part 2.

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