Book Review: Teacher-Proof

The simplest way to describe Tom Bennett’s new book, Teacher Proof, is that it is to school education what Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science was to healthcare. The book takes various teaching initiatives and fads — emotional intelligence, learning styles, 21st century skills — and debunks them in turn. I’ve read the book, and this post is my review.

teacher-proof

Debunking

A comparison to “Bad Science” reveals the whole issue with science in education. In “Bad Science”, the pattern goes:

  1. Here’s some crazy idea — homeopathy, acupuncture, etc — and all its barmy beliefs.
  2. Here’s the supposed evidence for the crazy idea, and why it’s all junk.
  3. Here’s how medicine/biology/chemistry actually works.
  4. Tying them together, this is why the crazy idea can’t work.

In “Teacher Proof”, the pattern goes:

  1. Here’s some crazy idea — NLP, learning styles, etc — and all its barmy beliefs.
  2. Here’s the supposed evidence for the crazy idea, and why it’s all junk.

What is generally lacking is the explanation of what actually works, either because nobody really knows for sure, or because the ideas Bennett debunks are so far from reality that there’s no relevant comparison of what actually works. This makes the debunking accurate but somewhat unsatisfying. “There’s no evidence in support” is the right scientific rebuttal, but it doesn’t make for very exciting or edifying reading.

The problem with the book for me is that this was the first time I had encountered a lot of the crazy ideas in the book. To me, it reads like: “Here’s some crazy idea you’ve never heard of, here’s why it’s crazy.” If I had been forced to learn these ideas throughout teacher training, as Bennett was, the book would probably be quite cathartic — “I knew rubbing my brain buttons was poppycock!” — but for a non-teacher, or a teacher who hasn’t been forced to learn all this nonsense in their training, there’s relatively little to gain from the book except for an overall sense of dismay that this was (is?) really taught to new teachers.

Research vs Practice

My favourite part of the book is when Bennett relates the ideas from educational research (and even the less crazy ones, like encouraging groupwork) to his own experience of teaching, and delves into the gap between educational research and educational practice. Researchers push groupwork as full of useful benefits; Bennett points out that in practice a lot of students use it as an excuse to switch off and so their learning suffers, as does the learning of those forced to carry the load. I feel like there’s a book there that I would really like to read, full of material about the gap between (reasonable) research and actual teaching practice, but Teacher Proof isn’t it. Consider it a request for the next book?

The book begins with four chapters on the history and philosophy of science. I don’t feel I gained much from those, and they seem unnecessary in order to understand the content chapters that follow. These chapters end with what I hope is just a bit of clumsy phrasing:

… experience trumps theory every single time. If research contradicts your experience, use it as an opportunity to reflect on what you already do and think you know. If you can spot where the research went wrong then you can take that as a failed attempt to falsify the data of your own experience, and therefore your own theories and hypotheses are strengthened.

I re-read this a few times, because what it seems to be saying is “if research disagrees with your ideas, the research must be wrong”. This would amount to a complete rejection of research, which I don’t think Bennett is aiming for. I’m guessing there should be another sentence to the effect of “If you can’t spot where the research was wrong, consider that your beliefs are incorrect and perhaps change your beliefs.”, which is a rather large case of “easier said than done”! The whole point of research is to try and rise above complications and confounds, such as the subjectivity of our own experience. If a teacher believes that learning styles exist (due to a combination of learning the theory and confirmation bias), and is shown the research against learning styles, surely what we want is to institute a change in their behaviour. Bennett mainly debunks the theories, but it would be interesting to know how effective the book is at changing the opinions of teachers who believe some of the theories involved.

Summary

All in all, Teacher Proof is a book particularly for teachers who’ve suffered through being taught bad educational science in their training and want the truth. The problem with the cross point of education and scientific research seems to be two-fold. One is that bad research is performed and propagated too frequently (which is the focus of the book), but the other is that educational initiatives are too often transformed into unthinking one-size-fits-all dogma. I’m reminded of this quote, from Linus Torvalds (source):

Any time you have “one overriding idea”, and push your idea as a superior ideology, you’re going to be wrong… The fact is, reality is complicated, and not amenable to the “one large idea” model of problem solving. The only way that problems get solved in real life is with a lot of hard work on getting the details right. Not by some over-arching ideology that somehow magically makes things work.

The nice thing about Willingham’s book on education research is that it doesn’t attempt to be the answer to everything, but just offers a few guiding principles to bear in mind. This seems like the appropriate level of use for research in education, not the way that Bennett shows the UK public sector applying it: as a succession of grand failed silver bullets.

Addendum

Re-reading this post, it may come across a bit more negative about the book than I intended. Teacher Proof is a useful book for those who have endured the research it debunks — I’m just not in that audience. But more generally, I think it’s good to see books (and blogs) like this written by teachers, reasoning themselves out from the yoke of dodgy educational initiatives and research. I like to see books like Bennett’s and posts like this one from Dai Barnes being skeptical about research. Being skeptical is how ideas get selected, refined and improved.

At the moment research in education seems to be too often a one-way dissemination from researcher to teacher, backed by mentions of PhDs, Professorships or prestigious institutions, rather than clear and unbiased dissemination of research results (see my post on accessing research). As a researcher, I think that’s clearly not healthy. I wouldn’t trust me; why should you trust me without proof? Bennett has the right approach to the educational initiatives being directed his way, and I’m looking forward to the ResearchEd conference that he is organising, which promises to bring researchers and teachers together in a productive discussion.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Book Review: Teacher-Proof

  1. EC

    An interesting review–thanks.

  2. EC

    But I notice, in glancing through Bennett’s “Further Reading” section (p. 208), that he considers John Hattie’s Visible Learning to be his “go-to reference manual for the best research”. This doesn’t make me trust Bennett’s nose for bad science.

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