'Seductive' teaching trends damage pupils, warns leading academic

23rd February 2015 at 12:00

Reporting by Roger Maynard in Sydney

Educational “fads and fashions” are adopted by teachers for the right reasons but often end up doing more harm than good, a leading academic has warned.

Schools need to learn from the example of medicine and conduct proper trials of new approaches, instead of being swayed by “shiny and seductive” new trends, said Professor Stephen Dinham, chair of teacher education at the University of Melbourne.

Speaking at the ResearchEd conference in Sydney, he said: “[In medicine] before you introduce a new treatment or a new drug it goes through a whole lot of trials and then it’s allowed on the market.

“In education, we introduce something and then down the track we might try to research its impact, but in the meantime we’ve done some damage to the kids.”

Professor Dinham cited the example of the trend to over-praise pupils in the classroom. Boosting self-esteem, according to the modern way of thinking, required never giving a child a fail mark, never using a red pen, never correcting their work and always saying they were wonderful, he said.

But this confused students, who often realised they did not deserve such wonderful grades. “Of course, when they get out in the big bad world and go to university, the air comes out of the balloon,” he added.

Instead, he suggested that general improvement was the best way to boost self-confidence, because this led to an upward cycle of achievement.

Professor Dinham also highlighted the philosophy that student activity in the classroom was more important than the outcome. He recalled a school project that asked pupils to create an image of the First Fleet sailing into Sydney Harbour in 1788, in which they placed Captain James Cook at the centre of the action. Unfortunately, he had been killed in 1779 while visiting Hawaii.

Professor Dinham asked the teacher whether she saw this as problematic. “No, the main thing is that people are engaged in the learning process – they can look up the date he died on the internet,” he was told.

The Sydney event was the first international conference organised by researchED, which was started by TES columnist Tom Bennett and aims to improve research literacy in schools.

Amid the teaching fads that had entered the classroom over the years, many centred on the art of maintaining discipline, Professor Dinham said.

He added that the question he was asked most frequently was: “What’s a really effective classroom strategy?” He said he always replied: “The best way to deal with classroom discipline is a well-prepared lesson. And if that doesn’t work, you must ask yourself why.”

Related stories:

Listen closely, learning styles are a lost cause 21 November 2014

'Pseudoscience has nested in schools' 12 September 2014

Take control of your teaching by embracing research, 4 September 2014

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