The Jellyfish Effect: why bad ideas hang around

We all want to know ‘what works’.

But sometimes when we say “this works”, we do so under the influence of our many (perfectly human) biases.  When we apply ideas and approaches in the classroom, we know that the list of biases in play is extensive. Whether we have been influenced by garden variety confirmation bias or sunk cost fallacy; or disposed to effects: Hawthorne, Pygmalion or golem; or whether we have fallen foul of the all-too-common Texas sharpshooter fallacy; or indeed affected by any number of the many cognitive biases in operation, caution is always needed when we are told “this works” – particularly when there is little replicable evidence to support it.

But such caution doesn’t always exist which means that bad ideas can often get foisted upon teachers, often at the whim of one or two people who believe in that idea. Such bad ideas may come from the DfE, or from Ofsted (previously by implied decree; more recently by misinterpretation of inspections requirements in schools), or they may be imposed at school or department level. It can even happen at new teacher mentoring level. When I mentored an NQT some years ago, I suggested she try some things out with narratives and QR codes. I still feel shame at the thought of imposing this bad idea on her. It gave her huge amounts of work to do with no discernible outcome. (Incidentally, she is an absolutely brilliant teacher now – an outcome that has literally nothing to do with my mentoring.)

As suggested in my example (*shudders*), by ‘bad ideas’ I mean things that have little or no (or sometimes even detrimental) impact on pupil outcomes, but do impact on teachers’ practice, time or workload.

I’ve written before about how teachers, in the face of a curriculum that doesn’t support high pupil outcomes, will often create their own ‘desire paths’ – deviations away from the prescribed route.

I think that teachers often do similar things with bad ideas – they deviate from them in order to have greater impact. The problem is that much of this is done surreptitiously. On the surface, the bad ideas are still seen to be accepted practice – often showcased in observations in order to find favour with the observer or line manager. (If you think that is just me being cynical, see these pieces of advice on observations by a seasoned teacher and a middle manager.)

The problem here is that such practice perpetuates the bad idea, feeding its flames with oxygen so that it may live longer. And while the bad idea lives on, it continues to be detrimental to teachers (and so it must follow: students).

I call this the jellyfish effect.

Bad ideas can damage teachers. They impact on practice, time and workload. It may mean that focusing on the bad ideas takes time away from other, more important stuff (planning, marking, teaching, etc.) Or it may mean that teachers have to work harder to counter for the lack of impact of bad ideas. This kind of damage takes its toll.

For some jellyfish, when they are damaged they can regenerate. When a predator decides to have a jellyfish tentacle for lunch, some species can simply grow back the lost limb. Cut a hydra in half and each half will grow back its missing parts: the lower half will grow a new head and the upper half will grow a new foot.

The moon jellyfish also regenerates. However, it can’t merely grow back the parts that it has lost. No, if a moon jellyfish loses a limb, it will focus on restoring anatomical symmetry. In short, it will shuffle its limbs around until it appears to be symmetrical. Even if a moon jellyfish has lost six tentacles, it will restore its symmetry.

In the same way, when teachers are damaged by bad ideas, they try to regenerate: they work harder to replace the losses. In many cases, the damage can’t be fixed, so teachers just try to restore symmetry. For any onlookers, things look fine. Bad ideas aren’t noticed because teachers work hard to counter them. And so the bad ideas linger.

This is the jellyfish effect: bad ideas hang around, because teachers work hard to repair the damage caused by them. This means that outcomes are good and policymakers assume this is down to their (bad) ideas.

But nobody notices the damage this has on teachers. We shuffle to restore symmetry. But each time, we do so with one less limb.

So what happens when we have nothing left to shuffle around?

I imagine that’s when we get a teacher recruitment crisis.