Not all mutations are lethal

There has been some excellent discourse around improvement and development in teaching recently. Whether at the level of CPD, with teachers improving their own practice or at a wider, whole-school level, there is much fertile discussion. There has been a proliferation of blogposts, articles and Twitter conversations all considering the best way to go about such improvements, and it feels like there is real appetite for change. Not in the ‘quick-fix-let’s-all-do-something-new-now!’ sense but in our expectations around how we should approach change and, in particular, the need for a much more careful, measured and long-term approach. Pete Foster’s excellent blogpost here describes the issues around schools looking for solutions before they’ve actually identified what the problems are, and there have been some great discussions around the benefits and dangers of simply adopting what other, successful teachers or schools are doing. Pete also discusses the issue of mimetic isomorphism – where schools start to mirror one another because everyone assumes they ought to be doing the same as everyone else, regardless of whether or not it is right for their own particular context. However, as Jonathan Mountstevens argues thoughtfully here, individual context should not be seen as an automatic shield or defence against the implementation of a new idea, rather a lens through which we should carefully consider how it might be implemented. If improving schools, and/or teachers, is your thing then there’s an awful lot to think about!

Amongst all of this, a common theme that pops up time and time again is a warning against the dangers of the lethal mutation (and I include my own writing here too). Nick Rose, writing for the The Ambition Institute describes the idea here:

“Good ideas – even when they are well-rooted in evidence-based research – can be implemented in ways which render them no longer effective, or even counter-productive; becoming examples of what Dylan Wiliam (2011) and others have dubbed ‘lethal mutations’.”

Unfortunately lethal mutation appears to have become something of a catchphrase to throw into any argument when an idea in teaching is being discussed. It’s lost its power as an argument because it’s just over-used. You could say it has mutated somewhat…

Dual coding, instructional coaching, knowledge organisers – all of these have real potential to benefit our students if used well, but all can easily be subject to lethal mutation. Adoption of knowledge organisers by simply scouring the internet for pre-made examples which haven’t been designed with some deep consideration of what exactly it is you want your students to learn. Creating curriculum roadmaps using aesthetically pleasing graphics without having the accompanying meaningful conversations about the learning journey we want students to undertake. Yes, in these examples, the surface features have trumped the underlying purpose and so they’re less likely to help students very much. And they can definitely generate unnecessary workload if they become an expectation or even a non-negotiable. But, to me at least, lethal mutation also seems to have become an unassailable argument, whereby experts in one particular area appear to presume that only they have the necessary knowledge and skill to ensure that these ideas are implemented successfully without falling prey to lethal mutation. They urge caution, yet the subtext of these messages is actually much more like “Don’t do this. You won’t do it properly.” 

Let’s be clear, none of these mutations are actually lethal. It seems banal to point this out, but very rarely does anyone die because a teacher made a mistake, and I doubt ever because their pedagogy was a bit off. Sure, some of these mutations might not benefit students, and yes there’s potential for teachers to adopt practices which might actually result in worse learning, but no-one’s dying. There are so many factors that contribute to student outcomes that the blame for a set of poor exam results can hardly be laid at the door of some cack-handedly constructed knowledge organisers. And it’s not like teachers are trying to get it wrong. No-one sets out to implement a new idea thinking “Well I’ll just change that bit and ignore that bit so it won’t work properly.” So maybe we can scale back the rhetoric a touch? 

What if, in reality, you have time-poor teachers hearing about good ideas and trying to implement them in the best way they can. Maybe they make some mistakes, maybe they rush to share this with colleagues too soon, and maybe some students don’t make the learning gains they could have if implementation was better. What does the teacher do? Hopefully they reflect, read more widely, seek advice, go back to the evidence and try again, this time a little wiser. They are essentially following Kolb’s experiential learning cycle:

As a concrete example, I consider my own journey with dual coding and graphic organisers. I was first introduced to the concepts by attending presentations from Oliver Caviglioni at a conference (abstract conceptualisation). Suitably impressed with what I saw (I can *still* remember much of my Corsica factfile!) I set about trying to implement this in my own teaching (active experimentation). I’d like to think my process showed reasonable fidelity to what Oliver demonstrated in the way he implemented a particular mind mapping technique, providing multiple opportunities for rehearsal, and adding in some questioning and checking for understanding for good measure (concrete experience). But, like so many others who shared their efforts on Twitter, I was overly swayed by the aesthetics and got too bogged down in the graphics, crowding my slides with what I thought were helpful images and icons, not considering carefully enough how much they were supporting learning (reflective observation). I’ve since revisited these ideas, reading more widely and following various discussions around implementation. As a result I’ve refined my approach – see an example here from a Psychology lesson:

Version 1:

Version 2:

Note: in both instances information was presented in small chunks using simple animation.

To me, it’s easy with hindsight to see how my first attempt was clumsy and probably less clear for students than the later version (you may disagree!). But here’s the thing. Compared to how I used to teach this topic before, I’m still reasonably confident that my students benefited from this approach. We never got the proper litmus test of public exams, but the first cohort to experience this way of teaching seemed to know, understand and be able to retrieve the information better than those that I’d taught before, even allowing for variation in prior attainment. Other factors might well have been in play – this wasn’t a randomised trial with high levels of control – but I certainly don’t think my initial attempts at dual coding were total failures. This ‘mutation’ was in no way lethal.

Active experimentation and reflective observation are critical to this process, we need to try things out and see if they work. And yet they are unlikely to happen in an environment in which it doesn’t feel safe to take risks. If a teacher shares something about how they’ve implemented a new idea and is criticised because they didn’t do it properly, then they’re unlikely to necessarily give it another go. When we try to guard against lethal mutation we should be cautious not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

There’s another line of argument to consider here too. For all our excitement about an evidence-informed approach to education, we don’t have anything close to the answers yet. We talk about ‘best bets’ rather than dead certs. Education research has given us some good pointers about the sorts of things that are most likely to work, the likely ‘active ingredients’ of good quality teaching, but this is not yet an exact science. So while we might want to maintain fidelity to the way a particular idea has been implemented, there is not necessarily a definitive, correct method. So what are we mutating from? The ongoing experimentation, reflection etc that teachers are doing might lead to a slightly better way. Or a way that works better in their context for their students. 

Zoe Enser has written an excellent piece here about lethal mutations (in relation to De Bono’s Thinking Hats) and puts forward the argument that we need to focus on the underlying purpose of a new idea or initiative rather than the surface features. Cautious adoption, with a critical eye and some healthy reflection is what is needed. And if we do that, we might find some non-lethal mutations, perhaps even some beneficial ones.

3 thoughts on “Not all mutations are lethal

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