Killing off the Brontosaurus, again: how can research reach further?

Q: Which dinosaur became extinct twice?
A: Brontosaurus.

That’s not meant to be a joke, by the way. It’s (sort of) true.

In 1877, Othniel Charles Marsh, a Professor of Palaeontology at Yale, discovered the skeleton of a new dinosaur, which he named Apatosaurus ajax. At the time, he was involved in a fierce battle of discoveries with a palaeontologist from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, named Edward Drinker Cope.

When the two men first met they got on well, but over time they developed a strong dislike for each other which rapidly escalated into a rivalry which, in turn, manifested itself into a desire to outdo each other professionally. This feud saw Marsh and Cope not only attack each other in their scientific publications but also swear to outdo each other in the field of discovery.

As such, two decades of intense fossil speculation ensued from the early 1870s onwards that was to be known as ‘The Bone Wars’. Whilst they yielded plenty of new discoveries, the wars also  involved underhand – and unscientific – tactics such as destroying bones left in the ground just so that the other man couldn’t discover them. During this time, the men discovered more than 130 new species between them, whilst simultaneously destroying the public reputation of palaeontology and leaving themselves financially ruined.

The discoveries were fast and frantic and so it was that, two years after discovering Apatosaurus ajax, Marsh discovered a similar dinosaur: Brontosaurus excelsus. The thing is that this wasn’t really a different dinosaur. It was just a bigger Apatosaurus. Oh, and when he was piecing the skeleton together, Marsh had accidentally put the head of a different species on it. In fact, there is no such thing as Brontosaurus at all.

Whilst this mistake was corrected soon afterwards, the Brontosaurus lived on. He appeared in movies and in books and cartoons: you’re certain to remember how Fred Flintstone was partial to a Brontosaurus burger with a side order of Brontosaurus ribs. I certainly remember seeing that big lummox in the dinosaur books of my childhood in the eighties. Yet it was when the U.S Post Office issued a set of dinosaur stamps in 1989, one of which was labelled ‘Brontosaurus’, that his final decline began:

1989 US Postal Service stamp that finally put an end to the Brontosaurus.
1989 US Postal Service stamp that finally put an end to the Brontosaurus.

The release of this stamp caused uproar amongst dinosaur enthusiasts and, as a result of the publicity from this outrage, it seems that he was largely left to disappear. Previously a stalwart of children’s dinosaur books, he now seems to have been finally made extinct. Again.

Like the Brontosaurus, there are ‘discoveries’ in education that have since been debunked by scientists: Pashler et al took down the myth of learning styles in 2008, which has since been echoed by psychologists such as Professor Daniel Willingham:


Further theories to be discredited include such classroom favourites as Brain Gym and what is often called the Learning Cone, but is derived from Dale’s Cone of Experience.

Yet, like our friend the Brontosaurus, these myths refuse to die. There exists two realms in education: the realm of teachers and schools that are aware that these are myths; and the world where they continue to live on in certain classrooms: Jurassic Park schools. They exist because, sometime in the early 1990s, Richard Attenborough extracted DNA from chewing gum scraped off the underside of teachers’ desks and began cloning these classrooms, ensuring that the educational falsehoods live on. Or maybe they exist because people just haven’t heard the theories debunked? It’s one of the two.

What is certain is that these theories do still survive. They survive despite us being in a climate and era where research and science is having its greatest influence on education. Where the EEF and NTEN exist, and where Tom Bennett’s juggernaut researchED is about to host its fourth conference in just a few days.

researchED is popular. It is extremely well-attended. It is recognised by policymakers and commentators alike. It attracts brilliant speakers from a variety of spheres within education. The message is out there and hitting the bright lights, but is it reaching the dusty corners of education? Not while so many myths still exist. This is not a criticism of these organisations – far from it – but a lot of what is shared is preaching to the converted. The challenge for these organisations is to get themselves noticed by those that are blind to them.

And so, on the eve of researchED 2014, the question I have is: how does the research-savvy community extend its reach? Are conferences enough? What about publications? Would it be possible for researchED to have representative writers, writing under the banner for publications such as TES, SecEd, Academies Week, etc.? What about commissioning books produced under the same banner – could an educational publisher house an imprint? Is it feasible for these research-focused organisations to produce free publications to put in staff rooms?

It took over 100 years to kill off the Brontosaurus a second time. How can we ensure the extinction of today’s edu-myths isn’t as slow and painful?

I am not your spirit guide: the intoxicating narratives of teaching

Earlier in the week this Slate article, loftily entitled ‘Spirit Guides’, ricocheted through my timeline.  Putting aside some of its more ‘interesting’ touches – ‘[t]he mind has “hands”‘ (huh?); its use of a moment from fiction as exemplar; its paraphrasing of Socrates on student-teacher relationships (!) – the piece attempts to take the well-travelled path of presenting the teacher as something more than a teacher: the mentor, the parental figure, the titular spirit guide.

Oh Captain! My Captain!

It is a time-honoured and usually very convincing vision of a teacher, so quite how the article fails to stir the emotions of the reader-teacher and have us ripping up textbooks is a feat in and of itself. Perhaps it is the seemingly conflicting ideas presented in the same argument – ‘a genuine teacher teaches students, not courses’; ‘”The teacher, that professional amateur teaches not so much his subject as himself.”‘ Or maybe it is just the downright silliness of some of the views presented: ‘”If a professor didn’t mention something personal at least a single time—a reference to a child, an anecdote about a colleague—then it was a pretty good bet that I had nothing to learn from him.”‘

But where that article fails, the image of the teacher as avuncular genie or fairy godmother endures elsewhere. In books, television and the movies, the trope of teacher as more-than-just-a-teacher is ubiquitous.

I wouldn’t argue against the suggestion that teachers are often inspirers, mentors, or even parental figures by proxy. And, as the article suggests in its bland finale I’m certain that teachers do change many of their pupils’ lives.

But the problem with these pervasive grand narratives of teaching is that there is a suggestion that we should do this – or at the very least a consequence that we do try to do this – by design. That is to say that we are compelled to exert much of our effort in trying to be more-than-just-a-teacher. Indeed, that seems to be what the Slate article is suggesting.

And that, I think, is wrong. I think it is vitally important that, whilst surrounded by the eddying current of all these intoxicating narratives, we avoid getting carried away by them and we focus our efforts on being a teacher. Just a teacher.

Because being just a teacher is what we can do for every pupil. It is the most we will ever be to the most of our pupils. And it is tangible. Unlike being a muse or an angel or a guardian spirit, it is what we are trained to do and it is an area where we have at least some knowledge of what is required of us. Whilst the Hollywood narratives are thrilling and bewitching, they take us away from what we really are.

So be a teacher. Just a teacher. And I think you’ll find that, in being a teacher – in teaching and imparting knowledge – pupils might find their mentor, their inspiration, their spirit guide.

Why I think selling resources to teachers is wrong

Shut up and take my money

This is just a quick post in response to a brief discussion I had earlier.

After seeing a new website that was charging around £8 for a 31-slide Powerpoint and a few worksheets, I tweeted this:

A few people tweeted agreement. A couple of people defended the selling of resources to teachers and questioned why I felt this way. Here’s why:

1. It is generally teachers that pay for these out of their own money, not schools. If anyone wants to suggest that it isn’t, then why do these companies sell individual accounts and pay-as-you-go schemes? Teachers spend enough of their money on things like: subject knowledge books, teaching practice books, stationery, printing, class rewards, etc. (I’m sure you can all add plenty of things to this list). Charging them for things they could and should get for free is just exploiting their commitment to their job.

2. If the resources were produced by a jobbing teacher for their classes, the teacher has technically been paid for producing them. And as the state has paid for them, I feel uneasy that they are making extra income from selling them to somebody else working for the state. Why not just sell the pens out of the department stationery cupboard?

3. If the resources were produced specifically to be sold and not to be used in the creator’s classroom at all (i.e., by a business that solely produces resources), then it’s worth asking: are they selling something that has not been tried, tested and developed in a classroom first? How effective is that resource? New/desperate teachers might just assume it is worthwhile and spend money on it anyway. I’d also question the quality of a resource if the incentive for producing it is purely financial.

4. I don’t think there are many off-the-peg resources that can be taken straight from a third party to one’s classroom. Teachers will spend time developing and altering it to suit the needs of their class. I think it is fair to question the quality of a resource that is produced for generic classes, rather than one that is produced for a specific class.

5. Obviously, one could level some of those last criticisms at resources from third parties that one can get for free. The difference is that with free resources one can pick and choose. When you pay for a resource, you have sunk costs into that resource  – this is a bias that means you will probably be committed to using it, no matter how good it is. I’ve written about the dangers of sunk costs and consistency before.

6. The resources we create are a product of everything we have learnt as teachers over our careers – they are, in part, ideas that we have picked up from other teachers. Nothing is entirely original. If I were to sell a resource, I may have put the effort into typing up the slideshow or worksheet, but the ideas are partly made up of things I’ve picked up from others. I’d be profiting from something that was given freely to me. Again, that makes me uneasy.

7. Why not just be kind? What you give someone else will benefit other classes – classes the other side of the country, maybe the other side of the world. Even if altruism isn’t enough, what about the reward that your reach as a teacher is even greater than the walls of your own classroom? Doesn’t that give off a lovely glow to bathe in?

Please note that this is what my opinion. You may disagree entirely. I am merely responding to those questioning why I feel this way.

The key to good CPD? Inconsistency

“Americans don’t really have opinions. What we have is bumper stickers. Once you’ve committed to a bumper sticker, there’s no changing your mind then.”

Rich Hall, comedian

Furby, Buzz Lightyear, Tickle Me Elmo. What have they all got in common? Yes, they are all toys (not that kind of toy, tsh). What else do they have in common? Well, along with Star Wars figures, Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, Nintendo game cartridges, Tracy Island playsets, Xbox 360, Playstation 2 and a whole host of others, they are all massively popular toys that have found themselves with a supply shortage at Christmas.

Wild scenes at the release of the Michael Gove's autobiography.
Wild scenes at the release of Michael Gove’s autobiography.

This happens almost every year: a toy or game is deemed the number one most desirable ‘must-have’ present for kids at Christmas only for it to be in very short supply, meaning that thousands of children have to go without it over the festive season.

So surely toy companies would learn from these mistakes and ensure that they are fully stocked for Christmas? Why has this been same phenomenon been happening for decades?

Psychologist Robert Cialdini (yep, him again) has a friend who worked in the toy industry who gave him an explanation for this. The explanation is based on the idea that there is a huge lull in sales during the first quarter of the year as people had already spent their toy budgets during the Christmas boom. Despite investing financially in extra advertising or dropping prices, toy companies found that this slump persisted. So the companies came up with another approach. An approach which cost them nothing.

The theory goes that companies advertise these must-have toys in the run-up to Christmas. Kids then nag their parents for these toys and parents promise that they will get them in their stockings. Companies then undersupply the toys to the market and so parents, facing an upset child as they can’t follow through on their promise, buy toys or games of equal value.

The companies then advertise the must-have toys again after Christmas, during the first quarter sales slump. The kids see these ads, remember the promises made to them, and go back to their parents citing those earlier covenants. The parents then go back to the shops and buy the original must-have toy that they promised their children. A toy which is now, funnily enough, in plentiful supply. This theory means that the toy companies double their profits.

Now this story is repeated in Cialdini’s book, ‘Influence: Science and Practice’, as an anecdote from somebody who used to work in the toy industry. Regardless of whether we believe it or not, the idea behind it is based on something interesting: the consistency principle. This is the idea that we have an innate drive to be  – and to appear to be – consistent with our prior behaviour or beliefs. So, in the case of the toy companies, they are tapping into the human desire of the parents to be consistent with their earlier commitment to buy the toy. They know that a large number of the parents will be consistent with a decision they had made earlier.

There are a number of studies where the power of this principle has been shown. An interesting one cited by Cialdini is a 1968 study by Knox and Inkster that noted how people at horse races are more confident of their horses’ chances of winning just after placing the bets than they are immediately before. Despite nothing changing in the horses’ chances, the consistency principle ensures that the gamblers have convinced themselves that their decision is the right one and so feel better about it. This is a close cousin of the sunk cost fallacy, which I wrote about here.

Now consistency is largely seen as a desirable trait, which is difficult to argue with – as Cialdini acknowledges, “[w]ithout it our lives would be difficult, erratic, and disjointed”. But he also notes that, whilst “it is so typically in our best interests to be consistent, we fall into the habit of being automatically consistent even in situations where it is not the sensible way to be.”

One of the reasons consistency appeals to us is that once we have made a decision, if we stay consistent to that decision we don’t have to think too hard anymore. And as Daniel Willingham points out, “our brains are designed not for thought but for the avoidance of thought.” So consistency is a useful shortcut to stop us from having to think too much.

Rodin's most famous sculpture, 'At the End of  the CPD Day' (1880).
Rodin’s most famous sculpture, ‘At the End of the CPD Day’ (1880).

The other reason Cialdini cites for being consistent is that, sometimes, we just don’t want to face the reality of what may happen if we think differently: consistency is “a safe hiding place from troubling realisations: Sealed within the fortress walls of rigid consistency, we can be impervious to the sieges of reason.” In this way, consistency can be seen as harmful to our best interests: we eschew something that may be helpful, or indeed truthful, and fall back into the safety net of our consistent beliefs.

I quite often discuss subjects such as edtech and SOLO taxonomy and, in debating it, it may seem that my sceptical position on the value of both of these is quite consistent. Unmoving, even.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. My beliefs on these two issues are entirely inconsistent with my prior positions. I have, in the past, been a torch-carrier for iPads in the classroom, opening up my classroom for many to observe the use of these and other new technologies. Furthermore, I actually delivered sessions on new technology in education for four years on a university ITT course for both primary and secondary trainees. My position on the value of new technologies in the classroom has shifted considerably over the past few years, but it is a position that shifted through the spectrum. I don’t hold my position as a sceptic through a lack of experience or through Luddism. Largely, the shift is down to an understanding of opportunity cost, alongside facing a poverty of evidence.

Likewise, I also read heavily on SOLO taxonomy and put my ideas together for about 6 months before applying them to the classroom. I then spent about two years experimenting with SOLO in the classroom, during which time I led a school improvement group which trialled its use. Again, my position on SOLO has developed to one of scepticism. This is largely because of the value it places on ‘thinking skills’ over and above knowledge. As knowledge is the third stage in the hierarchy, I have reservations of how important both pupils and teachers see knowledge in the learning process. These are reservations I noted over many months of seeing teachers and pupils approach the process.

The reason I chose to look specifically at edtech and SOLO is that they seem to be areas where automatic consistency is prevalent. As in the opening quote from Rich Hall, SOLO enthusiasts often have the bumper sticker of their beliefs in their Twitter bios. Likewise, I don’t know how someone can be objective about the use of iPads in the classroom if they include an Apple symbol in their online username. With these sorts of behaviours, automatic consistency is so pervasive that challenging such a belief is often akin to challenging someone’s faith.

David Didau recently wrote a defence of how some of his views have changed, in the face of accusations that he somehow lacked conviction by changing his mind. Likewise, plenty of my views are entirely inconsistent with what I thought about them just a few years ago. I don’t think such development of thought needs defending, but the fact that it does is entirely compatible with our default nature to see consistency as the desirable trait.

The fact is that by eschewing the drive to be consistent, my thinking and practice has developed in ways that it wouldn’t have had I just stuck to a consistent position  – and that goes for many areas of pedagogy, not just edtech and SOLO.

So my advice for great professional development is: be aware of your drive to be consistent and don’t be afraid to be inconsistent at any time. Inconsistency can – and does – bring about real development.

And, by the way, I reserve the right to think that this is a terrible approach at any time in the future.


‘Influence: Science and Practice’ by Robert B. Cialdini

‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ by Daniel Willingham

Inspector who? What to make of Ofsted’s latest regeneration

Lada Riva advertHere’s something you can try at  home:

Take three deep bowls (each large enough to immerse your hands in). Fill one with cold water, one with water at room temperature, and fill the final one with hot water. Place them in front of you in a row, with the bowl of room temperature water in the centre. Now place one hand in the bowl of cold water and one hand in the bowl of hot water and leave them for about 20-30 seconds. Take your hands out and quickly  place both in the room temperature water. Interesting, eh?

Now let’s stop pretending that you actually did all of that (but kudos to anyone who did: you’re in my fraternity now – I’d show you the handshake but, you know, you have wet hands). The sensation that one feels when placing both hands in the room temperature water is that the hand that was in the cold water first now feels as if it is in hot water, and the hand that was in hot water now feels as if it is in cold water.

This is called perceptual contrast – the idea that our perception of something is affected by the context in which it is placed. In this instance – as in most examples – by presenting two different things directly after one another, our perception of the second thing is altered. It’s a form of anchoring, which I wrote a little about here.

This phenomenon isn’t just present as a physical sensation – it also works psychologically. You will have seen lots of optical illusions like the one below. They basically work on the same principle – we perceive the contrast between the two orange circles to be greater than they are. In fact, as your relentless experience of this type of trick has probably told you, the two orange circles are actually the same size. It is the context that makes you perceive the contrast.

Which of these two orange circles is bigger?
Which of these orange circles is largest of the two?

But where perceptual contrast really comes into its own is in the world of retail as, in the words of psychologist Robert B. Cialdini, a “weapon of influence”. In his book ‘Influence: Science and Practice’, Cialdini refers to how both clothing retailers and car dealers use perceptual contrast to make more sales. He writes:

Suppose a man enters a fashionable men’s store and says that he wants to buy a three-piece suit and a sweater… Clothing stores instruct their sales personnel to sell the costly item first. Common sense might suggest the reverse: If a man has just spent a lot of money to purchase a suit, he may be reluctant to spend very much more on the purchase of a sweater; but the clothiers know better. They behave in accordance with what the contrast principle would suggest: Sell the suit first, because when it comes time to look at sweaters, even expensive ones, their prices will not seem as high in comparison. The same principle applies to a man who wishes to buy the accessories (shirt, shoes, belt) to go along with his new suit. Contrary to the commonsense view, the evidence supports the contrast-principle prediction.

The same principle is applied to car sales. Quite often you’ll see an advert for an ‘on the road’ price of a car. Once you’ve acquiesced to pay this price for a car, the dealer will offer you add-ons. After you’ve spent thousands on a new car, a few hundred on some added flashes and gadgets seem trivial and you are more likely to pay for these. I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve paid for add-ons to expensive purchases that I’ve made.

This ‘weapon’ is also prevalent in restaurant menu design. Menu Engineer (‘Mengineer’?) Gregg Rapp talks about how he places expensive items on menus as decoys to make other items seem more reasonable. See him expose his tricks in this video (skip to around 2mins for his use of perceptual contrast):

It is with this phenomenon in mind that I think we should have reservations in our reception of Ofsted’s revised school inspection handbook, released this week.

After years of campaigning for Ofsted reform (by the way, that is a brilliant list of blogs compiled by de facto Chief Librarian of the campaign, Joe Kirby), the Rebel Alliance, led by legendary master Old Andrew Kenobi and flaxen maverick Jedi hero David Didau have recently begun to engage the inspectorate in dialogue. This has resulted in reiterations of policy and rewrites of the handbook, culminating in this week’s revised guidance.

"You're my only hope." Deep in the BlogCave, David and Andrew receive a holographic message from new EdSec Nicky Morgan.
“You’re my only hope.” Deep in the BlogCave, David and Andrew receive a holographic message from new EdSec Nicky Morgan.

The revisions have been received quite warmly – who could complain about the reiterations that inspectors – and I might be paraphrasing here – “definitely 110% guaranteed-or-your-money-back won’t be grading individual lesson observations, oh no siree, Bob, not this time and you can take that to the bank”?

But is it enough? Are we in danger of accepting this Gallifreyan regeneration of the inspectorate because, well, it’s a bit different to the last one and the perceptual contrast means we see that difference as greater than it actually is? Is this a reboot or is it just a shot-for-shot remake with a different cast? I must admit, I think that the differences between this revision and the last aren’t as great as I’d expected them to be.

It’s really important that we look at the inspection process from September in isolation and not in the context of the last few years. It doesn’t matter if it is better than what we had before – perceptual contrast has no actual value. What we should be asking is, just as the relentless bloggers have been asking all this time, is this incarnation fit for purpose? Is this incarnation actually right? I’m not sure that it is… yet.

So let’s take up Joe Kirby’s rallying call:

Now, above all, is the time to keep up the pressure. The education blogosphere is organising. We, the teachers, are reclaiming our profession. The momentum is rising. The next campaign target is to stop Ofsted grading teaching altogether.

If we sustain it, radical reform of the inspection regime is within reach.

Now, go and dry your hands.


‘Influence: Science and Practice’ by Robert B. Cialdini