My partner is a big fan of The Walking Dead. He loves to sit and watch people slay the hideously deformed undead in a violent fashion. He can cope with the blood, and the guts, and the gore; he’s happy to watch people slice off heads with swords, skewer brains with arrows, or stab knives into zombie eyeballs. When The Walking Dead is on, I sit beside him on the sofa and half watch. I cover my eyes when the gory bits are on, although I’ll admit I can see that it might be exciting in a weird, masochistic kind of way. On the plus side, the show does at least allow its female characters to be as violent and as courageous as the male ones. On the down side, I cannot see an ‘end point’ in sight. Clearly no one is going to discover a cure for the poor old zombies. Our heroes and heroines seem destined to walk the Earth in a state of fear and confusion forever more. How much blood will these poor people have to wade through before there are no human beings left to kill?
Since time immemorial, we have told stories about the brave hero who sets out to slay a mythical beast: the Minotaur, the Hydra, the Dragon, the Chimera, the Scylla. These days, we seem more focused on the evil that lies within us, rather than the evil that lies beyond. Zombies make a handy modern metaphor for the slaying of the internal mythical beast, as in Tom Bennett’s latest blog about learning styles. Now, if I saw learning styles as some kind of evil disease infecting the teaching race, I would probably start my mission to eradicate them with the Education Endowment Fund. This is a charity that was created with a £125 million grant from the DfE. It was set up to review research, and make recommendations about the most cost effective methods for schools to use. And on its website there is a page noting “an average impact of 2 months progress for learning style interventions”. The EEF qualify their findings with caveats about “limited evidence” and “lack of impact”, but they note that there is “some evidence that cognitive preference and task type may be connected”. If I was going to direct my ire at a particular method, it would probably be setting and streaming, which the EEF tells us has a negative effect.
Luckily for me I couldn’t care less whether learning styles exist or not, and I am saving my ire for the Christmas holidays, when I’m sure it will come in handy. I don’t think it’s my job to tell teachers or schools what they should or shouldn’t do: I am not a knight in shining armour, coming to slay mythical beasts. My best advice to teachers would be to use a variety of activities in their lessons and to stop worrying about what does or doesn’t exist, because life just isn’t as simple as that. There is a danger, though, in saying “this is evil, it is bad science, and we must fight to destroy it in the same way that we would fight to destroy zombies”. If we try to erase all mention of certain methods, this has the potential to close down discussion and debate. It is a kind of hubris to suggest that we might know exactly what teachers should or should not do, especially since context is such a critical part of what does and doesn’t work. I’ve always felt that teaching is part art, part craft and part science: a magical combination of all three. That the heart of good teaching is not a set of scientific principles, but a set of values that teachers and schools strive to uphold. Even if all the evidence in the world told me that play was rubbish for learning, we would still let our preschool children play, because that is what we believe is best for them.
A couple of years ago, our kids finally stopped believing in Father Christmas. The youngest one accidentally stumbled across the secret stash of milk teeth that I had been keeping in my bedside drawer. She had ‘proof positive’ that the Tooth Fairy did not exist, and she had come to the conclusion that it was time to stop believing in Santa Claus as well. But despite the truth of the matter finally being out there, the kids still want to find money under their pillows in return for fallen out teeth. They still want their stockings filled with presents on Christmas Eve, even though they know that it is me filling them up. Sometimes our beliefs are simply that: a set of cultural values, interests and anchors by which we live our lives. My partner doesn’t believe in zombies, but something about them appeals to him enough to find them entertaining. Our children don’t believe in Father Christmas, but he still has resonance at this time of year. I don’t believe in learning styles, but I still reckon that people learn in different ways. And perhaps the simple truth is that all the evidence in the world will not be enough to convince us, if we are willing to suspend our disbelief.