Pascal’s Bicycle Helmet

I have recently restarted wearing a helmet for when I ride on my bicycle. Anyone who reads or thinks anything about riding a bike beyond “it’s a handy way of getting about” will come across the quietly furious debate in cycling circles over helmet wearing. I stopped for a while because
a) on average, the chances of a helmet helping me when some idiot (male or female: they’ve both had a go) in a Mercedes-BMW-Range Rover* sideswipes me are probably pretty small,
b) the UK road system needs improving, as it is designed primarily for the benefit of car-brained idiots, and essentially antithetical to everyone else; and
c) I look an utter dork when I wear one.

But then I had a bit of a think, and, dorkiness aside, the chances of the average British driver ever giving two hoots about any other person on the road are very slim indeed, and certainly no government is going to annoy the oil companies for the time being by actively discouraging car use. I also know that while, statistically, a helmet is unlikely to save you, it doesn’t hurt to wear one. I’m not super sporty and so not put off by a few extra grams or lack of streamlining, and, crucially, absolutely crucially, I reasoned that wearing one may or may not protect you, but not wearing one will absolutely not protect you. So it makes logical sense to wear one. (But not obsessively. If I’m popping to the shops and for some reason I can’t find or forget the helmet, I’m not going to be distraught.)

Reasoning like this is a cycling helmet version of Pascal’s Wager. Now, for those of you who have not yet read the appropriate text, Pascal’s Wager was dreamed up by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (obviously) in the 17th century as an argument against atheism. It runs like this. If you don’t believe in God and you are wrong you will end up in Hell. If you do believe in God and are right, you end up in heaven. If you do believe in God and are wrong, then it doesn’t matter. In short, The wager says that you may as well believe in God, because the odds of you ending up in Hell are reduced. There are flaws here but you’ve got to admit it’s got some nice logic.

There’s a link to teaching here as well.Teachers do this sort of thing a lot. We are, by our natures, hoarders and thieves, professional magpies, and we won’t, as a rule, let go of something, just in case. Not just materials, mind you, but also methods. Teachers hang on to techniques and methods and neuro-bollocks, again, just in case. So learning styles inventories persist at the back of the popular mind, people default to treating ILT as “good” regardless of whether or not it actually is making the blindest bit of difference, and, of course, despite most evidence to the contrary, we continue to set SMART targets for ESOL learners.

But, you say, where’s the harm? Let’s include some stuff on learning styles, some ILT set some targets, because, well, it’s not going to hurt. Let’s spend ten minutes on brain gym. It might do something, but even if it doesn’t, it hasn’t actually done any damage.

Well, actually, no, you’re wrong. Dead wrong. A hundred and fifty percent wrong, in fact, as wrong as my maths in the first part of this sentence, as wrong in my proposition that this, technically, is a sentence.

Spending classroom time on non-learning bollocks like learning styles is, in fact, damaging. For the bicycle helmet, the logic holds, particularly for a fattie like me. With the uncomfortable levels of force which would be applied to my head, any kind of protection is likely to do some good. For Pascal, the logic fails because it ignores a deity’s omniscience, (don’t you think that God might notice your craven, self serving pretence?) and, frankly, is a bit of a wussy cop out.

CaptureThe neurobollocks one also fails because by promoting anything like this in the classroom, even if it is just to get the learners thinking about their learning, only succeeds in perpetuating the myth. You want to talk about different things learners could try to help their learning? Great, I’m with you all the way, but why on earth do you feel the need to pigeonhole the learners first? And think about the morale of a learner who does your little learning styles bollocks test, who discovers that they are mostly an auditory learner, but they are studying Joinery, which is going to involve lots of doing stuff with your hands, and much less listening time. And then, just to cap it all off you say “well, don’t worry, because all I wanted you to do was have a think about your learning.” which totally negates the last one and half hours you spent on the whole sorry business.

You run the same risk of damage in very established, yet entirely unproven, practices like setting SMART targets with ESOL students (see Chapter 14 here, and the hitherto unanswered challenge laid down here, almost ten years ago). Maybe I’ve misinterpreted what SMART targets are about, but if they are to be used for planning and as evidence of learning, then I think we are on very rocky ground here. Target setting, unless I’ve been reading the wrong research, simply does not link to the way in which language develops in adults, whatever view of learning you take. A learner’s language necessarily goes round in cycles, where bits develop not in directly evidenceable and logically sequenced stages, but in more of a circular, waltzing variation of two steps forward, one step back, with the waters muddied by issues like first language transfer. Achievement in the language classroom doesn’t always immediately become ability in the wider world: it’s not that simple. So when you say to learners “let’s track your learning through these simple little activities like “write five sentences about your house using adjectives” or “talk about my friend’s day using verbs correctly” or “use articles correctly in a short paragraph about yourself” we are constructing a set of false expectations. Learners are being encouraged to think that when they have achieved that target they have therefore learned that thing, and the chances are pretty high that, for a while, anyway, they won’t be able to reproduce it in a different context, or indeed the same context, on demand and as required. (Incidentally, if all ESOL teachers genuinely waited until learners could reliably do whatever it is we are teaching then there would be uproar as success rates plummeted.) As soon as learners realise that they can’t do it, I wonder what happens to their morale?

In short, then, there are practices which we adhere to for whatever reason which are not just pointless, but potentially damaging to learners in the longer term. Sometimes we stick to these because we ourselves are wagering, mistakenly, that the potential benefits outweigh the potential drawbacks. Sometimes I suspect we stick to these because we are told we should, because again, someone, somewhere is making the same wager.

So maybe we need to approach all practices in education not so much with an open mind, but with a questioning mind. I’m not saying we should ever immediately dismiss anything out of hand, or become hardened sceptics, but we should always alwaysask those challenging, difficult questions of the person telling us about it.


* I have a theory that whenever anyone buys a large car of some high status marque, they also have a kind of lobotomy which removes common sense, care and respect.


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