What Is Not Working in Education (and What We Can Do About It)

The search for the ‘Holy Grail’ of Teaching is not working…

python grail

Bridgekeeper: What… is your name?
Sir Lancelot: My name is Sir Lancelot of Camelot.
Bridgekeeper: What… is your quest?
Sir Lancelot: To seek the Holy Grail.
Bridgekeeper: What… is your favourite colour?
Sir Lancelot: Blue.
Bridgekeeper: Go on. Off you go.
Sir Lancelot: Oh, thank you. Thank you very much.
Sir Robin: That’s easy.

The education system has undergone many pedagogical shifts in search for the ‘ultimate lesson structure’.  We have now reached an interesting point as we become evermore aware that misinformed or poorly implemented educational research can disastrously impact in our classroom and affect students’ and teachers’ morale.  As a result, our trust for ‘new school learning strategies’ has been damaged.

And it is confusing: we have been inundated with educational research suggesting that student-led learning leads to best results but also that teacher-led learning leads to the best results.  We have seen posts that ‘prove’ our students engage more with “fun” learning and yet it has also been confirmed that “fun” does not link to progress or achievement.  Certainly debates on the most effective way to implement classroom practice are evident across the profession – but what has clearly surfaced is that our search for the one strategy solution has failed.  The search for the ‘holy grail’ of teaching is not working. 


Where did it go wrong?

Most practitioners are familiar with the sudden requirement of a new school teaching policy based on “latest research.” It is now not uncommon to see the phrase “and recent research shows” in CPD sessions in order to justify this new whole-school practice, often without the need for any confirmation as to what research came to this conclusion.  It was even on my cereal box the other day: ‘research suggests that people who eat cereal are healthier!’ – of course, with no reference to who they studied, where or over what amount of time.

We have become a society that needs pseudo-scientific confirmation often without discerning facts. This has leaked into our attitudes and behaviours about education as we continue to clarify, justify or explore what ‘the best way to teach is’.

Quite interestingly, unless we are critical of research and the search for the teaching ‘holy grail’ is challenged, one could even argue that it is the case that students do not even need school and are best educated at home. Ray (2015) demonstrated that academic performance was greater achieved by students who were not in mainstream schooling:

The home-educated typically score 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on standardised academic achievement tests. (The public school average is the 50th percentile; scores range from 1 to 99).

Taken from: https://www.nheri.org/ResearchFacts.pdf

With such convincing facts (I particularly enjoy the URL of ‘ResearchFacts.pdf’), how could we not move to a system whereby all students were home-schooled? Surely this is the way to move the younger generation to have the most academic success? Of course my logical process to this conclusion seems absurd and yet this is what has seemed to happen with some of our teaching practice.


…and thus came academic fads and the search for the ‘Holy Grail’

It is from this unawareness and ill-informed understanding of academic research that classroom fads were born.  It had been suggested that post-its and mini whiteboards have transformed the classroom and suddenly they became the answer to all our teaching woes (and another thing to tick on the Outstanding Lesson Observation form).  What we stopped thinking about, however, was how effective the use of these whiteboards were – and at what time?

We stopped asking vital questions about the impact of this new tool: was it useful that I asked all students to write their favourite song and hold it up on the mini-whiteboard to show they were engaged? In what ways did this enhance their learning or progress? Such questions link nicely with Carl Hendrick’s blog and similar ideas mentioned by Hannah Townsend (@HanTgeography) in her blog: Why Playdough is Not The Way Forward when Teaching Geography. 

So What Can We Do?

It is vital that we start considering how the variety of teaching methods given in our profession can be best implemented into our classroom.  Below is a list of 5 things that we can do if there is no such thing as the teaching ‘Holy Grail.’

  1. Be critical of research

In a recent CPD with David Weston (@informed_edu) and Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) for the Teacher Development Trust, I was introduced to quite a startling fact. In a 2007 ScienceDaily article, the Colorado State University found that “pictures of the brain made research more believable.” Alex Quigley addressed this as it highlights the comical – but yet frightening – realisation that our opinions might be easily influenced by pseudoscience.


Moreover, Dylan Wiliam also points this out numerous times. He rightly asserts that educational research can only tell us what has worked, but not what will work. More interestingly, of course, is what will work with our classes at a particular time on a particular day at a particular point in a scheme of work. We cannot simply look to evidence to inform all our teaching approaches so hastily; such an approach will be ineffective.

David Didau also makes a similar claim in his book ‘What If Everything You Knew About About Teaching was Wrong?’ He gives the example:

Researchers compared the impact of varying degrees of support from TAs on pupils’ progress … [and] the study found that pupils who received help from TAs made less progress than classmates… On this evidence, we should immediately fire teaching assistants. (p.108)

But he carries on to the most impactful phrase:

Before we make any rash decisions it’s worth remember that research only shows that was has been, not what will be. (p.108)

2. Consider how it best applies to our context.

It is also the case that not all educational contexts are the same. Being informed about a study completed in American Education to Primary students may be interesting, but not always directly applicable to a GCSE class in England…

Indeed, I found this very case when I was initially experimenting with Harkness in the classroom. I was fortunate enough to see the teaching methods implemented by Philips Exeter School who are an entirely ‘Harkness’ focussed college. However, it was brought to my attention that that their final examination required no written timed essays. Suddenly, learning entirely through oral discussion became instantly more permissible but was clearly not something that would fit with the skills I needed to ensure my students could master in their A Level or GCSE Exams.

It was also interesting to note that the students from Wellington College had a greater understanding of Hamlet’s context due to its weight in their examinations whereas Philips Exeter’s pupils’ understanding was limited to knowledge of the text alone. It became clear here that we are sometimes required to teach our pupils different skills within our context – both within school and classroom context. As a result, our pedagogies should align with this.

3. Draw from a range of ideas.

But that is not to say that our pedagogies are limited to this… we just must adapt them to be the most effective for what we want to achieve.

It is the case that I regularly implement Harkness into my lesson plans but I am limited to do so unless I feel that students have the groundwork of knowledge required to have a critical conversations about the text. I encourage classroom discussion and see its importance in the classroom just as much as I encourage ‘chalk and talk’ as a vital teaching tool.  Moreover, there are many cases I do not feel that using Harkness as a method of delivering information is entirely appropriate.  Having an understanding of a range of methods enables me to consider what could be useful for my class.  I am not out to find ‘the answer‘ but rather what I consider to be ‘the best answer for this particular class at this particular time.’

4. Know how students learn

Teaching approaches such as debates can be easily dismissed as they are observed to be chaotic or ‘disruptive’. It is important to note that good learning does not always happen with stability or control. A classroom that appears calm and quietly controlled, where students “look busy” is not always a classroom where students are learning, or thinking hard.  In the very same way, however, direct instruction is vital for completing knowledge gaps in our students.  It may not be “engaging” and seem too “teacher-led” but may also be the most impactful teaching style at that particular moment.

I have also noted in my other blog that it is important to recognise that thinking hard is not easy – this is why we avoid it. When trialling new approaches that appear to be challenging or difficult for our pupils – whether due to intense debate or intense concentration –  it is important to keep this in mind. Thinking should be uncomfortable, spark discussions, shift thought processes, and (at times) can remain unresolved.  Perhaps we do not have to always finalise or ‘close’ our lessons with swan-like precision?  This is not something always easy for us as we are obsessed with finding ultimate and cohesive answers. It is, to some extent, why such videos on YouTube are labelled to be frustrating:

  1. Try new – and old – approaches

However, that does not mean you should be limited to ‘what you think will work because it did last time.’ Taking risks and exploring a range of pedagogies should be part of our practice. We talk about teachers being an expert profession, yet we do not often act as though we are that.

Experts, in their fields, achieve this status by not simply applying or becoming accustomed to ‘a way of practicing.’ Rather, they use a range of skills to apply to complex and challenging situations; they also ensure their skill-set is continually updated.

By trying new things, we broaden our skill domain.

Daniel T. Willingham addresses this in his book ‘Why Students Don’t Like School’ whereby he makes a strong case for continual teacher development – no matter what age or experience in the profession. He asserts:

If you want to be a better teacher, you cannot be simply satisfied to gain experience as time passes. You must also practice, and practice means 1) consciously trying to improve, 2) asking feedback and 3) undertaking activities for the sake of improvement, even if they don’t directly contribute to your job.

We can, by proxy, limit our ability to do these things in the attempt to implement a ‘holy grail’ teaching style. It is thus important to consider that implementing one style could make us worse practitioners despite “all the evidence” and “all the successes” that were previously perceived.


To sum up, it is important we stop searching for ‘the holy grail answer to teaching’ and start looking at research critically and objectively. We must ask ourselves what we can take from the approaches that claim to “have worked” in their own contexts and thoughtfully consider how (and to whom) they would best apply to in our academic environment.  In order to be the best practitioners, we should be continually evaluating, and re-evaluating our approaches whilst also seeking effective teaching strategies that are effective for learning and not simply engagement. Finally, when we feel as though we have found ‘the holy grail,’ (Sir Robin: That’s easy.) it is vital we remember that education research provides us with a series of best bets for this, but not tablets cast in stone of what will work.


More on this can also be found by Blake Harvard here and Alex Quigley here

3 thoughts on “What Is Not Working in Education (and What We Can Do About It)

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