Lions Sit on Irons: The Curse of the Pedagogical Non-Negotiables

“Parrots sit on carrots,” said the cat. “Lions sit on irons and parrots sit on carrots.”

“Doesn’t sound very comfortable,” said the frog.

“It’s not about being comfortable,” said the cat. “It’s about doing the right thing.”

“Oi Frog!” by Kes Gray & Jim Field

When the research and teaching community started to really challenge the way that theories such as Bloom’s Taxonomy were being bastardised as pedagogical tools, we breathed a sigh of relief. The VAK strategies, the De Bono Thinking Hats, Brain Gym, the left-side-right-side brain neuromyths – when all these things were cast aside, the weight lifted. We need, though, to hold a certain degree of honesty about why we felt relieved. Most teachers are not neuroscientists or cognitive psychologists. We’re at the recipient-end of the research production line.

We rejoiced when VAK and Bloom’s went out the window, but not because we’d always known it was wrong. Well, I hadn’t, at least. I had a 6-foot high Bloom’s display and I loved it. Most of us had all just got on with it, doing as we were told. I rejoiced because I no longer needed to cater for 3 different types of learners, and write them into a pen-portrait, and make sure I had movement in my English lessons (okay – I did think that was a bit weird). I rejoiced because I no longer had to think about the quadrant (image below). We made graphs of each of our classes – these were relatively easy to produce as SIMS just exported the CATS data used to inform them, and I can’t claim that I complained about this at the time.

What was annoying was the implementation of set strategies every lesson, which started as interesting ideas but became policy.

I had it relatively easy in the schools I worked in during this era; we didn’t do De Bono, we didn’t do brain-sides, we didn’t do brain-gym. I liked my leadership team and I knew that what we were doing was conceived with good intentions. Our lessons were full of things that made it ‘our way’. We had a method – when a visitor entered a room, there would be a degree of consistency. Visitors would know that they were in A Lesson at Our School, rather than any old school. The experience for the children would be the same. And to some extent, I agree that consistency of approach is good. We don’t need a list though. It detracts from our professional judgement of what we need to do each lesson.

Consistency of approach does not need to be achieved through a check-list, or a school pedagogical methodology. When schools introduced such check-lists, we are watering down the quality of teaching.

Consider retrieval practice and modelling. We currently have teachers who are applying their understanding of memory and learning to inform their practice– I need to make sure I make things more efficient – and if I use retrieval practice effectively then my students will take less time to learn this again when we cover it next time. Teachers have seen the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve (bastardised and simplified too, but that’s another story) and understood that we can’t just teach one topic in term 1 of year 10 and then expect students to retrieve that information at the end of year 11 for a perfect examination performance. We’re using spaced repetition because we understand, in layman’s terms, how and why this works. Teachers across the country are now clear that we don’t just demand that students write an essay, or that handing out pre-produced models isn’t effective. We are able to apply our understanding of live modelling techniques because we appreciate that modelling works best when it’s dialogic. Schools are buying visualisers en masse to enable this – because no smart board can replace the human resource of the teacher at the front, and money is best spent on visualisers.

Teachers are doing these things because they are able to apply these strategies to the nuances of each lesson that they teach. Do we always need to use modelling in a lesson? No – of course not. Should we use retrieval practice every lesson? Sure, but what if we need the full hour for a new concept? We use our professional judgement to determine what is right for each lesson, each class, and each new or revised concept.

When schools introduce lists of must-haves, they are listing things that they want to see – not things that the teacher has decided to use. It’s creeping up on us and we’re ending up with more tick-lists. The quality of teaching is watered down because rather than crafting a lesson using professional judgement, some teachers are forced to shoehorn in modelling, retrieval, dual coding, spacing, and interleaving. The depth of thought disappears. Teachers are spending time and energy on ensuring every box is ticked. It becomes a process driven by ‘what if?’ motivation: what if there is a learning walk? What if a book scrutiny shows I didn’t use retrieval practice every lesson? What if I haven’t labelled my modelling effectively? And so on.

We are in danger of heading back to the days of including pedagogical features for the sake of what leadership want to see. There was a period of respite, briefly, between the end of the Bloom’s days and now. Yet once more, we’re faced with ‘what we want to see in lessons’ lists, and the empowerment, and professional belief, and the unspoken professional trust that we were starting to feel is slipping away. Once it’s committed to a list of must-haves, we have lost the game. The beauty and the art and the craft of teaching melts into the abyss, and we resign ourselves to a retrieval starter, modelling, dual coding, and interleaving for the sake of the next learning walk.

I do not work in a school that insists on any of these things. We use the strategies of retrieval practice, modelling, effective questioning, and many more – but there is no checklist and teacher expertise, knowledge and judgement is valued above all else. We are recruiting! I won’t put the link here because it’s obviously got an expiry date, but my Twitter feed over there on the right has links, or look up @OrchardSB and see the pinned Tweet. If you do look and it’s not there, it means the date has passed. Feb 25th 2020.

Featured image from ‘Oi Frog!’ by Kes Gray and Jim Field – parrots sit on carrots, of course!