Educational research – useful classroom tool or pseudo science?

Tom Bennett is a man who believes that the beginning of wisdom lies in understanding that you know nothing. In other words, he knows nothing, and he knows it. Every week he’ll be chasing his own tail or shouting at the laptop about some damn fool idea in education, or else he’ll be writing about classrooms, students, or why teaching is the most important job in the world. Which it is. This week: why is so much research in education purest snake oil?

Tom Bennett

When I started in the real world of classrooms, I soon realised that things were very different from the adverts. Fortunately I had a thorough teacher training to equip me with the skills I needed. Right? Wrong!

A lot of what I’d learned at university was extremely useful, and my institution was a very good one. But when I was set tasks to explore this issue or that issue, I constantly came across research and articles that seemed to have been written by the Oompa-Loompas from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory: impossibly cryptic, remote and theoretical, with little relevance to the rooms I walked into and the children I met.

As the years passed in teaching, and I pursued my own interest and research, I started to wake up to the realisation that there was often a dislocation between the research and the practice; that the dusty tomes in the library were dusty for a reason; that much educational research was, as professor of education policy at Newcastle University James Tooley has described it, irrelevant, remote and unusable by anyone actually in the business of teaching children.

As I woke up to this fact, a weight lifted from my shoulders: I was no longer at fault for being unable to make some of these theories work. Then another weight descended: I now had to work out for myself what would make me a better teacher. And that’s exactly what I’ve tried to do over the years. Work it out for myself.

The DIY approach to what works and what doesn’t

I’ve done it in the most artisan way I can possibly muster: I’ve tried things out; I’ve asked to be observed; I’ve observed others; I’ve discussed both processes with other people; I’ve kept my own journals of what works and what doesn’t. It doesn’t make me the perfect teacher, but I fancy I get by, and I can triangulate that from my results, from the feedback from my kids, from observations, and from the feeling I get when I teach. That’ll do for me.

But the horror of it is that I had to learn this myself. Actually, I think all teachers have to learn it by themselves; there’s only so much you can learn from a book, even ones as essential as mine undoubtedly are. I had to unlearn much of the educational dogma I had learned from textbooks and lecturers. I had to find my own way. I had to be lost in order to find myself. If I’d known that, I would have packed sandwiches.

As it was I struggled for years thinking I was completely rubbish. Cheers, education. You’d think, given how long we’ve been teaching children, we’d have it all down by now, wouldn’t you? Obviously not. As George Orwell said, “Some ideas are so stupid only an intellectual would believe them.”

Pseudo research and cargo-cult science

I think that’s where we are in education right now. There’s a lot of terrific, well-made research. But there’s also a terrific amount of pseudo research, or cargo-cult science, that dresses itself up in the clothes of the natural sciences, and proudly boasts that it has rediscovered America. That would be fine, but the trouble is that sometimes, such research, fuelled by partisan values and interests, creeps through into the mainstream, catches a wave of popular interest, surfs it, and then bleeds into the classroom. And that’s when teachers get dragged into the dogma, and the kids suffer.

Did I say sometimes? Looking over the landscape of education, I wonder if it isn’t almost always. I know many, many wonderful academics working in education. It is a huge industry. So why does most of the crap escape the laboratory, and so little of the best stuff? Why do I hear from people just this week that their children in nursery have been put into groups based on their VAK (Visual Auditory Kinesthetic) learning style?

We’re going to need a bigger broom.

PS I’d love to hear your least favourite educational initiative/piece of pseudo science, post your comments below.

Read Tom’s previous blogs;

Who is Tom Bennett

Tom is a full-time teacher in an inner-city school and he’ll be blogging for us weekly on pedagogy and classroom management. Tom offers regular behaviour advice on the TES website and runs the TES behaviour forum. He also writes for the TES magazine, trains teachers across the UK and is the author of The Behaviour Guru, Not Quite a Teacher and Teacher.