The problem with Bandwagons.

Way back in the early noughties, we had an Inset day on Assessment for Learning. Except, looking back on it, there was nothing really in there about assessment. Or really about learning. It was all about these new fangled learning styles – neatly compressed into VAK. We were given questionnaires – oooh, narcissistic tick boxes. Who doesn’t love a tick box all about themselves? And I found out that I was fairly equally split across all three. My friend, she was a VK. But that wasn’t allowed – we were supposed to just be one. We were asked to look again and identify our “dominant style”. It was like choosing a favourite colour – some have one, I have many depending on mood. It felt a bit confusing. And I felt suspicious. I didn’t really question the idea of learning styles at that stage – a senior leader had just said the words “the research shows” and so I assumed that the theory at least was sound. But the implementation seemed to me to be a little bit suspect.

As heads of department, we were asked to feed back how we were differentiating for the needs of the VAK variances in our groups. And as head of Drama, there was only really one answer. We move, we talk, we listen, we read, we write, we perform, we design, we watch, we evaluate. We all have to do all of them, or we won’t be covering the syllabus. Simples. But no, that wasn’t good enough. In the end we did what we usually did when faced with stupid requests. We ignored them. The head of Maths on the other hand, made all the KS3 students do VAK questionnaires and streamed them accordingly. She was quickly promoted to Assistant Head.

That year, I embarked on a Masters course and came across Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory. Here, it seemed to me, was the VAK idea placed into a more rigorous theoretical framework. Gardner distinguishes MIT from learning styles, accusing the latter of lacking coherence, but it seemed that his theory expanded, in a useful way, the conversations to be had about intelligence. I didn’t really have concerns about the theory. It was an idea – an interesting one, but just an idea. But the way that the idea was leaped upon in education to create rigid practices was really worrying. There was an assumption that since (not an ‘if’ to be seen anywhere)  we could now be one of 7 or 8 intelligences, we ought to teach to that intelligence. And that seemed illogical to me. It also seemed illogical to Howard Gardner who berated the ways in which his idea had been misconstrued – not that that small detail bothers the people who seem to enjoy ridiculing him at the moment. Anyway, back to the implementation point – I argued that we wouldn’t, for example, only teach a child a subject they liked and dump all the rest would we? So why on earth would we target a single intelligence or learning style? Or, as Willingham prefers to call them, learning ability? I mean, by all means, make the content of your lessons and assessments as varied as possible, but why narrow activities down to target single areas? This seemed like dumbing down to me. And a waste of time.

It didn’t take long for the school to dump VAK. Eternally resourceful kids, standing outside their classrooms in corridors, found it was useful to blame VAK for their misdemeanours.

“Not my fault, Miss, they’re writing in there and I’m a kinaesthetic learner!”

And by then, papers debunking VAK were starting to make their way into schools too. So I was a little horrified to start a new job in ITT and find that all the lesson plan pro-formas for our trainees had a box on them where they had to write how they were catering for VAK. I advised mine to use school and not university versions. But some of the school versions had it on too. So we invited Jonathan Sharples in to run a session with staff on debunking neuro-myths, which he duly did. But he did so with a caveat. He pointed out that there was no evidence to suggest that teaching to a specific learning style was beneficial to students or even that there was a meaningful way of categorising modes of learning, but he added that “even if learning styles do exist, it could equally be argued that we should strengthen the less developed areas rather than simply teach to the strongest.”It seemed clear that among the neuroscientist community, it was not so much the proposed existence of learning styles that was controversial, but the practices emerging from the idea of them.

No-one was happier than me when VAK practices started to be exposed and debunked on twitter, several years later. But then I started to get confused again. Because it seemed that along with VAK, other unconnected ideas were being lumped in and the trend for debunking seemed to be creating another, equally damaging Bandwagon. Anyone even mentioning the words Learning Styles on twitter now risks hounding and humiliation. And Group Work? Pupil Voice? My God. Yet what is the difference between a learning style and a learning ability? Because when Willingham writes that of course children have different learning “abilities” – for example spacial ability or musical ability, I struggle to see the difference between that statement and the idea that children might have musical intelligence or kinaesthetic intelligence. I keep asking and no-one seems to be able to tell me anything other than Gardner = Charlatan, Willingham = God.

If we do look at research (bearing in mind that it is all emergent and offers a still incomplete picture of the very complex matter of learning), we find that certain things seem to be important in terms of laying down memory. Emotion matters. Relationships matter. A variety of activities and ways of testing matter. Practice matters. A certain level of automaticity matters. Multi-sensory activities matter. Narrative and stories matter….In the midst of all this mattering, it seems sensible to say that we learn and remember in many different ways. Not that we all learn differently, but that we each need multiple ways of encountering knowledge in order to meaningfully learn and apply it.

It seems to me that we need to be as careful about shedding ideas as we are about embracing them. We need to ask ourselves “what is potentially useful here? How might we look at this differently? How might we connect to other things we know?” Instead of sneering and jeering, we should be peering, examining, questioning. We really should be refusing to lump and dump – taking one discredited idea, attaching it to others we don’t like and then dumping the lot without critiquing the individual elements. And maybe then, instead of running around in endless circles, we would set out on a journey in which we could map out constructive information and build a genuine overview of what (might) work.

Thank you to Logical Incrementalism for writing the blog post that made feel I wouldn’t be stoned to death for writing this one.


26 thoughts on “The problem with Bandwagons.

  1. Ability – something that can be developed and depends on previous learning experiences. Intelligence – something innate that is, presumably, significantly genetically determined.

    I also believe it took Gardner some time to say that he did not like how his invention was being used.

    1. That’s not how Willingham seems to define ability which seems to be presented as something more innate. Or Dweck who would prefer we avoid the term ability altogether so that we don’t see it as something fixed. It’s not how Gardener saw it either :- Howard Gardner viewed intelligence as ‘the capacity to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in one or more cultural setting’ (Gardner & Hatch, 1989). And Plomin’s work suggests that some of these areas (musicality) for example ARE significantly genetically determined. So it’s very confusing. The point, however, is to think very carefully about how we use an idea. Perhaps Gardner only said he didn’t like how his idea (not invention!) was being used when he found out how it was being used.

        1. I really don’t know. I think it’s a semantic minefield. I think of middle child who picked up a pencil at 11 months and drew a recognisable car when my others had not really drawn anything recognisable until they were 3 or 4 and I think there must be something in the idea of innate ability. Then I see youngest learning Japanese and Greek through Memrise and seemingly able to remember and process it and I wonder whether that was innate, or whether it’s driven by curiosity and interest – and of course, built on existing knowledge (the ability to decode which was taught). So it’s hard to be sure. I think one of the problems we have is that words like ability, intelligence and style are used liberally without clearly agreed definitions and that causes confusion.

      1. Gardener knew early on what was happening to his theories and didn’t like it. I saw a conversation between him, Susan Greenfield, and Tim Brighouse in the early 2000s at a conference in Birmingham. Gardener was concerned with the way his ideas were being misappropriated. Interestingly, Greenfield had similar concerns for cognitive-psychology.
        In the intervening years, Gardener’s influence has wained and a new generation of gurus have latched onto speculative research in cognitive-psychology to forge an alternative orthodoxy.
        I say, beware gurus telling us ‘research says…’

      2. He complained about how his idea, which is the same as invention, was being used in education 17 years after he first proposed it. He agrees that he should not have used intelligence but would have been better to use abilities. But in using abilities he would have been saying effectively nothing. It is very clear that over time children become differently able. They learn different things, to different depths etc.

    2. Requiem for Childhood
      by James Glasse © 2014

      Tutored from the age of two
      I’ve only just learned how to poo.
      “Compete or die,” our parents say
      “Can’t we please go out to play?”

      The United Nations declaration
      Should protect the children of our nation
      Or do we now eschew
      The childhood we all once knew?

      Crush their spirits, break their souls
      Creativity doesn’t befit their roles.
      Tutoring, testing, night and day
      “Can’t we please go out to play?”

      Hothouses make our plants grow fast
      But ask yourselves, do they last?
      Thomas Gradgrind would be proud
      No more childhood, it’s not allowed

      Tickboxes are our mantra now
      Grades the Holy Grail, the Sacred Cow.
      “Remember the race,” our leaders say
      “Can’t we please go out to play?”

      Hard Times to be sure
      But on childhood to wage war?
      What the Dickens are we doing
      When childhood itself we are eschewing?

      Systemised neurosis for us all
      Organised activities, wall to wall.
      Mandarin? Violin? What’s today?
      “Can’t we please go out to play?”

    3. I just signed the petition “HM Government: Save Childhood and Take Back Our Education System” and wanted to see if you could help by adding your name.

      Our goal is to reach 100,000 signatures and we need more support. You can read more and sign the petition here:


      Teaching recruitment is in a state of crisis in the UK. Nearly 50,000 teachers left the profession last year – around one in twelve full time teachers – according to the Department for Education’s own statistics. According to recent research by the Teacher Support Network, a third of all teachers plan to leave the profession in the next five years and the Guardian recently reported that four in ten new teachers quit within a year. When the teaching profession loses respect, parents and children pay the price and it is not worth paying. Our data driven education system is in danger of losing its humanity. Please support this petition to:
      · Ensure that teachers have a manageable work/life balance.
      · Reduce government red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy which is creating intolerable pressure and making teachers lives impossible, forcing them to spend their time ticking boxes and doing unnecessary and unproductive work rather than actually teaching.
      · Reduce teaching to the test which is leading to less creativity and increased stress and anxiety in teachers and their pupils as well as fuelling unnecessary bureaucracy. Petition the government to stop children being tested from a younger and younger age.
      · Force OFSTED and the independent schools’ inspectorate services to ensure that the school inspection regime is made to be a part of the solution and actively assist in implementing change in failing schools rather than just pointing out a school’s shortcomings and walking away from the problem as at present.
      · Reduce unacceptable levels of teacher scrutiny and trust teachers to get on with their jobs.
      · Encourage a culture of collaboration within schools’ management rather than one of competition.
      · Work to depoliticise education and reduce government meddling.
      · Realise that childhood is precious and encourage an education environment that is geared towards protecting it.
      · Create an environment that fosters a love of learning and protects the mental health of teachers and their pupils.

  2. Excellent piece. Sensible, honest and above all, appropriare to that real world many seem to forget we live our lives in…the classroom.
    Remarkably, one factor I have never ever seen referred to in any theory about the effectiveness of learning in the classroom, is the enthusiasm for the subject and for teaching, of the teacher. I know my lessons aren’t always interesting and fun, sometimes I feel constrained by the specification I absolutely have to cover, sometimes I feel downright lacking in energy. We all know though, that when we go to INSET that we are more likely to listen, take note and take something positive away from the ‘training’, if the presenter demonstrates enthusiasm, varying voice tone and varying what we are doing/watching.

    1. Thank you Jon. Yes, this is true – there is something, I think in the Hattie and Yates book about the passion and authenticity of the teacher. I’ll have to dig it out and have a look 🙂

  3. Perhaps we need to examine more closely our governments’ and managers’ obsession with programmes for learning and our modern need to turn every new fashionable theory or piece of research into some immediately programmed practice. This seems to reflect more of a need to justify their existence and promote programmes or policies (for money, control or prestige) than any real sense of connection with children and their needs.

    Much research when you examine it is in any case of its nature extremely limited in its scope so we should also be extremely wary of the reality of “research-based” or “evidence-based” education pills we are regularly sold by governments, lobby groups or organisations with their own agendas.

  4. Beware bandwagons – perceptive message. But ignored. And it often depends on whether politicians are in favour of a particular bandwagon. Take for instance, Core Knowledge UK. which lays down in detail and in which sequence knowledge is presented to kids. That’s much in favour with Gibb et al and is used in some academies (most notably Future Academies started by Lord Nash before he was fast-tracked to the Upper House to become schools minister). The books accompanying this curriculum tell parents it’s what a ‘good’ curriculum looks like.

    But Annaliese Briggs, who re-hashed Book 1 of the US Hirsch-inspired ‘What Your First Grader Needs To Know’ for the English market, only lasted about 7 weeks as a head of Future’s Pimlico Free School.

    And Grindon Hall Christian School who cited the Core Curriculum (and rote learning) as its USPs was judged Inadequate by Ofsted.

    On the other hand, however, West London Free School Primary, which also uses Core Knowledge was judged Outstanding. Ofsted wrote, ‘The curriculum is designed to develop pupils’ skills, knowledge and understanding across a wide range of subjects.’ This suggests the school’s actual curriculum has expanded beyond the narrow confines of the Knowledge Curriculum (heavy on knowledge, less so on skills and understanding).

    It seems to be how the bandwagon is interpreted and presented which makes a difference. In other words, it’s down to the expertise of teachers. Follow the bandwagon slavishly and it could be disaster. Change it to suit by using professional judgement and it’s less likely to be so.

  5. Ah Debra, are you being cautious, reflective and treading softly through the minefield that is the application of theoretical frameworks into complex human situations – or classrooms?

    But who wants to write books called, “7 things about education that are worth thinking a bit more about” or “what if everything we knew about education was complex and open to misinterpretation” or even “teacher hard to prove: why applying research in classrooms is complex and tricky”.

    I agree with Paul above that there is the short termism of politicians who want to “make an impact” this is also execrated by the terms of measurement – examinations – that most want to use as the only benchmark.

  6. Great article Debra.

    There’s a prevalence towards ‘quick fixes’ and ‘easy wins’ in schools which is why I believe the latest education fads get so whole heartedly adopted with such little questioning. It’s easy for people to jump on Twitter and denounce VAK with the benefit of years of hindsight, yet almost every school I meet run marking cycles that in 10 years time will be ridiculed in the same way. I see endless schools running 2-3 week cycles (teacher marks, students replies, teacher finalises – all in different coloured pens etc). Why is no one thinking, “This student will sit through 50-75 lessons before they receive their finalised feedback. What benefit will it be by then?” Yet because everyone else is doing it there seems to be no debate. I can only assume the current marking processes are the result of over extrapolating / interpreting some piece of research somewhere. You pointed it out with the VAK scenario but that won’t be the last time it happens unless there is more critical analysis within the education system.

    I feel the bigger issue in all of this is that improving education is irrelevant if schools aren’t preparing students for the real world. I’d like to see education working closer with the market place as other high performing education systems do. 6 out of 10 businesses say the skills gap between the market place requirements and school leavers is getting worse As a business owner myself, and having previously hired and managed school leavers while working at Apple, I can tell you that it’s incredibly difficult to find and hire individuals because most lack the most basic skills in problem solving, independent thinking and even teamwork. Yet because these skills can’t be tested and tracked they’re not being prioritised in the current system.


    1. Thanks Jay. We have a genuine problem in education at the moment stemming from the core knowledge brigade that insists that the development of the kinds of skills that you describe are not relevant to education. They attack the idea of group work, arguing that it wastes time. They create identikit lessons which are teacher led and have the sole aim of imparting knowledge, with little opportunity for pupils to work creatively. Their argument is that their role is to get children to University and that qualifications are the only requirement to do this. They feel they have no responsibility to meet the needs of the workplace afterwards – they won’t be judged on this. When they secure good GCSE results they are lauded and so others follow their lead. There is a danger that we’ll produce an army of young people who can quote Shakespeare but who are unemployable. I think it’s really important that business leaders communicate their needs clearly to government ministers and work closely with schools to give young people real examples of the kinds of skills work demands. So few have any idea of what might be required beyond a fistful of certificates.

      1. 100% agree.

        We’ve ran a number of primary ICT projects where we work with a group of children over 5 days to plan, develop and build a fully working iPad app. Ourselves (and school teachers) only scaffold the project, and it’s up to the students to make all the decisions about what should be in it, how to create that content and who does what. It’s all about placing students in the centre of their learning. It’s in the running for a NAACE Impact Award and we’re just back from the Academies Show where we were presenting it. I didn’t realise you ran Northern Rocks until recently, we’d love to present the project there too if there’s any space left 🙂

  7. I always used to worry about teachers in courses who hung on every word making copious notes even thought the message on that course appeared to conflict with the message they had been given on earlier courses. Then were the books on the latest theory that were strong on theory and if you were lucky mentioned actual classrooms and even luckier children got a mention. Then there were those from people like Barnes and Britton that actually quoted whole chunks verbatim of how children coped with different topics and how their understanding came about. Then there were the trendies who were proud of how they taught through understanding and concepts but whose pupils didn’t seem to learn anything and their classrooms were chaos. Then we had Phonics (Used to call it phonetics,but that was long ago) versus Look and Say. Why for goodness sake? When I read I don’t look at every bit of each word and sound it out. I recognise the whole word, but I do so because in the past I learned to recognise it by a combination of phonics and the context within the sentence. If I read a very academic or technical and complex passage now I still may have to use phonics. They are all part of reading including of course morphemes and are needed for us to decode a language that comes from many sources that all used different rules.
    Sticking to the rigid Gradgrind fill them up with facts approach to learning would have done little for Paul who had been labelled as slow and turned off reading early in his schooling, but who could spot hermit crabs in the water before anyone else and was able to create amazing models and combine them with electrical circuits or the other Paul who was actually very bright and an excellent reader with parents who insisted he preferred a theoretical approach who then bored his parents stiff raving about the sawdust kiln. When a baby develops they learn by using their senses with an undefinable something that encourages their curiosity. Why can’t we accept that that doesn’t stop when they enter school? There have been great examples of how a county education system (what happened to them) could develop under wise leadership West Riding Yorkshire under Alec Clegg, why can’t we look at them and search out the research that really centres on the pupils and then develops a theory rather than the other way round because it gives a politician a sound bite? As ever Debra you hit the nail on the head the trouble is we’ve been there before and we don’t seem to learn. Perhaps someone should study why adults fail to learn?

      1. Actually, fluent readers don’t. And we have to teach children to cluster letters to be able to decode – digraphs and trigraphs and common morphemes, so that they see groups and identify a sound.

  8. “It seems to me that we need to be as careful about shedding ideas as we are about embracing them.” This depends, I think, on the consequences. So, embracing an idea in education has often resulted in a mandated approach to something. This has then had far-reaching effects, and unintended negative consequences. At the very least, it has wasted time, and misled people. What this means, I think, is that greater care should be taken about adopting something than exploring if there may be some useful ideas present. Anything that has significant consequences should be examined very carefully before implementation (evidence might be a good idea). Education seems to love bandwagons (well, actually, all management systems seem to love the ‘new thing’), but they are rarely ‘the answer’. On the other hand, people are frequently derided for not embracing the new…..

  9. Great post Debra. As you say, it’s about taking different theories and, rather than blindly going with it as we have so often done in education, extracting the bits which add to our school vision and drive it forward. Our Year 3s have just finished a project which we called, “Who Do You Think You Are.” We used the idea of different MIT ‘smarts’ to put equal value on the children’s individual preferences (to try to undo the still widely held view that intelligent people are those who do well on a narrow range of tests) and to show them that there are other areas they might not have grown as much yet but might do with practice and effort. A growth mindset approach to MIT. We didn’t want them to pigeonhole themselves as one type of smart but to try out lots of different activities to help discover other as yet untapped passions. They then showcased all their different ideas for growing each intelligence to their parents…

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head here – opening children up to possible preferences and abilities rather than pigeonholing them as a particular kind of “smart” – that seems to be a sensible way forward. And no-one knows what the kids in your school need better than you and your teachers do.

  10. Thanks, Debra – just catching up with my blog reading now I’m emerging from the doctoral thesis swamp.

    I started teaching in 1980 so have known MANY bandwagons – things we embraced with enthusiasm at the time which have subsequently been discredited. We live and we learn! Sometimes people seem to feel such guilt and shame about things we signed up to. My view is that often what we learnt through the process, particularly in our consideration of how people think and learn and what motivates them, can still be valuable, even if the original idea, or how it was interpreted/misinterpreted/bastardised, has been found to lack foundation.

    I also wonder how many of the ideas we CURRENTLY embrace with conviction may in time turn out to be not what we now believe them to be, and think we need a degree of humility which comes from this possibility. Some people seem SO sure, and one thing I’ve learnt over the past 35 years is that there are so many shades of grey, and few (no?) absolutes in education.

    So thanks for the post – I especially like “It seems to me that we need to be as careful about shedding ideas as we are about embracing them” – and have a wonderful Christmas!

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