Are you teaching ‘zombie’ lessons?

Debunked theories like Brain Gym won’t die until leaders who insisted on them admit they were wrong, says Mark Enser

Mark Enser

Learning styles: What debunked teaching fads will the DfE resurrect next? Brain Gym or even the cane, asks Stephen Petty

Take a moment and think back over your time as a teacher. How many new ideas, strategies, and policies have you seen introduced? How many times have you been gathered together with your fellow teachers, exhausted after five hours of teaching, only to have someone excitedly reveal the next "big thing" that you all need to start doing the next day?

Now take another moment. How many of those things have you ever directly been told to stop doing? How many times has the person come back to say “Sorry, we got that wrong…Please stop”? I’m willing to bet that this list is a lot shorter than the first one. It certainly is for me.

If I were still doing everything I had been instructed to do I would still be: doing Brain Gym, differentiating tasks to take into account different learning styles, encouraging pupils to discover knowledge for themselves, limiting teacher talk to 10 per cent of the lesson, triple marking, planning lessons to be fun as a way of preventing poor behaviour and getting pupils to copy learning objectives into their books.

This list could easily continue to fill the rest of the article and it wouldn't make for pretty reading. These were all things that I had been told were vitally important to teaching, given training on, observed on and given feedback on. And in each case, no one came back to tell me I should stop.

But of course, I did stop. I realised these things didn’t work, talked to other teachers who realised the same, saw that no one was checking they were still being done and they slowly fizzled out of my practice.

'Zombie' ideas that just won't die

So, what's the problem, then?

Firstly, there will still be people out there who haven’t realised that they are no longer required to do these things, that the idea of “best practice” had moved on. I have a horrible feeling that out there somewhere there is a poor teacher who, like a soldier abandoned on an island, unaware the war is over, is still faithfully going through Brain Gym activities in the hope of activating their mind.

Even if we know an idea is out of date, it can still have an influence over what we do. I still hear the saying that we “only remember 10 per cent of what we are told” being trotted out, which makes teachers feel guilty about talking too much. I know of teachers who, despite knowing that the idea of learning styles has been debunked, still look for activities for their “kinesthetic learners”. Having had these ideas drilled into us, it is hard to see how far their influence spreads, and to shake them off.

Another problem with these “zombie" teaching ideas – the ones that just won’t die – is that they make our job so much harder. We are constantly having to fight through conflicting advice and information to try to get to the truth. It makes it harder to sort what is likely to work from what is likely not to.

At a recent ResearchEd conference, Professor Daniel Muijs, head of research at Ofsted, used the example of eating soup with a fork. If we had to do it, we would find a way to make it work, but it would be much more difficult, time-consuming and would lead to worse outcomes. I feel the same way about these zombie ideas. They add needless complications to teaching that slow us down by creating hoops for us to jump through.

We need the people who introduced these policies into school and insisted on their implementation to come and tell us if they got it wrong, rather than letting them fester and eventually fade out. Not doing so leaves confusion in the profession and a distrust of any new ideas.

Mark Enser is head of geography at Heathfield Community College. His first book, Making Every Geography Lesson Count, is out soon. He tweets @EnserMark

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Mark Enser

Mark Enser

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His latest book The CPD Curriculum is out now. He tweets @EnserMark

Find me on Twitter @EnserMark

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