A guide for new teachers

In Australia we have pre-service teachers who become graduate teachers when they first start work. In the UK, I trained as a beginning teacher and became a newly qualified teacher or NQT for my first year of actual teaching. Whatever you’re called – and however you got there – starting out in teaching is pretty tough. I am sure that your professors and mentors have done an excellent job in preparing you in the time they have available. However, when I started teaching there were still a few issues that I didn’t know enough about. You might be the same.

Classroom Management

I’m not sure that anyone ever explicitly makes this case but it has certainly been implied to me a number of times that classroom management can be assured by planning engaging lessons. I don’t agree with this. There is also a respected tradition within education that is suspicious of authority and of adults imposing their will on children. I think this is healthy in preventing a return to the cruel, unusual punishments and abuses of the past.

However, I wonder whether this tradition sometimes makes us a little squeamish about discussing behaviour. Perhaps our wish to manage behaviour might be seen as manipulative and controlling; stifling of creativity? I don’t know. Although a great topic for a seminar room, in practice teachers do need techniques for managing the behaviour of the students they teach.

If you are a little worried about this idea then I suggest you ask your students. Most students, if given the opportunity to reflect honestly, will admit to liking well-controlled classrooms. The absence of teacher authority does not lead to peace, love and understanding; it leads to a chaotic competition for attention and it distracts from learning. In my opinion, good teachers are not harsh, unpleasant and sarcastic; they are genuine and friendly. And they set and maintain clear boundaries and expectations.

The good news is that the ability to manage a classroom is not an innate gift that some teachers just have whilst others do not. It might look that way when you observe an experienced professional in full swing in the middle of term. However, you will have missed all of the interactions that have led to this point. The right ways to manage such interactions are largely known and can be learnt.

I would advise you to buy this book by Marzano, Marzano and Pickering if funds allow. It is a great, useable summary of the research. You might also wish to read this piece that I wrote for the TES which draws on Marzano’s research and gives some practical tips. Alternatively, you could get hold of a copy of this pocketbook which I have used to support training sessions in the past. Tom Bennett has also written extensively from a practitioner’s perspective both for the TES and in this book.

Unfortunately, there is little that you can do in a situation where you are not supported by your school. You should therefore try to establish a school’s approach to classroom management before your take up a position.

The value of knowing lots of stuff

There is a bit of a trend in the education world to downplay the value of knowledge of the world. Some claim that students don’t need to know much factual information these days because they can look it up on the internet. For instance, one Twitter meme contains a quote from Eric Jensen that says, “Strong teachers don’t teach content; Google has content. Strong teaching connects learning in ways that inspire kids to learn more and strive for greatness.”

That sounds really nice but, to my understanding, this underplays the role of knowledge in how we think. You can see my argument here. Basically, knowledge is what you think with and you can’t think with stuff that’s sitting on the internet.

Both Daisy Christodoulou and Dan Willingham have written excellent books that tackle this matter in different ways. I highly recommend them.

However, this is where I get to plug possibly my favourite free resource. AFT is an American teaching union and it provides a public service by making all of the articles in its American Educator magazine available online. To my mind, these hit the sweet-spot of being both readable and properly referenced. AE is not a peer-reviewed journal but many of the articles come from contributors who regularly publish journal articles. Some pieces are tasters of education books. For instance, if you want an idea of Daisy’s book then you can read this article. For Dan’s, see this piece.

A broad but not deep knowledge of the world is also essential to reading comprehension. Again, American Educator can help us here with an article by E D Hirsch Jr that explains why. You might also want to read Hirsch’s 2006 book on the same subject. For balance, it’s worth turning to Grant Wiggins who has criticised Hirsch’s position (most recently here). Wiggins places far more emphasis on the acquisition of reading comprehension strategies than on knowledge. Willingham discusses that idea here.

My understanding is that Lisa Hansel played a significant role in making AE what it has become. For this, I am most grateful. She now works for the Core Knowledge Foundation and you can follow her on Twitter (@LisaHansel).

Explicit Instruction

I left training with a number of misconceptions about pedagogy. In particular, I did not know about the research on the effectiveness of explicit instruction. I have discussed it at some length on this blog and so I’ll only summarise it here.

Firstly, effective explicit instruction is not lecturing. It is highly interactive with the teacher constantly throwing questions to the students during any period of exposition. This has implications for how you organise your classroom. For instance, it’s not effective to have students shouting-out the answers to questions or only ever selecting responses from volunteers. This means that other students can tune-out.

Explicit instruction also includes independent practice at using the knowledge that has been transmitted from the teacher to the students. The key feature is that ideas, concepts, problem-solving strategies etc. are fully explained in advance of the students having a go.

The researcher Richard Mayer has identified something that he calls the ‘constructivist teaching fallacy’ that militates against effective explicit instruction. This is where teachers assume that the need for students to actively think about new ideas and concepts means that they have to actively do something like participate in group work or solve problems. This conflation of behavioural activity with mental activity means that those who hold this view think that explicit instruction is too ‘passive’.

There are further fallacies that are described well by Gregory Yates of the University of South Australia. Some commentators suggest that explicit instruction is good for imparting rote knowledge but that other forms of instruction are better for developing higher order objectives. This idea has a truthy ring to it but it doesn’t seem to be supported by the evidence. It also has the effect of making explicit instruction seem like a lesser kind of instruction.

Finally, there is the notion that concepts cannot really be communicated from one person to another; we only learn from direct experience. This means that teachers trying to ‘transmit’ ideas are wasting their time because students can’t possibly understand them. Instead, students need to be conducting an experiment or placing post-it notes on butchers’ paper or discussing their ideas with peers. Although these may all represent valid teaching strategies, the idea that concepts cannot be effectively communicated is falsified by everyday life. If it were true then what are all the books for? Why am I writing this?

Concept transmission devices

Concept transmission devices

Yates goes further, “…it is possible to suggest that information communicated via direct social and verbal transmission can be more durable, more available, and more resilient than knowledge uncovered and constructed through an individual’s onerous inductive processing.”

I have peppered the above with links to support the argument that I am making. However, a good starting point for explicit instruction would be to read two articles that are again from American Educator (here and here). The first of these is based upon an academic paper that sparked responses from other researchers, a conference and then a book on the subject, “Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure.” This is a great book that I highly recommend. However, it is written with professional researchers in mind. I know of no books on this issue for the general reader although I do hope to publish one!

What I missed

I didn’t write about learning styles because I hope that you are already aware that they don’t really exist. I should probably have added a discussion of phonics but that would have taken a post of its own. Maybe next time. There are also loads of great books and resources that I didn’t list because they weren’t the first that came to mind when expanding on my chosen themes. Please feel free to add questions or list good resources in the comments below.

And best of luck with it all.


4 thoughts on “A guide for new teachers

  1. David says:

    Hi Greg, Great post and resources! One article I highly recommend is Paul Kirschner and JG van Merrienboer, “Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education,” Educational Psychologist, 48:3. pp. 169-183 http://ocw.metu.edu.tr/pluginfile.php/3298/course/section/1174/Do%20Learners%20Really%20Know%20Best.pdf

    This takes apart the digital native, learning styles and internet-based constructivism. The digital native part is actually quite important for new teachers, as it demonstrates how a concept unsupported by any evidence can find its way from an educational consultant into the news media and then into “research”.

    This perhaps highlights the importance of Willingham’s “A Draft Bill of Research Rights for Educators” http://www.realcleareducation.com/articles/2014/07/10/a_draft_bill_of_rights_for_educators.html

  2. Pingback: OTR Links 03/23/2015 | doug — off the record

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