Educational Boondoggles

We are easily duped in education.

As Ivie (1979) comments, “Educators have a taste for the exotic in curricula, the innovative and the unconventional.”

Some of what comes our way is useful and some of it total hogwash. The problem is working out what’s hot and what’s rot.

Educational boondoggles litter our past and there are quite a few clouding our present too. There’ll undoubtedly be future ones as well that will end up in our classrooms, upend our teaching and leave us with red faces.

A boondoggle is an extravagant and useless project or idea that is considered a waste of both time and money but gives the appearance of value.

Without much thought I’d bet a box full of glue sticks that you could name a hatful off the top of your head.

Some of the more embarrassing boondoggles we have been subjected to and guilty of promoting over the years include:

  1. Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic Learning Styles
  2. The Learning Pyramid
  3. Brain Gym
  4. Gifted and Talented

There are of course many others including the more recent ‘mastery’ model that has saturated maths teaching in recent years.

Some boondoggles are enormous with costs running into the billions. These are big projects with big price tags and with limited or no benefits  – who can forget the calamitous Reading First in the US?

So why do educated professionals ‘fall’ for these projects?

That’s easy – we all want to be seen doing something new and engaging in the ‘latest’ thing. These are the “Zeitgeist bandwagons carrying magic beans, magic bullets and magic potions” (Dabell, 2017).

They become popular and take on a life of their own and somehow become embedded in the status quo….at least for a while, until they are ‘found out’.

Evidence-based teaching and learning is now starting to boot these boondoggles up the backside but they still persist and some teachers just won’t let go of them.

But boondoggles are not magic crystals, they are what they are and that is time-wasters, blood-suckers and illusions yet they are remarkably persistent and ubiquitous.

The job of teachers is to be vigilant, challenge boondoggles where they see them and not be seduced by any.

We must have a ‘quiet word’ with colleagues who have been boondoggled and call out repeat offenders in a louder voice, especially those who insist we only use 10% of our brains or think ability grouping is effective. We need to be armed with the evidence when it comes to deciding whether a strategy or idea is a boondoggle or best practice.

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