What if everything you knew about personal training was incorrectimundo?

As for new horizons, I’m continuing my personal fitness journey. I’m changing my name to E-Shred and flogging protein powders over the internet. For teachers, of course. Oliver Caviglioli’s doing the graphics.[1]  ‘Input: protein powders. Output: tensile strength + six pack. Moderating influence: sitting on the sofa watching Married at First Sight Australia’. There’s my Hypertrophy Mindset range. Assessment for Lifting. But newbies after those elusive ‘Kill-a-Man’-Jaro biceps will have to fork out extra for Closing the Curling Gap. The best flavour? Marshmallow. Just shake and wait fifteen minutes.

Before leaving the profession, however, I have to review a book very close to my heart: What if everything you knew about education was wrong? So many fond memories. Being put on a support plan for not doing group work. Telling the head of the Willenhall SCITT to look at this rabbit – ‘see, it’s actually a duck. So maybe you were wrong about giving me a QTS.’ But mostly, the assurance of having this 409-page permission slip for sacking off cumbersome educational gimmickry. Cheers, David!

We’ll start at page 162. ‘I get very excited about the idea of troublesome knowledge,’ he says. ‘Far from being something we should be alarmed about, Land suggests that knowledge should be troublesome and that teachers should be troublemakers.’ It’s why I became the Bad Boy of the Humanities. I wanted my kids to struggle with threshold concepts. Desirable difficulties. All that good stuff. I even stopped wearing a tie.[2] On a serious note, it was refreshing to hear this sort of narrative. Before, Wendy from ITT had smiled broadly at me and observed that it was so simple: ‘you were talking too much,’ she said, half an hour into lecturing me. Meanwhile, that evening at Leamington School, I would spend a CPD session modelling the school disability policy out of playdough. A man in a wheelchair, a staircase, and a red X over the latter. To this day, I still remember the Leamington School policy of not unnecessarily proliferating staircases.

But when I opened that purple book for the first time, I discovered quite a lot of troublesome knowledge. ‘Who is this guy?’ I thought: ‘Instead of trying to shut teachers up, maybe we should be training them in improving the quality of their talk.’[3] He’d better hope he never runs into Wendy or he’ll be requiring some serious ‘support’, quite possibly in the form of a neck brace. In spite of the heresy, the book was very enjoyable. ‘I was led to believe that unless a lesson contained an element of groupwork it could not be a good lesson,’ he relates.[4] He then notes that some French tractor bloke had observed the phenomenon of ‘social loafing’ as early as 1913.[5] I myself had arrived at this conclusion independently, having studiously taken note of it in my CPD sessions. As a social experiment, I would sit and say nothing at all. Trainees from other schools would look to my colleagues as if to say, ‘is he OK?’, my head lolling rhythmically to the succession of Dylan Wiliam videos. My eyes would flutter open and shut, drool beading at the corners of my mouth. Somebody would then say something and I would rally, smiling at inopportune moments like Gordon Brown at a press junket. Upon leaving, I would take out my diary and scribble the results. ‘Social loafing – it definitely works! Follow-up: try again next week.’

In the meantime, I was also becoming an educational scholar, or as we’re known in ITT circles: pedagogues. ‘OK,’ said the PGCE tutor. ‘Alright, well, erm, let’s just think about this – er – what do you think, Sam?’ I explained to him that differentiation didn’t exist. ‘It’s in David Didau,’ I said, clutching my Kindle. ‘OooOooh,’ he said, billowing like an anemone in warm waters. ‘Let’s tease that out, shall we?’ He loved teasing things out. If seminar tutoring ever fell through, I suppose he could always work down on the limpet farm, stroking the little conical shells and coaxing all manner of gastropods. If he hadn’t been such an expert teaser-outer, I might have thought he wasn’t planning these sessions at all. Nevertheless, I discovered loads. As when he taught us how to conduct field trips by telling us to go on a field trip. We walked around Birmingham for five hours. If I ever conduct fieldwork in Birmingham, I’ll be well-equipped to avoid eye contact with chuggers. The best strategy is the ‘oh look, a penny’ – direct your gaze at the gutter and walk off at an angle. The chugger will think, ‘Hmm, must’ve dropped a penny,’ and leave you alone.[6]

Then there is the discussion of learning versus performance. The brain is a finicky and particular organ. As Didau notes, ‘there are instances where learning occurs but performance in the short term doesn’t improve.’[7] Later on, he applies this understanding to feedback, using his satnav as an example: an overabundance of feedback… with very little learning in the process. The problem seems to be that where there is too much feedback or guidance, there is no longer the demand to retain that information, and the brain drops it. As Ashman says in his latest on Direct Instruction, ‘by carefully measuring out small doses of new information to be attended to, and by testing this for its usefulness, perhaps through how often we are required to retrieve it, our minds ensure that we build schemas of the greatest possible utility.’[8] The notion of pupils struggling in lessons, therefore, but not to the extent that working memory is overloaded,[9] is what we might look to observe.

My favourite parts of the book are where Didau lapses into technical language. ‘Two stars and a wish,’ he calls ‘buffoonery’.[10] As for generic praise – ‘meaningless twaddle’.[11] I mean, he’s not wrong, is he? But there’s an aversion in education to simply saying these things. If you’re not sat in CPD like a bobblehead on Colin McRae’s dashboard, you swiftly become a persona non grata. Throughout ITT it was a running joke that, ‘Sam doesn’t believe in differentiation.’ But then in the run-up to the Reffo, I bet the peasants down the tavern thought Wulfric a right lark for his views on transubstantiation. ‘Thinks it’s just bread, doesn’t he?’ ‘Haha, what a plonker!’ [12]

So, what lessons am I going to take from this book into the world of personal training? Firstly, I shan’t be praising anybody. That’s non-negotiable. Instead, I’m going to use tactical grumpiness to signal my high expectations.[13] ‘It’s leg day, baby; welcome to the Hurt Locker.’ I’m also going to reduce the level of feedback. When my client asks me how he did on the battle ropes, I’ll simply shrug and walk away. Journey is the reward, my lil brudda – if you gotta ask, you’ll never know. Finally, I will always remember to be troublesome. This includes turning up late and leaving the dumbbells everywhere.

[1] For legal reasons, I should note that there is no factual basis to this claim whatsoever.

[2] At least until I got into an argument about this and was ordered to wear it again. Over email, of course. Pshh, keyboard warriors.

[3] David Didau, What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? (Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing, 2015), p. 79

[4] Didau, What If, p. 75

[5] Didau, What If, p. 75

[6] If you want to give to charity, that’s fine. Didau doesn’t cover this in the book so I’m going off-piste. I’d suggest that if you really wanted to give to charity, you’d do so at home or over the internet, rather than being strong-armed into it on a Birmingham high street. If they have one of those buckets like they did back in the 1990s, I’d recommend giving some change, but please don’t give card details to strangers. The spiral coin depositories they have in the supermarkets are also well worth a punt.

[7] Didau, What If, p. 154

[8] Ashman, The Power of Explicit Teaching and Direct Instruction (Corwin, London: 2021), p. 56

[9] Daisy Christodoulou, Seven Myths About Education (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2014), p. 19: solving problems ‘involves you holding far too many pieces of new information in your memory at once.’ Although Ashman, citing Kalyuga et al. (2003), does note that this effect will reverse as students become more knowledgeable since, ‘Experts learn more from solving problems than studying worked examples’ – Direct Instruction

[10] Didau, What If, p. 331

[11] Didau, What If, p. 332

[12] For more proof of medieval credulity: Apparently, one scholar believed Jesus’s foreskin ‘had ascended into heaven at the same time as Jesus, and had become the rings of Saturn.’ Available at: The Holy Foreskin (800 CE) (hoaxes.org)

[13] Didau and Rose, What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology, p. 129.

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