Independent Thinking Press
2 Oct 2020
Reviewer Terry Freedman is underwhelmed by a book with lofy ambitions that delivers little more than a compendium of interesting lesson ideas
The subtitle of this book indicates the scale of its ambition: “Metacognition and mindset – equipping the modern learner with the thinking, social and self-regulation skills to succeed at school and in life”.
A shorter description might be: to give the learner the skills and the confidence to succeed.
The author lists several skills identified by the World Economic Forum as being crucial for success now and in the future. These include critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility. Resilience, growth mindset and metacognition also come within the book’s ambit.
It’s not very far into the book that readers are encouraged to “identify how the skills are woven into the rest of the curriculum and explore how they can be featured […] in everyday lessons”. At this early juncture in proceedings, my inner cynic reared his head.
As far as I am aware, every cross-curricular initiative, at least in secondary education, has failed: ICT, maths, English, economic literacy… they all wind up with non-specialist teachers attempting to teach those subjects or skills. It is, at the risk of understatement, a big ask.
But then, in many ways, so is the book. Given the current situation, resilience and creativity in particular may be desperately needed, but managing to get through the curriculum without falling too far behind is already major success. How far will teachers be able and willing to attempt to put Beere’s ideas into practice in this context?
Some of the ideas suggested in these pages could land teachers in difficult situations
For that reason, the book works better as a compendium of ideas and techniques than as set lessons. That’s a pity because many of the lesson plans are quite interesting. It isn’t that the suggested face-to-face activities are not doable online – they are – but time and teachers’ own resilience and creativity are already stretched to breaking point.
An appealing aspect of the book is that it presents theories in bite-sized portions and shows how they can be applied or demonstrated in the context of a practical activity. Suggestions are based on both academic research and, to some extent, business practice, and they are great in theory. The Five Whys approach and 8-Way Thinking would probably work for any subject, and I would have no hesitation in incorporating them into the occasional lesson.
Yet on the whole they seem to hark back to a kind of teaching the profession has increasingly moved away from: 8-Way Thinking is nothing more than “multiple intelligences” rebadged, and in many instances Beere’s “thumbnail sketches” do little justice to complex theories and practices.
Growth mindset makes an appearance. The theory’s originator, Carol Dweck has said on many occasions that it has not been properly understood by many people, especially in education – yet Beere covers it in just three pages. Mindfulness – that old chestnut – is another case in point. An ancient discipline taught by trained instructors is here polished off in a couple of paragraphs.
Which raises another problem. Some of the ideas suggested in these pages could land teachers in difficult situations. One exercise involves having students compliment each other and make eye contact while doing so. If a student finds it too emotionally overwhelming, would the average teacher be confident in dealing with the repercussions?
One notable divergence from previous incarnations of this kind of tome of progressive education is its incorporation of cognitive load theory ̶ the idea that we have limited working memory and teachers should be careful not to overload their students. Beere’s suggestions for improving students’ memory are quite good, but one is left wondering whether the effect of many of the other classroom activities isn’t precisely that – overloading working memory.
On the whole, the book works quite well as a repository of ideas for an individual teacher or department looking to spice up the odd lesson. But to implement the ideas and the underlying philosophy of teaching that underpin them requires a whole-school approach, the time to make mistakes and a safe environment to pick up the pieces. It’s an unlikely context for the foreseeable future and, in many ways, it feels like education has moved on for good.