Pedagogical Zombies

Teaching is no stranger to the littered landscape of ghastly ghouls and spirits that creep in and out of classrooms whispering spells of learning styles and multiple intelligences. Many get whisked away by the ghost of classroom past to watch lesson after lesson wasted on classroom myths, half-truths and the works of charlatans pushing a dying agenda. Yet, still they operate under the quack’s spell.  It is not uncommon for new teacher trainee courses, professional development courses and many teacher led events to be riddled with tales of Dale’s Learning Pyramid and Bloom’s taxonomy with no challenge. It can be forgiven that many enablers are well-intentioned but most have surrendered to the night of the walking dead. Fears of their senior leader’s scythe of debunked research or the threat of Ofsted paralyses them into raising the white flag joining the pedagogical zombie army.

The zombie appeal drags the educated and otherwise sane victims into the darkness. It feels safe, supportive and well intentioned. The heart of the movement beats with pupils at the centre and their message sounds “good” and anyone who challenges them must, of course, hate children. It starts with the grievance of the curriculum and how it has moved away from the child with too much focus on knowledge or sometimes coined as “elitism”. The zombie appeal may insist that differentiation must meet the needs of every child regardless of the gaps it nevertheless creates in children’s knowledge or the wellbeing of the teacher. It manifests into a necessary need to mark everything in sight to uncover the mystical unicorn of pupil progress or even soul sapping interventions of support from senior leaders who may use a stop watch to time teacher talk. And then all are trained in set zombie verses of “it works for me”, “the pupils can just google it”, “pupils first”, “it must be the teacher’s planning” and “they must hate children”. The blind faith of the pedagogical zombie’s army causes a stalemate in progress. Their refusal to engage in challenge or forward thinking practises polarises the education debate dragging down rapid progress to baby steps and results in the spawning back from the dead of myths that simply don’t work and have already been debunked – some for decades.

One such zombie practice is the use of Dale’s Learning Pyramid or sometimes known as Dale’s Cone. It is a popular reference to discourage directed learning from the teacher in the classroom. The learning pyramid perfectly demonstrates the progressive belief that the teacher is merely a facilitator of knowledge and true transmission of learning is experienced or discovered. The cone suggests that only 5% of what a pupil hears is retained whereas discussion group, practice by doing and teaching others greatly helps pupil retain learning up to 90%. The message is clear – stop lecturing and let pupils discover through collaborative learning. However, not only has the study been completely debunked but even the author, Edgar Dale, tried to stop his work being used incorrectly but to no avail.

Staying with pyramid shapes (Zombies must be visual learners), zombies love to use Bloom’s Taxonomy to diminish the importance of knowledge. Bloom’s work suggests that there is a classification of learning to support and strengthen pupil understanding – knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Whereas, Benjamin Bloom initially set out to support curriculum assessment and to provide options it has now otherwise been adopted by those who see it as a hierarchy of terms in which knowledge sits firmly at the bottom. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a useful tool that has now been demoted to organising teacher questions to avoid knowledge questions. This is because knowledge questions are considered as weaker, closed off questions; therefore, more emphasis is placed on the impression of stretching pupils to the top of the pyramid – evaluation. However, a zombie is quick to miss that evaluation is comparing two sets of knowledge, therefore knowledge is not at the “bottom” of learning but the foundation.

We can continue with the pyramid game to challenge Maslov’s hierarchy of needs pyramid but a more pressing zombie myth is that pupils have a certain learning style. Although learning styles on the face of it might appear intuitive as we are better at certain ways of learning than others, it does not mean it is a predetermined fixed personalised learning method. Further there is no evidence to support it. To make matters worse, it does the opposite of supporting pupil learning. Instead, it can introduce excuses to pupil underperformance subsequently impeding on a pupil’s long term potential. Yet, it still common to hear of teacher training courses expecting lesson plans to include visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning opportunities for pupils. Only recently it crept back into my school. I only discovered the intruder when a lesson plan (not required) was handed to me before a lesson observation. The plan not only comprised of learning style activities under the labels (VAK) but also included must, could, should statements and personal learning skills (PeLTS). It was quickly eliminated.

There are many other examples of pedagogical Zombie practices that are slowing down progress in the classroom. These not only have zero to some cases negative impact for pupils, but the actual strain on teachers has recently been reported. Fanatical beliefs about marking and feedback leading to triple marking, extensive written feedback, yellow box marking, DIRT and Mad Time policies are draining the life out of staff. High intensity, low impact strategies shackle creativity and cage common sense. Yet, there are still schools who believe that engagement always leads to learning, pupil progress is visible in one lesson and that the some pupils are right brain and others are left. Which is somewhat concerning is that it continues despite the fact science has debunked many of those myths and is opening new doors to how we learn.

Old and new science findings have begun to surface, shedding light on the walking dead. These new thrillers are starting to fight back and planting firm roots in our planning. Zombie hunters are gaining traction with a growing number of teachers and schools unplugging from zombie views and beginning to realise that learning is not always about being glamourous but pragmatic and more complex than previously considered. The belief system that only fun, spoon-feeding over differentiated lessons is starting to dry up with debates taking place on the importance of concrete knowledge, the design of curriculum planning with space learning techniques, the testing effect and cognitive load theory.

Nonetheless, there needs to be some caution when using new and old concepts. Ideas can quickly be wrongly interpreted and manipulated to become zombie pedagogy. Something similar happened with assessment for learning which quickly turned from a useful tool that needed careful planning to a commercialised over-branded “cure-all juggernaut” that led to the writing of every lesson objective, checking progress every five minutes and over emphasis on the pace of learning. More work is needed between the researchers and teachers to control the zombie feeding ground of sensationalism and virtue signalling so that we can having a lighted path free from pedagogical zombies to support the learning and progress of all pupils.