The only question worth asking.

Do you have kids yourself and have you ever attended school open days? Or as a teacher have you been present at an open day, wearing a suit you never wear when teaching and showing off equipment that sits in a cupboard 364 days of the year? Well, I have been both of those things, and have decided there is only one question prospective parents should ask teachers:

Would you send your child to this school?

Now its fashionable to think that as a parent you need to find the “right” school for your child – that special combination of atmosphere, teaching, grounds and other children that exactly suits the talents and temperament of your child, but on the whole I think that’s untrue.

For the vast majority of kids any “good” school will do. Every so often there is a child that genuinely needs to be at perhaps a smaller school, or maybe a more caring school, or maybe more sporting school. Or even perhaps a bigger, more anonymous school. And of course some students will thrive at a more academic school.

As teachers, we would like to work in schools that do genuinely care about the students, that push them academically while supporting weaker students, where the atmosphere between students and between staff and students is one of respect. Where on the whole kids get along with each other and where there is minimal disruption in lessons, and what disruption there is is dealt with promptly and effectively. Where the kids are taught well, achieve academically and have a shot at the best universities at the end. And when we find schools like that we tend not to leave, and we are also happy sending our own kids there.

So, would you send your child to the school where you work? At a genuinely good school it would not matter that the student is a son or daughter of a teacher. At my current and previous schools the answer from some of the teachers has been yes – so over the last 10-15 years there have always been students who have had parents on staff and as far as I could see they did not suffer because of it.

But equally I have had conversations recently where the statement has been made “I would not send my child to this school” and I think that’s one of the most damming sentiments a teacher could express, equalled only by “I would no longer send my child to this school”.

So give it a go. To avoid personalising it too much at schools you visit ask “how many staff members have their own kids at this school?” and see if the answer gels with your impression of the school from brochures and displays.


Neuromyths in education

Welcome to my first blog post!

Published recently (15 October 2014) was an article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience “Neuroscience and education: myths and messages” which seems to be a development/elaboration of this article published in 2012.  In the article is this fascinating (& scary) table:

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 5.35.50 pm

Why fascinating & scary? It encapsulates in one table a lot of what is wrong in education, and I’ll explain why in relation to the second category regarding learning styles. For a number of years any teacher with a passing interest would have been able to discover that learning styles is a discredited theory, with no basis in fact. For me it was Daniel Willingham’s book that first opened my eyes to something that had just felt wrong, but luckily I had been able to ignore in my everyday teaching. But many teachers do still subscribe to the tenets of learning styles theory – and embrace their ignorance uncritically.

To me the idea that any serious mathematics, say, could be taught kinaesthetically was just so obviously ridiculous that it didn’t even need a second thought. But lets say you did give it a second thought? Would you not have had just a tiniest little tickle in your mind that the idea might be wrong? And with that tickle embark on the tiniest little bit of googling to find out more? Clearly not, as the table above shows. And that is something I believe to be very wrong in education – not that ridiculous ideas get proposed, but that ridiculous ideas get embraced uncritically, and the teaching profession as a whole is pretty witless in dealing with pseudoscientific ideas.

Where I work a number of times this year learning styles theory has been proposed by people with some level of responsibility as a serious idea to be considered when teaching. One time was by a highly paid (I assume!) presenter who had the entire teaching staff for a whole day, and once by a teacher proposing  the return of a different presenter who “was great last year in the session on learning styles. Really helped the kids” (to appreciative nods and oohing and aahing around the table).

The fact that learning styles won’t die (Tom Bennett puts it way more eloquently than me) is symptomatic of the teaching profession’s search for quick and easy answers, the golden technique/skill/program/trick that will lead to increased student learning. But there is no trick – there is just no substitute for hard work. This is a theme I will return to in subsequents posts.


Nature article: Nature Reviews Neuroscience | AOP, published online 15 October 2014; doi:10.1038/nrn3817

Frontiers article: Front. Psychol., 18 October 2012 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00429