Tom Bennett

Personal Blog Archive


Through A Looking Glass


However we might define teacher professionalism and agency, being able to shape and construct aspects of our own strategic and operational world is surely appealing to teachers? Framing the daily lives of teachers beyond prescription and orthodoxy, towards sane accountability and trust perhaps still lives in our tomorrows. A meeting of top down and bottom up worlds that completely respect, trust and value each other does not instantly capture my views on policy, assessment and curriculum structure.

However, the popularity and growth of Pedagoo, Research Ed and Northern Rocks to name but a few, helps highlight that leadership roles exist in the formal and informal, in the organic and the hieirarchy and beyond the the possibly outdated of senior and middle leader designations. What such teacher movements perhaps illuminate is that a culture of trust  and collaboration is vital to the health of our profession. Friction and debate is warmly hugged…

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FLOATING VOTERS WEEK Revisited (From @LabourTeachers)

Scenes From The Battleground

I wrote this post a few weeks ago For the Labour Teachers blog, where it appeared here. However, enough of it is about my views about education that it seems also appropriate to share it here as well.

Back in half term, we followed up the election defeat with a series of posts by teachers who hadn’t voted Labour in at least one of the last two general elections, but would consider it in the future. The request was that they comment on education policies which might convince them to vote Labour, although people often wrote more broadly. The posts can be found here:

  1. FLOATING VOTERS WEEK: Why I spoiled my ballot | @jcoleman85
  2. FLOATING VOTERS WEEK: Floating Away | @HeatherBellaF
  3. FLOATING VOTERS WEEK: Labour Dos and Don’ts | @stephanootis
  4. FLOATING VOTERS WEEK: I’m not that bothered about Labour losing because I’m most interested in education | @StuartLock

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3 things you may have missed if you don’t follow me on Twitter

Scenes From The Battleground

It’s a bad habit of bloggers to assume that everyone who reads their blog also follows them on Twitter and is aware of everything that goes on there. I may have fallen into that trap with my Witch-hunt post, although I’m hoping it made some points that were relevant to the education debate in general rather than just the world of education Twitter. Anyway, for the benefit of those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter,  I will provide here a list of things you may have missed me (or others, but mainly me) going on about.

1) I was interviewed by Carl Hendrick after the Battle Of Ideas Conference. You can listen to that interview here.

2) I have been compiling and promoting a spreadsheet of education bloggers. If you are a blogger ,can you, please, add your details? Or if you just know how to use…

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My Meeting With Sean Harford, OFSTED’s National Director for Schools Policy

Scenes From The Battleground

You may recall (see here)  that in February a group of bloggers met Mike Cladingbowl, one of OFSTED’s biggest cheeses, as part of an exercise in bridge-building with the online teacher world. It was a bit noticeable at the time that I wasn’t invited, despite the effort I had been putting into blogging about OFSTED. It almost seemed as if they were willing to reach out to teachers on social media, but not if it meant having to answer some of the questions I was asking. However, I was pleased to get an invitation for a chat from @HarfordSean, who is now (I think this is a recent appointment) their national director for schools policy. I went to meet him in OFSTED’s secret base (sort of) in the West Midlands last Friday, with my associates Gwen  (@Gwenelope) and David (@LearningSpy).

Before I go through…

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My blog has moved to the TES

I really should have done this a while ago. Last year the TES decided to do the decent thing and make us legal, and now I blog on their website once, sometimes twice a week here. The same swears, the same cant and rhetoric, the same excruciating application of metaphor, the same tiresome pop culture- it’s all there.

You can leave comments underneath each blog, just like you could here, although you might have to sign in- like stabbing, it takes a second. I’ll blog about non-educational stuff here from time to time, in preparation for the launch of my new website in March 2014.

Best wishes


Silence, the death of activism. Why Troliday defeats its own purpose.

If you’re a Twitter user in the UK, you can’t help have noticed that it’s Troliday today. This is the latest crest of a wave of protest currently ebbing and rising in response to a particularly grisly series of high-profile misogynistic attacks on, among others Mary Beard, and many other women who have the temerity to be too high profile and successful.

The aim of Troliday is for users to spend 24 hours away from Twitter in an act of solidarity and as an attempt to persuade Twitter to police its badlands more carefully, both of which are perfectly noble goals. But I can’t find enthusiasm for Troliday. I think it’s self-defeating. I think it’s a good cause but a bad strategy. Many of my reasons have been exhaustively described already throughout the day, so I’ll reiterate briefly:

1. To paraphrase the NRA, if we silence ourselves, then the only people left who get to say anything are the ones with the complicated and unresolved childhoods.
2. A boycott only works when withholding your services or goods actually hurts the organisation targeted. If a handful of people in the media decide to withhold their Sunday sermons, life very much proceeds as it was.
3. When you battle an idea, you need bigger ideas to win.

Memes, and the battle for the bigger idea

I’ll explain. For most people, a meme is a recurrent internet funny, like the scowling cat, the Facepalm of Picard, or Gandalf telling some unlucky high-schoolers that they shall indeed, not pass. But the term was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book the Selfish Gene. As opposed to the gene, which was a unit of genetic inheritance, a meme was a unit of cultural or intellectual capital that could be passed on to other members of the species. The important thing was that memes acted like genes: if they offered a survival advantage or some kind of utility, they would replicate successfully and propagate. For example, the habit of washing ones hands before eating has a benefit, and so survives, whereas the practice of trepanning does not.

What excites those who study memes is that it’s a model that can usefully describe all kinds of cultural processes. Communism is a collection of memes, as is Capitalism. So is Coca Cola, and Apple, and Hula-Hoops, and social networking, and … anything that we do. Gangnam Style is a meme that acted like a virus before exhausting itself, having consumed its host, gratefully.

And that’s why it’s important not to stay silent. Unlike World WarII, this isn’t a battle against an enemy with clear ideological and geographical boundaries. This is a contest of ideas. On one side (and I abhor the linear description of two poles, but it’ll do for explanation) is the idea that women are objects that exist as a helpmeet to man; on the other, the idea that they are not, that they deserve every privilege and consideration that their male counterparts enjoy. On the first side we have the glass ceiling, the male gaze, patria potestas, feet binding, and the fear of weak men who cannot sustain a reasonable erection without constructing women as vile whores. These are ideas.

On the other side, we have universal suffrage, No means No, Dworkin, Wollstonecraft, Greer, the Equal Rights Movement and JS goddamn Mill if you please. These are other ideas. These ideas are in constant battle with each other, in abstract or concrete battlefields, shifting every day, taking place in new theatres every moment. Justice of any sort will not appear by itself, unless you believe that it exists as a natural commodity, which I do not. It must be constructed. It must be created, constantly, from the atoms of chaos and disorder that constitute our moral universe.

So I cannot conceive of silence in this context. Silence is an abdication of responsibility from wrestling with other ideas. Other than the idea behind the silence, which isn’t entirely without merit, the silence itself is a vacuum of ideas. It is the absence of ideas. It is shadow. It is darkness. The only ideas that are left to replicate are the ideas of unhappy and fearful men, cupping their timid viscera and congratulating each other.

How should we conduct ourselves in this arena? By speaking. The internet has bred courage in men who would previously have lived lives of desperate anonymity. The cure for their candour is exposure; confrontation; the spotlight of infamy. Mary Beard so deftly demonstrated this when she was party to the exposure of one such braveheart, whose bawdy boldness stopped at the point his mother found out.

By all means, let Twitter design methods that ease the process of exposure and reporting; they profit from our participation, and should be held responsible for good governance. I couldn’t organise a car boot sale without making sure my participants were reasonably safe from harm, so let them spend some money on their algorithms and customer care advisers.

And culture needs to start catching up with technology. When people start to realise that a threat to kill and rape becomes a published artefact once you press send, and redress can be legally sought against it, then they might think twice before airing their vile opinions beyond the pool tables and bars of privacy.

But the biggest weapon against these cruel, selfish and exploitative ideas, is better ideas. Police are essential, but it isn’t only police that make out streets safe. We have to reclaim the streets ourselves, police our own corridors too. I cannot change the whole world- no matter what some journalists with odd ideas of their importance think- but I can do something about the spot right in front of me. Any garbage that appears in my timeline gets questioned, just the same way that I’d cross the street to help if an old lady was being hassled. That’s something we can all do.

So I can’t condone silence. It isn’t the non compliance of Rosa Parks, or the Salt Marches. It’s cargo-cult activism; it apes activism, but it does nothing. It’s activism with no calories. Worse, because it temporarily satisfies the pang for justice, it actually denies justice the opportunity to be performed.

Finally it hasn’t been helped by the slightly smug way in which a few of its proponents have implied that their absence would somehow end Twitter.  In fact, for that alone, perhaps the silence served at least some small purpose. Self important, self-elected salons are another idea entirely.

Teacher Proof: Why Educational Research doesn’t always mean what it claims, and what you can do.

So, I have a book out.

It’s been a long time coming. Since I started teaching, I knew there was something suspicious about what I was being told worked in classrooms, and what actually happened. It started in teacher training, as well-meaning lecturers and reading lists advocated apparently cast-iron guarantees that this method of educating children, or that way of directing behaviour, would be efficient. It continued on DfE sponsored training programs where I was taught how to use NLP, Brain Gym, Learning Styles and soft persuasion techniques akin to hypnosis.

Then I began teaching, guided by mentors who assured me that other contemporary orthodoxies were the way to win hearts and minds. It took me years to realise that thing I could smell was a bunch of rats wearing lab coats. And why should any new teacher question what they are told? Establishment orthodoxies carried the authority of scripture. And often it was justified with a common phrase- ‘the research shows this.’

I remember reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, and being amused and horrified by the cavalier ways in which science could be hijacked by  hustlers. His harrowing of Brain Gym led me to wonder what else, like Descartes, I needed to question. What I discovered led me to write Teacher Proof.

First of all I discovered that a lot of what was considered to be absolute dogma by many teachers, was built on quicksand.  Learning Styles, for example, were almost universally accepted by every teacher who trained me. It was a Damascan epiphany to find out that there was hardly a scrap of evidence to substantiate it, that the serious academic  community had washed its hands of it long ago. But it lingered on, a zombie theory, staggering from classroom to classroom, mauling lesson plans.

Once I had peeled one strip of paper from the wall, I could do nothing else but keep pulling, and see how much came off. Much, much more, it turned out. First of all, I entered the world of pseudo-education, where optimistic internet sites boasted of Olympian gains to made by the adoption of this pill (often Omega 3), that smell (sometimes Lavender, sometimes not) or even this sound (the Mozart Effect, for instance). These, at least, seemed to be obvious pigs in pokes. Other companies sold hats- literally, thinking hats- of various colours, or exercises that promised to boost brain power. But they asked customers to gamble a lot more than a stamp, as Charles Atlas innocently proposed.

Unfortunately, it was often just as bad when I progressed to the realms of alleged propriety; I found that a lot of what was practically contemporary catechism, was merely cant. Group work, three-part lessons, thinking skills, multiple intelligences, hierarchies of thinking like Bloom’s, all- at least to my poor eyes- appeared to rely on opinion and rhetoric as much as data. Delving deeper, I found that this was an affliction that affected the social sciences as badly as the natural sciences- perhaps worse, as natural sciences are at least readily amenable to verification. But any social science- from economics to sociology- is subject to inherent methodological restrictions that makes any claims to predictive or explanatory powers intrinsically difficult.

Which isn’t to say that social science isn’t’ a powerful and urgent device with which to accrue an understanding of the human condition. But merely to require that its claims be interpreted appropriately. It is a very different proposition to claim, for example, that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius at sea level, than it is to say that children learn best in groups. The first can be at least disputed immediately, or not, by testing. The latter requires a plethora of causal factors to be adjusted and  accounted for. And to confound matters further, humans are notoriously hard to fit on a microscope slide. Nor are we always the most reliable of subjects.

Sometimes this was the faulty of those writing the research; sometimes the research was, as Richard Feynman describes, Cargo Cult Science; sometimes the writers appeared to have no idea what the scientific method was, believing it to be some kind of fancy dress with which one clothed a piece of journalism; sometimes allegedly sober pieces of research were simply misinterpreted by a willing media; sometimes it was the teachers themselves that had misappropriated the findings; sometimes it was the policy makers who were hungry for a magic bullet and had already made their minds up about what they were buying.

Whatever the reasons, it was clear: the educational research we were asked to assimilate in schools was often more like magic beans than magic bullets. That’s unhealthy. There are armies of earnest, dedicated professionals working in educational research who are horrified by some of the fantastical or flimsy claims made by the hustlers and their PRs. If educators want to get past this unhealthy  system of intellectual bondage, we need to become more informed about what the research actually says, and what good research actually means; about how hard it is to say anything for certain in education, and when claims can be ignored, and when they should be listened to.

So I wrote Teacher Proof. It’s aimed primarily at people who work in schools, but it’s also for anyone involved in education, research and policy. I am, unashamedly, a teacher. I admit I have entered a world- of educational research- in which I am only a guest. I am aware that in my travels I may be more of a tourist than a native. But I have tried to write as honestly and as plainly as I can, about matters that affect me deeply- the education of children. If I have made any errors- and I’m sure that I have- I welcome correction, and discussion. I can’t shake the feeling that teachers would do well to make research more of their business, get involved, participate in studies, and perhaps even conduct some of their own, with guidance. I’d also like to think that researchers would be well advised to ensure their theories are tested objectively, with an eye to disproving them, in classrooms with meaningful sample sizes. There is a great deal of good that the two communities can do together.

Perhaps then teachers can look forward to hearing the latest research, and run towards it; and researchers can see classrooms not as awkward inconveniences between data sampling and publication. There’s an awful lot of good research out there, but it gets drowned out by the bad.

Good ideas, like decent whisky, need time to settle and mature. I suspect that we need to develop more of a critical faculty to sift the ideal from the merely idealistic. Maybe then we’ll be immune to novelty and fashion in pedagogy. Or, as I call it, Teacher Proof.
Buy Teacher Proof HERE