On gimmicks

//On gimmicks

What is a gimmick? The dictionary defines it as “a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or trade.” So, putting a cartoon tiger on a packet of breakfast cereal in order to attract children’s attention is a gimmick. So is repackaging ordinary Shreddies as ‘Diamond Shreddies‘. In the words of Rory Sutherland, these sorts of gimmicks attempt to solve problems by “tinkering with perception, rather than that tedious, hardworking and messy business of actually trying to change reality.” An example of something that isn’t a gimmick is a BOGOF offer where the customer gets something of practical value that they might actually want. An extra roll of toilet paper or a half price book tangibly changes reality. A cartoon tiger merely tinkers with our perception of a cereal as being more fun. 

In educational terms then, we will define gimmicks as tricks or devices intended to attract students’ attention in the hope that they will become better behaved or more motivated to work hard. To help us decide whether a teaching intervention can be described as a gimmick we can apply Sutherland’s neat description. Does the practice ‘tinker with perception’, or does it try to change reality?

Let’s consider some things teachers do which are, according to this way of thinking, not gimmicks: asking questions, marking books, reorganising seating plans, setting tests, group work, praising effort rather than outcomes, and using a text book. I’ve deliberately chosen this list so that it contains things different people might consider good or bad. That isn’t the point; whether you like these things or think they’re a mistake, they all engage teachers in the “tedious, hardworking and messy business of actually trying to change reality.” We might not agree with the ways they may end up changing reality, but – for better or worse – that is their aim.

Let’s compare this list with things that are gimmicks: lollypop sticks, motivational posters, reading a book on an iPad rather than in print, Kagan Cooperative Learning, amusing YouTube videos, fidget spinners, #PoundlandPedagogy, and Tabletop Shakespeare. Again, I’m not making a value judgment on any of these, I’m just pointing out that they are all attempts to repackage something that can be done in another way in the attempt to attract attention and ticker with perceptions. Lollypop sticks are a way of targeting questions randomly in order to prevent some children from not answering questions. You can argue that writing students’ names on sticks makes this process easier, but you can equally argue that it’s just a gimmicky way to ask questions. Kagan Cooperative Learning is just a fancy way of packaging group work with some rather overblown claims made about its efficacy. There are plenty of ways to use iPads that aren’t simply gimmickry, but when they’re used to make reading seem more interesting, nothing of substance is being changed, just our perceptions. Slapping up motivational quotes and posters is the ultimate in perception tinkering.

So, what’s wrong with gimmicks? At root, attempts to tinker with perceptions are appealing because they’re so much easier than actually teaching children to master challenging and rich subject content. That takes sustained effort and requires excellent behaviour and the expectation that all children are capable of academic success with sufficient support. Using gimmicks on the other hand means you can tolerate poor behaviour and lacklustre effort by getting kids to do something they’ll think is fun. I outlined the problem with prioritising fun here. Essentially, it’s not that students enjoying lessons is a bad thing – of course it isn’t, it’s just that it should be an incidental by-product, rather than the purpose of a lesson.

Here’s a cautionary tale. Some years ago I had a recalcitrant year 9 class to whom I had to teach Romeo and Juliet. A sizeable minority in the class were of the opinion that Shakespeare in particular and English lessons in general were a tedious burden which took time away from their preferred pursuits: chatting, putting each other in head locks and being offensive to other students’ mothers. In an effort to get them on side I decided to get them to make sock puppets of the characters in the okay and act out modern versions of various key scenes. We spent a couple of weeks making puppets and preparing performances. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the class behaved well, but they tolerated this approach as it was relatively undemanding and allowed for lots of chatting. The puppets and performance they produced were mostly rubbish and after a couple of lessons I was heartily sick of vignettes inspired by Eastenders and Jeremy Kyle. But at least they did it. Then, we got on with a modicum of reading and attempted some analysis of the key scenes. At one point, sitting next to a students who seemed unable to remember even the most basic plot elements of the play, in frustration I reminded him about the puppets he had had a hand in making and prompted him with the question, “So what can you tell me about Benvolio?” After some thought he eventually ventured, “Er, wasn’t he made of blue stuff?”

Using gimmicks comes with four costs:

First there’s the opportunity cost. The time we have available to teach children is strictly finite. If you’re going to invest lesson time on activities with little or no cultural capital then this is time you cannot also spend on something more culturally rich. You have to make a choice. The time I spent making puppets and thinking about Jeremy Kyle was time I couldn’t spend on thinking about Romeo and Juliet and writing essays.

The second cost is the load gimmicks place on working memory. As Daniel Kahneman argues, “Anything that occupies your working memory reduces your ability to think.” If the packaging of our lessons is attention grabbing, students will have a bit less capacity for processing what’s important. This matters because “memory is the residue of thought”: what students think about is what they’ll remember. If they’ve thought about SOLO taxonomy or exciting mini-plenary activities, these are what they will remember. My students had a vivid memory of making puppets but couldn’t remember – or didn’t know – the point behind making the puppets.

Then there’s the fact that the gimmick will tend to be intrinsically memorable. That may sound like a good thing, but it’s exactly the wrong sort of memorable. Students will leave the lesson with a strong and abiding memory of the gimmick but have little recall about why the gimmick was used. Daniel Willingham puts this beautifully: “Memory is the residue of thought.” What students remember is what they’ve thought about and the gimmick will often end up distracting students from what you actually want them to think about. It might be a positive for students to think, “Hey, wow! Miss Fizznut surely is a lot of fun!” But they won’t learn nearly as much curriculum content as from the teachers who concentrate on getting students to grapple with tricky concepts.

The final cost is that the reasons teachers rely on gimmicks go unaddressed. If teachers have prepare lessons to motivate children to come to lessons, not punch each other and sit in their seats then this sends out the message that there are low expectations of what students can do. Instead of tackling the reasons why it was impossible to focus on the text, I made excuses and did something I thought my students would find easier and more enjoyable. Not only did they fail to learn anything of value about Romeo and Juliet, they also learned that it was acceptable to carry on behaving precisely as they wished.

If your gimmick doesn’t incur any of these costs, it’s probably not a gimmick. It may seem like a good idea to save time by tinkering with perceptions, bit if you don’t do the hard work necessary to help students make progress, reality won’t change.

2017-07-15T21:47:07+00:00October 2nd, 2016|learning|


  1. Kris October 2, 2016 at 7:02 pm - Reply

    I have been reading and following you and you have lots of really useful and engaging things to say and provoke conversation.
    Whilst I may agree and think that much of what you say has merit and value, I would note that the irony of your post on Gimmicks, seems somewhat lost on on your current Gradgrinding campaign. Perhaps it is postmodern.

    • David Didau October 2, 2016 at 7:18 pm - Reply

      Gradgrinding campaign? You’ve lost me old bean

  2. Robert Craigen October 3, 2016 at 4:21 am - Reply

    This grad is grinding his teeth …

  3. Robert Jones (@jonesieboy) October 3, 2016 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    I am intrigued by your inclusion of lollipop sticks in the “gimmicks” category. I agree that they just offer one way of selecting students at random to answer questions, and that other ways exist, but if a teacher was previously taking hands up then moves to using lollipop sticks then there has been a tangible change in reality, as you put it.

    I guess context is important. if a teacher uses lollipop sticks because they were told to by someone who bought the hype, then their use might be described as gimmicky. If a teacher reflects on their own questioning techniques, realises that they are taking answers from the same wee group of keen beans all the time then decides to use lollipop sticks to select students to answer questions, then they are not using lollipop sticks in a gimmicky way.

    What do you see as a non-gimmicky way to move away from taking answers from students with their hands up? If you say “stop doing it” then a possible alternative would be helpful 🙂

    • David Didau October 3, 2016 at 9:44 pm - Reply

      The ‘tangible change in reality’ is that questioning happens different. Lolly sticks are unnecessary as this change can take place just by deciding to do something differently. My view is that targetted questioning (ie. a teacher choosing a students to respond) is better than randomised questioning as deciding who and when to ask a question can be one of the most powerful tools in a skilled teacher’s armoury.

      Also, I did make the point that I wasn’t making a value judgment – just pointing out that lolly sticks are an attempts to repackage something that can be done in another way. If a gimmick doesn’t incur any of the three costs I point out then it’s not a problem.

  4. Hannah G October 3, 2016 at 7:11 pm - Reply

    AfL (Assessment for Learning) should take the blame for encouraging a gimmick culture. Although it was probably never intended that way, lollypop sticks, traffic lights, smiley faces, thumbs up and Post-It Notes are all part of the Outstanding teacher’s armoury and sometimes the reason for using them is lost in the process.

  5. Tim Jefferis (@tjjteacher) October 24, 2016 at 5:33 pm - Reply

    David, great post as usual. Thanks 🙂

  6. Maths Teacher 1729 January 10, 2017 at 4:48 pm - Reply

    Couple of typos you’re/your.
    Otherwise excellent…Good with elements of outstanding:)

  7. Gavin February 2, 2017 at 3:17 pm - Reply

    Kagan methods boost achievement dramatically as measured in peer reviewed published research. If that is a gimmick, Education needs more gimmicks.Thanks as always for your thoughts . Gavin

    • David Didau February 2, 2017 at 3:31 pm - Reply

      I’ve never found anything on Kagan that validates the claims that it “dramatically” boosts achievement. Certainly not in a peer reviewed journal – if you’re aware of anything please let me have a link and I’ll get right on it. Thanks for reading.

      • Annabelle Atkinson July 15, 2017 at 10:09 pm - Reply

        I think Kagan is a great wY of making group work purposeful and effective, however it is not to be used all of the time.

        • David Didau July 15, 2017 at 10:09 pm - Reply

          It’s just gimmicks, and expensive ones at that

  8. […] seduced by the bright lights and glamour of the new (even when it’s
 not ‘new’ at all, just packaged and lauded as such). 
It’s all very well to criticise current qualifications but to suggest that exams should […]

  9. dollyoddlegs July 16, 2017 at 6:51 am - Reply

    Excellent. I often share such posts with whole staff…don’t think I can with this. Some do crazy things in school to BRILLIANT effect. Some just do crazy things. Part of me dies whenever I see someone use a word search. I had a great day of CPD at The PSHE Association years ago, where I will always remember we were told ‘the only purpose it serves is to spot the word PENIS backwards’.

    I also learnt a new word…recalcitrant. How have I never heard this?

  10. […] As far as this line of argument goes, emoji are irrelevant. It could just as easily be about using fidget spinner to teach medieval medicine or teaching quadratic equations through the medium of Pokemon Go. Or whatever. Feel free to substitute the gimmick of your choice. […]

  11. Andy Hawes January 24, 2018 at 11:43 am - Reply

    Interesting post. Sometimes, the ‘gimmick’ to which you refer can be a bit of a catalyst for greater change. I recently supported a teacher whose only strategy was to do the ‘hands up’ thing, with typical and expected results. We ‘negotiated’ the use of lolly sticks as a means of enabling the pupils to actually understand that they might be expected to contribute something to a lesson, which, once put in place and beginning to work, then led us down the route of considering how we might refine that model in order to target questions more effectively. That classroom is now a better place for pupils to learn. The imposition of the lolly sticks, and the fact that they made a quite rapid difference to the interactions in the classroom, prompted the additional changes. To be fair, I could have approached it differently, but the lolly stick thing was just so easy as a starting point.
    What your post also reminded me of was the rather brilliant ‘Memory, not Memories’ post from Primary Timery, which I think I visited via one of your Twitter posts… https://primarytimery.com/2017/09/16/memory-not-memories-teaching-for-long-term-learning/

    • David Didau January 24, 2018 at 8:47 pm - Reply

      This sounds like an example of something which might not be a gimmick.

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