The Bananarama principle

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The Bananarama Principle is named after a Bananarama and Fun Boy Three 1982 hit single. The chorus states, ‘It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it’ – and it’s essential advice for teachers acting on research findings.

The principle lies at the heart of our book, What Works? – Research and Evidence for Successful Teaching. The book builds on the Sutton Trust and Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit – an accessible guide detailing best bets for improving children’s results that we developed several years ago.

‘What works?’ is a deceptively simple question. The book summarises over 8,000 studies, but research can only tell us what’s worked in the past, not what will work in the future. Indeed, it can only offer indications of what may work under certain conditions.

Implementation and content

The Bananarama Principle applies to most classroom practice. It underscores the power, but also the limitations of evidence in helping a teacher decide what to do. How an approach is implemented is vital, and just as important as its content.

Feedback in the classroom, for example, delivered well yields high learning gains on average. Yet studies show that some feedback can harm learning. The average suggests that it’s a good bet for teachers, but the variation in results raises the risk of making things worse for your pupils. The timing of the information given and received between teacher and pupil is crucial. Too early, and you risk prompting the learner unnecessarily. Too late, and the moment has passed. Too often, feedback tends to be classroom-wide and not accurate enough for individual pupils. Marking, meanwhile, is only worth doing if it moves learning on.

TAs, on average, add little to pupil achievement. But TAs that are properly managed, prepared, trained and working alongside teachers have significant impact on children. Those without support, and allocated pupils with severe learning needs, will struggle. In other words, it isn’t deploying TA or not that matters most, but how they are deployed.

Studies have found that the benefits of reducing class sizes are not clear until the class size is reduced to under 20, or even below 15 pupils per teacher. Smaller classes work when teachers change the way they teach, catering to pupils’ individual needs. It’s not reducing class size that matters, but how you adapt teaching style with fewer pupils.

Trust and challenge

The topic of grouping children by ‘ability’ never fails to split opinion, but the quality of teaching trumps how children are organised. Delivered poorly, neither mixed ability classes or sets work; delivered well, both can be effective.

Getting it right applies to homework as well. It’s a risky teaching strategy at the best of times, with no qualified teacher present when children are studying. Some homework is better than none, but too much turns children off learning. The research suggests no more than two hours of study an evening for older pupils. Just as critically, the Principle relates to all the activities schools now do to get children prepared for learning – from free breakfasts, to extra exercise and social support. With limited time and resources, efforts must be focused on those strategies most likely to work.

The overarching message from the book confirms that classroom interaction between teacher and pupil is key for learning. But there’s a catch – the closer you get to classroom interaction, the more the Principle applies. It’s how you do it that counts.

Leaders create an environment that fosters an open-minded and sceptical mindset towards evidence about what has worked, and just as important, what hasn’t. The evidence couldn’t be clearer. In teaching, we underestimate the time needed for preparation, implementation and reflection.

Just remember, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it…”

About the author

Lee Elliot Major is professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter; What Works? Research and Evidence for Successful Teaching by Lee Elliot Major and Steve Higgins us available now, published by Bloomsbury Education. TS readers can enter the code ‘works30’ for a 30% discount across all formats of the book – see works for more details.