Teacher Proof: magic beans, magic bullets & magic potions

Why research in education doesn’t always mean what it claims, and what you can do about it


Or, why common sense isn’t often common practice


Just about to review Tom Bennett’s latest book Teacher Proof, I read a review that almost exactly articulates my viewpoint on it:

‘written by a teacher, for teachers and in defence of teachers, Tom Bennett’s Teacher Proof is an invigorating breath of fresh air that deftly counter-attacks the onslaught of dubious educational “research” that bedevils our profession, and places pedagogical leadership back into the hands of those who understand education best: the front-line classroom teacher. Teacher Proof is a witty, defiant, thought-provoking and practical call-to-arms. As a result, it’s a book that new teachers will likely never be assigned in teachers’ training programs, even though every teacher ought to be compelled to read ita well-argued jeremiad that effectively responds to the tsunami-like waves of dubious innovation that continually buffet the teaching profession.’

Couldn’t have put it better myself. I’ve often found it worth paying attention to Tom’s ideas, not least because of his invigorating analogies. Formal observations are like ‘self-immolation’, pseudo-science is ‘a rogue’s gallery’ and behaviour is ‘the elephant in the room’; no wonder they’ve called him the ‘voice of teachers.’ His ideas resonate.

Tom chooses his metaphors carefully, so it’s worth looking at those he uses for Teacher Proof: ‘I wanted to call hoax on the educational cabals of orthodoxydogma built on quicksand … more like magic beans than magic bullets … a lot of these dragons have been slain already…’


And so on to his arguments:

‘Anxious educators, under pressure to improve results, reach for the magic beans and magic potions. Cue: educational pseudo-science. Learning styles, thinking skills, multiple intelligences, brain gym. All promise to revolutionise the classroom, even if the classroom doesn’t need to be revolutionised’

‘Not just some, but a lot of what was accepted in education as absolute axiom, as adamantine dogma, was in fact the result of what was, after very little exposure to analysis, very questionable.’

‘In an attempt to make education more scientific, we have made it less so. And in an attempt to improve it, we have degraded it…. Wishy-washy pseudo-science has infected the everyday idiom of education discourse, so that even the language we use is based on.’

‘Where were the gatekeepers who would defend the profession from hood? Complicit in this disintegration.’

‘This is also a criticism of what we have allowed the teaching profession to become. The generation of teachers working today (or trained in the last ten years) are barely taught anything than the latest dogma and cant. Newer teachers I talk to astounded by any presumption that these paradigms might be questionable.’

‘Everyone still wants a magic bullet; everyone still wants to hear the guy with the big idea, wrapped up in modernity and novelty. No one wants to hear the possibility that what works in classrooms is often very simple, very cheap, very boring and quite time-consuming.’


This chimes exactly with my experience in teaching. Like Tom, by now I would have ‘thought we’d have a good fix on what good teaching involved and a resistance to accepting any old bull that came along.’ But we don’t; instead, the teaching profession is peculiarly susceptible to fads, fashions and unproved innovations.


Common Sense Strikes Back

So what do we do about it? Dan Willingham neatly summarises the third section of Teacher Proof:

  • Researchers need to take a good long look in the mirror.
  • Media outlets need to be less gullible.
  • Teachers should appear to comply with the latest lunacy, but once the door closes stick to the basics

And Willingham adds another point:

  • Schools of education should raise their standards for what constitutes education research. Bennett is right—too much of it is second-rate.

As Willingham writes, it’s ‘a timely read. Impatience with the influence that shoddy science has had on teaching practice is mounting.’

How about focusing on what we know works? asks Teacher Proof:

  • Attendance and punctuality in school
  • Behaviour and concentration in lessons
  • Hard work
  • Regular feedback
  • Sound subject knowledge

A real, unrelenting focus on this kind of common sense, without getting distracted by innovation for its own sake, doesn’t yet seem to be common practice.

Inocculating Ourselves Against The Next Infection

At his talk at the ResearchED conference in 2013, Tom asked some provocative questions:

‘We are not out of the woods yet. What is this year’s brain gym? What are we falling for right now? What if X = brain gym?’

Professor Rob Coe suggested at ResearchED that it might be graded observations; I think he’s right, and plan to respond to this idea on this blog soon.

Tom’s prescription for us as teachers, in the hope that we become ‘immune to novelty and fashion in pedagogy’, is clear: ‘Be more scientific, be curious, be rigorous, be tough on yourself, be tough on what people are telling you … argue your case with schools that ask you to do things without evidence: teachers can be a lot more powerful than they suspect.’

He hints that he is toying with writing another book about great education research. Now that would be timely.

The Case for Optimism

ResearchEd taught me that teachers are now in the driving seat of the profession.  These talks may well become the TED talks of the UK.


Also emerging from ResearchEd were Laura McInerney’s promising touchpaper problems, which next weekend a group of teachers are meeting to discuss:

  • 1,000 spellings
  • Productive Learning
  • Homework
  • Concepts
  • Classroom Entry
  • Behaviour
  • Remembering Knowledge

I’ve also set out some practical questions (within and across lessons) that I will be working with my closest colleagues over the next few years. What’s the best way of:

  • … assessing subject knowledge?
  • … interleaving subject knowledge?
  • … recapping on prior knowledge?
  • … explaining concepts?
  • … checking understanding?
  • … questioning pupils?
  • … modelling exemplars?
  • … coordinating pupil practice?
  • … using feedback?
  • … setting homework?
  • … remembering content?

We plan to come up with ‘multiple working hypotheses’ on each of these questions and others that strike us as vital for effective teaching practice.

And then of course there’s ResearchED 2014, and the possibility of accompanying annual ebooks or an open-access ResearchEd magazine. The case for optimism in 2014 is strong.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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5 Responses to Teacher Proof: magic beans, magic bullets & magic potions

  1. Pedro says:

    Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Ok, this is a new book for the reading list. Btw, I think that there are also other fads who have potential to be the new Brain Gym.

  2. Thanks for this, Joe; I found the questions at the end particularly illuminating. I would perhaps add something to the effect of “identifying how best to intervene” when a learning sequence hasn’t worked out hasn’t been retained, despite careful and thoughtful planning. The response (somewhat naturally) tends to be “let’s try the same again, but with less time” and feels like a pretty good example of high cost/low impact.

  3. Joe Kirby says:

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  4. Brainsarefun - Rory says:

    As you know, “teacher proofing” is considered an anathema. However, here’s a Brainsarefun white paper that is a huge step in that direction (I know, I’ve used it hundreds of times): 5-5-5 SCRIPT

  5. Pingback: Questions that matter: method vs practice | David Didau: The Learning Spy

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