Is it all wrong?

In the classroom I like to use some of the research that I have read to help students make sense of why I do certain things in lessons. For example, if a student completes their work early I may have them support a peer but in doing so I refer to Dale’s Cone that suggests that helping others can improve knowledge retention by 85%. However, as I have become more engrossed in learning more about cognitive psychology, I have started to come across articles that challenge popular assertions that teachers have been trained to believe are correct.

But it sounded so good

So, for instance, Dale’s Cone or Learning Pyramid about student retention percentages is not what Edgar Dale’s original research suggests – not even close. His original work was titled Cone of Experience which illustrated different channels to impart knowledge. Even Edgar tried to stop it being used incorrectly but to no avail. In many training events and teacher training courses it is still common to find someone using it, I did, until very recently!

The shock from being misled (though not intentionally – everyone wants the best for students) made me begin to wonder if there were other pedagogical misnomers lurking in the classroom and not to my astonishment there were – many. The biggest one was teaching and planning to the different learning styles of students. I already knew that it was on shaky ground and it was something I rejected years ago. However, I remember clearly in my training that we had to sign post VAK (visual, auditory or kinaesthetic) learners or activities. Now, years since my training, there have been a ton of research and commentary debunking learning styles as nonsense and it some cases hurtful to student’s learning.

Is it all wrong?

Though, on the other hand, are there examples of good research that have been misinterpreted? I believe this to be the case with formative assessment which rose to fame by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliams as AFL (Assessment for Learning). In some corners there has been a huge push to wipe AFL out of existence – learning objectives are a waste of time, strategies such coloured cones, thumbs up are distracting as they are more about doing than learning or plenaries are merely a tick box exercise. And, in short, yes, I believe that these views are valid but on the basis that the research has been widely misinterpreted, teachers wrongly trained, therefore, AFL poorly executed.

It is misguided to have a policy in place to have every lesson objective recorded in student’s exercise books, three or four mini-plenaries being injected in throughout a lesson and coloured cards being used to check whether students feel that understand but that does not mean the research is bad. Dylan Wiliams (and colleagues) research does suggest clear learning intentions, progress check points and a range of activities to elicit learning do work to improve teaching quality but it’s not easy and there is no single approach. Therefore, it’s the application and execution of the research to classroom practice that is the concern. AFL hit the teaching world too fast, whereas, a slow, methodical, pragmatic approach to AFL can work.

Times are changing

I feel that education is in transition in terms of evidence-based research and practice. It needs careful consideration and time invested to ensure that teachers are trained appropriately and outcomes are actively evaluated. Every school is different and different strategies will have different results, therefore, “Control C, Control V” mentality to improve teaching and learning is ineffective and unhelpful.

More importantly, we as a profession (from teacher trainers, to leaders, to classroom teachers) need to ask “why?” more often. How would have Edgar Dale’s work been saved? Would learning styles have lasted as long as it did? And can AFL be rebooted to serve its original mission?

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