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'Expert' theories are all very well ..

We're told that too much coffee could give us cancer. Then we're told, no, it won't give us cancer and we can drink as much as we like. Pregnant women are told they shouldn't drink wine during pregnancy. Then they are told it's OK - in fact, in moderation it will probably do them good. Every week there is new "research" telling us to do - or not do - something, only for it to be disproved months later. I can even remember the "research" telling us Craven A cigarettes were good for sore throats.

Education, of course, is a prime target for wacky philosophising. How many ways of teaching children to read can you recall? I can think of at least 10, all claiming to be the definitive solution. Look at phonics. In the early 1980s you didn't dare mention the word if you wanted promotion. The idea was that if you simply surrounded children with "real books" they would learn to read. But in interviews these days, phonics is a word you don't dare leave out.

There are always plenty of "experts" with theories about the way children learn. As these people move further away from the classroom, reality becomes increasingly blurred. Nevertheless, when they are on television it makes fascinating viewing, as in the recent programme where a professor of education spent some time in a Hertfordshire secondary school trying out some of his theories. Our education system isn't working well enough, he said, and that is fair comment, although the things he thought didn't work weren't necessarily those the average teacher would pick out.

First, since asking children to put their hands up if they know the answer to a question apparently favours the able, sets of lolly sticks were issued to the classes involved with the experiment. The teachers had to write the children's names on them and then pick out sticks at random. This meant that shy Charlene, sitting quietly in the corner, could be pounced upon for the answer, or to discuss her work. God, how I would have hated that at secondary school.

Naturally, the children who did know the answers were miffed because they often didn't get the chance to say anything at all. It wasn't long before they were mucking around with the sticks, removing some and swapping others between classes.

Next up were coloured cones, and the idea was to use these to indicate whether or not you understood the lesson. This saved the undoubtedly arduous task of raising your hand. Put a green cone next to your maths book and you signal to the teacher that you have no problems with your quadratic equations. Put out an orange cone and you understand some of the task but not all of it. A red one tells the teacher you haven't a clue.

I know a teacher in a local secondary school who tried the cone approach. Some of the children put elastic on them and used them to create false red noses, and one boy put a green one down the front of his trousers, to the great amusement of the young ladies.

Feeling sure I had seen this professor before, I hunted through some files. Sure enough, he had done some work with teachers in our local authority on assessment for learning. The conclusions were interesting. It seems teachers should first find out where learners are in their learning, then establish where they are going, and then work out how they should get there. Is the Institute of Education currently offering a masters in the bleedin' obvious?

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. Email:

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