Learning styles – the greatest trick the devil ever trained

It wasn’t so long ago that training teachers in the UK were taught almost entirely uncritically to use learning modalities (learning styles) like VAK as an allegedly ‘evidence-informed’ way to help students learn. How wrong they were. Jennifer Beattie, a teacher from East London, takes a trip down memory lane and recalls how common it was even in her career – and still could be if we’re not careful.

Recently, I was involved in a discussion on edu-Twitter with teachers who were reflecting on their training. A significant number of them were critical of the fact that certain aspects of pedagogy that they’d been trained in had not stood the test of time. Being professionals, we recognise how training evolves and practices change. What trainees are being told to do today could well not exist in a few years’ time. The concept of VAK learning styles (visual, auditory and kinaesthetic), however, somehow stills continues to spark debate, despite us all knowing that making your teaching resources visual, auditory and kinaesthetic would be as helpful to pupil progress as it would be to make your resources about Love Island or Fortnite. I understand why the idea still exists. It’s a comfortable way of attempting to deal with an uncomfortable truth: not all pupils learn and make progress at the same rate.

Making your teaching resources visual, auditory and kinaesthetic would be as helpful as making them about Love Island or Fortnite

Yet, I have to admit that I believed in learning styles whilst training – and still for a large part of my early teaching career. I recognise that my ITT experience is simply reflective of what Ofsted (the UK school inspectorate) and the DFES (the then Department for Education and Skills) wanted at the time and my course tutors were simply channelling that into us. That time was 2007; that progressive era of, notably, ‘The One-off Outstanding Lesson’, mini plenaries, student-led ‘discovery learning’, Brain Gym and P4C (Philosophy for Children).

With the aim of reminding myself why I was such a devout believer of VAK back then, I dusted off my QTS Standards folders and books. I found one, entitled Learning and Teaching in Secondary Schools. In it, there were six pages devoted to learning styles and ‘multiple intelligences’. Of these six pages, nine lines were given over to ‘Learning Styles; a critique’, where the writer admits that it is, actually, very difficult to define learning in such different ways. This isn’t developed further in the book.

What I find most incredible in these pages is that they mention a possible ‘mismatch’ between a student’s ‘preferred learning style’ and the tasks they face from the teacher. It’s outrageous to tell new entrants to the profession that a possible reason why a pupil isn’t learning is because the teacher hasn’t engaged with the student’s preferred learning style. I can only imagine the sheer number of PGCE student hours wasted, trying to make that elusive, ‘engaging’ resource which will appeal to all sorts of learners. I know this because I did it.

When I think back to the time taken up with trying to make things like the ‘passé composé’ kinaesthetic (‘Right, let’s MOVE the pronouns and auxiliary verbs that I’ve spent hours laminating for you all, shall we, class?’), I reflect that I could have actually been learning ways to explain it better and give pupils adequate, robust practice. No wonder I am exasperated with having been caught in the nonsense of it all.

Furthermore, in my professional standards portfolio, much of the evidence I gathered to prove I’d met a particular standard comprised of lesson plans with VAK ideas and resources. As a trainee, the lesson plan pro forma had a box specifically for planning and detailing your VAK resources to be used. But, were trainees explicitly told to include VAK learning styles in order to gain Qualified Teacher Status? In the 2007–08 Standards, there was a real emphasis on ‘personalising learning’. Trainees were told that you should plan your lessons to engage with all pupils’ individual learning styles and preferences. This turned into tutors expecting to see VAK on every trainee lesson plan. Even the training book mentioned earlier issued a stark ‘warning’ about it:

‘In order to progress towards meeting the Standards for the Award of Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) it is important that beginning teachers are aware of the different learning styles that might exist in their classes and what might be some characteristics of individual learning preferences.’

I have been asked why I am now so critical of VAK, when I wasn’t ten years ago. Well, for one thing, experience. Experience as a teacher has shown me that telling pupils the rule about the past tense in French gets you better results than making a game of it. Experience has shown me that telling the pupils what a word means gets you a quicker result than making a ‘card sort’ game. I didn’t have this experience ten years ago: there wasn’t much research debunking it; and when someone tells you that you have to include it in your lesson plans and observed lessons to meet the standards, in all likelihood you’re going to do it!

So, while this was a brief, nostalgic look back at what it was like to be fully submerged in the VAK pseudoscience of 2007, it is important that, as teachers, we don’t allow it back in. I still see a lot of new entrants to the profession worry about why some pupils aren’t ‘getting it’ and some of the advice dispensed encourages them to try matching their teaching and learning activities to their students’ different styles of learning. We cannot allow more trainee and NQT hours to be spent trying to create ‘perfect’ lesson resources. The best resource, for any lesson, is the teacher.

Education, literature and the paradox of ‘the whole child’

Professor Robert Davis of the University of Glasgow writes a poignant reflection on the Plowden report, which defined the era of child-centred education for the generation for which it was written – and for decades to come.

2017 was the 50th anniversary of the Plowden Report (Children and their Primary Schools), a landmark document in the history of 20th-century progressivism, which announced major reforms in curriculum and pedagogy across the schools of the United Kingdom and which echoed powerful modernising impulses elsewhere in the developed world. The elusive search for the origins of ‘progressive education’ has led some historians to question its entire viability as a concept for capturing an undeniably broad and piecemeal diversity of 20th-century educational innovations. Nevertheless, wherever we trace its roots, it seems clear that a number of key concepts steadily became dominant in educational thought on both sides of the Atlantic between 1920 and 1960 (to the undoubted reproach of the didactic models of learning and teaching that had monopolised schools since the coming of state-sponsored mass education to the industrial nations in the closing decades of the 19th century). Paramount among these supposedly ‘new’ ideas was the discourse of ‘child-centredness’, and the language of the ‘whole child’ – each among the first phrases, incidentally, to excite the scepticism of philosophers of education such as R.S. Peters and Robert Deardon of the Institute of Education in London in the first issues of the Journal of Philosophy of Education in the middle and late 1960s.

Like ‘progressive education’, the terms ‘child-centredness’ and the ‘whole child’ already possessed, by the 1960s, a complex pedigree. Rousseau’s direct influence in the late 18th century on (most significantly) Johann Pestalozzi had succeeded in embedding the concepts by the 1820s very explicitly in radical philosophies of, particularly, infant education across Europe and into parts of North America. By the end of that decade, Robert Owen and Friedrich Froebel were each campaigning vigorously in Britain and Germany on behalf of the revolutionary ‘kindergarden’ or nursery movement, where learning and teaching for very young children would be centred upon play and led by the interests and inclinations of the child rather than (in Froebel’s model especially) the direction of the teacher. Owen’s British experiments were destined to end in defeat at the hands the traditionalist opposition of church and state, while Froebel’s spectacularly successful kindergarden networks nevertheless saw the language of child-centredness carefully cordoned into the specialist pre-5 environment where his thinking and reputation took root, with consequently very little impact on the expanding compulsory sectors.

Nevertheless, it is safe to say that more inclusive notions of ‘child-centredness’ and the ‘whole child’ sustained a kind of subterranean afterlife throughout the later 19th century in radical educational circles in Britain. Such ideas resurfaced in a series of immensely important government enquiries chaired by W.H. Hadow in 1926, 1931 and 1933 that heavily criticised the Victorian approaches to learning and teaching – then still prevalent in UK primary and secondary schools. The ’31 document (which approvingly referenced Owen and New Lanark) declared:

We desire to see the child as an active agent in his early schooling, making … an active participation in its process, through his own experiences and his own activities, and relating his growing knowledge at all points to the world in which he lives.

Although these ideas were to be eclipsed by more pressing domestic and international anxieties as the 1930s unfolded, they survived as a subversive memory – a hope, indeed – in British educational thought until a more welcoming climate emerged with the onset of the Swinging Sixties. This period heralded the rise of a new metropolitan youth culture and the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour governments in 1964 and 1966 on a platform that included far-reaching educational reform. Bridget Plowden was actually commissioned to conduct her investigations into English schools by the outgoing Conservative Government in 1963; but under the direction of the new Labour Education Secretary, the socialist intellectual Anthony Crosland, the egalitarian mission of the enquiry was very significantly radicalised. Crosland and his advisors had in turn been deeply influenced by the central, supposedly scientific justification for the doctrine of child-centredness provided between 1930 and 1960 by Jean Piaget’s model of developmentalism.

Contemporary ‘neo-traditionalists’ mock Piagetian theory for what they see as its poor empirical evidence base, but Peters, Deardon and others discerned at the time a deeper problem. On the one hand, the new mid-20th-century progressivist discipline of ‘educational psychology’ was advocating an optimistic, unfettered view of the child’s predisposition for learning perfectly aligned with Plowden’s reformed pedagogy. But on the other, the work of some of the most influential psychologists and anthropologists of the time was describing a quite different child secreted at the heart of modern society: an anxious, troubled, aggressive creature trapped in the gothic Freudian-Kleinian struggles of the family romance, or self-centredly and unempathetically striving for dominance over rivals in the pursuit of its appetites and an obviously unappeasable desire for security. It was for this reason that the earlier Hull House experiments of John Dewey in Chicago had eventually repudiated the dominant American Froebelian conception of the kindergarden as a reproduction of the domestic emotional ambience of the family, in favour of the rigorous cosmopolitan practices of the ‘peer group’ and the ‘school community’ supposedly so critical to the fortunes of an essentially immigrant society. If the family is intrinsically psychodynamically maladaptive, Dewey had argued, effective education could not possibly proceed from the imitation of its affective life or its understanding of the child. The 1960s were also, we should recall, the era of Phillipe Ariès’s Centuries of Childhood, which in bowdlerised form had found its way into the textbooks of many caring-profession diploma and degree programmes – instructing intending nurses, doctors, teachers, social workers that childhood and the nuclear family were contingent, bourgeois ideological constructions of the very bureaucracies they were training to serve. The extraordinarily popular Scottish psychiatrist Ronnie (‘R.D.’) Laing, a media hero of many ’60s ‘liberation’ movements, turned most vitriolically on the family and its supporting institutions, denouncing them as the cradle of injustice, oppression and patriarchy, producing only damaged children and frustrated adults, and against which schizophrenia was a perfectly valid emancipatory protest.

Even Piaget himself became part of this same malaise through the use in his writings of a concept for the description of early childhood which he later came to regret: egocentrism. Now for Piaget, the term was confined to the description of purely epistemological processes, not affective or moral states. But in the psychoanalytic climate of the period, it is unsurprising that it was swiftly mobilised for estranging and othering children, culminating in the notorious observation in the best-selling mid-century teacher training manual by Hughes and Hughes, Learning and Teaching, that ‘it is well known that young children are, as a general rule, determined little egotists’. A host of popular and influential figures – led by high-profile academics such as Bowlby, Winnicott and Gesell – compounded this problem by foregrounding a developing child characterised by innate aggression, violent fantasies of control and group destructiveness. There were variants within this literature, across gender, age-band and social class especially, but the trends remained consistent; and such was the prestige of these authorities that their ideas routinely migrated into formal guidance for schools, teachers and even parents.

These difficulties were of course cultural as well as educational, and their cultural dimensions have been so far largely neglected in the critical assessment of the coming of Plowden progressivism. But Plowden both reflected and stimulated a new climate in teacher education in which the study of, for example, children’s literature was earnestly cultivated for both aspiring teachers and their pupils as a potent antidote to the previous supposedly failed models of instructional literacy. This was also pivotal, of course, to the success of any effort to export child-centredness beyond the pre-literate, pre-compulsory confines of the nursery into the later stages of childhood. Hence the education of the ‘whole child’ championed by Plowden in England, and by the so-called 1965 Primary Memorandum in Scotland, would abandon in schools the force-fed language training and decontextualised literary comprehension extracts of the old system in favour of the ‘real books’ and the appreciation of valuable works of literature to which children and young people might be instinctively attracted when shared appropriately with them by their suitably well-read and sincerely ‘child-centred’ teachers. This is a principle that has of course remained absolutely central to mainstream literacy teaching in most democratic education systems for the past 50 years, and the examination of Plowden advanced in this analysis does not seek to overturn it. But just as the 1960s psychological messages to beginning teachers from their formal programmes of study (as well as their surrounding culture) were paradoxical ones, so also the otherwise salutary advocacy to them of high-quality children’s literature was also singularly ambivalent.

Some of the finest books for children and young people that accompanied the Plowden Report off the printing presses of 1967 and 1968 dealt candidly with experiences of childhood and youth which – reflective no doubt of the volatile, contradictory tensions in that same surrounding society – were rarely celebrated for the presentation of ‘whole’ children or of benign, ‘child-centred’ environments. Leon Garfield’s Carnegie-honoured and hugely popular Smith (1967) described a deprived Regency pauper childhood of exploitation and treachery, where childhood is neither special nor valued and where the pursuit of a defining trust (a cornerstone assumption of progressivism) between adults and children is as elusive as the literacy which – when eventually acquired – simultaneously empowers and mortally imperils the central character. In the same vein, the Carnegie Medal Winner of 1967 – and certainly one of the best and most influential children’s books of the last 50 years – Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, presented a dark vision of childhood forever in thrall to the sins and repetition-compulsions of the adult generation, condemned interminably to repeat the same cycle of errors and betrayals across the epochs regardless of environment or circumstance.

The Owl Service also audaciously probed further into the cultural territory in which Plowden’s optimistic account of childhood, and adult-child relations, had pitched its claims. As well as highlighting an almost genetic taint passed across the generations, and destined to pollute indelibly the faltering communications between adults and children, The Owl Service engaged with the experience of ‘youth’ – just at a time, indeed, when this fugitive cultural category was beginning to overtake ‘childhood’ as the primary focus of 1960s educational solicitude and artistic preoccupation. Garner daringly highlights single-parent and blended families stamped by class, regional, linguistic and postcolonial ethnic divisions. The novel also famously unleashes intense sibling and sexual rivalry into the narrative, in forms darkly reminiscent of the forces claimed by the influential analytical psychologists of the time to be pervasive and determinant in the lives of children and young people. There is, of course, a moment of redemption in The Owl Service: a terminal renunciation by one of the central characters, the priggish Roger, which finally rescues the doomed Alison from the vindictive clutches of the past. But it comes at immense cost, with the socially and ethnically excluded Gwyn left both unreconciled and in full possession of the ineradicable knowledge of his family’s myriad ancestral crimes.

Even those children’s books of ’67–’68 – popular in both wider society and the expanding network of teacher training institutions which focused directly on the experience of school, or of simply becoming educated – rarely presented these settings in benevolent, ‘child-centred’ terms. Barry Hines’s 1968 A Kestrel for a Knave – memorably adapted as the Ken Loach film Kes (and thereafter often taught in schools too) – described somber northern English schools marked by casual violence, bullying, extreme physical punishment, routine humiliation and the pervasive alienation of pupils and teachers. Even the teacher with a heart in the novel, Mr Farthing, can only seriously identify with the central character Billy around the nurture of the kestrel – the injured bird with which the boy has bonded standing for the brief moments of flight from his bleak domestic and educational existence. Hines’s contribution in Kes stood with a group of important writers for children reminding the ’60s generation, and the large teacher-influx within it, that many working-class schools in Britain operated in ways far removed from Plowden’s principles, serving children and young people whose lives, learning and identities were far from ‘whole’ or integrated.

The pursuit of such ‘wholeness of being’ marks another text hugely popular with late-’60s readerships and which in the decades since has only accrued increased esteem and recognition. The late Ursula Le Guin’s 1968 A Wizard of Earthsea was a gift to the grammar-school Tolkien generation, flush with the countercultural values that were sustaining the environmental movement, hippiedom, the anti-Vietnam protests and the idealism of the Summer of Love. Earthsea was instantly celebrated for its retrained ecocentrism, its laid-back Zen-style wisdom of naming and knowing and its invocation of alternative styles of archipelagic working and being closer to nature and other living things. Insofar as Earthsea is an intrinsically educational text – concerned with the training and instruction of the boy-mage prodigy Ged at an elite wizard school – all of its conditions at first seem ideal for a child-centred, holistic conception of learning and personal discovery of precisely the type envisaged by Plowden and its related literature. Yet, as we know, Ged’s education takes an unexpectedly malevolent turn, when from his unquenchable curiosity and juvenile individualism (qualities unstintingly celebrated in progressivist literature) he inadvertently unleashes the destructive havoc of a shadow creature – and which he, maimed and incapacitated, must spend the rest of the novel seeking to undo. Earthsea, thereafter, becomes a kind of bildungsroman – a journey of the traumatised Ged into the realms of Earthsea beyond the confines of even this most inclusive, holistic society where he can begin his education again and in an entirely altered and humbled state of mind. We might go so far as to say that Ged needs to become a decentred learner, whose brokenness and injury take the focus away from him and on to the setting and the personalities whose needs he must learn to serve with his impaired magical talents. This shift in perspective is most fully underlined at the climax of the story, where reader and protagonist each discover that the abomination Ged must seek to recapture and subdue is the abject, refractory elements of his own self, sharing his name and his identity:

Alone and clearly, breaking that old silence, Ged spoke the shadow’s name,

And in the same moment the shadow spoke without lips or tongue, saying thesame word: ‘Ged’. And the two voices were one voice.

Alone and clearly – I emphatically do not invoke Earthsea or any other of these novels as a casual repudiation of Plowden or any other investment in child-centredness, yesterday or today. I wish only to suggest here that the social, cultural, and literary ambiguities of 50 years ago, like those of the present time, require that we think through – again and again – the emblematic educational slogans of every era in which we practise our professions, recognising that the resources of art and literature can assist us immeasurably with the task of understanding the inevitable incompleteness and vulnerability of ourselves and of the children and young people in the classrooms before us.

Myth-Busting: Gardner’s multiple intelligences

Every issue, Dr Pedro De Bruyckere takes aim at a common educational theory and summarises the evidence for and against it. This time, it’s Gardner’s multiple intelligences in the hot seat.

There is some truth in every lie: multiple intelligences

In the last issue of researchED magazine, I discussed the grains of truth inside the learning styles theory and I’d like to follow that with something that is often mistakenly used as a kind of learning styles theory: the multiple intelligences theory by Howard Gardner.

What does it state? That we should look to more than just IQ in education. Gardner thought it too narrow to see ‘intelligence’ as one single thing. So he added different modalities of intelligence, such as:

  • musical-rhythmic
  • visual-spatial
  • verbal-linguistic
  • logical-mathematical
  • bodily-kinaesthetic
  • interpersonal
  • intrapersonal
  • naturalistic

This list has been adapted a few times; somebody even suggested adding gastronomic intelligence.

In an interview with Kathy Checkley in 1997,1 Gardner explained that this theory shouldn’t be used as a learning style approach:

A myth that irritates me is that people place my intelligences on the same footing as learning styles. Learning styles say something about how people approach everything they do. If you are good at planning, people expect you to have a plan for everything you do. My own research and observations lead me to suspect that this is a wrong assumption.

But there are more issues than this. In my book,2 we’ve already debunked this theory; but little did we know that Howard Gardner would drop a tiny bombshell a bit later in a kind of memoir looking back at his academic life.

I want to share with you three telling quotes by the man himself. One of our criticisms was that the word ‘intelligence’ is a bad choice as it suggests a predictive power – which Gardner’s theory does not have. Now Gardner explains:3

I termed the resulting categories ‘intelligences’ rather than talents. In so doing, I challenged those psychologists who believed that they owned the word ‘intelligence’ and had a monopoly on its definition and measurement. If I had written about human talents, rather than intelligences, I probably would not have been asked to contribute to this volume.

Ok…but it gets worse. Did he test his theory?

I readily admit that the theory is no longer current. Several fields of knowledge have advanced significantly since the early 1980s.

Nor, indeed, have I carried out experiments designed to test the theory. This has led some critics to declare that my theory is not empirical. That charge is baloney! The theory is not experimental in the traditional sense (as was my earlier work with brain-damaged patients); but it is strictly empirical, drawing on hundreds of findings from half-a-dozen fields of science.

Oh, but should his theory be used today? Well, again, Gardner himself:

At the same time, I readily admit that the theory is no longer current. Several fields of knowledge have advanced significantly since the early 1980s. Any reinvigoration of the theory would require a survey similar to the one that colleagues and I carried out thirty-five years ago. Whether or not I ever carry out such an update, I encourage others to do so.

And that is because I am no longer wedded to the particular list of intelligences that I initially developed. 

Myth-busting multiple intelligences this time requires only that we use the original author himself. Now for the truth inside the myth. Even in our book, we don’t want to call this theory a complete myth, but instead label it as ‘nuanced’. Why? Well, the basic idea behind this theory is that people are different, and maybe you’ve noticed – they really are. People have different interests, different abilities, different moods, etc.

So, for example, taking into account the difference pupils have in their prior knowledge can be very productive for their learning. When pupils have less prior knowledge, for example, a more teacher-directed approach could be warranted.4


Checkley, K. (1997) ‘The first seven…and the eighth: a conversation with Howard Gardner’, Educational Leadership 55 (1) pp. 8–13.

De Bruyckere, P., Kirschner, P. A. and Hulshof, C. D. (2015) Urban myths about learning and education. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press.

Gardner, H. (2016) ‘Multiple intelligences: prelude, theory, and aftermath’ in Sternberg, R. J., Fiske, S. T. and Foss, D. J. (eds) Scientists making a difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 167–170.

For example: Yates, G. C. and Hattie, J. (2013) Visible learning and the science of how we learn. London: Routledge.

See also: Ritchie, S. (2015) Intelligence: all that matters. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Kia ora, researchED

Briar Lipson is a research fellow at the New Zealand Initiative in Wellington. Before that she was an assistant principal and maths teacher in London. Here she writes about why she was inspired to campaign for more evidence-informed education, and how she brought researchED to Auckland.

The list of past researchED speakers includes many of my heroes. These are the people who taught me to expect all children to learn to read; how to take back my evenings and weekends; and why knowledge precedes expertise.

So when I left my London classroom for a job in New Zealand, I folded away my autograph book alongside my underground Oyster card.

Historically, New Zealand ranked highly in the international league tables of educational performance. But it no longer does. Real scores and equity have been falling for some 15 years.1

And most worrying of all, there is no consensus about why.

And so, less than a year after arriving, I dusted down my autograph book and brought researchED to New Zealand.

A little country background

Since 1989, New Zealand has operated a devolved administrative model called Tomorrow’s Schools. This hands school management and accountability to communities, through local Boards of Trustees. But national, standardised assessments are hardly used. This means perceptions of schools’ quality rely on other, questionable proxies – like the socioeconomic make up of the intake, or the availability of IT.

According to the Ministry of Education, the New Zealand curriculum (NZC) is world-leading.2 Its ‘front end’ describes the vision, principles, values and key competencies to which schools should align their curriculum planning:

  • Principles like future focus, community engagement, and learning to learn
  • Values like equity and ecological sustainability
  • Key competencies like thinking and managing self

Its ‘back end’ details ‘light-touch’ achievement objectives for Years 1 through 13. For example, Year 8 and 9 Social Sciences constitutes seven generic statements including: ‘Understand that events have causes and effects’ and ‘Understand how people participate individually and collectively in response to community challenges.’ Beyond this kind of high-level guidance, schools decide what and how much to teach.

Introduced in 2002, New Zealand’s only national assessment is its end of secondary school certificate, NCEA. And like the NZC, NCEA is wide open to interpretation. Under NCEA, subjects from Meat Processing to Mathematics attract equal esteem.3 Pupils and schools can select the parts of subjects for assessment, e.g. integration but not differentiation. And most assessments are ‘internal’, meaning classroom teachers design, deliver and mark them. It is possible to achieve NCEA avoiding external exams altogether. And even where exams are used, in many subjects questions hardly change from year to year.4

Finally, despite the devolved management model, the Ministry of Education still works with schools in various ways. For example, when funding new school buildings and refurbishments it assumes they will be flexible, open spaces. The materials it provides to support curriculum delivery emphasise personalised learning and ‘the rethinking of learners’ and teachers’ roles’.5 The Ministry also provides targeted funding to schools to run Reading Recovery.6 This ‘whole language’ approach to reading is owned by the University of Auckland.

And so, with some notable exceptions, policy settings here encourage diverse approaches. But without data, teachers cannot identify the schools and colleagues from which the best lessons can be learnt.

When teaching in England, I used standardised, nationally collated data to identify neighbouring schools (and even classrooms) with similar intakes but better outcomes in, say, Year 11 maths, or early literacy. This guided where I went for professional development. In New Zealand, whether you’re a teacher or the minister, there is no reliable way to locate the schools from which you can learn. Collaboration is minimal. And where it does happen, teachers run the risk of ‘learning’ that makes their teaching worse.

Complex questions proliferate in education; all the more so in a former British dominion where underachievement is worst among native Māori and Pasifika children. Untangling the parts of complex problems that are answerable with science, from those that rely on value judgements, is essential. And this is where researchED comes in.

researchED NZ

In late 2017, Tom agreed to fly to New Zealand for four days in June. It was a reasonably mad idea even back then, and not only because I was starting maternity leave in April.

But it turns out that if there are seven degrees of separation worldwide, where researchED is concerned there are notably less! No sooner had I approached Auckland Grammar School about hosting, but I had found a fellow researchED enthusiast – their brilliant Teaching and Learning leader, Dr John Etty.

With this boost under my already bulging belt I put the word out to my nascent networks. The quantity and quality of session submissions was inspiring.

Complex questions proliferate in education.Untangling complex problems that are answerable with science from those that rely on value judgements is essential. And this is where researchED comes in.

New Zealand’s population may be smaller than Yorkshire’s, but by the time the event rolled around there were 240 attendees, and 28 expert speakers, including:

  • Four early literacy and phonics specialists, from England, Australia and New Zealand.
  • Three researchers from Auckland University’s Knowledge in Education Research Unit (KERU).
  • Two Teach First NZ teachers on how standards-based teaching impacts the English classroom.
  • The headmistress of one of London’s most transformational schools.
  • A Victoria University academic on cognitive automaticity in maths.
  • The former director of Auckland University’s Starpath project on the factors that enable Māori and Pasifika students to get into university.
  • Four teachers (then unknown to me) from a school in the far north, on their journey to using evidence from cognitive science and quantitative research.

Since that day, KERU has launched The New Zealand Knowledge Curriculum Research Project. At least six attendees have started blogging; and many more are writing in the press. Our Minister has sought the voices of a wider group of experts in his consultation over changes to assessment. And the NZ edu-Twittersphere grows by the day.

Kiwis are humblingly friendly, and refreshingly laid back. However, while attendees to researchED NZ lived up to the first stereotype, on the latter they most certainly did not. After 15 years of falling outcomes and rising inequity, they were impassioned and hungry for evidence and fearless honesty.

If you have been inspired by Briar’s story and want to host a researchED event of your own, get in touch with us at


1. www.goo.gl/ZZwmpe p. 13

2. www.goo.gl/mtaAv6 p. 20

3. www.goo.gl/rYssg4 p. 76

4. Ibid., Table 9, p. 62

5. www.goo.gl/RTQ9hU

6. www.goo.gl/x7R2f8

Cracking the learning code

Naveen Rizvi, a teacher of maths at Great Yarwood Charter Academy, discusses why she is committed to using direct instruction in her classroom

Connecting Maths Concepts (CMC) is a mathematics direct instruction (DI) programme. It is a packaged resource which includes a teacher-scripted presentation book, additional teacher guides for instructional strategies, pupil textbooks and workbooks with an answer key, as well as additional placement tests to provide extra worksheets for pupils who require more practice.

I used this textbook series as a remedial programme for intervention with Year 7 and Year 8 while at Michaela Community School. The CMC textbooks changed my understanding of mathematics and made me appreciate the intricate and expertly designed structure of DI. More importantly, it closed the most fundamental knowledge gaps the weakest pupils had and accelerated their learning in their mainstream lessons.

CMC has been shaped through extensive field testing. It is different from traditional study programmes because the field-test philosophy of CMC is that ‘if teachers or students have trouble with material presented, the program is at fault’.1 To ensure that there is no fault with the programme, DI requires there to be a significant amount of attention to all aspects of the teaching process.2 The programme strives to be faultless and it is accepted that ‘if any one element of instruction is not done well, high-quality instruction in other areas may not compensate for it’.3

CMC provides resources for the teacher and pupils which have been designed so all aspects of the teaching process have been catered for.4 These aspects consist of three main components of DI which allow all children to learn effectively and efficiently:5

  1. Programme design
  2. Organisation of instruction
  3. Student-teacher interaction techniques

There are many great books and papers that eloquently discuss DI; this is a brief summary of one of the three components of DI – programme design – and its five elements.

1) Analysing the content matter

DI’s goal ‘is to teach generalised skills’.6 For this to be possible, the concepts, rules and teaching strategies must be identified.

For example, a concept identified and taught in the Level D programme is how to state a fraction from a diagram where one or more shapes are split into an equal number of parts. This concept will provide a strategy to be able to state a fraction from a number line. The concept has been taught in both forms so pupils can gain a generalised strategy to apply to the widest possible range of examples. This strategy will allow pupils to express a mixed number on a number line or show that two fractions are equivalent using a diagram, or be able to add fractions with common denominators which sum to 1.

Identifying the content matter of a concept is the first step of programme design.

2) Clear communication

Given that the content matter has been identified, the second aspect of programme design is clear communication. This means creating an instructional sequence that empowers pupils to apply a generalised strategy in a wide range of examples.7 One part of this is called ‘general case programming’, where instruction is designed to communicate one and only one meaning, for all situations.8

For example, the Level D programme communicates how to state a fraction from a diagram like this:

The top number is the total number of shaded pieces. The bottom number is the total number of pieces in one unit.

This instruction didn’t change at any point throughout the textbook when they were learning this skill, or a future skill which required pupils to state a fraction from a diagram. More importantly, this strategy works for all problem types: a proper fraction, an improper fraction, or a fraction which simplifies to 1.

This is the same language which is used when stating a fraction from a number line. The instruction deliberately uses the language ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ rather than ‘numerator’ and ‘denominator’ because it is learner-friendly instruction. The same wording is used throughout. 9

3) Instructional formats

Next, instructional formats are created, based on the concepts, rules and strategies to be taught, and clear communication used to teach pupils a generalisable strategy. Format refers to the way a teacher presents each question or explanation. The scripted teacher presentation book is very helpful in providing each explanation for a concept which allows them to use ‘effective, well-designed and precise language to communicate clearly with all students’.10 In terms of the questions, the initial format of a set of questions will be structured to support pupils but then the format changes so pupils can apply their understanding independently.

For example, here is the transition between a sequence of exercises over four lessons where pupils learn how to state a fraction from a diagram.

The format of the exercise has changed. The first set is focused on the use of a shape. The second set includes questions where the fraction can simplify to an integer. The third set is a mixture of number lines and diagrams. The fourth set is a mixture of diagrams and number lines where there is only one part between each integer.

The initial support is vitally important because it ensures a high level of success and then with each exercise the process of ‘fading’ the format comes into play: the format goes from ‘highly supportive to highly independent’.12

Practice exercises from Level D CMC textbook series (11)

4) Sequence of skills

The sequence in which skills are taught can dictate how successful the learning process is because skills are then practised continuously.13 Eventually, the sequence also allows pupils to apply a generalisable strategy to deal with exceptional situations too. For example, the skill of stating a fraction from a diagram is covered in 40 consecutive lessons in one form or another, ensuring a skill learnt in one lesson is used in subsequent lessons. The continual review of one skill allows pupils to develop automaticity, and so ‘re-teaching’ is unnecessary.14 The alternative is teaching a skill which isn’t reviewed in the future, which means a pupil’s understanding of that skill deteriorates and re-teaching is required.15

CMC provides resources for the teacher and pupils which have been designed so all aspects of the teaching process have been catered for. These aspects consist of three main components of DI which allow all children to learn effectively and efficiently.

5) Track organisation

A track is an organisational framework where one skill is developed over multiple lessons. For each skill practised there is a track, and this means that in one lesson about 4–5 skills are included, instead of a narrow focus on a single new learning objective occupying the entire lesson.16

This way DI ‘can extend the teaching and practice of a skill across many lessons and weave prerequisite skill tracks into the tracks that integrate these skills into more complex strategies’.17 Each skill is developed with only one small change at a time to avoid pupils becoming overwhelmed with a large quantity of new information.18 This allows pupils to learn new concepts effectively and efficiently.

CMC is an extraordinary resource which has helped pupils learn more in less time. CMC demonstrates that ‘higher-order thinking depends on the mastery of more basic skills and involves the integration of concepts, rules and strategies’.19 The beliefs that DI does not achieve this are most often due to a misunderstanding of what DI is.


Engelmann, S. (2003) Connecting math concepts, teacher’s guide. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Watkins, C. L. and Slocum, T. A. (2003) ‘The components of direct instruction’, Journal of Direct Instruction 3 (2) pp. 75–110.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

Engelmann, S. and Becker, W. C. (1978) ‘Systems for basic instruction: theory and applications’ in Catania, A. C. and Brigham, T. A. (eds) Handbook of applied behavior analysis. New York, NY: Irvington, pp. 325–377.

9. Ibid. 2.

10. Ibid. 2.

11. Ibid. 1.

12. Ibid. 2.

13. Ibid. 1.

14. Ibid. 1.

15. Ibid. 1.

16. Ibid. 1.

17. Ibid. 1.

18. Ibid. 1.

19. Ibid. 2.

A book that changed my teaching


When I first read Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education in 2013, my first thought was: ’This is brilliant, but I don’t know how to share it at my school – it seems too controversial.’ Reading it again now, it’s hard to imagine this, as many of the seeds planted from this book have not only taken root, but have produced rich harvests in schools all over – including my own – in the five years that have passed since its first publication. But in 2013, it was like reading a revolutionary pamphlet (not least because it was only available as a more-or-less self-published e-book at this point).

But whilst it may have felt incendiary at the time, the book itself is far from being simply an act of rhetoric. Its power lies in the measured way that Christodoulou collects and presents her arguments: this is the work of the diligent solicitor preparing a sound case, not that of the showy barrister summing up with wily legerdemain. The reason this book appealed to me as a teacher was that each myth is laid out systematically: initially with well-referenced documentation of its prevalence – much of which chimed with my own experience – and then the myth is promptly dismantled, using the author’s vast amount of reading on each subject.

Seven Myths About Education lit the blue touch paper for the way that I approach teaching today. It changed things for me, and for my pupils.

Reading the book led me to trace back through Christodoulou’s references – much of which are from cognitive psychology – and read the papers and books for myself. There is much discussion about contemporary cognitive psychology in schools today, but nobody had ever made any real reference to it in the time I had been teaching up until the point I first read Seven Myths About Education. As far as my initial teacher training was concerned, cognitive psychology was something that ended sometime in the 1930s, with Piaget and Vygostky.

So Christodoulou’s book was a gateway to Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009) and Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s seminal paper ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work’ (2006), amongst others. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen and heard these works referenced by educators today.

But Seven Myths About Education, whilst standing on the shoulders of giants, stands as the singular work that lit the blue touch paper for the way that I approach teaching today. It changed things for me, and for my pupils.

Reading through the chapters for the first time, I could relate much of what was being said back to my own classroom (this may seem obvious of a book on education, but you’d be surprised at how many writers manage to miss this mark). Some of the things written immediately rang true, whereas others challenged my own close-held beliefs at the time. I can remember reading the first chapter on the myth that ‘facts prevent understanding’ and, as I read, piecing it together with my own experience in the classroom: what did those pupils who possessed the ‘skills’ of enquiry, evaluation and creativity, etc. have in common? It was like a lightbulb going on. The pupils that understood new ideas more immediately were doing so because they already had knowledge and they were drawing on this knowledge to help them understand the new ideas. The pupils that were creative, or were analytical, were working from a strong base of knowledge. I now approach my classroom with the initial aim of building fluent and flexible knowledge in my pupils before we develop skills around this knowledge. What’s more pleasing is that this approach is not particularly controversial today. I think Seven Myths About Education can take some credit for that.

Other myths in the book were difficult for me to swallow at the time, specifically those around education technology. The chapters on the ideas that ‘the twenty-first century fundamentally changes everything’ (myth 3) and that ‘you can always just look it up’ (myth 4) both contained sacred cows to me. At the time I read this, I had spent the past few years going back to my own initial teacher training course to run sessions for trainees on the use of edtech in the classroom. I had advocated pupils using technology to research topics themselves and had been in the thrall of some of the claims about technological change made in the popular YouTube video Shift Happens. In Seven Myths About Education, Christodoulou sacrificed those cows right in front of my eyes.

I think that perhaps the greatest impact the book had on my approach to teaching was in making me think critically about how and what I teach. As Christodoulou writes when disposing with the myth on the 21st-century movement: ‘Nothing dates so fast as the cutting edge.’ In education, teachers are constantly placed in front of a conveyor belt of ideas, like contestants on The Generation Game trying to pick up as many of the best prizes that we can. Some of these ideas are new and some have been around for a while, but as we tend to be drawn to shiny new things and we like to feel that we are at the forefront of something, it is the novel that is often valorised. That, as Christodoulou writes, is the conclusion of the 21st-century movement. But the author’s own conclusion is the one that has stuck with me: ‘The newer the idea, the more sceptical we should be about teaching it in school, and the older the idea, the more likely it has stood the test of time.’ Of course, this doesn’t mean that I write off new ideas; rather that I take time to investigate any claims made of them, I try to evaluate them properly and am certain not to draw conclusions on them too hastily.

I cannot overstate the impact that Seven Myths About Education has had on my approach to teaching. It may not really have been a revolutionary pamphlet at the time I first read it, but it certainly feels like common sense to me now.

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From neuroscience to the classroom

Can neuroscience add anything to our understanding of the classroom? And what should teachers make of it? Efrat Furst looks into how this lens might prove useful in the future. 

What I’m most curious about is human learning. How does it take place in the brain and how does it take place in the classroom? From my point of view, shaped by my background in both cognitive neuroscience and teaching, they are equally interesting and greatly interrelated. These questions guide my everyday work in communicating (neuro)science and education. Educators and researchers often have similar questions about learning, but different ways to approach them, with different goals, ranging from pure theory to pure practice. I find it fascinating and valuable to look at these goals through both lenses, striving to understand both the ‘Why’ and the ‘How’, shaping both teaching practices and research.

From neuroscience

My background is in cognitive neuroscientific research on human long-term memory. I did my research in the Dudai Lab at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. The lab studies memory using two approaches: neurobiological research, and human behavioural research combined with functional neuroimaging. This combination allowed me to study memory from both the biological and the cognitive points of view. While working on my research I was also active in science teaching, teaching topics in science and neuroscience in various programmes for students (grades 4–12). This experience triggered my interest in making connections between research and practice.

Looking back, it was my multidirectional view on the retrieval process, the process by which we access our memories, which turned this plan into a reality. The neurobiological branch of the lab was working for years on the dynamics of memory processes: establishing that consolidation, the post-learning biological modifications of neurons and synapses, is necessary for long-term memory and future retrieval.

Intriguingly, in the early 2000s the lab was among a group of labs that demonstrated that the consolidation processes is not a one-time event: when well-consolidated memories are reactivated during retrieval, they become malleable and subject to reconsolidation. These findings have led to an updated view of memory consolidation:1 it is not just the initial learning experience that registers the information, but also every subsequent activation by retrieval of the memory bears an opportunity to modify the memory trace. The idea that when we try to retrieve memories we update and strengthen their trace emphasises the importance of retrieval – it’s not just the end result of learning and remembering, but actually a vital phase in the process of modifying and strengthening memories in the brain.

With this background, in 2008 I came across a fascinating article in Science journal by cognitive psychologists Jeffrey Karpicke and Henry Roediger.2 They studied the contribution of retrieval practice, as a method of learning, to long-term performance. They demonstrated that by trying to recall the meaning of words in a foreign language, participants dramatically improved their recall ability after a week (when compared to learning by rote memorisation). These important findings made a lot of sense: the neurobiological basis of retrieval seemed like a plausible explanation for the cognitive-behavioural findings. On top of that, I realised the immense practical potential of these findings. This was a turning point in my career, when neuroscience, cognitive science and education came together.

To the classroom

Upon graduation I decided to pursue the field of education. I studied for a teacher certificate in biology, and also started teaching in schools (curricular science and non-curricular neuroscience). This was obviously an intensive and challenging experience: learning pedagogy in theory and by practice, learning from my students and from experienced teachers. This new knowledge was built upon my established expertise and views on human learning and memory, igniting my motivation to connect them.

In a process of several years I was designing research-based, classroom-oriented curriculum for students and teachers. I was teaching students in secondary and post-secondary education, teachers and lecturers, getting feedback and adjusting accordingly. Thankfully, teachers and students have found these topics to be interesting, counterintuitive and applicable for their practice. I was frequently asked, ‘How come we have never learned this before?’ With growing certainty about my professional path, and motivated by the increasing demand, I kept working on filling this welcoming void.

I teach education professionals – across levels and fields – a unique programme that integrates three layers: the basic neuroscience of learning as basis, then cognitive research-based effective learning and practice strategies as core, and classroom application as goal. In a related avenue, I guide research projects performed by students and teachers to experiment with ideas from cognitive science to promote self-reflection and motivation to adapt practice.

After several exciting years of intensive work in Israel, our family adventures took us to Boston. This was an opportunity to evaluate my work so far, and to discover what is done in this field in the world. About one year ago I discovered the inspiring edu-Twitter and researchED communities. It was thrilling to discover a range of professionals with shared goals, and multiple avenues of insightful thought and impactful applications. Being part of the lively community of researchED called me to better define my professional identity as a communicator between (neuro)science and education, and to share some personal takeaways from this work so far.

Neuroscience in education

There is a current debate whether neuroscience can practically contribute to the field of education. A common claim is that neuroscience cannot contribute anything beyond cognitive and behavioural findings. While I agree that most of the current research is not immediately applicable to the classroom, I have found that some aspects have clear added value when combined with findings from cognitive sciences.

Core direction is to teach the essence of how a learning experience is potentially turned into memory – how new information is constructed in the brain on the basis of prior knowledge, and how effective practice should lead to creating well-established schema structures in the learner’s mind. Importantly, the use of visualisations supports clearer and more concrete understanding. A principal example of such a visualisation depicts a simplified model, on the basis of current theories, of how learned information is stored in long-term memory. In the model neurons (nodes) and synapses (connectors) create neuronal representations of learned information; they are formed after learning, stored, and potentially reactivated upon retrieval.

This model has several valuable properties: it creates a concrete way to explain the learning process and its outcomes. It also emphasises how the basic principles of learning and memory are common among all learners. Additionally, it allows us to separately discuss the initial learning phases (‘presentation’ and ‘explanation’ in the figure) and the ‘practice’ phase. Specifically, in the initial learning the focus is on forming long-term representations by creating meaningful associations, explaining a newly learned concept in already familiar terms or with familiar examples. Examples of relevant applications are using deliberate elaboration, concrete examples and preventing overloading the limited working memory resources. Then, in the practice phase, the focus shifts to establishing the representations and making sure they are usable and accessible by building and maintaining retrieval pathways. This is when effective practice approaches (like distributed retrieval practice) are discussed.


I use a similar framework to further explain the consolidation and reconsolidation processes and their possible contribution to the benefits of retrieval practice and distributed practice. Presumably, when trying to retrieve, we are activating and reconstructing interconnected networks and pathways in attempt to find the relevant piece of information, in comparison to mere rehearsal of already-presented information. The mechanistic point of view of the brain asserts that whatever was active and connected meaningfully during the practice session has chances to undergo reconsolidation.

Between research and classroom practice

Many teachers find these ideas relevant, important and applicable. Some immediately see the relations to practices that they regularly use, and the research-based point of view helps them identify the critical points, refine and develop them further. For others, this perspective is an effective trigger for update and transformation.

And yet the process of shifting form understanding to implementation raises challenges. I learned that dealing directly with these challenges and the ways to overcome them is essential and equally important to communicating the science. Teachers face their students’ challenges as well as their own.

For once, the effective learning strategies cannot be ‘taught’; they must be practised. When we are telling students how they should learn, we are probably only helping the minority of students who already use the strategies or are inclined to. However, most students, even when informed, would not voluntarily choose effective strategies. Because while these strategies are rationally better, emotionally they are neither intuitive nor compelling. Retrieval practice, for one example, requires significant effort, it does not provide immediate reward and the benefit is evident only in the long term. The opposite is true for restudying or cramming, which is easy, rewarding and effective in the short term. Since it is in our nature to act upon immediate rewards, it is unrealistic to expect that students would choose the seemingly unrewarding options. Therefore, it is not enough to tell students how to study, even if we explain why. As teachers, we should build routines in the classroom that closely support the students in applying effective strategies.

However, helping students to overcome their challenges is by itself challenging – and for similar reasons. Pedagogical transformation for the sake of long-term goals requires significant effort without immediate rewards. Moreover, teachers must face students, parents and the system they work in – all of which may demand immediate results. Many teachers, myself included, testify that even though they understand why they should change their practice, it is still not trivial: our reward system is working against us, and at times so are the ‘systems’ we work in. Like with students, these practices come naturally to some, but not to most, and a systematic acknowledgement and support in the process are crucial.

Working in the realm between research and education teaches me that there is much more to it than translating research findings into classroom practice. It has several phases, and each requires deliberate efforts as well as resources.

The ways the information is selected, planned and taught immensely influence the way it is accepted and the motivation it triggers. The attitude and personal relationships are crucial too – just like any other teaching practice! As mentioned above, the implementation takes great effort and requires systematic and continuous support to allow multi-level implementation processes that include discussions, experimentation, allowing time and resources for evaluation of the process, and publishing conclusions in a scientific (but mostly idiosyncratic) manner (e.g. blogs and opinions). On this basis, practice-originated and -oriented research questions could be raised to further feed the communication cycle.

Discovering researchED was a dramatic revelation: the realm I was visioning and working toward actually existed! I am excited to learn about the various realisations of these ideas through the work of organisations, schools, and – importantly – individual teachers and scientists. This experience has caused me to learn, reflect on and better define my work, and has motivated to me to aim even higher. My goal is to continue to actively develop and invest in all phases of the communication process, through learning, teaching, implementation, field research, and engaging in bi-directional communication. It is inspiring and empowering to do so as part of an international community that is devoted to learning and teaching.


Nader, K. and Hardt, O. (2009) ‘A single standard for memory: the case for reconsolidation’, Nature Reviews Neuroscience 10 (3) pp. 224–234.

Karpicke, J. D. and Roediger, H. L. (2008) ‘The critical importance of retrieval for learning’, Science 319 (5865) pp. 966–968.

How to use evidence to make decisions

Policy-makers are often criticised for making decisions based on ideology rather than evidence. Here, Sam Freedman, who worked for years in the UK Department for Education, talks about ways it can be done.

Education is a social science. It will never give us the kind of proofs that are possible in physics or maths. On almost any given pedagogical controversy, you’ll be able to find at least one impressive-looking study to back up your prejudices. How then can a teacher, leader or policy-maker make decisions ‘on the basis of evidence’ when the evidence is so murky? There are those that argue the quest for ‘evidence-based education’ is entirely quixotic and we should focus instead on trusting the wisdom of experienced professionals.

This feels like a council of despair but it is a real problem, and it does worry me when well-intentioned practitioners base crucial decisions on a glance at a simple summary of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) or John Hattie meta-analyses.

The dangers of this approach were illustrated a few years ago when the EEF toolkit was originally published and the entry on teaching assistants indicated they had no impact. This was picked up by various newspapers – no surprise, given that more than £4 billion a year is spent on teaching assistants. The EEF was forced to put out a clarifying statement explaining that, while research suggests that, on average, teaching assistants do not have a positive effect on attainment, other studies showed that, if deployed in certain ways, teaching assistants can have a very significant impact.

And this is true of most of the other interventions in the toolkit – the averages hide huge variance that will depend on the exact structure of the intervention and, crucially, the context in which it is deployed. For instance, on ‘social and emotional learning’ the toolkit gives a positive rating overall; but an evaluation of the national social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL) programme – which was poorly implemented in many schools – found no impact on attainment.

So how should we weigh up evidence when making decisions if it’s often contradictory and nearly always context-dependent? My starting point is to think of every question as a balance of probabilities rather than something with a right answer. Every piece of data then nudges the balance one way or the other; the better and more relevant the study, the bigger the nudge. Let’s say I want to know if I should introduce a uniform policy to my school. If a gold-standard randomised control trial (including schools like mine) published in my country shows that having a uniform makes a positive difference, that’s going to change the balance significantly. A small qualitative study from a developing country won’t push it far at all.

This way of thinking allows you to add your own experience and the qualitative feedback of colleagues into the mix. If the balance is fairly even, either because evidence of similar quality and context is contradictory or, more usually, because there just isn’t very much of it, then your own experiences can make the decisive nudge. The uniform example is a good one here. There isn’t much evidence to suggest it makes a difference or does any harm – so if in your school you feel it’s valuable, that’s enough to make the call. If there was strong evidence of harm, however, then that shouldn’t be outweighed by your own positive experience.

As a general heuristic, this is a useful model; but there’s still the problem of how to gather information. Teachers, and policy-makers have full-time jobs – how can they accurately calibrate the balance of probabilities without spending all their meagre spare time reading research? Given their lack of time, there’s no real choice but to start with meta-analyses like the EEF toolkit and Hattie.

But simply relying on summaries won’t give anything like the necessary nuance, so it’s vital to pick them apart and look at the collection of underlying studies. Often the first layer under the summary is another set of
issue-specific meta-analyses which have very helpful overviews of the existing evidence in their introductions. They should also help to identify which are the gold-standard evaluations in that area – which should have extra weight in your decision-making – as well as the context for the key studies. Typically, most of the best research comes from the US, so often there is a trade-off to be made between quality and context. Once you’ve done an initial review then it’s relatively easy to stay up to date by following a few key accounts on Twitter (my public ‘education’ list is a good starting place).

Perhaps the greatest challenge in doing this type of analysis is managing your own cognitive and political biases. If the evidence is genuinely unclear then using your own beliefs and experiences is the best available option. But if you rig the underlying analysis by favouring studies that support your existing opinion while finding reasons to dismiss those that don’t, then you’ll calibrate wrong in the first place. This tendency is apparent in all education debates – the recent one on grammar schools being an obvious example. Supporters, many of whom benefited from a grammar school education themselves, latch on to the evidence that selectively educated pupils do well, while ignoring the research showing that the system as a whole suffers.

It’s impossible to eliminate this instinct but we can at least become self-aware enough for the problem to weaken its hold over us. I would recommend everyone involved in education read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which explains how we’re affected by cognitive biases, and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which does the same for political/cultural biases. Philip Tetlock’s Superforecasting, which looks at how the best predictors of the future eliminate biases, is also worth a look.

To make the best use of evidence, decision-makers need to think of it as a way to calibrate the balance of probabilities that requires regular readjustment, rather than simply a way to identify whether something is right or wrong. They need to use meta-analyses and social media to be reasonably on top of the available data. And they need to do as much as possible to remove their irrational biases. Research will never give us the perfect answers; but if used right, it’s a hell of a lot more valuable than gut instinct and prejudice.

researchED speaks to…the RT Hon Nick Gibb MP, Minister of state for school standards

Nick Gibb was appointed Minister of State at the Department for Education on 15 July 2014. In 1997 he was elected Conservative MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. He went to school in Maidstone, Leeds and Wakefield before going on to study law at Durham University, and was formerly a chartered accountant specialising in corporate taxation with KPMG. He served as Shadow Minister for Schools from 2005 until 2010, and as Minister of State for Schools from May 2010 until September 2012.

Here, he talks to researchED founder Tom Bennett about his own education, his journey through policy, and why he believes that better evidence usage is essential to raising education standards and improving life chances for children.

TB: What was school like for you?

NG: I had a very interesting school career. I went to a state school in Acton in 1965 just as the Labour government’s reforms of schools – like the abolition of grammar schools – took place, and after two years I moved to Canada (which in hindsight, had higher expectations all around) where I was accelerated. Then we came back two years later to Northamptonshire. The teacher said to my parents, ‘He should be sent to an independent school,’ and in those days, they were grant aided and my parents could just about manage to pay my fees, so I went.

My father was a civil engineer and so we moved to Maidstone. It was really tough. Really tough for me. Very rigorous academically and I had to catch up a year. So, I was copying out of kids’ exercise books.

And then we moved house again – to Yorkshire. It had been a grammar school and it had just gone comprehensive. The education I got was a grammar school education, but in a comprehensive setting. Then after O levels, 1976, we moved again to a village outside Wakefield, where I went to a very weak comprehensive school sixth form, but did well because of my education to date.

TB: Did exposure to that variety of schooling teach you anything?

NG: During that period you can see I was at school when all those changes were happening. What I also learned was – especially when I went to a sixth form – what a bad school was like from the inside. The ethos, the lethargy amongst the students, like a malaise, that I’d never really seen before.

TB: What from your own experiences of primary/secondary school stuck with you as a lesson which has continued into your educational philosophy today?

NG: The key thing I learned was that mixed-ability teaching doesn’t work. And secondly that the progressive – even as a kid, I could see it – ideology was damaging children’s education. And I remember a lesson about geography. It gave you this blank, made-up map of an island; it had a few mountain ranges on it, and a river, and you had to say where on it the capital should be. I hadn’t got a clue where the capital should be. I thought, ‘Maybe they want me to say, “It’s near the river.”’ Why not near the coast? Or the mountains? And it struck me that that was an absurd lesson. And then another lesson, in an independent school, where they gave you a bunch of wires, some batteries and some bulbs, put it in a box – complete mess of a thing. ‘Make it work.’ And I was furious.

TB: Why?

NG: I said, ‘Make what work?’ So I just switched off. I thought, ‘This is an absurd waste of time. Don’t bore me.’ And it put me off, actually the whole notion of science. Guessing. Teach me! Tell me, and I’ll do it. So it occurred to me then, and subsequently looking back at these episodes, there were some absurd notions in education that didn’t fit in with the way that I knew I wanted to learn things. And I don’t think I was particularly unusual.

TB: Tell us more about your own journey towards evidence in education as an MP and a minister.

NG: Well, I knew there was a progressive ideology. I remember in opposition going to see Charles Clarke as education secretary, and saying, ‘You need to deal with this progressive ideology because it’s damaging.’ And he said, ‘Well what do you mean precisely?’ So then I joined the education select committee in 2003. I became a minister in 1997 and visited some schools on my patch. They said that a third of their kids were starting school with a reading age below their chronological age. I didn’t know why this was. My mother was a teacher and I knew the reading age of most of her kids were above their chronological age. And then I went to some primary schools and I said, ‘How often do you get children to read?’ and they said once a week. My mother read with every child in her class of 40 every day.

Then I joined the select committee and was introduced to phonics, the Reading Reform Foundation and the academics like Jennifer Chew, Ruth Miskin. I read the Clackmannanshire study and realised it was quite compelling, so whenever I went on visits as a committee I asked about reading and realised that there was a big issue here, about synthetic phonics – that ‘Look and Say’ was ‘progressive’ and phonics was the thing that I knew worked.

And so I got the committee to do a review into reading, and it led to the national curriculum, it led to the Rose review, which then meant there were changes in the curriculum as a consequence. It was seen as a big victory about what you can achieve in opposition. The lesson for me as a policy maker is that you have to get into that nitty gritty detail sometimes about what happens on the ground in the policy. It’s not always a high-level thing. You really need to understand that.

The key thing I learned was that mixed-ability teaching doesn’t work. And secondly that the progressive ideology was damaging children’s education.

So then I went on holiday and my researcher persuaded me to read the E.D. Hirsch book The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them. I read this over the summer in South Carolina, on the beach. I was completely taken away by this book. It encapsulated everything I had been worrying about but couldn’t articulate. I had underlined bits of it, and I emailed E.D. Hirsch. When I came back I knew this was not just the knowledge-based curriculum, but also about where the ideology that I’d been worrying about since school had come from: the John Dewey, Teachers College Columbia, Rousseau-based ideology that had led to some of these absurd notions – learning by self-discovery, the science with the wires. So I made everyone read it: in opposition, people I met – sales must have gone through the roof! And I came to where I am now. I made Michael Gove read it.

TB: It must be hard to get a detailed understanding of the brief when roles change so often.

NG: Yes, the Conservative party at the time was – and to an extent still is – interested in the structural approach to education. It was unfashionable to be interested in this agenda: what should an A level comprise, what should a curriculum look like, what about pedagogy and things? Those were regarded as ‘not matters for politicians’.

TB: The secret garden.

NG: They’re the secret garden. They will be driven by the structural things. Structural changes, competition within the teaching sector will drive those changes because they’ll be so keen to get pupils into their schools that they’ll have to do the things that the parents want to drive up standards. I didn’t accept that because I was in favour of the structural things but you had to do more to break up the cement of the ways things had been done since the 1960s. It would take policy initiatives to liberate teachers to enable them to do what they want, to respond to the demands of parents. Because at the moment this approach to teaching was so compressed, that no one teacher or school could possibly rail against it. And that always creates a tension because if you’re saying ‘We’re going to have a DfE imposed curriculum’ then that kind of goes against autonomy and structural reforms. But in the end Michael basically charged me with leading the curriculum review and phonics.

TB: Ah, so you were behind the revolution?

NG: (Laughs) No, no, no! Absolutely not. The brains were clearly Michael Gove who went to Sweden to see the free school programme and that’s what drove it. But wanting to address the ideology has been my driving force.

TB: What are the advantages for a policy-maker of leaning on an evidence-informed reform, and what are the challenges?

NG: Well the advantage is that you can be confident that what’s implemented will lead to higher standards. That gives you the argument when you’re trying to present a policy. But it also gives you the confidence to look long term. So, yes, it can go through controversy, but it doesn’t matter because we know this will lead to higher standards of reading, we know this will lead to better maths in primary schools because you have all the evidence of Shanghai and elsewhere. So, we can withstand the slings and arrows that happen in the meantime because in X years we will be vindicated. Which is exactly what’s happened with the reading. And we did take a lot of criticism when we introduced it, but it does give you that ballast to plough on. 58% passing going up to 81%, you can see.

For a policy-maker it is that confidence. People sometimes accuse me of simply making a policy based on my own life; but if you can explain your own experience with reference to the evidence, it then does give you that confidence to pursue policies and to get into the detail of policy that previously was regarded as idiosyncratic, or indeed an area where you shouldn’t be going.

The other thing I did in 2003 when I joined the select committee was going on school visits, and I had a routine of going every Monday, somewhere. And being in opposition you could. And I realised you could get to anywhere in the UK by 11 if you left early. So I would arrange to visit schools all over England. And I learned a huge amount just by visiting schools and hearing the discussions. Then you realise things. There were a lot of non-academic subjects being taught in schools, and in some schools it was quite depressing. There were conscientious teachers running those schools, teachers who genuinely believed that doing these vocational qualifications was the best thing for these children, when it clearly wasn’t.

TB: I heard you had a test for visiting school libraries.

NG: Yes, when I went to schools I had a Fielding test: did they have Henry Fielding, Tom Jones on their shelves? But really the Fielding test was just ‘Have they got the classics?’ Often, they have, but they’re not read. But the fact that they’re in the library means they can be read.

TB: How can a policy-maker reconcile the direction that evidence sometimes takes us in, as opposed to manifesto and party pressure?

NG: The only way it has conflicted was really this issue of the party being driven by this notion of autonomy, driven by structural reforms, the academies programme, and the Conservative party had felt that was sufficient. And all the centre-right think tanks around Westminster, that was all they were interested in: how do you create a structure that would drive up standards? And so to have policy saying ‘Actually there’s a better way to teach or to read, or there’s a better approach to pedagogy like direct instruction rather than learning by self-discovery,’ this jarred with Conservative party thinking at that time.

What was great about the PIRLS results last year, 2017, based on nine-year-olds’ reading ability, taken in 2016, was that it was a vindication of all the stuff I’d been talking about for years about phonics. It was a vindication of everything that I’d been talking about. And that therefore gave me more credibility. You do need to be engaged with ‘How is maths taught? How is history taught?’ So it gave strength to my argument in that debate.

I’m pleased that more and more control over teacher training is happening at a school level. And the schools are driving what they want, from the university courses and students. And/or they are awarding QTS themselves.

TB: Why are some parts of the education sector still relatively reluctant to embrace things like phonics, or evidence bases in general?

NG: It’s difficult to know. It really is. I still go to schools and you see they haven’t genuinely bought into this debate and they tend to be schools that are getting 70–75% of their children through the check. And then you look into their reception class and it’s all a big play area, very little teaching going on. I think it’s because they’ve been trained this way, ten, twenty, thirty years ago…

TB: Can you describe some of the directions you might like to see ITT going in the future?

NG: I’m quite critical of education faculties of universities; I’m on the record for being critical. I remain critical. I find it absurd that the whole debate about the knowledge-based curriculum has taken place on the websites, or has taken place at conferences like yours, researchED, or the Knowledge Network and you don’t hear a bleat of this debate from those university campuses. And if you look at the reading lists, it’s fairly hard to find Willingham or Hirsch. And there’s something very atrophied and unintellectual about those faculties, and the debate is still not happening. It’s happening elsewhere. And that should not be the case in our university sector. We have some great universities, but as Hirsch says it’s something he worries about, the education faculties of great universities – what is actually going on in these places?

But what I’m pleased about is that more and more control over teacher training is happening at a school level. And the schools are driving what they want, from the university courses and students. And/or they are awarding QTS themselves.

But I want the universities to come on board. I’d like them to be a bit more pluralistic in terms of the approach they take to teacher training. I will keep trying.

TB: What have been some of the least evidence-informed fads in education?

NG: I just look at the national strategies and things that came in the maths curriculum – this notion of chunking of long division, and the grid method of multiplication. I showed these methods to the Shanghai Education Service – and they just laughed. They just thought this was absurd. Why would you develop new, written methods only done in this country, and despite centuries of mathematical development? I’ve never understood that. So that’s a classic example. Same with reading. People say, ‘Where’s your evidence for phonics?’ I say well there’s the Clackmannanshire studies, the National Reading Panel in the US, there’s loads of evidence. But you ask someone for the evidence for Look and Say, and there’s no real evidence for these approaches, and they’ve been a disaster.

TB: Who are the writers that you think other policy-makers should read in order to make sure that their decisions are evidence-informed?

NG: Well obviously the canon is E.D. Hirsch and Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School? It’s Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths, and I would also recommend Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse. If people were to read those four books, they would have a much better understanding of education policy.

TB: Has the OECD become too political in its pronouncements?

NG: I think so. They are pushing a particular, progressive approach to education, the 21st-century competence-based curriculum. We tried this in this country with the 2007 curriculum, and what happened was that schools stopped teaching the quantum of knowledge they needed. So history was confined to the Tudors and the run up to WWII, because they were focusing on the so-called skills of a historian. I don’t know how many people become historians out of our schools system. It’s a tiny percentage. We don’t need that many historians. What they do need and they’re not getting, is the ability to read a history book, to read complicated language, and they need to have the deep knowledge of the complexities of those periods and other periods.

When you go to these international conferences with Andreas Schleicher and others, it’s almost assumed that you want to have a competence-based curriculum; and I talk to other education ministers from around the world, including some from developing countries who have been advised by the OECD to go down this route that we know doesn’t work. So we have to challenge it, and I’ve started challenging it internationally and I am a lone voice (laughs). But Nuno Cratto for example, who was the secretary of state for education in Portugal, absolutely agrees with what we’re doing in this country and shares our concerns. And I think that gradually we’ll get the message across that this is not the right approach.

True change comes from within

Eric Kalenze, researchED ambassador to the US, writes about how quickly his understanding of evidence in education has changed, and how being part of a network was crucial to that growth.

Do you remember the educator you used to be? Like, the one you were before you learned all you have from education research?

If you haven’t done so in a while, I invite you to think back to the person you were so many research ‘thresholds’1 ago. Compare what you believed then about matters like effective learning conditions, kids’ development, assessing students’ progress, etc., to the things you think now.

Also, compare the practices you designed and carried out then to those of now. Do they look the same, or did you alter them over time to reflect the research insights you acquired?

And consider the support network you had when all those research-sparked epiphanies started popping: the people, in other words, you shared your new learning with, had your thinking pushed by, got clarifications from when necessary, and collaborated with on new practical actions. Were you surrounded by fellow travelers in your school/workplace, for instance, all of you similarly inspired by common sources? Or were you on your own to take in new concepts and accordingly re-design your instruction (and subsequently run online for necessary support, answers and echoes)?

I’m suggesting you consider these kinds of questions because the ‘pre-research educator’ has been on my mind a lot of late – first, because I’ve recently had the chance to get re-acquainted with my own pre-research self; and second, because that re-acquaintance has reminded me of how exciting it is to have an evidence-informed improvement movement like researchED gaining momentum in the US.

For with researchED, we finally have a way – through a network of fellow educator-learners, that is – to bridge the fads and snake-oil slicks out there and get the best instructional information straight to the people applying it every day. And let’s face it: with so much of the field having been unaware for so long about what research actually says about kids’ learning and the conditions that enable such learning, we’ve needed a better way for some time now. (As the late Jeanne Chall observed in her 2000 posthumously released classic The Academic Achievement Challenge, educators choose practices ‘in a direction opposite from the existing research evidence’.2)

Now let me back up a minute to explain how I came to be thinking about all this.

I’ve been able to spend some time with my own pre-research self via work I’m doing on my next book,3 and it’s been remarkably instructive. Through interviews with former colleagues, supervisors, and students, as well as through a review of various planning documents and classroom activities I’d created, I’ve been struck by a couple of revelations. First, the research I was studying at the time really did transform my instructional priorities, planning, and execution – and, of course, kids’ results (!). In other words, this is not something that my imagination has overblown through the years and frozen into some ego-protecting amber. Next (and importantly to this piece), I was struck by how difficult it was, learning and designing largely by myself, to bring that research into practice.

The time period covered by my book-in-progress is 2004–2008, which means I was nowhere near Twitter (heck, it didn’t exist until 2006), and a watershed cognitive-science-and-education title like Dan Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? hadn’t even been published. (However, I was familiar with Dan via his ‘Ask the Cognitive Scientist’ column in the professional journal of the American Federation of Teachers, American Educator.4) As my only real guides in the early 2000s were the references sections of the works I was reading, my research wasn’t particularly time- or energy-efficient.

I could see my random practices deepening into actual classroom premiums. And I’m not sure I’d have seen the same without such a network to affirm and push me.

Also, self-study revealed to me that my research learning and application was a bit too random. Essentially, as I looked over my past work I could see that I was pretty much choosing research-guided solutions according to my classroom’s most pressing needs. To put it another way: while I may have been doing something to build background knowledge here and tweaking my writing/conventions instruction there, I was really taking a ‘band-aid’ approach to applying research. While consistency and depth weren’t helped by the various priorities of my department and school (at multiple points of my self-study I found myself wondering, ‘What’s this meaningless film unit doing in here? And why in hell did I take them to the computer lab for this thing?’), it remains what it is: as my pre-research self was growing into using research-informed practices, I was rather all over the place.

Still, looking back on it this many years out, it’s clear to see which ideas from research were resonating with me enough to productively build around.5 Getting there was a few-years-long process, though, and it was undoubtedly buoyed by my school-within-a-school (which, again, I joined in 2004) colleagues. Indeed: by the latter part of the 2004–2008 span that is the focus of my book, I could see my random practices deepening into actual classroom premiums – philosophies, even. And I’m not sure I’d have seen the same without such a network to affirm and push me.

I also gradually acquired the confidence necessary to challenge instructional truths many of my colleagues had long accepted as self-evident, thus widening my impact beyond my classroom. (Like I say, this experience was profound. If you are interested in learning more, see the book when it’s ready!)

Though conducting this kind of mesearch wasn’t ever my aim, doing so through my current book-work led me to consider a number of important things about building evidence-supported practices in education. Most of all, it reminded me that everyone starts somewhere, and that some help can go a long way to building focused, sensible instructional practices supported by evidence.

As researchED exists for educators to hold one another up through just these sorts of learning, design, and application efforts, I’m thrilled to be part of organising it here in the US (and, of course, taking part at other conferences and online). We’ve needed a better way for a long time, and I feel like with researchED it might actually be here. I can’t wait to see how many education professionals’ careers – and, by extension, kids’ futures – benefit via the researchED learning network.


Cousin, G. (2006) ‘An introduction to threshold concepts’, Planet 17 (1) pp. 4–5. Available at: www.goo.gl/zXVKAn

Chall, J. S. (2002) The academic achievement challenge: what really works in the classroom? New York, NY: Guilford.

By the way: the book revolves around a profound teaching/leadership experience I had while a classroom teacher (designing and teaching in a school-within-a-school for at-risk high-schoolers, that is). I’m aiming to have drafting complete by late spring or so and, if all goes well, a release in early 2019 on John Catt Educational.

I found in my self-search that I’d used Willingham’s piece for AFT on teaching critical thinking in some staff PD I’d done in that period. See Willingham, D. T. (2007) ‘Critical thinking: why is it so hard to teach?’, American Educator 31 (2) pp. 8–19.

It’s clear that Ravitch’s Left Back (2001) and Egan’s Getting it Wrong from the Beginning (2004) had helped me see where my teacher-training had come from, for example, so I’d started jettisoning some pieces I’d long considered obligatory. Also, based on adjustments I was making to my English instruction, I can see the effects of having read at least some E.D. Hirsch (in particular The Schools We Need (1999) and The Knowledge Deficit (2006)), Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich (their sample piece for American Educator, ‘What Reading Does for the Mind’ (1998)), and John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel (2003) and Word on the Street (2007).