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?

6 thoughts on “Killing off the Brontosaurus, again: how can research reach further?”

  1. Great story and an interesting post. I’m not sure that your solutions would do the job though: who will read the research column? Who will buy the books? The same converted you rightly point out are the ones attending researchED. While a free-sheet goes further, I’m sure there are many people who still wouldn’t read it. The answer must be to do with changing what goes on in schools themselves… and I’ll leave that hanging there, because I have no articulate way to change what that is.

    1. Perhaps you are right – I just think that ubiquity might be better than occupying a few corners. I certainly think that putting the message into schools might reach those people who are keen to develop but don’t want to or can’t give up a Saturday to attend a conference.

      I also think that there are plenty who read education books but don’t engage in social media or attend conferences. Most schools have teacher libraries and these are usually fairly well used, in my experience.

      Thanks for your comments, Harry.

      1. A fair case – I think you’re right that ensuring easy availability is a good start. Perhaps the tweak that comes after that is developing teacher’s personal CPD to support and challenge them to put the reading they’re offered to use.

  2. We have to keep pushing on every “front”. I have had to teach VAK this week and the learning pyramid adorned the INSET documents; they are NOT extinct merely, hopefully endangered.

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