'The classroom fads that illustrate education’s often unhealthy relationship with the evidence'

12th May 2017 at 16:51
The rise of fidget-spinners and the need for some in education to justify their use speaks to an unfortunate truth about education’s crypto-pathologies, writes the government’s behaviour tsar

I clicked on a link and wished I hadn’t: ‘How can you use spinners in the classroom?’ Now, I’ve been out of the classroom a few months and this reminded me how fast fashions strobe past. Spinners are, of course, those odd little hand occupiers that so many children play with under the desk at the moment.

Some of them are plastic, some go up to a few hundred quid – no, I’m not kidding you. In my classes they’d normally last until their discovery and then they’d be sentenced to the desk-drawer dungeon ttto grow old with Slap Bracelets, Stacking Cups, Yo-Yos and Tamagotchis. By the time you read this, they’ll have been out of fashion for a million years.

Astonishingly, I saw teachers online defending their use. "Some kids are natural fidgets," they wrote. "They need something to do with their hands."

That’s what I used to say when I smoked. May I suggest writing? But in a manner that is very 2017, apparently sober adults were parroting the advertising for these wee plastic chew toys. "Helps them focus." "Improves behaviour." "Helps with hand tone and dexterity." I await the peer-reviewed papers from the University of Mickey Mouse confirming these claims.

'Sometimes it helps them calm and focus'

When I asked for evidence, someone even – I kid you not – sent me a link to a YouTube vlogger’s channel where an excitable human Chihuahua told his millions of followers that these were "so cool" and "really great if you get bored." I certainly needed one after a few minutes of that.  

Lots of us fidget. The question is, what is the appropriate response? In fact, for many children with an identifiable condition such as autism or sensory difficulties, there may well be a purpose for such things.

As Terri Duncan, of Children's Autism Services of Edmonton, says: "We call them fidget tools because they really are tools. Sometimes it helps to tune out other sensory information.

"Sometimes it helps them calm and focus. Sometimes it helps them with their breathing and relaxing. It's a little bit different for every child."

But not everyone is convinced that spinners are as useful as they are marketed. Dr Jennifer Crosbie, a clinical psychologist at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, says: "They definitely don't have the attributes that are generally associated with the kinds of fidget and sensory toys that are traditionally used with kids with a range of conditions...for one thing, a fidget toy should involve some movement or motion on the part of the child using it, which allows them to release excess energy.”

Winnipeg psychologist Kirsten Wirth agrees that evidence is lacking: "There's a difference between what we call anecdotal evidence and what the research actually shows...because there might be a bit of a placebo effect happening where we feel like something is helping, but it may or may not actually be helping."

Dr Stan Kutcher also agrees: "...there is no substantive evidence on spinners. If you disagree, please provide it,’ he said in an exchange on social media.

Bad breath and acrid armpits

If children habitually fidget, the correct path is for the teacher to help the child to learn better behaviour habits, unless you’ve worked with the SENCO and the family to agree on their use.

The alternative is to enable and deepen the unhelpful behaviour. Our job is to support children in becoming independent, not cripple them with their own ticks.

This is an example of a solution to a problem that barely exists. It echoes, unsurprisingly, with the world of marketing, which follows the adage "make them think they need it." Listerine was one of the first companies to exploit this effectively. As Sarah Zhang writes in ‘How "Clean" Was Sold to America with Fake Science’: "Americans had to be convinced their breath was rotten and their armpits stank. It did not happen by accident."

"Advertising and toilet soap grew up together," says Katherine Ashenburg, author of The Dirt on Clean. As advertising exploded in the early 20th century, so did our obsession with personal hygiene..."

Listerine was designed as a medical disinfectant in 1879. Sales dragged. Then the marketing department discovered a little known term: halitosis, or bad breath.

"Halitosis lent Listerine the authoritative air for a fantastically successful advertising campaign, creating a market for the novel product of mouthwash.

"In an early version of A/B testing, coupons were sent out accompanying old and new-style Listerine ads. The halitosis ads did four times as well. Sales climbed 33 per cent in just the first month. 

"From then on, Listerine took out a parade of advertisements insinuating that bad breath was pervasive, but people were simply too polite to tell you…halitosis was secretly holding you back, and only Listerine could fix it."

Fake or misunderstood illnesses

Fake or misunderstood illnesses abound. I’m afraid to even tell you about the next one, because if I tell you what it is you might actually catch it, right through the screen, like digital herpes.

It’s called Delusional parasitosis, where the sufferer feels like their skin is infested with tiny, invisible parasites. It drives many people round the bend.

A related condition is Morgellons, where the itching discomfort is believed to be fibres under the skin. Are you scratching yet?

But there are no fibres or parasites. It’s an entirely psycho-somatic condition. Pseudo sufferers turn up at their doctors scratching like mad, some even cutting themselves to dig out the imaginary threads and crypto-bugs.

Some doctors even wearily prescribe placebos and creams that will relieve the "symptoms". A condition that never was, dealt with by a cure that won’t work. Spread as much by belief as anything else, like fairies.

Schools also have to contend with these crypto-pathologies. Students bring with them every trouble and symptom of humanity. Some of these are barely understood, like dyslexia. We know that many children struggle with their reading, and we categorise many of these as dyslexics, but in truth there is no clear "cause" of dyslexia.

In some cases, we find that they simply haven’t been instructed robustly in the foundations of reading, and remedying this makes the dyslexia vanish. In other cases there may well be underlying physical or neurological causes. But misdiagnosis in this matter can lead to children feeling they have some insurmountable difficulty in reading, when what it requires is tuition and support.

The wages of spin

ADHD is another. Many teachers confidently believe in it, but what is it they believe in?

ADHD is, like most pathologies of the mind, a collection of observed symptoms; hyper activity, lack of focus, etc. But some children labelled as having ADHD suddenly demonstrate that they don’t have it when they sit in the lesson of a teacher with whom they have a good relationship, or who runs their room with clear routines.

I stress: this isn’t to say that for many children this isn’t a very real and debilitating difficulty. But it indicates our diagnostic protocol is often blunt. We probably over-diagnose and under-diagnose. Because we’re unsure what it is we’re diagnosing, and it becomes an ontological problem. This matters when we pump children with drugs like Ritalin to stun them still.

That doesn’t stop an industry of problem-solvers from emerging – some of them well-meaning, some of them simply sensing an opportunity. Like people selling snake oil to pilgrims or any politician ever who promised policy cheques their office couldn’t cash, the universe has never been shy of sending white knights to save us from imaginary dragons.

We see this all the time: when a school pays for a motivational speaker to come and tell children to "believe in themselves", as if human ambition was so small and simple a stove to be stoked so easily; when we install air fresheners to – as was bizarrely claimed recently – "stimulate working memory"; when we send children with perfectly normal spectrum misbehaviours onto expensive programs of therapy because some untrained mental health dilettante recommended it.

Go and spin no more

This matters because many children suffer from very real and very grave difficulties, and it behoves us as their academic and social guardians to offer support and remedy when we can. But opportunity cost is everything in a finite system, and if we waste time and money dealing with crypto-problems, then we have less to deal with more substantial ones.

We need to develop a finer, collective nose for the bullshit, for the deliberately mysterious, for halitosis of the classroom.

Children are complex because people are complex, and schools are complex systems. Academic and social progress is a complicated project. Despite the incautious claims made by many, magic bullets and magic beans won’t do.

Tom Bennett was a teacher in the East End of London for 10 years. He is now the government’s behaviour tsar, and the director and founder of ResearchED, a grassroots, teacher-led project that aims to make teachers research-literate

Read Tom's top 10 tips for behaviour management

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