That management thing: look, sorry, hang on…

One of the very best things about blogging and writing generally is when something you write, or say, becomes the prompt for, or the focus of a debate, and when that debate includes some fine minds and mighty voices, it is genuinely an instructive and informative experience. However, it’s also rare that someone responds in detail, so when I saw this impassioned response to my original post it was tremendously exciting. I absolutely prompt you to read it, particularly if you are thinking about management roles and are having a quandary because of people (well, me, anyway) whinging about them all the time.

As is the way with such things, he’s absolutely right (and with more experience at it than me, why wouldn’t he be?) but I disagree on a couple of points. For one, the manager who views learners as data does exist, but, and I don’t know if I made this point properly, not at every level. A manager can be the immediate line manager of teachers, for example, and have a responsibility for their professional well-being and performance, as well as having a direct responsibility for the students under the aegis of those teachers. But my point here was not meant to read that all managers are organisationally-frenzied data-junkies (but I bet there’s a few), but rather that the distance from students does grow as you move to more senior roles in an institution. It has to, because the human brain simply cannot hold the individual stories of that many students, and because a part of your role becomes reporting that data upwards. On the teacher level, a student who has failed her exam and hasn’t a resit because she was about to give birth becomes a figure which you have to report and explain to your line manager, because they have to report upwards as to why the achievement rates are down in that team. But much beyond this and there simply isn’t time to process much more than “a fail, but with good reason, so we’ll take it on the chin.” A couple more links along the reporting chain and even that detail can be lost. But this is perhaps less a comment on managers, than it is a comment on the role of data in an institution, and about the ominous presence of unsympathetic audit and slavish accountability in a cash-strapped sector.

I’d also like to point out that I like to think that I’ve blogged sympathetically before about the challenge of being in the lower echelons of management. I’d probably change a couple of things (reading it now, and in sections presents managers as disempowered unquestioning drones, which I regret), but I still stand by the dig about best practice, and, most importantly, that sense of the line manager acting as a buffer between stroppy teachers, stroppy students and a senior management who are themselves pretty stroppy because of the ignominious tosh that gets thrown at the sector as a whole by people who either should keep their business to themselves, or should learn more about the sector before commenting. (The former Head Death Eater for Ofsted in the link, by the way, fits into both categories). It’s hard, and yet it is rewarding.

I absolutely did miss a valid point. As our man suggests, one doesn’t go into management because you love data, but because you love people, and management is more about managing people than it is about data. My throwaway line about cat herding was glib, and failed to dig into the detail enough. The line manager of a group of teachers has to deal with the complexities of those people’s lives and the issues they have, and for missing this point I am genuinely apologetic. Writing as someone who is either a nightmare to line manage, or (more likely) fairly mundane but thinks he is a nightmare because he’s an egotistical snot, I can imagine that this is a challenge, and an interesting one at that.

But, and the whole online discussion that followed rather dwelt on management and the whys and why nots, but still missed my original point. Even allowing for this more realistic and far better view of what it means to be a manager, however, it still might not be entirely for you. Perhaps you can honestly evaluate your own skills and say that actually I’d be no good at it. I’m not so sure anyone can be a good manager – I’m a bit of a believer in talent and personality, I’m afraid, which I know is a terribly unpopular thing these days of growth mindset and whatnot, and personality is a big part of managing people. I can do empathy and listening, for sure, but I’m not sure I have the necessary a inner steel that enables you to not only nudge when necessary, but to nudge and mean it. It’s not so much that management isn’t made for me, but rather that I’m not made for management.

Whatever – the debate could rumble on. Yet so what if it isn’t for you, for whatever reason? Many institutions, like the businesses they seem so keen to emulate, have a culture of aspiration that is centred around management, and this can sometimes suggest that an absence of aspiration to management is a bad thing. All I wanted to say is that aspiration can take many many forms, and you simply have to choose the one that works for you. And if that is managing people, then I join my voice to the Chimpster’s and encourage you to get your act together and start applying.

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Moving on up?

When you reach a particular point in your career as a teacher, you start to look at some options. Not because you’re fed up of teaching, perhaps, but just because you want a bit of a change, a bit of an alternative, to change your focus a little. So you explore the choices – what can I do now, what can I become? What choices do I have in terms of progression from the status of being just a teacher?

In FE, you’ve got three basic choices, and even then two of them basically only lead into the third. The first option is teacher training. It’s quite a fun option, although in many ways it takes the most confidence to pull off properly: after all, you, a mere teacher, suddenly telling people what they should be doing? And judging their ability to do it? As a teacher trainer, remember, there’s no formal seniority saying that you’re superior in some way. You’re just another teacher, albeit one who teaches teachers. But it is great fun, and keeping that sense of humility around your own abilities is a real asset in a trainer – trainees respond well because you, like them, are a teacher. Nobody, as they say, likes a smartass.

Related to this is option 2: the advanced practitioner. These jobs (and the job titles) vary from place to place, but usually involve a bit of time off teaching and, if you’re lucky, a bit of extra money. It’s not that dissimilar to the teacher training role, in that you are responsible for training and supporting staff, but has the added drawback that such jobs are very few and far between. You also have to be a little more subservient to the systems – being an advanced practitioner type usually means a degree of compliance – as a teacher trainer you are free, indeed absolutely should be questioning and challenging the latest diktat from government or senior leaders, but less so for the advanced practitioner role. If you’re lucky the role can include some element of challenging and questioning whatever “best practice” you are supposed to be sharing that week, but there is still an official line to be toed.

The third, and final option is, of course, management. Just to make one thing abundantly clear here: I have no beef with management as a concept, or indeed with managers as a species. After all, cats need herding and being a damn good cat-herder is a vocation and a passion in and of itself. But it isn’t for everyone; in fact it isn’t for a lot of people, including some people who become managers. And the reason deeply unsuitable people become managers is that for the most part, that’s all you’ve got to move into beyond being a teacher. Management pays better, as a rule, and you get to go to meetings and have important sounding job titles, and do weird mystical things with Excel which even the people at Microsoft have yet to think of. But also you inevitably start to move away from students as individuals, and the art/skill/craft/whatever of teaching; indeed, once you reach a particular level, the majority of students exist in your life as data to be sorted, sliced and drilled down into. Again, the best managers strike a balance there, but to be good at it, you’ve got to want to do it.

So what do you do? For one, you look sideways. After all, you’re not in it for the money, so accept your financial lot, and look at things beyond the four walls of your institution. Explore possibilities beyond just teaching: writing, workshops at conferences, supporting professional organisations, activism, all those things and more. You may not get the financial recognition, nor the recognition from your employer,  but you know what, who cares? You position yourself as a professional outside of the confines of your workplace.  There is a huge community of teachers and other professionals out there in the big wide world so find them and talk to them. Blog, tweet, make connections, talk to people. Do some research (like the Practitioner Research programme from the ETF) and use this to enable you to meet and share ideas with people – one of the best formative experiences of my professional life, in fact. What the hell, do something on the side which is completely different – become a masseuse, a choir singer, a part time pilot or volunteer part time at a homeless shelter. It might not be teaching, but who knows what possibilities might present themselves off the back of it. And yes, these things will eat into your private time, but from what I’ve seen of managers, so does that. So why not give up a little of that time doing something you enjoy rather than have a job you are merely tolerating because there are no other options out there.

The other big alternative is simply this: stick with the teaching. There is no shame in just being a teacher, no matter what career progression junkies might tell you (as in “Well, of course, I realised after my first six months that just being a teacher wasn’t enough of a challenge” – feel free to punch that sort of individual). Enjoy it and explore your own path within that role. Mix it up a little, try new things out. Teach different student groups, dabble in other subjects, if you can. You’re bored of doing it that way? Do it differently, try a different method, something completely off the wall and see what happens. Doing this teaching stuff can be the best fun you can get in a professional life. And it’s infinitely more fun than spreadsheets.

Not Teaching

Habits are a hard thing to change, Not impossible, mind you, but hard. Thus it is I find myself three weeks into a new job that, and this is crucial, involves no teaching. None at all. And you know what, I miss it, I really really miss it. I don’t miss the attendant admin crap, and I don’t miss teaching the 16-18s I was teaching up to half term; even if I had sort of got used to them, I still never quite got to the point of genuinely liking the experience of teaching them. But I miss teaching generally.

I miss the structure. I’ve had a timetable for pretty much every week of my working life for the last 17 years, and suddenly that’s gone. Sure I get to make my own “timetable”, working to the patterns the job requires, and I get a lot of flexibility that a timetable simply doesn’t allow for, but it doesn’t quite fill the gaps, mentally speaking. In part, perhaps, this is habit formation, very mild anxiety even, and having that structure can create a lot of security to your daily routine. Like creating routines in class so your students know what’s going on and what is expected of them, a timetable creates a routine which allows you much the same thing. It’s not a major thing, mind, indeed, having these things shaken up a bit can be quite a creative challenge.

I miss the students. Don’t get me wrong, I love working with teachers, and just people generally, but I really miss working with students. I know, consciously, that supporting teachers is supporting students (the careerist manager’s justification for ditching teaching at the first management job they see), but that’s not what I mean. It’s those interactions I miss, the push and pull of the classroom and the dawning lightbulb moments, trying to make someone understand something and it doesn’t seem to go in until, finally, it slots into place. Most of the students I meet are a fairly open, enquiring bunch, there to learn something, and with a lot to gain from coming to the class. Even the nicest, most open and engaging teachers I meet are only a management form away from resenting training and learning, worried about attendance, achievement, enrolments, filling in those forms, catching up with marking and being generally stressed. They are students, in a sense, but they are also colleagues and friends, which creates a very different dynamic in a learning setting,

I miss the creativity. Let’s be honest, once you’re out of significant teaching, the opportunities for creativity become somewhat limited. Oh, I have to run sessions for teachers, but this is the only real outlet for this side of things. I don’t think teachers are prone to call themselves creative, but even the most restrained tutor following a standard coursebook, scheme of work and lesson plan still uses an amazing amount of creativity while planning and teaching. Even if it’s out of boredom, you want to do each lesson differently to the last one, change things around, mix them up. You get creative. You are not just being creative before the lesson either, but also during a lesson: thinking on your feet and trying a different angle because you realise they’ve missed something. It’s lovely, and fun, and engaging and interesting: it’s this side of things that I probably, in my secret heart of hearts, enjoy the most about teaching. I feel morally obliged to say, of course, that I do it for the students, but I also (mostly) do it because those processes of getting people to learn stuff excites and engages me. And in the nicest possible way, I don’t get that from meetings and spreadsheets. Sorry, and that, but I don’t.

Every time an internal management job comes up I get asked if I’m going to apply for it, and I always get tempted, I always toy with the idea. I’m certainly mentally capable of such a role. However, I’m not temperamentally capable. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? I couldn’t turn my back on that direct contact with students, not permanently. If this new job becomes permanent (its complicated, don’t ask) then I would have to get some teaching, because without it I will almost certainly go slightly mad.

Teaching Teachers – Just remember number 4.

In the last eight or nine years I have spent a fair amount of time not just teaching students but also training and developing staff, and for a short while that is pretty much the whole job. Except there’s a bit of a problem with the word training because really, what I have been, and will be doing is teaching. I say this because we tend to dress up this sort of explicit teacher development activity with a phrasing which suggests a degree of parity between those being developed and those doing the developing. So we talk about “trainee teachers” not “learner-teachers”, and we say “teacher trainers”, not, well, just “teachers”.

But this is just semantics, right? Different labels to take account of the change in perceived power relationships, but actually what happens in those settings is more or less the same: as a “trainer” and as a “teacher” you have some people  in the room with you who want to /are supposed to learn something, and it’s your job to make that happen in some way. The problem with the labelling as training is that this acts as a justification for taking a “do as I say, not as I do” mindset. Thus you get one size fits all activities about differentiation, workshops on what teachers already know about stretch and challenge, straight powerpoint presentations on engaging students with varied activities, assessment for learning sessions which completely fail to assess anything about the attendees, or sessions on digital technology which don’t actually make time for attendees to use said technology.

So what follows are the things I try to remember when I am planning training for teachers.  I make no claims to being a great trainer, indeed, I make no claims to being a great teacher, but I know that these are the ideas that have informed most of the training I’ve run, although many of these are also reactions to memories of bad training I’ve had to sit through. You never know, it might be useful.

Rule 1: Demonstrate as well as explain. Sometimes referred to as “loop input” you essentially teach a new strategy by using that strategy. This is about credibility and nothing gives your ideas credibility than an open demonstration of belief in that idea. After all, if you think it’s so great, then why aren’t you using it?

Rule 2: Challenge and Differentiate. I learned this the hard way after running sessions which managed to exclude both the really inexperienced teachers and the very inexperienced teachers, thus only really being of use to two or three people. Think about who you are training and try to find out / predict what they might already know.

Rule 3: Use the teachers. This is by far the easiest way to include the challenge and differentiation needed. If they are working teachers, ask them to contribute what they know as a starting point. Include things for all the teachers, and try not to use your experienced teachers only as resources for less experienced teachers. Use that experience, by all means, but remember they would like to get something from the session too.

Rule 4: Be Practical. Actually this should be the first one, the biggy, the humdinger. If you are running any kind of staff development activity, be it a ten minute micro-training session at the end of a staff meeting, or a full hour of CPD activity, the things you tell people about have to be useful. It simply doesn’t matter how passionate you feel about the training, nor how important it is that all staff are aware of the retention and achievement data which is such an integral part of your managerial role. Neither does it matter about the legal requirements of whichever random government policy it is now best practice to embed. What you need to do to make your staff training activity work is make sure it includes something which teachers can take away and use in their daily practice. If it doesn’t you might as well stick your PowerPoint slides in an email so they can find it when they need it.

Rule 5: Be realistic about your expectations. No matter how dedicated the teacher, it’s a big ask for them to take on a bunch of different ideas or methods from a training session. Aim for just one or two, but present the teachers with lots of things to choose from. That way you are not only being practical, but also allowing teachers to pick and choose ideas is much more likely to meet their needs.

Rule 6: Proofread. This isn’t just because you’ll look unprofessional if you have errors on your slides and handouts, however important that is. A howling typo on the first page of your presentation, for example, can give that crotchety, arms-crossed, know-it-all-but-actually-doesn’t old geezer a whole load of ammunition to justify disrupting the session.  I know it should go without saying, but it’s easily done.

Rule 7a: Teach with integrity. One of the perennial agonies of the teacher-trainer/developer is the requirement that you have to sometimes deliver training on a theme you don’t always entirely believe in. (I could come up with a list, but if I say “SMART targets”, that should be enough. I’m pretty sure people have stopped asking me to do training on that one). Sure, it’s not necessarily a good plan to come out with this during the session, but rather use your … disaffection… to inform your session plan. What would you say if someone was trying to tell you about this idea, and what could a trainer say that would make you feel better?

Rule 7b: Be honest – you can’t be an endless wellspring of new ideas – if you steal an idea, acknowledge it, and refer the teachers to the original source. There’s no shame in that – after all, as an ESOL teacher, you didn’t make up the rules of grammar, did you, and you’re quite happy to share them.

Rule 8: Go easy on the handouts. Most teachers have a clear-out every year or so, and in that clear-out will go a big pile of PowerPoint printouts from training sessions. Yours will probably go into the big recycling bin in the sky, so think really carefully about what you put in. Thinking back to your expectations – if you have given that teacher one or two new ideas to try, and they have tried them successfully, then the chances are they won’t need to re-read your handouts. I’ve trimmed down hand outs to a single sheet for a lot of training I’ve led – “something I’ll definitely try…. something I might try… something I could share…” that sort of thing. You can always share presentations and links via email after the event.

Rule 9: Follow up. This isn’t always possible, for example if you are delivering something at a conference or somewhere you don’t usually work. However, if you can follow it up, do so. Even ten minutes of colleagues talking in groups about the strategies you shared at a staff meeting can be enough to either provoke reflections and adaptations, or simply to prompt the odd one or two into trying it.

Rule 10: Get feedback. This may include negative comments, especially if you’ve forgotten the stuff about making sure it’s practical and useful. You will, I assure you, only focus on the negative feedback, and this is OK – learn from anything you can learn from, and ignore all the stuff about how hot/cold the room was, the lack of time to put the ideas into place, the lack of coffee, whatever. Remember as well that some people will grouse whatever, especially if they’ve been told to come.  Do look at the good things people say about it. If you like, put some structure on your feedback, and ask people to circle words – how many people circled “informative” or “useful” or “a good use of my time”? Remember that 16/20 positives is pretty good going, especially if the negatives are about things beyond your control.

Rule 11: Relax and enjoy the ride. Teachers are teachers, and most of them understand how it feels to be new at something. If you’re nervous, think of the session as if it were a lesson and the attendees are your students. The nerves will vanish after a few minutes anyway, and your teacher instincts will kick in.

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In essence, then, plan for a training session like you would any kind of lesson; except the rewards can have a much more immediate and obvious impact. As with any learning, it’s always terrific when someone comes up and tells you they tried something you suggested, and it worked for them, or you happen to overhear your name when someone is discussing how a lesson went (“I tried…., like Sam said, and it was great.”) You might hear from their line manager about how a teacher tried something which was really good, and you know it was your session when the idea came up. Perhaps a teacher heard an idea from you, tried it in class, embedded it in their practice and then their observer (who wasn’t at the training) comes up to you and say how amazing this idea was. That, in fact, is the best. Not just because you have passed on a great idea, and improved that teacher’s practice, or whatever, but also because they have taken that idea and made it their own.

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Standard Non-Conformity

As I’ve blogged about before, language standards are somewhat problematic: my definition of right can vary significantly from your definition of right, and the term “standard” is very often a lazy discriminatory euphemism for prestige: essentially “if you don’t speak like the rich and powerful, then there’s something wrong with you.” Language is a bugger to control, particularly when the standard being sold is fairly arbitrary, like the finally disappearing rule of not splitting infinitives. To dictate a specific form requires a belief in absolute definitions, incontrovertible rules, even while these things become quickly abandoned by most people using the language. Even leaving aside the question of who makes the decisions, and the power issues involved there, in order to persist, the rules have to function for all the users of that language.

Now, I have to admit to being a bit of a contrary devil when it comes to standards: there’s something about the concept of “standard” that makes me want to push back, or at least to question. Tell me to not split an infinitive and, in the face of a continued absence of evidence, I’ll split them down the middle at every available opportunity. I replace a /t/ with a glottal stop whenever I can, mainly to annoy people, and, like, I’ll be like, “like is perfectly ok” whenever asked. So when it comes to standards in teaching, I have the urge to resist just as much, mainly out of habit. Even something as relatively genial as the professional standards from the Education and Training Foundation made me want to pick them apart. I get the same reaction when confronted with “best practice” or checklists of things to do to embed whatever thing we’ve been asked to embed.  I think it’s the way that these things draw a line in the sand, on one side is good, the other is not good. Such things often leave little room for “but what about…” discussions, and, despite anything the originators claim, make clear statements about what should and shouldn’t happen in the classroom.

Part of this, I have to be honest, comes of being a teacher of adults, and a teacher of ESOL, in a setting where general standards of good practice are based not in a part time, adult learning context, but in a vocational / academic full time learning for people between 16 and 19. Factor in the language barriers of an ESOL setting, and whole swathes of what is deemed best practice in FE can often be abandoned as irrelevant or unworkable. Things like stretch and challenge through higher order questions where higher order questions require a much greater command of grammar? Tell me how that works with low level second language learners, again. Things like writing learning outcomes using Bloom’s or SOLO taxonomies language learning takes place across several levels of the taxonomy at the same time at all levels. Things like trying to apply goal setting theory through SMART targets when this is an entirely language based process, with scant first language evidence, and where students find it hard to conceptualise what they need to do (because to understand what you can’t do in terms of grammar and vocabulary, for example, requires knowing what said grammar and vocabulary is in the first place.) Punitive lateness measures in a community centre class where most of the students are parents who have to leave their children at the crèche, but the crèche doesn’t open until the same time the class begins? Banning everything but water in class for all students, despite the fact that said students have been at work all day, finished at half five, and have just arrived at 6, after a 25 minute journey in the rain? A push for blended learning where many learners have limited skills or limited access to technology in order to participate with it (even though when they do they engage with it far more enthusiastically than young people). The problem is that stuff which is relevant for young people, studying in their mother tongue, in preparation for work is not necessarily relevant for adults on a part time course which may or may not be employment related. (Let’s just assume I’ve won that argument about whether all FE is about employability, and say that it isn’t.) This situation is exacerbated when the students are doing it a language they are also learning.

I get told quite a lot that I’m “too much” of a specialist, but I have long since stopped caring. Sure, being a specialist may not get you far in terms of career progression, because career progression in FE inevitably means becoming more of a generalist, but I have no eye on the greasy pole. I like, and am proud of being a specialist in ESOL, and working with adults, and I like that adult learning teachers are often asking difficult questions like “yes, but how does that work for me, in my context?” I suspect that adult learning and especially ESOL teachers have a bit of a reputation in wider FE circles as being awkward, always asking for things to be done differently and challenging standards. Good. This is exactly as it should be. A general FE institution has a responsibility for the education of all aspects of its community, but a clear political government emphasis on employability and apprenticeships for under 19s means that adult learning can get a bit lost. So now, more than ever, adult learning and ESOL need to be strident, difficult voices not only nationally and politically, but also within our own workplaces. If there is a standard or a system in the workplace that doesn’t suit our context, then while we should perhaps not reject it a upright, neither should we immediately contort our own practices to conform. Rather, we should challenge that system.  I have a suspicion that some standards and systems exists not for the benefit of those who have to apply and make use of them, but for those who set the standards and devise the systems, so we should ask questions, find out why these things are is there, and if they can be altered, if not rejected outright.

I am absolutely sure, however, that this doesn’t just apply to adult learning. I have no doubt that colleagues in foundation learning, in creative industries, and those quick vocational stereotypes of the FE sector, hair and beauty and motor vehicle engineering, would often want to level the same accusations. It is just that adult learners in an FE setting have different needs, different contexts, and are a very different fit, and so the need for challenging standards is at its most acute, perhaps. The desire is not to be different for the sake of being different, but to do the best for our learners. If standards do not benefit our learners and their learning in our classrooms, then we should always be pushing for change, always be challenging, and always, always, be awkward.

 

Discrimination as a foreign language

I saw something which shocked me a little last week, which, given my tendency towards the placid, is quite an achievement. The offending item was a website for students containing spoken examples of language for “guys about girls” and “girls about guys”. It was quite astonishing really, that a publicly available website for the benefit of learning English would include examples of language which appear to have originated in the less attractive corners of a men’s changing room. I wondered if the “girls on guys” section might be a nice balance, but no, girls linguistic needs when it comes to relationships are apparently centred around their need for a sensitive man.

Let’s not pretend, however, that these attitudes don’t exist out there. I’ve encountered plenty of students with similar or worse attitudes, not to mention the occasionally medieval mindset when it comes to race. Which begs a question, really: if we are “just” teachers of language, do we have a duty to explore the language which allows our students to express all their views, even if they are offensive or discriminatory? After all, “student led” is the order of the day, and we are on hand to teach students the language they need to fulfil their ambitions, live their lives, and if our students’ ambitions and needs are to be bigoted asshats, then who are we to argue?

I’m going to leave aside the easy answer to this: that as someone who teaches in a publicly funded college in the UK, I have a legal duty to promote equality and diversity. This is too glib, too lazy, and fails, as is so often the case with top-down arguments, to really explain anything properly. As an explanation, it’s barely better than “because I say so.” I have a legal duty, so what? It doesn’t necessarily make the problem go away. And anyway, there’s a much more interesting argument here.

At the root of it all is simply the notion that language is one of the primary carriers of culture and therefore social attitudes. It’s how we rage against the machine (and the dying of the light). It’s the key weapon in a politician’s armoury. And it’s the way we share our values and our ethics. Whether language is inherently discriminatory is a complex discussion, but whether or not language embodies social attitudes in and of itself, it is definitely the means of expression. Even if language is not in and of itself offensive, it can easily be weaponised to hurt.

This places responsibility on the users of that language, and on those who would teach that language. It’s not just how you say something, but what you say, and indeed why you say it. Many owners of bigoted views know that what they believe is not generally seen as acceptable, and know to moderate expressions of that view, and it is this side of things where language teachers come into it. We probably can’t change students attitudes or morals, but we can remind them that those attitudes are likely to cause censure in the wider language community. To learn a language is also to buy into the values of the people who use that language, which, even in a setting of English as International Language, is dominated by what we might loosely call liberal western ideologies.

I make no claim to know what these are, beyond my own instinctive reactions, and that, at the end of the day is all we really have to draw on. I am shocked by the discrimination inherent in those resources above (there are more, by the way: “Who would you take, Jessica Simpson or Liv Tyler?” and “I like obedient girls” particularly stood out for sheer awfulness) and as such would never consider allowing students to talk about others in those terms, regardless of what they wanted. While there are almost certainly pockets of male-dominated nastiness in every society and at every level of society, that doesn’t make it right by my standards, and by the standards of a public majority. At the core of all discourse around equality is simple respect, and “She needs to go on a diet” is entirely lacking in that.

Things you could do instead of learning styles 

I understand. I do. You did all that training and all that reading and you heard all about how everyone has an individual learning style, and maybe you have since heard that learning styles is a bunch of old scheisse. Perhaps, however, you are reluctant to let go because you think that even if the miniscule amount of evidence is decidedly shaky, it is important to think about the individual needs of the students, and it is still important to get learners to think about the ways that they learn. And perhaps you use incense, homeopathy and students’ zodiac signs to help support and inform your students’ learning.

This was, I have to admit, the thought process going through my head the other day when two colleagues were discussing whether to use a learning styles assessment and that non-justification was exactly the argument that one of them used to justify it. I was very good, and kept my sneering to a jokey minimum, but actually it does highlight two of the main three justifications used by people hanging onto the learning styles myth. These justifications are:

  1. we need to meet individual learning needs
  2. students benefit from thinking about effective ways to learn
  3. classroom activities should mix a range of different types – visual, kinaesthetic and auditory

They are all fairly reasonable points that are hard to disagree with, and indeed, those who are more rabidly hanging onto learning styles are likely to accuse you of being opposed to all three of them, as if somehow using a stupid learning styles assessment is going to make all of these things happen.

However, my intention wasn’t to have yet another dig at LS, because I could literally do this all day given a willing audience. Instead, I want to suggest some things you could be doing with your students that meet all of these points and which might actually benefit your students.

1. Meeting Individual Needs

The real problem with LS here is that they provide a teacher with a quick and not too challenging way of pretending to meet individual learning needs. It doesn’t take too much in a lesson context form to say “I’ve used different types of activity, therefore I’ve met individual needs and done me some differentiation.” Unfortunately this is tosh, and lazy tosh at that, because meeting individual needs involves actually thinking about your students. There may, for example, be students with special educational needs which need to be taken into consideration. This is, I’d argue, less likely to apply to all classes, and is, I’m afraid, something I’m not familiar with. What I am more familiar with,, however, is meeting needs through differentiation. You can call it stretch and challenge if you prefer, but basically adapting your planning so that everyone is challenged at just the right level for them to maximise the opportunities for learning. It might be altering your expectations of the different students at different stages of the lesson, or thinking about how you could make sure that those high flying students are not knocking out their work then twiddling their thumbs, while at the same time making sure that those students who are struggling with the more basic elements are given the structured activities and support they need to make sure they achieve that much. It doesn’t have to be complicated, as I’ve written before, but it does involve effort, unlike, say, doing a sorting activity using cards and saying you’re meeting the needs of the kinaesthetic learners. 

2. Students benefit from thinking about how they learn

Well, yes. Particularly for those of us teaching part time students, enabling students to develop learning skills in and out of the classroom is valuable. The most consistently successful students I’ve taught are the ones who make a concentrated effort to study outside the classroom, and those who have the opportunity to focus on language learning outside the classroom, for example through consciously having to use it at work. But pretending they are visual reflectors (I’ve got some of those on my bike…) or whatever is useless. What would that mean, even if it did actually link to how brains work and how learning happens? That they don’t bother working if the work is non-reflective, auditory work? No, what we need is to equip learners with techniques and strategies to help them make the most of their learning. Things like vocabulary or spelling learning strategies, or habits they might want to develop as learners (even, yes, target setting, for vocabulary learning). You could also get students to explore notions like interleaving, retrieval practice and spaced practice. There are a lot of things you can do with students to help them to become better learners, but giving them a dumb learning styles questionnaire is not one of them.

3. Classroom activities should be a range of different types

I’ve left this til last because it’s the most ludicrous, idiotic, lazy justification for doing a learning styles evaluation that I think I’ve heard. Classroom activities should be different not because they are meeting learning styles needs, but because it is interesting for students. Especially in an ESOL class where students need to practice the language as well as be exposed to and make a conscious effort to learn it. So do activities with manipulatives and flash cards, and move students round the room. Use discussions, word games, visual presentations and displays. Use audio, give short talks and spoken explanations. Use technology, don’t use technology. Allow time for reflection and action. In short, mix it up. It’s more interesting, more engaging, because it changes pace and focus, and while it’s no guarantee, the chances are that an interested, engaged student is more likely to learn than one who isn’t.  

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So please, as you start your new academic year, ditch the learning styles assessment. You have literally no excuse, no excuse at all, to be perpetuating such idle, badly evidenced, pointless codswallop with your students. Get rid of that lesson on learning styles that you’ve been rolling out for the last million years, and do something useful instead.