The mediocrity principle

The mediocrity principle is a philosophical notion claiming that since life originated on Earth, it is quite possible that the same could happen – or already has happened – elsewhere in the universe. It has been taken to suggest as well that it doesn’t make sense to assume that you (or we) are particularly special, and that the universe doesn’t revolve around us. In other words, there is no reason to assume that our understanding of our immediate environment can be used to explain other environments.

This relates to teaching and particularly to “what works” teaching strategies. Just because something works in your classroom (or we think it works) for a particular set of pupils doesn’t mean it will work at another school – with another set of students. It doesn’t even mean it will work with another group of pupils a year from now. “What works” – is a fallacy. It doesn’t take into account the human complexity, their motivations, hopes, dreams and aspirations. “What works” is also, plain and simple – labelling people.

What works for #eal children, for instance? Well, it’s several things, really. It’s collaborative learning, it’s key visuals, it’s images, it’s DARTs (directed activities related to text), it’s barrier games, it’s modelling, it’s talk-to-writing approach, it’s lesson planning according to Gibbons’s Mode Continuum approach, it’s using metalanguage, it’s appropriate language-oriented questioning skills, it’s understanding the linkages between Bloom’s Taxonomy and Cummins’s BICS/CALP theory and using them in practice, it’s barrier games, it’s substitution tables, it’s highlighting, it’s colour-coding, it’s using Glogster, it’s storyboards, it’s teaching spelling or phonics in context… it’s all of those things.

I will challenge anyone who claims that one (or a set of three) or one particular scheme “works”. It doesn’t. Collaborative learning works, yes, but the next lesson you try something else. You expose children to different ways of thinking – about the language and the content of the lessons, and give them opportunities to work through different and varying tasks. We need to look at the children and – precisely that – differentiate.

Teachers often look for “strategies for EAL”. I’ve often been under the pressure to deliver a strategy-based whole-school training (several different schools). Trouble is, what’s the point of having one or two strategies when you don’t understand the underlying issues? How do you know which one to choose for which child if you don’t understand how first language acquisition differs from second language acquisition? How do you know why you use graphic organisers or collaborative learning without this basic background knowledge? I urge schools to think of starting with the background knowledge first – the strategies (you can then devise your own) will follow quite naturally.

And apply the mediocrity principle. Yes, a barrier game worked for this lesson. Doesn’t mean it will always work – it might not even work tomorrow. What works for you today won’t necessarily work for another teacher. One strategy for all EAL learners and all teachers? Seriously?


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