Tom Bennett

Home » 2012 » February

Monthly Archives: February 2012

Real Steel in the classroom: how we need to be more than robots to be teachers.

Machine versus humans

Real Steel: boxing robots as a metaphor for teaching

For those of you who haven’t, or will never, see it, Real Steel is a film aimed at the family market. It’s set in the near-future, where boxing has been replaced with robot boxing.

Bear with me.

Hugh Jackman plays Charlie, an ex-boxer/ loser who bums around from fight to fight with an assortment of junk robots, always one step away from the gutter. Through an improbable twist, he gets temporary custody of his estranged 11 year old son; they start the film hating each other, and if you can’t see the plot/ character arc sweeping down on you like the Valkyries then you need better narrative radar. It’s a kids/ family movie, and I thought it was rather wonderful, but that’s not the point.


Now that I’ve chased off the last few of you, it’s just you and me. Either you’ve seen it, or you don’t intend to, or you don’t care. Either way, take a ring-side seat with me for the finale. Like a deathless Rocky meme, Charlie and his son have restored a beaten-up Atari of a robot and got him through unlicensed fights until he’s up against Zeus, the World Champion, a gleaming, sinister, black Ferrari of a tank with fists. Programmed with an onboard fight simulator that can anticipate millions of combat options, he is unbeatable.

Contrast Zeus with Atom, Charlie’s reconditioned junk heap; he’s a ruin, he’s old, he’s built from scraps and spares. But he can take punishment, and most importantly, he’s got the ability to learn to fight from humans, as Charlie reluctantly demonstrates when he agrees to teach the robot his old boxing moves. Also, Charlie tends to take remote control of the robot for some fights. If you haven’t spotted the ‘tin man with a heart’ symbolism by this point, I don’t know what. The heavy implication is that Atom, the ruined loser on a comeback, is the simulacrum of Charlie; both are lost and broken; both restored by the faith of a child (which was also the name of Celine Dion’s last Grammy-repellant, I believe).

This is what gives Atom the edge; Charlie’s experience and skill, transmitted through Atom, makes him see how the fight needs to be fought. There’s even a nice touch when, as part of a pre-fight ritual, his son makes Atom dance before he gets in the ring (and at one point he even makes the robot….do the ROBOT. I hugged myself with joy).

In the final match, Charlie/ Atom puts up a good fight, but Zeus is too quick and strong. On the bell of the fourth, Atom slumps down, his voice command and online computer fried by the battering. As a last resort, Charlie switches Atom to ‘Shadow’ mode; Atom (an ex-sparring droid) will simply copy every move that Charlie makes from the ringside. He is quite literally, fighting Atom’s fight. The last few scenes as Charlie’s son glows with pride to see his old dad making a comeback in the ring are surprisingly touching, and I’m surprised Disney didn’t nail this one years ago. I won’t give the fight away to you, but as Barry Norman once said reviewing Rocky IV, ‘If you can find someone to bet on the Russian, hold on to him.’

And I realised what was nagging away at me as I watched this fine piece of inoffensive entertainment. The boxer in the ring, Atom/ Charlie, is the teacher in the classroom. Zeus is the avatar of best practise, the recommended recipe. On paper, Zeus is unstoppable, just as on paper, the formal requirements for a good lesson should result in a good- sorry metasatisfactory– lesson. This guidance comes from educational research, from ministerial dogma, from ideologues and academics who have barely set foot in the ring- sorry, the classroom. We are told constantly how to teach by people who have never taught. Their only evidence base is the Mystic Meg method of research that clearly shows whatever it was they wanted it to show. I don’t mind ministers and concerned parties telling me what we, society should teach children- that’s their elected prerogative. But I massively, massively resent being told to follow the program when it comes to how I teach. The skeleton is there as a safety net when you begin, but after that, instinct, judgement and intuition start to take over.

We are best suited to knowing how children learn, and should be handled to do so. Other people’s opinions are important, but no one is going to ask me to step into the ring and tell me how to throw or take a punch if I try it and it doesn’t work. Let them step under the ropes and see how they guard, block and combo. If anyone IN the ring has advice for me, I often take it. If someone watching it in the VIP rows, or from TV has an opinion, I consider it. But I’ll make the last call myself, thanks. I’m the one with the black eye and the cauliflower ear.

Atom/ Charlie won their fights because they went off the map; because they understood that boxing is an art and a craft that relies on techniques as well as the improvisation of those techniques. So is teaching. There are notes, scales and chords we need to learn from others, but if we really want to play music, we need to bring ourselves to the piece.

The Tin Man has to have a heart. That’s Real Steel.


The Love of Money: How schools became Markets, and everyone lost.

Reading John Lanchester’s interesting Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay this week (and there’s a publisher-suggested title if ever I saw one. Because every author secretly dreams of calling their book Whoops! Mind you, they used to get away with An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and such, so I suppose we reap what we sow). It’s a good explanation of the recent boom and bust moneyquake that has underpinned- or excused- the austerity frenzy coming to a Lidls near you. Did you know that the RBS was the biggest company not just in Europe, but the world?

I did not know that.

The salient point he raises is to do with capitalism in general. He traces the current financial clusterf*ck back to the fall of Soviet Communism, and the removal of a direct competitor to the free market model of economic and political discourse. With this removal, he argues, there was less need for the capitalist economies to justify their superiority over the repressive, but undoubtedly more societally inclined (at least on paper) Marxist experiments. Until that point, capitalism, for all its flaws, had produced what Lanchester describes as the most admirable societies ever seen- not perfect, just the best ones so far. The cause of this, he argues, is that the jet engine of capitalism was yoked to the oxen of social justice. Efficiency, enterprise and opportunity were tied to the generation of the maximum dividend of personal gain, tempered with social responsibility.

And removing the great Satan of Communism as an immediate source of geographical and economic comparison (China is, let’s face it, far away), meant that the economic engines were free to achieve escape velocity from those pointless, annoying liabilities we call justice and fairness. A triumphalist mentality emerged, where it was felt that capitalism could do no wrong, where it was felt that entrepreneurs should be freed from the shackles of taxation and restraint, and a free market should be more successfully realised. I mean, look at all the STUFF we have.

Fast forward through Thatcher, Reagan, and a worldwide surge in opportunism, Icelandic meltdowns and bank crashes, slow the tape as you approach the sub-prime tsunami that nearly drowned the world, and then let your finger drop on play when Fred the Shred gets his knighthood annulled (which will no doubt inconvenience him tremendously as he dries his tears with a handkerchief made of unicorn mane, and laughs from his golden throne on the Moon).

‘Did we win?’

This is not ‘Tom Bennett’s blog on fiscal responsibility’. High finance crosses my eyes like Marty Feldman, as it does most of us, which is precisely why the banks now resemble the shop floor of your local Ladbrokes, and withdrawing money is like enacting the Schrödinger Cat experiment every time you go to an ATM. And this is the point; economics are now ruled by a priest class, so remote and dislocated from common comprehension that they wiled as much power as the priest class in any pre-scientific society. They are the shaman (and shawomen, increasingly) who read the runes and entrails of our financial futures, and dictate, almost entirely, political policy around the world.

When I get some time I will revert to my blog default and rail against economics as another example of the voodoo sciences that have crawled into the popular perception as real sciences, when in fact, no one knows anything, as William Goldman famously said about movies.

But I am a teacher, and I know schools. And I know what happened to schools at the same time as this impossible sense of exceptionality and superiority crept into the collective consciousness of the men in the City and the Street; the language of the marketplace crept into areas of public discourse where previously they had been seen as necessary evils at most. Of course I’m referring specifically to education.

Even when I started just under a decade ago, I was amazed by how much we were expected to gobble up the gastronomy of the bean-counter. Everyone remotely related to schools and children had become a stakeholder; we were expected to produce returns on our efforts. Children avoided- just- being referred to as customers in mainstream education, but we are devilishly close to the concept at all times. Don’t believe me? Consider how much their views are now being taken into account, despite the concomitant lack of an obvious medium for the same communication from the teacher perspective.

I remember years ago I used to run one of many themed restaurants in the West End. No where before had I encountered the slavish ‘customer is always right’ mentality as I did here. One charmer put me up against a wall one night, hand round my throbbing jugular, and said he was going to ‘F*ck me up.’ Faith, dear reader, I lived. But the next day I was broken to learn that the company would pay him compensation and apologise to him; and I was told not to complain to the police, as it would damage sales, somehow. You might recognise some of the DNA from this incident in some schools, with their no-blame approaches to social responsibility.

‘How do you sleep?’ ‘On a bed of money.’

We see some of the most foul examples of this marketisation in concepts like value added, or FFT predictions (used as targets), target setting and a million varieties of ways in which the business of education is forced into the double columns of the balance sheet. Have we reached targets? Have we failed them? If we do reach them, what are the new targets? Pass me the smelling salts.

Of course, this model assumes that education is amenable to being circumscribed by the language of the bank, and this is where the bomb goes off. Education is not the same as selling lemonade and rose water at a jumble sale. Perhaps you noticed? The product of our labour isn’t easily numbered, weighed or measured. How we do it isn’t amenable to regimentation or standarisation. The effects of our efforts sometimes aren’t seen until decades later. Businesses run on the engine of arithmetic; but people defy this analogy with the abacus, because so much- my God, almost all, I should say- of our lives are not concerned with that which we can staple a number to. Our entire human experience is concerned with questions of meaning, value, emotion, desire and aspirations that are entirely resistant to enumeration.

Every time I see a number ascribed to something in education, I wince- a lesson, a school, leadership, the whole nine yards. I wince, as I witness yet another brainless attempt to shoehorn thoughts and dreams into the business end of a calculator. The two worlds barely intersect. They certainly don’t coexist easily, and often, like matter and anti matter, they explode on contact with one another. Children do not- do NOT- get more intelligent by 5% every year, satisfying the budgetary- sorry, pedagogic predictions of a well run saucepan factory, predicated on the model of a infinitely expanding market, which is another fairy tale, incidentally. Our teaching certainly doesn’t get better by the same. Yet we are assessed as if they are.

I am not anti-market; as Friedman said, show me a system that has worked better- but that doesn’t mean that I welcome its presence in every facet of our lives. I don’t judge my relationships by their numerical value, because such things are impossible to unearth. I do not love my family because they promise me secure returns on my investment. I do not teach because I add value to their grades.

I teach because I love them, and my subject. And I love both of these because I find them intrinsically valuable. Isn’t that what life is at least partly about? Discerning what is valuable, and valuing it?

Not the market. Not making money. Not adding value that never existed anyway. Love. Not money.

Education Bloggers: What I Think I Do

It is never too late to jump on a meme bandwagon.

My Way or the High Way? Why every teacher needs to be different

One road?

I had to change a fuse today; what tool did you think I used? If you imagined something shaped like a screwdriver, then award yourself a pre-decimal BTEC (worth five A-levels in old money), and proceed directly to Oxford. If you thought instead of something like a lawnmower, then thanks for your interest, and we’ll get back to you. Have you thought of Bangor?

What if I wanted to change a fuse on the Mir Space Station. Could I use the same screwdriver? I imagine not; I fancy that NASA have designed something with a torch and a magnetic strap. The concept of using different tools for different situations is not, I hope, a controversial one, although anything’s possible on Twitter, I suppose (WHY YOU HATERZ HATIN ON SCREWDRIVERZ? etc)

Yet in the world of teaching, this concept is apparently inconceivable to many. I know this because the last twenty or so years in education have seen tighter and tighter screws turned on exactly how we teach and how we should be measured. It’s a topic I return to like day follows night- the idea that there is a centrally prescribed ‘best’ way to teach, and that teachers must follow these methods or be sacrificed on the altar of Cerunnos, the Horned One. These methods, usually generated in the minds of theorists and speculative educational scientists/ homoeopaths become best practise, and we, the teaching community, brace ourselves for another drenching in slurry. Wellies on, umbrellas UP, everyone.

But I have never found teaching to be like this. While I instinctively reject any reference to tool kits and workshops that don’t involve Castrol GTX and circular saws, I do like the analogy of teaching strategies as being like tools in a box; the hammer hammers, the spirit levels, the screw drives, the crow bars etc (that might not have worked. Keep writing, they might not notice). The point is that one uses what is required at the time, in that peculiar, particular circumstance. This proposition I hold to be self-evident. It leads to the following consequences:

1. My methods might not work for you

This sounds like career suicide for a man who devotes 1/3 of his waking hours to being an educational rentagob, but, with important provisos that I will detail later, it is true. My teaching style suits me; and because I am not entirely shit at my job, I know what works with my classes. I know what works for me, with my classes. Example: when I first started to not drown in classes, I realised that one of my most effective strategies with tough classes was to tell them stories. Worked a charm, and helped me build up relationships. Now that is not a strategy I advise to everyone, because not everyone can tell stories, nor could I do what they can.

We play to our skills, and to what works in the specific chemistry of the moment, of the relationship you have with your class. Remember ‘Clear off scumbags’ from Educating Essex? Course you do. Would you recommend that as a coda to every lesson in the UK? Of course you wouldn’t. Was it appropriate for him at that time? Of course it was. That was the point the Daily Hate and others missed. He knew what he was doing.

There are some kids you’ll teach who respect nothing but strength, who will punish you for any drop of kindness; there are other kids whom, offered an abstract hankie of concern, will drop and give you twenty. You learn which approach to take with which kid, and you use what works. What you don’t do is stick with a one-size-fits-all strategy you expect everyone to love. People aren’t like that. Students, I infer, are people.

And THAT’S the Gospel Truth

There is an important exception to make: human nature. People are identical in many respects; they must be, otherwise they would completely defy taxonomic circumscription. People, I argue tautologically, are people. That’s why I (returning to my career-bothering suicide note, above) still believe I can advise and help others; because people do respond in broadly similar ways to each other. For example; we avoid what we dislike, we attend to what we enjoy- in that way I can comfortably recommend that you sanction against people who behave badly and reward those who do not. On that level, there can be very, very broad consensus. What I’m talking about is the finer detail of the student teacher relationships, and how people should learn, and how they should teach.

So, for example, sometimes in a class the teacher will enjoy thrilling levels of trust, and can comfortably send the class out to wander the streets with clipboards and machetes. Other classes need to be set in rows and columns, given short tasks and monitored like Alcatraz. Some classes can be trusted with the keys to your Jag; others need  watchtowers and snipers.

That’s why I think that a large amount of the debate in education, and over education is witless and meaningless. I remember reading the NME when I was a teen, and marvelling at how vicious the letters pages would get about the relative merits of The Smiths over, say, Duran Duran. They weren’t really arguing about facts, but preferences. Similarly, when I hear teachers arguing that ‘their’ method is better than someone else’s, and that all unbelievers must perish, I despair. What many people in this situation are actually arguing is that with their kids, in their classes, with their skill sets, such-and-such a strategy works. The correspondents should listen to each other, try to work out if there is anything transferable between their experiences, and then move on, safe in the knowledge that there may be no definitive, universal panacea to every classroom, every student.

2. International comparisons may be less useful than people hope.

Here come the educational consultants!

I know this may crush the ambitions of politicians everywhere when I say- and I feel comfortable saying this, because I’m a teacher and not some hard-on who worked in PR for a few years before becoming a minister for education-  that what works in one school might not work in another school, because of the enormous amount of variables dividing them. So how much less comparable might the education systems of two different countries be? I know that the Scandinavian Tiger is currently getting more attention than Lady Gaga’s knickers, but do you remember when Ireland was seen as the economic tiger, and a model which we should emulate? Or Poland? Or Japan? Tigers have a tendency to turn into scrawny Toms after a time. Perhaps they were on the upswing of a normal fluctuation model? Perhaps they’re just different. Perhaps, perhaps. We don’t know. If I hear one more ‘We should be like the Finns because they [fill in the social blank]’ then I’ll chin someone. Maybe they do well because they like licorice?

Nobody. Knows. 

I know schools where kids are allowed to come in on flexitime. Some schools let kids out at lunch. Some seal them in like a space station. Some have uniforms; some do not. Some of them are run badly, and some well. Some could do better by imitating others, and some have the balance right.

Hitting the right note at the right time is a craft and an art, for a teacher and for a school. What works at one point, with one class, with one school, might not work another day, with another cohort, in another area- or even over time. That’s why teaching is hard- rewarding, but hard. There is no formula that we can all work towards; children- people- defy moronically precise classification and compartmentalisation. It’s one thing that’s so glorious about being human; our variability, our potential, our almost mystical levels of indeterminism. I call it free will.

What’s the formula for a relationship, exact to three decimal places? Until someone can tell me that, every teacher has the right to their own methods. We are not reagents in a test tube, nor are we blocks in a Rubik’s Cube. We are humans. Some of us are teachers. And teaching is not a science.

Who’s driving this thing? Leadership, and the dogs of the classroom

‘I don’t feel my needs are being listened to enough.’

If you have never been driven through the frozen Norwegian country in the pitch-dark night, may I recommend that you add it to your bucket list? If you harbour a secret passion to reincarnate as Roald Amundsen or even simply to gasp in awe at the perspicacity of a dozen Arctic Huskies as they tear across Narnia and empty their bowels with abandon simultaneously, then it is the very thing. I heard Stephen Fry, the great arbiter of all things middle-class describe it as the most exhilarating thing he has ever done and while I cannot vouch for that claim- jumping out of a plane will evoke far richer echoes of imitating Hemingway-it is peculiarly vivacious.

And at points, also oddly soothing. I have often used the metaphor of a pack of dogs with a driver as a blunt instrument to illustrate some basic truths of classroom management. (I know that the mere proximity of those images makes some critics howl with horror- children as animals? The teacher as a driver of dogs? And that, my friends, is why it is a metaphor, and not a photograph.)

For example, every group of humans will, like dogs, vie constantly with each other for supremacy of will, a class no less. There will be leaders and followers, and a thousand shades in between. There will be dominant voices, and submissive whispers, and there is no guarantee that reason or kindness will attach themselves to either one. And the teacher, however gently he perceives his role, must be the voice of authority, the leader of the room. If he chooses not to be, out of some misguided perception of himself as a facilitator, or enabler, or if he wishes to be but cannot, then in very many classes, Lord of the Flies will be re-enacted, and you just better hope you’re not Piggy. Most kids are nowhere near this difficult; but that’s the point, it only takes a few kids to resist the rule of wisdom and age, and a tipping point of challenge is quickly reached, a critical mass of dissent that ruins the room.

That’s where I stand; it’s a bag of truths I have witnessed from the moment I walked into a classroom. Agree or disagree, you know the measure of me.

The dogs I met were beautiful- and I love dogs like a child loves dogs. Lean and eager, they sat in their harnesses, tense as tightropes and quivered as they anticipated their mission. Let no one disagree that animals cannot reason and imagine; these beasts knew exactly what was coming. With a Sami holler they raced off with complete and perfect abandon.

The pack of ten dogs was headed by two leaders, two alpha dogs. Often, I was told, they were female, and you can take that any way you want. They had to be two things; strong, of course, both in will and stature, and intelligent enough to know when a sensible order was given. Also, obedient enough to know a command from question. Behind them were pairs of males, then some females, and finally two strong males at the back. ‘The males, they follow the females,’ said my laconic French driver. ‘It is the way of things, no?’  There was more than altruism fuelling this ship, it seemed. Short of staffing every leadership team with hand-picked Amazons and supporting them with strong, sex-starved male deputies, there didn’t seem to be an obviously transferable point to take from this experience.

As we drove, the dogs occasionally broke ranks; to sniff at some wild trail, or the spoor of an Elk, to squabble with each other, or even just to attempt the aforementioned mid-romp duodenal acrobatics (squatting and running; quite a feat. Whenever the tail rose I mouthed the words, ‘Shields Up!’). Louis, the driver, didn’t crack a whip, or draw down the Heavens; he simply shouted the dog’s name, and added a tone that spoke volumes. It said; I see what you’re doing. But, trained from birth to expect consequences, they knew to go no further, and the path was achieved once more.

At the end I joined him in rewarding the dogs for running so well; exhausted, they were stoically grateful for his attention, and if one dog was over attended by a rugged scratch behind the muzzle then the others clamoured for equity of affection. Dog Heaven.

‘You have a good relationship with these dogs,’ I said. ‘Good control.’
‘You have to have a good relationship with them to have good control,’ he said. ‘You work hard with them to understand what you want from them- the training when they are young is the hardest part. Then they work hard for you, and you need to show them when they do well. We have a relationship.’

Would you say they trusted you? I asked. ‘Certainly they do,’ he said. ‘Without trust there is nothing.’ I was surprised to see such a close bond between the driver and the driven. There was no casual, utilitarian unconcern for them as merely a means to move a sled; there was a bond between them of mutual cooperation. He knew their names, their character, their capacities, and they knew him. But certainly he was no mere odd, tall dog to them. He had a specific job to do; he was the driver, and he had the first and final say in where they went and how far and fast they moved.

This is something classrooms have taught me. I tell every one of my classes that everyone in the room is important, and everyone has rights. That no one deserves special treatment over any other. And that means two things: first, that nobody must be allowed to place themselves above the general need of the class for selfish reasons, and that anyone doing so could expect to be treated with justice. And second, that as a teacher I was no more or less important than them, but I had a different role from them, which justified my greater authority. And it needed no more justification than that. That’s why I often invite and encourage student feedback in my lessons and of me, but never defer or devolve the authority of decision making. That is where student voice can be fuel for a professional, not a ballast. But when it escaped from the laboratories of the theorists, it became a monster, fed on pastures where it should never graze.

And as I was drawn on through the night, I asked myself, who was in charge here? Was it the dogs, pulling us along so swiftly? From afar you could mistake them as the leaders; certainly there is leadership within them. But their every decision was circumscribed, like a devolved parliament, by the authority of the greater body, in this case the driver. Was he in charge, with his Inuit commands handed down through centuries? But he only drove because I, as the paymaster, the client and customer, funded the expedition.  So was I in charge? Up to a point; by I had no command over those dogs, nor they over me, nor any of us over each other. Where did power lie?

There were hierarchies within hierarchies, and lines of command that, even in such a small group, remained impervious to exact specification. He ordered. They pulled. I paid. We all knew our roles.

Everyone got to where they needed to be.

‘You’re here to learn about Satan.’ How our schools are petri dishes for the Dark One, says everyone

A teacher at one of the UK’s most successful sixth form colleges has rocked the educational world by claiming that students there would be ‘better off learning how to pay homage to Old Split-Foot.’

In a recent article in the TES Online, he claims he advised a student to ‘stick his A-levels up his arse and instead work out better ways he can serve The Father of Lies by accelerating the Last Days of the Apocalypse.’

The chattering classes of education were swift in their rebuttal of Mr Cypher’s unusual pedagogic methods. ‘This is a disgrace,’ said Mr Mendicant of the Church of the Telegraphed Soul. ‘Worshipping Satan has been an outmoded, outdated way to get ahead in the world since the sixties. We thought we had managed to leave all that pentacle-drawing, blood-letting progressive incantation nonsense in the Dark Ages. Our children are expected to follow the modern, scientifically proven method of emailing their aspirations to the Dark Gods of Cthulhu, as best practise demands.’

Is this what you want. IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT?

When asked to defend his apparently indefensible stance on cannibalism, devil worship and desecration of the graves of saints, Mr Cypher was unrepentant. ‘But…but all I said was that kids shouldn’t get too stressed out by exams, and maybe they should still try hard but….oh, I didn’t say it very clearly, but….’


Son of Brain Gym: Dancing to Nursery Rhymes Boosts A-Levels or something.

In other news: thinking burns calories.

Remember Brain Gym? It was a now-discredited theory that pressing your brain buttons and doing warm ups would somehow improve the cognitive development of your learning conversation, or something similarly moronic. It would be laughable, except that a sizeable purse of public money was spent promoting this ridiculous snake-oil. You know, money that could go to orphans and homeless people and that. I should know, because I was one of the recipients- I was a cultish recruit on the now-defunct Fast Track program (motto: Be the inspiration- from the classroom to the staffroom, which should give you some kind of idea how much we were hated), sort of a predecessor to Teach First. They threw money at us, really chucked it as hard as they could. One of the now-unimaginable training bonuses was a three day residential where we learned NLP (another dubious bag of serpents and spanners) where we were taught the uncertain joys of Brain Gym, and had it recommended for dissemination in the real world.

Fortunately the stake has been fairly firmly planted in the heart of the Brain Gym vampire, especially after Ben Goldacre’s famous assault on it in Bad Science. But not before thousands of schools had wasted their time, and most importantly that of the students, on pointless, pointy-headed miracle crystal exercises that made extraordinary claims to efficacy but without concomitant extraordinary evidence. Any efforts accrued from Brain Gym could be replicated from giving your pupils a break every now and then and getting them to stretch their legs a bit. Which, you know, people do anyway, unless you treat your students like laboratory beagles (and even they get very long fag breaks).

And THAT’S what it’s all about.

But the dead do not stay in their graves; they rise, they reek, and roam the edu-sphere, looking for new necks, fresh blood and brains. Fans of feeling sad and slightly intellectually superior weren’t disappointed this week if they read the news that ‘Moving to rhyme may boost pupil results.’ What the research appears to be telling us this week is that doing exercises set to nursery rhymes helps children to develop. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP I READ IT ON THE BBC WEBSITE THEY DO NOT F*CK AROUND:

The Primary Movement project involves getting nine-year-olds to do set exercises to nursery rhymes and will be tested in 40 schools in north-east England. The exercises mimic the earliest reflexes made by babies and foetuses. The theory is that children can be held back if such reflexes persist. Trisha Saul from the Primary Movement project said: “Some of the songs and the nursery rhymes will be familiar, it’s the movements that are different. “These are designed to replicate movements the foetus makes in the womb and the baby makes in the first six months of their life.”

 Now, why on earth would anyone think that this was a thing that actually existed, rather than simply being a whimsical daydream of a theory? Because the ubiquitous research suggested it, in a study by the Queen’s University Belfast in 2000. Blimey, they’ve taken their time to get round to doing anything, haven’t they? Or maybe it’s a testimony to the distance back anyone had to dig in order to get any academic support for this latest foray into the desperate world of educational fairy tale research. Maybe not.

 The small scale little known research project found that children who carried out systematic physical exercises for a year gained 15-20 months progress in reading compared to a control group which did not do the exercises.

‘Small scale’. ‘Little Known’. It’s not looking good, is it? They could have said ‘obscure’, but I think the Beeb draw a line somewhere. Trisha Saul, from the Primary Movement Project, said this:

“It’s a bit like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, but the butterfly still has bits of the caterpillar attached to it.”

That’s EXACTLY what it’s like. What?

‘I am a confident, independent learner.’

I had a look a Primary Movement’s website (the body coordinating the project, which is taking place in 40 schools in England and Wales). It’s far from illuminating, although it links to a sole credit- a press release from Queen’s University, Belfast (oddly enough from 2006, and the article published by the no-doubt beyond beyond reproach Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs– available online only, of course- was in the November 2005 issue, so I don’t know where 2000 comes from).

What it DOES offer is a number of courses that you can apply to take. There isn’t a price list on it. I’m guessing it isn’t free, for either the Foundation or Advanced Level certification. The website advises that as a parent, you should check if your local teacher is trained properly in the method, and suddenly it’s getting a bit mystical and Alexander techniquey, and only the elect are chosen etc.

There is an interesting name that comes up again: Dr Martin McPhillips, who developed the Primary Movement program, and also appears as the author of five out of the seven published papers supporting the work of the PMP so boy, he’s busy. As far as I can see, the research produced by the PMP seems to focus on children with SEN. I might be wrong, of course.

‘The Primary Movement programme developed at Queen’s University, Belfast has been shown to have a significant impact on reducing reflex persistence. It has been evaluated in a number of formal studies that have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.’

In a school-based study of children in their first year at primary school, it was found that the Primary Movement programme had a significant effect on the development of fine motor control(9). In another large, school-based study, involving more than one thousand children, it was found that the Primary Movement programme had a significant effect on ATNR persistence. This led to improved academic attainments in reading, spelling and mathematics

‘I endorse brain gym. And anything else.’

That last sentence interests me, because that’s where programs like this intersect with my work as a teacher. The PMP is, I’m sure, beyond reproach, has impeccable academic credentials, and works solely to promote the well being of children. Its authors and board are undoubtedly motivated by nothing but the noblest of motives. That last sentence is quite a claim. I wonder how they reached that conclusion?

My concern is that it is far from clear that instigating a program, however well endorsed, of physical exercises has anything like a substantial effect on a child’s learning ability, and if it does, can be replicated on anything more than laboratory conditions, on all, or even merely most children. And that it is far from clear that such a program has any significant difference from any other program of simple physical exercises. That the suggested increases in learning can be accounted for solely by reference to the exercise program, and can’t be accounted for by other means, such as the children and the teachers feeling that there should be some kind of benefit. Maybe, maybe, maybe. That’s the problem with this kind of research.

The problem remains with ALL forms of educational research; controls aren’t real controls; exact conditions can’t be replicated and tested against. High causal density in human interactions means that causal relationships can rarely, if ever, be inferred from any pool of data, and researcher bias becomes overwhelming in both the design, execution and interpretation of any such project.

Meanwhile, in austerity UK, trials like this receive funding.

Social science. It’s not a real science, is it?

Teacher Voice.