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Myth-buster extraordinaire: Tim Jarvis meets Tom Bennett

| September 9, 2019 | 0 Comments


When it comes to educational practice, schools and teachers need to spend time working out what actually works, rather than relying on ‘folk’ learning.1

As I step off the 12:12 train to London, Paddington, I am amazed again by the work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.2 The terminus of his ‘Great Western Railway’, Paddington Station, is a magnificent monument to the architectural and engineering skills of this brilliant man. Reassuring in its vast arches and pillared support, it stands as testament to the profundity of Newtonian physics and the confident certainty of the industrial age, an historical era grounded in invention and an ever-growing reliance on science and reason to make progress in this world. I am here to meet with Tom Bennett in his capacity as founder and director of researchED.3 Listed as one of the world’s top 50 teachers in the 2015 Varkey Foundation Global Teacher competition,4 he then became the UK government’s school ‘Behaviour Tsar’,5 advising on behaviour policy. I am keen to talk with one of the UK’s most influential teachers and the man who has put research in education at the top of the agenda. Unlike Paddington Station, the educational edifice is not necessarily built on such solid foundations, Bennett explains as we order coffee. ‘One of the main problems in resolving this issue is the fact that educational theory, unlike the actual sciences, is very difficult to test. How do you find out if the assertion that “children learn best in groups” is actually correct? How do you test the effectiveness of “homework”, when homework can consist of anything from essays to artwork?’

It ain’t necessarily so

Indeed, Bennett asserts that much educational theory stands simply because some important people say it does and enough people believe them. When unquestioned, this self-referring bubble can look impressive, but children are simply not learning when pedagogical practice loses touch with what actually works. ‘The idea of researchED is to engage teachers in educational research – what it means, and how it can or can’t make a difference in the classroom,’ says Tom. As far as I can glean, it exists to pop the bubbles or bust the myths and replace them with something more grounded. I know that the ‘learning styles’ theory has long been dismissed,6 but what are some of the other theories and fads that have held children and teachers captive in the past? When I put this to Bennett, he pauses for a moment, but not, I suspect, due to a shortage of answers. ‘Group work’, he says, is one, and ‘project work’ another. According to Bennett, neither of these have been found to enhance children’s learning, despite the significant evangelism that has surrounded them. Bennett clarifies that it’s not that researchED is against these teaching methods per se. ‘Group work is like any strategy in the classroom – a tool. A hammer is a tool: would you use a hammer for every job? Absolutely not. Sometimes group work is essential, but it’s got enormous challenges and difficulties.’ Bennett goes on to add that one of the current debates – or myths – is around skills-based, as opposed to knowledge-based, education. It’s a false dichotomy. ‘You need a critical mass of knowledge before you can start learning to apply skills to it’. It seems that it’s sometimes good to do away with the smoke and mirrors and simply tell children what they need to know. ‘Teaching anything beyond folk learning takes instruction, usually in the form of a teacher.’

Some basic truths

The simple truth is, as Dylan Williams7 said in his opening address at the 2016 Washington researchED day,8 ‘Everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere’. So what is the current research saying is effective in helping pupils learn? I get a sense that Bennett could talk about this for hours (certainly longer than my regular cappuccino will allow), but as we discuss this question, three areas of exciting research based on neuroscience become clear:

1. Retrieval practice:9 Asking pupils to re-access information they have learnt to imbed it further. It includes plenty of low-stakes testing (such as quizzes), but dealing only with a little material at a time.

2. Spaced learning:10 Involving carefully managed intervals of intensive learning, but paying attention to the space between them to increase their effectiveness.

3. Cognitive load theory:11 Based on Australian educational psychologist John Sweller’s12 notion that we learn what we think about, and you can’t think about too much at any one time. By reducing cognitive load, we can help learners impact their long-term memory.

It is beyond the scope of this article to go through these concepts in more detail, but it strikes me that such streamlined and uncluttered approaches to teaching, grounded in research, not educational or even political ideology, could have a significant impact in South Africa.

Sharing the good news

The good news is that Bennett and his team were part of the 2018 International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC) Africa Regional Conference, entitled ‘Developing Educators: Nurturing Teachers Towards Growing Boys into Significant Men’ and hosted by Michaelhouse.13 Bennett also visited Pretoria to hold a ‘trademark’ researchED day. ‘The networking and conversations I see at these days is like nothing on earth. By packing eight fast sessions into a conference, we (notionally) try to guarantee at least one day-shaking idea will hit you by sunset, and in some cases, half a dozen,’ says Bennett. I say my goodbyes and make my way back to the station. Just before I head back into Isambard’s magnum opus, a plane overhead catches my eye, reminding me of my imminent flight home. I am glad that transport and science has moved on since Brunel’s time. When my plane hurtles down the runway, I will be grateful that its designers and makers have built their work on tried and tested evidence and research, not on popular or abstract theory. If we can do the same in the educational context of South Africa, perhaps our children will also have a chance to fly.

Tim Jarvis is senior master: pastoral at Michaelhouse in KwaZulu-Natal.


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Category: Spring 2019

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