I’ve crossed swords – or more accurately, keyboards – with Tom Bennett, the government’s behaviour guru tsar adviser, a few times, mainly about learning styles. And about Ken Robinson. Ironic really, because broadly speaking we’re in agreement. Ken Robinson’s ideas about education are woolly and often appear to be based on opinion rather than evidence, and there’s clear evidence that teachers who use learning styles, thinking hats and brain gym probably are wasting their time. Synthetic phonics helps children read and whole school behaviour policies are essential for an effective school and so on…
My beef with Tom has been his tendency to push his conclusions further than the evidence warrants. Ken Robinson is ‘the butcher given a ticker tape parade by the National Union of Pigs‘. Learning Styles are ‘the ouija board of serious educational research‘. What raised red flags for me this time is a recent TES article by Tom prompted by the latest school-toy fad ‘fidget-spinners’.
Tom begins with claims that fidget-spinners can help children concentrate. He says “I await the peer-reviewed papers from the University of Mickey Mouse confirming these claims“, assuming that he knows what the evidence will be before he’s even seen it. He then introduces the idea that ‘such things’ as fidget-spinners might help children with an ‘identifiable condition such as autism or sensory difficulties’, and goes on to cite comments from several experts about fidget-spinners in particular and sensory toys in general. We’re told “…if children habitually fidget, the correct path is for the teacher to help the child to learn better behaviour habits, unless you’ve worked with the SENCO and the family to agree on their use. The alternative is to enable and deepen the unhelpful behaviour. Our job is to support children in becoming independent, not cripple them with their own ticks [sic]”.
If a child’s fidgeting is problematic, I completely agree that a teacher’s first course of action should be to help them stop fidgeting, although Tom offers no advice about how to do this. I’d also agree that the first course of action in helping a fidgety child shouldn’t be to give them a fidget-toy.
There’s no question that children who just can’t seem to sit still, keep their hands still, or who incessantly chew their sleeves, are seeking sensory stimulation, because that’s what those activities are – by definition. It doesn’t follow that allowing children to walk about, or use fidget or chew toys will ‘cripple them with their own ticks’. These behaviours are not tics, and usually extinguish spontaneously over time. If they’re causing disruption in the classroom, questions need to be asked about school expectations and the suitability of the school provision for the child, not about learning unspecified ‘better behaviour habits’.
Tom then devotes an entire paragraph to, bizarrely, Listerine. His thesis is that sales of antiseptic mouthwash soared due to an advertising campaign persuading Americans that halitosis was a serious social problem. His evidence is a blogpost by Sarah Zhang, a science journalist. Sarah’s focus is advertising that essentially invented problems to be cured by mouthwash or soap. Neither she nor Tom mention the pre-existing obsession with cleanliness that arose from the discovery – prior to the discovery of antibiotics – that a primary cause of death and debility was bacterial infections that could be significantly reduced by the use of alcohol rubs, boiling and soap.
itchy and scratchy
The Listerine advertising campaign leads Tom to consider ‘fake or misunderstood illnesses’ that he describes as ‘charlatan’. His examples are delusional parasitosis (people believe their skin is itching because it’s infested with parasites) and Morgellon’s (belief that the itching is caused by fibres). Tom says “But there are no fibres or parasites. It’s an entirely psycho-somatic condition. Pseudo sufferers turn up at their doctors scratching like mad, some even cutting themselves to dig out the imaginary threads and crypto-bugs. Some doctors even wearily prescribe placebos and creams that will relieve the “symptoms”. A condition that never was, dealt with by a cure that won’t work. Spread as much by belief as anything else, like fairies.”
Here, Tom is pushing the evidence way beyond its limits. The fact that the bugs or fibres are imaginary doesn’t mean the itching is imaginary. The skin contains several different types of tactile receptor that send information to various parts of the brain. The tactile sensory system is complex so there are several points at which a ‘malfunction’ could occur. The fact that busy GPs – who for obvious reasons don’t have the time or resources to examine the functioning of a patient’s neural pathways at molecular level – wearily prescribe a placebo, says as much about the transmission of medical knowledge in the healthcare system as it does about patients’ beliefs.
Tom refers to delusional parasitosis and Morgellon’s as ‘crypto-pathologies’ – whatever that means – and then introduces us to some crypto-pathologies he claims are encountered in school; dyslexia and ADHD. As he points out dyslexia and ADHD are indeed labels for ‘a collection of observed symptoms’. He’s right that some children with difficulty reading might simply need good reading tuition, and those with attention problems might simply need a good relationship with their teacher and clear routines. As he points out “…our diagnostic protocol is often blunt. Because we’re unsure what it is we’re diagnosing, and it becomes an ontological problem“. He then says “This matters when we pump children with drugs like Ritalin to stun them still.”
Again, some of Tom’s claims are correct but others are not warranted by the evidence. In the UK, Ritalin is usually prescribed by a paediatrician or psychiatrist after an extensive assessment of the child, and its effects should be carefully monitored. It’s a stimulant that increases available levels of dopamine and norepinephrine and it often enhances the ability to concentrate. It isn’t ‘pumped into’ children and it doesn’t ‘stun them still’, In the UK at least, NICE guidelines indicate it should be used as a last resort. The fact that its use has doubled in the last decade is a worrying trend. This is more likely to be due to the crisis in child and adolescent mental health services, than to an assumption that all attention problems in children are caused by a supposed medical condition we call ADHD.
Tom, rightly, targets bullshit. He says it matters because “many children suffer from very real and very grave difficulties, and it behoves us as their academic and social guardians to offer support and remedy when we can”. Understandably he wants to drive his point home. But superficial analysis and use of hyperbole risk real and grave difficulties being marginalised at best and ridiculed at worst by teachers who don’t have the time/energy/inclination to check out the detail of what he claims.
Specialist education, health and care services for children have been in dire straits for many years and the situation isn’t getting any better. This means teachers are likely to have little information about the underlying causes of children’s difficulties in school. If teachers take what Tom says at face value, there’s a real risk that children with real difficulties, whether they need to move their fingers or chew in order to concentrate, experience unbearable itching, struggle to read because of auditory, visual or working memory impairments, or have levels of dopamine that prevent them from concentrating, will be seen by some as having ‘crypto-conditions’ that can be resolved by good teaching and clear routines. If they’re not resolved, then the condition must be ‘psycho-somatic’. Using evidence to make some points, but ignoring it to make others means the slings and arrows Tom hurls at the snake-oil salesmen and white knights galloping to save us from imaginary dragons are quite likely to be used as ammunition against the very children he seeks to help.