Searching for the Silver Bullet

You can test for ‘most efficient’, but ‘best’ is a value judgement.

I’ve been trying to work out why I’m nervous about all the talk of teaching as an ‘evidence-led profession’. I get all the arguments about why it’s a good idea: intrinsically, instinctively even, it sounds eminently sensible. It will happen. But still something inside me whispers ‘tread carefully here, look below the surface’. Just don’t let them convince you it’s the silver bullet.

In the introduction to many of my books, I say that what follows is not based on years of research and study, but on my own experiences and observations. I’m not apologising for that, it seems to work for me. I’m not trying to tell teachers that this is the only way, just that this is one way I’ve tried or discovered that seems to work for me and others. It’s about accumulated experience. I don’t have the silver bullet, just some practical possibilities.

At INSET days, I remind teachers that they should never do something ‘for Ofsted’, or because it’s got a fancy tag. It has to be what they believe is best for their children. Yes, I ask staff to think about how they learn best, but then I joke that the visual learners should go and look at the wall, the auditory ones should listen to it, and the kinaesthetic ones get to feel it. Of course it’s nonsense, if you take it in that way.

What we need is to trust in ourselves as teachers, whatever that means for us personally. I’m sure that direct instruction works brilliantly for some, but so do child led approaches for others. Why does ruling something in require us to rule something else out? If the concept of learning styles can inform our thinking and encourage us to experiment, then we’d be mad to ignore it. Just don’t let them convince you it’s the silver bullet.

I can’t remember learning to read, but obviously I can now. So can millions of other adults in the UK, who were taught in a mish mash of ways. My own children learnt to read as synthetic phonics began its ascent, and it’s a very efficient way to teach reading. It works particularly well for weaker children, and for less confident teachers, which is brilliant. Where research finds an answer that works well for the majority, I completely get that we should use it. But ruling something in doesn’t mean ruling everything else out.

Children also need to learn to see words as a whole, so that they can read quickly and spell irregular words well. They need to fall in love with the meaning we can create by using language. And why wouldn’t we encourage them to think about etymology? Does it look right? is a question you can only answer if you do these things. Language is a big target, decoding is only the bit on the outside. We need to be careful that firing our shiny silver bullet doesn’t distract us from the bigger picture.

I have a friend who runs a clinical trials unit for the NHS. I’ve talked to her at length about RCTs and she has told me about the benefits for medicine. When I pointed out the differing goals and timescales in education, she suggested that longitudinal research is probably the answer. (We also had a very interesting chat about informed consent: please don’t forget to inform the parents.) Longitudinal research goes on at the moment in academia. And it also goes on in the classroom: because a teacher’s career, and the experiences and knowledge they pass on to their colleagues, is a form of long-term research.

Please could someone point me to the evidence that says that evidence-based approaches are more efficient than intuition-based ones? I can make my own mind up on whether they are ‘better’ or not, thanks. I’m sure that the research that happens will make a positive contribution, and I’m going to stop talking about it now. But just don’t let them convince you that it’s the silver bullet.

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This entry was posted in Children, Evidence, Flexibility, Teaching and learning. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Searching for the Silver Bullet

  1. Pingback: Willingham on Willingham | Lighting a Fire

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