The Cult of Variety

  Fun games and generic activities are lauded as great teaching and learning

Have you ever read an education book that, in hindsight, you wish you hadn’t?

Before I started teaching, I read some books that led me up the garden path and into what I now see as a wrong-headed way of thinking about lesson planning.

‘A MUST-Have’: The Bible of Engaging Activities


How To Teach has 32 out of 36 5* reviews, a T.E.S. recommendation and a lot of love on Amazon:

  • Finally a teaching book that cuts the crap
  • the ulitmate bible for teachers
  • A MUST have book for any educationalist!
  • Like a romp in the hay with a lothario
  • Where were you when I was training?
  • If you’re a teacher and you only buy one book this Christmas, buy this!

It also has a lot of high-profile expert endorsement:

  • Geoff Barton: “deeply wise: tells you everything teacher training courses don’t”
  • Tim Brighouse: “delightful insights: a must-read for all new teachers”
  • Dylan Wiliam: “useful advice: every teacher should read it”
  • Francis Gilbert: “sensible, workable, useful: every teacher should read and act upon it”


The Teacher’s Toolkit has 28 5* reviews out of 37, is a Waterstone’s bestseller, and is on many department bookshelves in my school, and schools I have visited. Reviews say:

  • I still use it for lesson ideas especially when trying to use kinaesthetic, visual and auditory activities.
  • Excellent to make our lessons more fun.
  • I would recommend this book to any student or qualified teachers. It starts by looking at how learners learn, learning styles.
  • An excellent book, up to date, engaging and very appealing to my “visual” learning style.
  • Every staff room should really have one.
  • Every teacher should have a copy!
  • I wish I had this when I started out
  • AMAZING: the theory at the beginning was so well written
  • If you only buy one book during ITT make it this! I cannot recommend this highly enough. It’s the single source for my inspiration, and can be returned to time and time again for practical, useful suggestions for lessons.
  • Use with caution: you need to watch the sections on learning styles.
  • This is nonsense on stilts wrapped up in spurious theory.
  • This was my bible during my PGCE and, six years on, I still refer to it regularly for ideas and inspiration. No department should be without this book.

It also has high-profile expert endorsement:

  • Sir Tim Brighouse: ‘one of those rare and precious books … it’s a must’
  • Alistair Smith: ‘well researched, this is a book every teacher in the land should get their hands on’.

The Fun Crusade

Both books recommend a dizzying, dazzling array of jazzy, whizzy, flashy activities and games to pack into lessons. Here are ten examples from Phil Beadle’s book:

  • Treasure Hunt
  • Twister
  • Space-hopper
  • Buckaroo
  • Action Men
  • Jigsaws
  • Argument Tennis
  • Young Inspectors
  • Wandering Plenary
  • Attitude Cards

For instance, attitude cards are given to learners to roleplay during groupwork: recommended examples are cards saying ‘you are: clinically depressed / fundamentalist Christian / David Cameron / Jesus / Adolf Hitler’.

Similarly, Paul Ginnis’ book recommends 50 activities to engage learners ‘of all learning styles’, such as:

  • Bingo
  • Hide n’ Seek
  • Scrambled Groups
  • Wheel of Fortune
  • Marketplace
  • Verbal Tennis
  • Circus Time
  • Dicey Business
  • Dominoes
  • Guess Who


A sister book, The Literacy Toolkit, recommends ’50 generic literacy strategies’, such as:

  • Skimming & Scanning
  • Finger Puppets
  • Roll the Dice!
  • Las Vegas: clap and roll the dice!
  • Voicemail!
  • Window Shopping!
  • Weather Corners
  • Crossword & Sudoku
  • Diplomats
  • United Students!

The Cult of Variety

Extraordinary claims are made in these teacher bibles:

‘Having your desks set out in groups is the right way to organise your classroom. Period. No discussion. No arguing. Having the tables in groups allows you to set them the grouped speaking and listening activities that are the way in which they learn the most effectively.’ Though Mr Beadle calls learning styles an ‘utter crock of methane,’ his final word is that ‘they have made some contribution to our understanding of how a lesson should be run.’

Mr Ginnis claims that ‘there are some natural laws of learning, givens, universal principles … All students need to do is to learn how to learn. Check your students’ learning styles… The issue of learning styles is at root an equal opportunities issue’. He recommends ‘three well-used learning styles models’ at great length: seventeen pages (34-50) are dedicated to VAK, mind styles and multiple intelligences. Overall, he recommends we “design activities for independence, interdependence, fun, learning styles, multi-sensation & self-esteem” (p59):


Variety at all costs is the name of the game here. As is clear from sales, teacher reviews and expert endorsements of these books, this teaching approach is popular. One reviewer, for instance, said they achieved OFSTED outstanding with one activity, Marketplace, and used it 16 times in a matter of months. OFSTED best practice reports laud a variety of fun games in lessons, too: plasticine, Mr Men, balloons, fizzy drinks & baby mice as party guests.

Generic activities, fun, varied and engaging, are being given precedence over silent, focused subject-specific hard work.

Soggy Theory




Unfortunately, the whole elaborate house of cards is utterly precarious. Learning styles have been convincingly and thoroughly debunked by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, bloggers like Old Andrew and Tessa Matthews, and head of ResearchEd, Tom Bennett. The claim that ‘all that matters is learning to learn’ is completely undermined by decades of scientific research into the importance of subject-specific knowledge. Where is there a scrap of research evidence to show that grouped seating or groupwork activities are the way in which pupils learn most effectively? The deeper fallacy is that generic activities help students learn. But as E.D. Hirsch says, ‘The idea that reading skill is largely a set of general-purpose manoeuvres that can be applied to any and all texts is one of the main barriers to our students’ achievement in reading.’ The entire edifice is built on a weak and faulty rationale, and is awash with spurious, unevidenced claims. The theory is hogwash.

Not only that, but its effects are pernicious. Fun and variety are distracting from focusing our pupils on thinking about subject content so that they remember it. Teachers are spending huge amounts of time resourcing marketplaces and attitude cards when they’d be better off thinking up subject-specific tasks than fun, generic activities. As Willingham says, ‘teaching content IS teaching reading’.  The opportunity cost of not doing so is huge.

But the soggy theory is still out there, influencing teachers. The cult of variety and its crusade of fun marches on.


Next post, I’ll explore the alternative: rigorous, subject-specific tasks rather than engaging, generic activities.

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
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to The Cult of Variety

  1. nmgilbride says:

    I have read all the books you have reviewed here. I do agree there is a lack of focus on building the foundations of knowledge (mainly due to whatever idiot placed grades and numbers next to blooms taxonomy, thus defeating the entire point that knowledge is the foundation and all skills build on this).

    However, I think what any teacher interested in designing great lessons can use these as guides or ideas to help students use and become comfortable with their knowledge. A lot of my students suffer from fear of knowledge and it just makes it more friendly, usually as a great plenary!!.

    Personally, I adapt them for the demands of my discipline – e.g marketplace is great for my year 9 set 6 on renewable and non renewable energy; they represent different types of energy source and record the arguments they have with other groups and assess them scientifically using Dictaphone afterwards (but only after they have securely worked out how electricity generation occurs, and the engineering differences). I think then problem is that too many skip the part in brackets and do it too soon! Happens all the time in science practical – ask any half decent science teacher and the abuse of practical is similar to what you discuss – do the practical before they have any idea as to what the core tenants are, or without proper consolidation afterwards if it is inquiry based.

    I think if we see such books as templates, as oppose to bibles, for which to your own pedagogical tools applicable in your discipline, then I don’t see how they argue against your perspective for knowledge as key. I think its more how the book is used that is more dangerous, rather then the existence of the book themselves.

  2. Hi Joe. A thoughtful post which Phil seems to take issue with … However … Could it not be the case that teachers need the variety of approaches for the students that present in front of them? Unfortunately we have a generation of teachers who have been brought up on activities-led lessons without any real learning going on. The pendulum swings over the years and for me, the clever teachers have a vast array of ideas and strategies that work for their students. Heaven forbid that any of us start telling anyone else how best to teach … Thanks for promoting discussion!

  3. michaello83 says:

    This blog seems like a bit of a hatchet job. I’ve always been able to pluck loads of interesting and effective ideas from Phil Beadle’s books. I think he comes across as a defiantly sensible and humane teacher.

  4. debrakidd says:

    This blog seems a bit below you Joe – you are usually thoughtful and measured and this smacks of arrogance. Phil has been hugely successful in getting grammar to stick with children – I know that you are an advocate of teaching grammar too. Is it not possible to accept that in many cases, enjoyment helps learning to stick? If you also look at the significant amount of research on movement and memory, you’d also see that many of these techniques are sound in establishing patterns. I feel a little saddened that you’ve been so dismissive.

    • Harry Webb says:

      Joe – please pay no attention to being told off. Debra is not your mum and it’s not her business to approve or disapprove of your tone. It’s patronising and it does nothing to advance the argument. I, for one, applaud your free-thinking and nonconformity; just the sorts of qualities I would wish my students to develop.

      On a point of substance, I would agree that it could certainly be possible that movement or fun might help students remember something. However, if the activity distracts you from thinking about the *right* things then the stuff you remember won’t help you much. And it probably matters far less how knowledge is first transmitted to students than how many times that knowledge is later returned to and rehearsed.

      • bt0558 says:

        I understand “tone” is the new “hubris”. I think debbrakid’s comment was measured and respectful. I gleaned from her comment that she believed the Joe’s blogpost did not “advance the argument”.

        I am sure many posters will be impressed by the fact that you applaud Joe’s freethinking.

        Many teachers find the books Joe mentions very useful to their professional practice and for me that takes some beating. It certainly wouldnt be trumped by research that seemd to suggest that those many professionals were in fact deluded in that belief.

        And before you suggest I am responding to tone, i would point out that just because you come across as a bit of a twerp with an over inflated view of your own intellect, doesn’t mean that I am responding to this rather than the substance of your assertions.

        Please do note that I am not suggesting that this is your nature in the real world, just that you come across that way on the bloggernet.

  5. deputyjohn says:

    It’s not dismissive. Joe has pointed to a number of alternative views that debunk the “have fun” narrative. I’ve no doubt many teachers have done well with whatever strategy, because as Hattie points out, everything works. However, Joe has made the case – or more accurately pointed to other cases – where colleagues with far more experience (so there’s the argument about experience gone) make the case that there are better ways to do things.

    Phil’s childish response (which appears to focus on age and university) to professional criticism suggests that he knows there’s something challenging here and he has little response.

    Just because you have sold lots of books or appeared on TV does not mean teachers, who you are selling to, shouldn’t criticise or challenge your work.

  6. Miss Toppin says:

    Interesting post….I am no fan of the whizzy bang school of teaching. My students make great progress without the theatrics and I resent that fact that in some schools it is hard to get an outstanding observation rating without them.

    It is not easy to criticise people that have had status conferred upon them, it takes courage. So I just wanted to say that I agree with you. There are other ways to get students to enjoy learning. I usually save these sorts of activities for after the core learning of a topic has been done as I have never truly been convinced of their effectiveness.

    I have bought many books over the years however in my opinion I have found blogs such as yours and the tweachers much more effective in improving my practice.

  7. Tom Grey says:

    Which books do you recommend instead?

    • Miss Toppin says:

      Cracking The Hard Class by Bill Rogers because everything gets so much easier when they have learning routines and are manageable. Tom Bennett is also awesome.

      The Perfect Ofsted Lesson by Jackie Beere was good because it emphasised the fact that great lessons with a class take place over time.

      When I was in my NQT year, I found Successful Induction for New Teachers by Sara Bubb really useful.

      I also have loads of revision, exercise and skills building books like the Rising Stars series. Books with answers are a life saver, plus the kids love marking each other’s work.

      I read academic stuff too, like Dylan Wiliam, Ken Robinson and Pierre Bourdieu.

      I am currently trying to find a good book for spelling but I always come back to my 25 year old copy of The Essential Spelling List by Fred J Schonell. Writing this post made me check some author names and I found some exercise books to go with the word list so thank you.

      On the web it’s all about Geoff Barton, Joe Kirby, Teacher Toolkit, Alex Quigley and David Didau. Have just discovered Andy Tharby, all great stuff. I read / see something I like and it goes straight into the next days’s lesson.

      • Tom Grey says:

        I borrowed Cracking The Hard Class from the library yesterday and also ordered one of Tom’s books online.
        Some of the others you mention are new to me so I will have a look, thank you 🙂

  8. dodiscimus says:

    …Where is there a scrap of research evidence to show that grouped seating or groupwork activities are the way in which pupils learn most effectively?…
    Which is linked from

    I don’t claim to have read those papers so if someone has, and is aware of consistent methodological flaws, then I bow to their superior expertise, but there seems to be a fair accumulation of evidence that good quality collaborative work has a positive impact on pupil progress. I think the evidence does show that it is necessary to get pupils working in the right way – as a group, not just in a group – and there is no suggestion that their groupwork should be minimally guided / discovery learning, nor that it should take up the majority of time in the majority of lessons. Also, like all educatoinal research on teaching methods, the comparison will be against average non-collaborative teaching; so for an average non-collaborative teacher, learning to use groupwork effectively would probably be a good idea. For the brilliant, demonstrably highly effective ‘traditional’ teacher, switching to groupwork may never pay dividends or may make their results even better – the research almost certainly has nothing to say on that matter. And I don’t imagine it says anything about how to arrange your tables either.

    • Frank Coffield was the first major study to debunk Learning Styles. And knowledge is not central to thinking, it is central to expertise. There is a difference.

      But I agree with the article. I think there are ways of making lessons interesting without resorting to activities who central premise become more important than the knowledge that is supposed to be being learned.

      One question:

      But as E.D. Hirsch says, ‘The idea that reading skill is largely a set of general-purpose manoeuvres that can be applied to any and all texts is one of the main barriers to our students’ achievement in reading.’

      How do we learn stuff we don’t know about then? I know sweet FA about nuclear physics but I can still read it.

  9. cnewman1974 says:

    Reblogged this on Newman's blog.

  10. I thought one of John Hattie’s main conclusions was that students are more able to cope with challenging thinking when they are in groups (eg. outward bound courses) – and so this is the best way to get them transferring information into their long term memory. Which means your comment about Beadle’s insistence on having students in groups: ‘Where is there a scrap of evidence to [back this up]’ is surely a bit of rather base pamphleteering.
    However the main point of your blog (as I see it ‘variety for variety’s sake is wrong’) is a very good one and needs to be spread. Keep it up.

  11. Maria says:

    I think the issue is that teachers have lost the confidence/skill to think for themselves about what they want the pupils to learn and how are they going to learn best. There are too many bandwagons around on to which SLT and classroom teachers jumps. Enjoyable and engaging lessons that build and consolidate learning are what are important, I think people are confusing active learning with involved learning. I have seen perfectly good lessons stopped to have the pupils moving around and changing groups for no other reason than to ‘incorporate active learning’. There are times I despair! I have read several of the books mentioned, and several others, and usually find that I will take one or two ideas and develop into my own style of teaching. I am always looking for new ideas but not at the expense of deep learning. A pupil said to me recently that they ‘play too many games in some lessons, and don’t learn anything’, I agree with nmgilbride – and have used a market place in a similar lesson, I also used rolls of wallpaper to create a timeline of the history of atomic theory and other ‘out of the book’ ideas but these lessons are also underpinned by more traditional learning and consolidation. Effective teachers will always combine the two styles, that is why we are professionals. There has to be a balance and as professionals we have to have a range of strategies we can use to deliver successful lessons over an extended period of time. Not a quick hit for the observer.

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  13. I think the key factor here is that teachers deal with groups of human beings and if each child is unique then the resulting combination of unique individuals in every class is even more unique (if such a thing is possible). It follows, then, that no book can give you advice that fits every class, so these books may contain useful suggestions and ideas but they are not the prescriptions for success that some of their writers claim to be. The other point I would like to make is that all good teachers could, given the time and resources, write a fabulous book of suggestions and strategies, so in many ways you can learn as much while eating your sandwiches in the staff room as you can reading a book about classroom strategies – and the multi-tasking aspect of the staff room scenario appeals to the teacher in me.

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  15. As always, let’s return to the fundamentals: flooding kids with reading, writing, listening, speaking, information organization, study-skill and math success; starting on time, staying on task, completing assignments. I mention these because they keep getting lost in the fray. The fray must be not only “fun,” it must also be “cute.”

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  17. cmoyse says:

    The Teachers toolkit. Over ten years on it is still a magnificent book with some great ideas. I would always recommend this book and not just because I work with Paul either. I think it is packed full of great ideas to use successfully in the classroom. It may not be everyones style but I have seen the activities outlined in it used incredibly effectively with children of all ages. It is important to have a toolkit at your disposal so that you can be that truly responsive and adaptive teacher we all would hope to be

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