What if we stopped making the same mistakes?

//What if we stopped making the same mistakes?

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.
Henry Ford

Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.
Fake Einstein quote

How many of us have worked in schools which have as one of their teaching & learning priorities differentiation, questioning, or assessment & feedback? Most of us, right?

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a school which isn’t working hard on trying to improve one or other of these aspects of teaching. But why? No one seems to have ‘the answer’, and we’re all desperately scrabbling about trying to get better at doing the same things. But what if we stopped? What if we decided not to spend any more time trying to train teachers in what to do? What if we required them to think about what they believed best for their classes? Would the sky fall on our heads?

I suspect not.

But we’re reluctant to let teachers do what they think best because we don’t trust that they think. Alex Quigley pointed to the fact that schools suffer from Ofsted Stockholm Syndrome, and maybe teachers suffer something similar. After all, if you’ve never been allowed to think, if you’ve always been told how to teach by some ‘expert’, then you may well feel a little lost if suddenly given the freedom to do whatever you want.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t really matter all that much what you do. I don’t care if you teach standing up, sitting down, hopping on one leg, wearing flip-flops, with your top button undone or with a bag on your head. I’m not interested in how you seat your students*, whether you fetishise traffic lights and mini white boards, or produce mountains of differentiated resources for every lesson. I’m not bothered whether you mark your books, but if you do I don’t care whether you use green or red pen, pencil, invisible ink or human blood. I’m quite keen on you having high expectations for every pupil you teach, but it’s up to you what this looks like. I’m a fan of hard work and suspicious of fun for fun’s sake, but that’s just me; you should do what you think best. Because it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as the impact is there.

Hattie urges teachers to ‘Know thy impact’, but this is, perhaps, harder than it sounds. A school-wide commitment to Lesson Study might be a great leap forward in supporting teachers to investigate their own practice, but as long as your results are good and your students are safe, who am I, or anyone else to tell you you’re wrong? Problems persist when we assume that just because it works for us, it’ll work for everyone (or anyone) else. Of course we should talk about, reflect on and share our practice in order to check out our thinking with colleagues, but if ever you’re tempted to advise another teacher to do what you do, don’t.

Robert Coe says this:

The only worthwhile kind of evidence about whether something works in a particular situation comes from trying it out.…[F]or practice to be based on evidence, that evidence must come from experiments in real contexts. “Evidence” from surveys or correlational research is not a basis for action.

So God forbid you ever encourage another teacher to do what you prefer. Because often preference is all it comes down to. It’s ridiculously easy to de-skill an effective teacher by making them teach in a way they’re not used to. Why on earth do so many school leaders feel compelled to do this?

This blog is full of posts in which I share my preferences. Often I’ll give reasons (and sometimes research evidence) to support these preferences, but that’s really all they are. If you think they seem interesting, great. If they seem like a load of cobblers, fine. But if you do feel intrigued enough by something I’ve shared to give it a go, please think about why first. And if anyone ever tells you that you should do something just because I, or anyone else says so, tell them to naff off. If they’re senior to you, you maybe better advised to find some way to politely ignore them.

I don’t know everything. In fact, I don’t know all that much. As I encounter new information, I reconsider what I thought up to that point and often change my mind. This being the case, many of the preferences I’ve expressed on this blog, I now consider to be wrong (Or at least no longer useful to me.) But as long as you’re judicious, this shouldn’t matter all that much.

All the evidence that’s out there isn’t really worth a damn. It can, it seems, be easily manipulated to shore up whatever it is you currently prefer. We do what we do because we like it. If the evidence supports our preferences we embrace it; if it contradicts us, we dismiss it.

Over the past few years I’ve read a lot of academic research and, frankly, I’m not very good at working out whether it’s methodologically sound. We rely on others to mediate what we read and tell us what it proves. A case in point is Martin Robinson’s marvellous book, Trivium 21c which everyone, whatever their educational stripe seems to adore as it can be interpreted as endorsing pretty much anything. NB – I’ve discussed this with Martin and know my interpretation is the correct one 😉

My new book, The Secret of Literacy, is, perhaps, less ambiguous. Some people will like it, others won’t. But, it’s just my (extremely well researched) preferences.

Let me close with some advice from an insane Danish prince: “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Anything you do with sufficient thought and planning will probably be great. Anything you do because someone told you to will probably be crap. Of course we can all be better, but not by repeating the same mistakes.

So stop telling teachers what to do, instead look at the impact of what they do. You never know, you might learn something.

Related posts

Progressive vs Traditionalist vs Professional by Mark McCourt
The need for ‘Why To’ guides
Why the knowledge/skills debate is worth having

* I went through a period of believing strongly that it did mater how you seated your students. I offer this as an example of being wrong.



  1. […] Read more on The Learning Spy… […]

  2. John germain February 11, 2014 at 5:34 pm - Reply

    Interesting and well-written as always, David. Very quick points. I agree with your view of ‘mandated good practice’. What constitutes ‘good’ practice is always situated – a particular class, subject, teacher. This is not new of course – thinking about the action research tradition.

    But: we need to see mistakes not as mistakes in the usual sense (e.g. I picked up the wrong textbook this morning) but as practices embedded in power relations / systems. Why the current emphasis on regulating teachers’ practice in the way we have become used to? This must have something to do with the kinds of regimes that have developed in schools and colleges. I’m thinking here of the debate over ‘managerialism’ (James Avis, Stephan Ball, Dennis Gleeson). The analogy of the Panopticon is useful for understanding the regulatory practices, and especially the strategy of unannounced drop in observation as a result of which practices become embedded in institutions

    This is quite a nice discussion http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVTKHI5ovyc

    The risk of flouting mandated practices are disciplinary proceedings / support programmes!

    Of course this is complex – and there are all kind institutional dynamics at work which generate ‘mistakes’ …. there’s something about the nature of educational ‘leadership’. Always find it odd that we talk now about school ‘leaders’ rather than Head Teachers etc. This tells somehting about whose voices/experiences/knowledge counts. Put this alongside the growth of the consultocracy in education as elsewhere – careers dependent on being expert. Again, whose voices count? … but also compliance inducing ambition, lack of imagination, lack of understanding of how knowledge is produced, the seduction of bite-size neuroscience and the pseudo-science of NLP, a culture of 10 Quick Steps (the influence of the self-improvement industry in education) etc etc


    In response teachers often assert their own knowledge / ways of doing things – at least over the photocopier!! Thus we get an an ‘either-or’ : mandated good practices v teachers left alone.

    Tho I agree with the thrust of your argument, We need to emphasise that if ‘good’ practice is not the same as being compliant with the prevailing ideas of good practice, then neither is it simply a matter of individuals seeing what works (albeit asking for advice when and if etc.)

    Against the either/or, wouldn’t it be great is we need could revive older ideas of communities of practice and enquiry, practitioner research etc, which recognise the crucial role of dialogue and shared reflection. How do we do this in ‘actually existing’ schools and colleges??

    However, there is also the issue of accountability. I make a distinction between accountability and regulation, As a public employee, responsible for education of others (in my case adults) I should be held to account for what I do. The idea can be a scary one but it’s necessary. (Partly I say this as a parent and a sometime student). Somehow we nned to find ways of ensuring that professional educators are held accountable – to their students, their fellow-professionals and the public – but in ways that validate different practices and value their autonomy.

    As a start teachers need to stop moaning and start mobilising!!

    Judith Sachs might be a starting point:



    Cheers JG

    • David Didau February 11, 2014 at 9:10 pm - Reply

      Lots to consider here John. Thanks got such a thoughtful response.

      • John germain February 12, 2014 at 6:03 pm - Reply

        Thanks, and sorry that it was rushed job. But my essential point is this: there is a divide in educational theory making between the sociological focus on education as a social institution and the methodological focus on classroom practice. As practitioners, we work within this gap – focusing on improving our classroom practice but subject to all kinds of social and institutional pressures, both material (resources, funding, infrastructure, contracts of employment, institutional hierarchies) and ideological (including different perceptions of what education is for, prevailing notions of professionalism). Whilst sociologists analyse the meaning and function of education but often with little relevance to practitioners, practitioners focus on classroom methodology but without giving attention to the issues of structure and power. I don’t think it’s an accident that mistakes get made or that educational decision-making is so often driven by fads and that fads so easily become mandates. I’ve observed ‘quality leaders’ simply downloading the latest ‘best practice’ guides from the internet and re-presenting them as given ‘truths’ in staff training. Sorry, but these people are ciphers not educational leaders – and dangerous because their judgments can have huge impact on others. No doubt a whole set of policies on quality and lesson observations have been rewritten following the latest Ofsted advice e.g. that so-called ‘passive’ learning is OK. But somehow we need to find a way through all this. Whilst not forgetting our primary responsibility as practitioners is developing our craft, we need to connect this concern with the wider questions. This is why I like Judyth Sachs’ idea of ‘activist teachers’. She helps us to understand that teacher professionalism is not reducible to institutional mandates but also has important ethical and political dimensions. Perhaps one issue is that teachers are very often ill-equipped to evaluate the ‘theories’ that become taken-for-granted. Neuro-science is a case in point, as are NLP, ‘accelerated learning’ and ‘learning styles’. I recall one ‘senior leader’ who was a great advocate of learning styles, who after Frank Coffield’s critique became widely known, said very glibby ‘Oh isn’t it interesting how we used to believe …’. Does this remind you of the Vicar of Bray? I don’t know whether the growing disenchantment with Ofsted style regulation will result in a more democratic, reflective kind of professionalism. In my more cynical moments, I see the criticism of Ofsted and the kinds of practices we have come to associate with that regime as yet another fad, a way in which a different set of school and college ‘leaders’ stake their own position in the field. Dunno. .

  3. Heather F February 11, 2014 at 7:19 pm - Reply

    I think some degree of accountability keeps you focused but you then need freedom. The problem with Odsted and many schools is that a teacher is encouraged to think success comes form good observation feedback. It should be from the kids. That didn’t work, not my boss didn’t like it!

  4. SurrealAnarchy February 11, 2014 at 7:54 pm - Reply

    Ha! Thanks for the plug! Though I don’t think my book is ambiguous at all! I think it’s very clear, however it does extol the idea that the trivium as the roots of education can fit gently into the current environment of any school.

    • David Didau February 11, 2014 at 9:09 pm - Reply

      I don’t think it’s ambiguous either, which is why I’ve been so bemused as to how some people seem to misunderstood it so badly 🙂

  5. MLeonard February 12, 2014 at 7:48 am - Reply

    I had a friend worked in Sweden who said their Ofsted observations consistent of the inspector asking 2 questions: First and most important – are the kids happy; second – are they learning enough (not specified WHAT they had to learn – just that they did enough!) – that was it! I’d LOVE for my kids to go through a system that asked those questions of their teachers!!

  6. […] If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. Henry Ford Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.  […]

  7. […] (see David Didau’s post on lesson observations beginning with this very quotation here) something of a falsehood, but when hope is pinned to self-belief and action it can yield positive […]

  8. […] What if we stopped making the same mistakes? “The kids absolutely love it!” The phrase that launched a thousand gimmicks The problem with progress Part 2: Designing a curriculum for learning […]

  9. […] If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. Henry Ford Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.  […]

  10. […] over the years as we have been told what to do and how to do it by experts. In his blog ‘What if we stopped making the same mistakes?  David Didau says’ “Just because it works for us does not therefore translate to it works for […]

  11. […] Learning Spy, David Didau, does it again in what if we stopped making the same mistakes. He addressed how schools, teacher education programs, and professional development push […]

  12. Anon June 25, 2014 at 5:58 pm - Reply

    Great post, also in the light of some of the more vociferous Twitter ‘debates’ that have gone on lately. For me this really resonates ‘It’s ridiculously easy to de-skill an effective teacher by making them teach in a way they’re not used to’, and I would add ‘in a way that doesn’t work for them’. So that old argument about whether teacher talk is a good idea or not is also part of this – for some teachers it is perfect, they hold a class spellbound whilst they give them information about whatever. For others group work is massively effective because they’re good at setting it up in a meaningful way. I was trained in the olden days, we were trained largely in the why rather than the what, and I wasn’t properly in the classroom during the high days of the National Strategies, so I’m bewildered by the level of proscriptiveness which seems to pass in teaching now. And I am still massively resentful at the way I was made to feel when I returned to the classroom a couple of years ago – the quote above was exactly me. It’s taken the past year on supply, not sure if I want to stay in teaching, to convince me that in fact there wasn’t much wrong with my teaching in the first place. It had impact. That’s it.

  13. […] also been fairly consistent in the view that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. In this blog, I […]

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