A Balanced Diet for Learning and Teaching

Are We Making Michelin Star Meals or a Dog’s Breakfast?

A Balanced Learning Diet, rich in Flavour Variety and Surprise

The recent @LearningSpy post about whether there is a ‘right way’ to teach, chimed with thoughts I’ve been having about all the endless false dichotomies that get thrown up in our search to be better teachers.

  •  Someone buzzing about ipads is knocked down by someone else who says they’re just a fad or a fancy notepad:  ipads good vs ipads bad
  • Someone sticking up for teach-from-the-front teacher expertise is derided as an old fogey who needs to get down with the kids
  • Formative assessment, or SOLO taxonomy or, student-led learning are labeled ‘progressive’ which is usually code for ‘rubbish’  when ‘traditional’ teaching has stood the test of time.
  • Project-Based-Learning or ‘skills-based’ learning are promoted as the antidote to dry old content-heavy subjects that are always in silos.
  • Proper subjects that provide real rigour are pitted against ‘hobby subjects’ that don’t.

The list goes on…. Endlessly.

This is akin to our obsession with the ‘right food’ where Chips are Wrong; Salad is Right.  Caffeine is Bad.. no,  Good… no, hang on, it’s Bad; All Fast Food is Bad;  we must eat Fish Oil Every Day;  Atkins Diet/Low GI  Diet/SeeFoodAndEatIt diet … Fresh food good; Processed food bad.  Five A Day…Eat Your Greens… You get the picture.  (In theory nutrition is based on proper science but if you’ve read Ben Goldacre’s fabulous ‘Bad Science’, you’ll know how rare this is – at least as far as public understanding goes.)

Of course we all know that what we need is a Balanced Diet.  Of course.. every thing in moderation; nothing to excess.  All the food groups – a dash of Riboflavin and you’re all set.  But why not take it a step further to cut out the risk of a deficiency: in theory you could create a gloop that would be dispensed from toothpaste tubes that contained all the nutrients we need to stay alive:  the ultimate balanced meal in a puree, ticking all the nutritionists’ boxes.   Imagine the supermarket shelves stacked only with this Ultimate Foodstuff… Restaurants would be …well, they’d be packed!  The perplexed food scientists left with their checklists, scratching their heads.  Why? Because we like our food to be authentic.  We want the nutrition to be a by-product of the experience of eating; nutrition isn’t our primary goal in making a meal.  We want taste, flavour, interest, surprise: eating is a process rich in emotional responses… our preferences are deliciously irrational and unpredictable.

So, what about brain food? What about learning?  It’s the same idea isn’t it?  The search for the Holy Grail of ultimate learning – the checklist of checklists…this is a search for the Gloop! Even if we could define the ingredients – if a science of learning could get anywhere near to an answer – it would be an unpalatable mess that no-one would recognise to dish it up all at once.

The commonsense answer is that we also need a balanced learning diet.  If we sat in lectures all day we’d get bored to death; if we sat in rows all day with our hands up, we’d suffer from some form of educational rickets and if we never received any formative feedback, our growth would be stunted for sure.  At the same time, if we had to do non-stop group work, always work on an ipad, co-construct the lessons or do PunkLearning, it would be like going to the Fat Duck for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner everyday.  Enough of that quail foam in a kohlrabi basket … we’d be gagging for some plain toast!

So, obviously enough, in our search for a healthy balanced learning diet, we need to look to create a subtle blend of authentic learning modes.  Learning that tastes good, and gives us that sense of satisfaction after a good meal.  What might the ingredients be?

  • Staples: learning from the teacher – direct instruction; formative feedback in some form;  learning from books; reading aloud; think-pair-share; asking questions; solving problems;
  • Variety: making videos or websites; teaching part of a lesson; making a model or a composition; acting out a role-play; experts and envoys; peer assessment; debates and discussions; designing your own experiment; pre-learning material from online video tutorials; using ‘ExplainEverything’ to produce a short presentation for the class.
  • Tastes: Having the option to respond in a variety of forms; or to choose the topic; or to work at a pace that suits; to create learning independently; to work collaboratively with a group of my choice; to learn through extended open-ended projects with opportunities for doing some things in depth over time.

The menu of options is endless – but overall, there has to be a balance for healthy learning.  The idea applies to an individual learner – their experience across time in the school day, week and certainly across the year.  It also applies to an individual teacher and teaching over time – the idea that you are contributing to your students’ balanced diet by not always doing the same activities or teaching in the same way. However,  it DOES NOT apply to any one lesson – God forbid!  This is gloop territory!

Let’s take it further.  Does each teacher necessarily have to provide a balance themselves? Or is it valid to accept balance being provided across the collective strengths of a group of teachers – each with their own Teacher flavours:  lessons with Mr A, because he explains things so well; lessons with Ms B because she tells us such great stories; lessons with Mr C because he lets us choose what we want to learn; lessons with Mrs D because she is so enthusiastic and interesting; lessons with Mr E because he really helps me with my writing; lessons with Ms F because she is no-nonsense and makes us work hard.

It doesn’t mean Teacher A can afford to be really dull and boring because Teacher B does loads of fun stuff…  but it does suggest that, in this context, every individual teacher could me more free to do their own thing rather than the same thing; each one with their own notion of ‘Outstanding’ – of providing something delicious and nutritious.  It is then the job of the collective  – or their leaders – to ensure that between them, they’re providing all the nutrients.  We need to be aspirational – we need to challenge those who are just dishing out match-day burgers and pot noodles – and there are exciting new recipes to try all the time.  We can always be better chefs…. but in the end what we want is a good solid diet of routine healthy nutritious meals, a few Michelin star feasts and even the occasional bucket of chicken and a bag of chips.

(I know, you can stretch these things too far….!)


  1. You are right about the dichotomies. Polarisation has been the bane of education throughout my career. There is merit in all methodologies, but there are also dangers of being too wedded to one. So I’d like to see a smorgasbord of opportunities, from which teachers can select the food most appropriate to the class needs. So I’d be more in favour of variety from each teacher rather than a diet provided by different preferences.

    My analogy is a teacher toolbox and select the right tools, but heigh ho, different strokes etc.

    Have a good day and thanks for the posts. I’m off to observe student teachers, hoping to see their developing insights into the job.


    • Hi Chris, thanks for the comment. I agree – everyone needs variety. But I’m increasingly convinced that we need to do more to celebrate multiple teaching styles….. including some more traditional methods. At my school, there is a massive range of forms of outstanding teaching…. no one approach inherently better than another. We’ve all got different toolboxes….. Yes!


      • Hi Tom, ‘Twas ever thus, really. Choosing the right methodology to progress learning. Sometimes there is a need to do straight teaching and valuing that for what it does for learning. Variety does ensure that learners keep on their toes, as too much of the same can lead to almost soporific or even negative states. Just listen to groans from a Primary class being told they are about to do Literacy.

        Interesting outcomes from recent student teacher observations. The common development areas are in the link between clarity of expection, generating differential tasking, engagement with ongoing learning (AfL) and clear focus on differential outcomes, the deeper skills of learning and teaching, common to all approaches.


  2. Refreshing to read, but not surprising in your blog Tom. Being flexible to use different approaches is a key skill as an educator. Sometimes particular skills suit a particular subject better and that becomes part of a daily / weekly diet. Keep posting insights, the’re appreciated.


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