I do that already

Teaching is a complex act. Couple this to the fact that we often want to talk about teaching in decontextualized ways – for example so that teachers of different subjects may interact during professional development – and we have the common problem of being too general; too vague. And this really is a problem. Most of us tend to seek confirmatory evidence; we like the idea that we’re already doing the right thing and that there is no need to make an effort to change. This means that, when presented with a favourable but not explicit description of a practice, there is a tendency to say, “I do that already.”

Consider, perhaps, the notion of engagement. We all agree that it’s a good idea to engage our students in learning, right? However, to one teacher this may imply that students must be formulating their own questions or that activities must be relevant to the students’ lived experience. To another teacher, promoting engagement could mean directing questions at specific students during a session of explicit instruction. If we come together and agree that we are all in favour of engagement then, once we part, we may continue doing exactly whatever it was that we were doing in the first place. This is not necessarily a bad outcome; a diversity of approaches could be a good thing. But it is based on delusion rather than a weighing of the actual evidence.

One of my favourite education papers is a reflection by Greg Yates on his career researching teacher effectiveness and the reactions that he typically provokes when he presents teacher effectiveness findings. The paper is called, “How Obvious,” because this is what people tend to say. And yet the findings appear to be anything but obvious. In 2004, Yates sampled responses from 100 trainee teachers to an examination question that asked them to identify the traits of highly effective teachers; “Not a single student cited the effective teacher’s ability to articulate clearly, or to get students to maintain time engagement.” Moreover, Yates cites a study showing that teachers and student teachers both cited diametrically opposed statements as equally obvious.

To me, this signals the need to be as explicit as possible in education discussions. If we leave a little room for doubt then that room will quickly fill with preconceptions and qualifiers.

Will this direct approach win arguments? I don’t know. I recently wrote quite a direct piece for The Conversation, outlining the evidence as I see it for explicit instruction. Have a look through the comments; it is pretty clear that I am not going to convince Gary Bass. However, I did notice this blog post by an Australian teacher and, although he doesn’t agree with me, it seems that I have at least caused some reflection.

I wasn’t at researchED New York but I understand that Dan Willingham gave a talk about how to convince people. No doubt, this has been informed by the interactions that he has had following his well-publicised views on the lack of evidence for learning-styles theories. However, it has been reported that he suggests that some battles are not worth fighting. He also takes a perhaps tactical line in his new book about reading. Whilst arguing for what is pretty much a systematic synthetic phonics approach, he also suggests that there are good aspects to be harvested from whole language approaches to learning.

I worry about this. The concept of balance in the teaching of reading has become shorthand for the use of multiple cuing strategies that involve all of the whole-language approaches such as guessing from context – including pictures – and guessing from the place of a word in sentence. It is commonly suggested that these should be tried first before resorting to very limited phonics strategies such as looking at the first sound in a word. Indeed, parents are often advised not to engage in the phonics component at all. This is not a good way to teach reading if for no other reason than it provides extremely limited practice of phonics. Remember, phonics is the proven technique and not multiple cuing (see national inquiries from Australia, the UK and the US).

I will continue to try to be as clear and explicit as possible when making my arguments.

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6 Comments on “I do that already”

  1. […] Some of this is surprising, some dubious, but most is in danger of falling into the ‘How Obvious‘ camp. Before embracing or dismissing any of these principles do please read the report, then read Greg Ashman’s post, I do that already. […]

  2. chrismwparsons says:

    Could there be a more variable word than ‘engagement’…?! I think it now means more things than ‘stuff’. Apart from the reality that the same word can reflect different things in different settings, there is also the problem with how the meanings of terms naturally evolve in education as they become more mainstream and strategies grow-up around them.

    The ‘obvious’ thing is also interesting. I remember being struck reading de Bono’s book “I am right you are wrong” in the early 90’s about his assertion that things always seem obvious with ‘hindsight’, and we wonder why we didn’t just deduce what would happen in the first place… or indeed as you’re saying here, we assume it always was obvious and didn’t need saying. (I know people tend to get snooty about Edward de Bono now, but that book still is a hugely readable volume on the way that our brain uses logic.)

    This was brought home to me shortly after that time, when I was enthusing to a friend about Hofstadter’s book ‘Godel, Esher, Bach’, and she said that she’d read it, and found it “all rather obvious to be honest”… and I thought… yes, but only with hindsight!

  3. Tami Reis-Frankfort says:

    Reblogged this on Phonic Books and commented:
    “Remember, phonics is the proven technique and not multiple cuing (see national enquiries, in Australia, UK an d US” Thank you, ‘Filling the Pail’ for this clear statement.

  4. suecowley says:

    Re. your last paragraph, parents ‘teach’ their children to read for a number of years before the school based ‘teaching of reading’ begins. You can’t use phonics with a baby or very young child, because they don’t yet know the words or the letter symbols/sounds. However, you are still participating in a crucial part of the process of ‘teaching reading’, which is to teach book knowledge and book behaviours (which way up a book goes, reading from left to right in English, etc.) You are also teaching children to develop an emotional connection with reading – that it is an act of love/emotion between you and your child, and not just a technical act. You are also teaching vocabulary and phonological awareness. Parents will naturally use pictures and other clues and cues (such as rhyme and prediction) to help their children gain meaning. That is part of the reason why picture books have pictures, after all – to tell a story. This is not to negate how useful phonics is for beginning readers at school, but it does rather suggest that ‘whole language’ approaches are actually used instinctively by parents with young children.

    The children who struggle to pick up reading when they begin school (apart from those with specific SEN issues) tend to be those who have missed out on these critical early aspects of ‘learning to read’. Daniel Willingham’s book entitled “Raising kids who read” because it is about the process of parents “raising a lifelong reader”. Doing this is about more than just the teaching techniques that are used in school, whatever one might think about the right or wrong methods for teachers to use.

  5. […] Some of this is surprising, some dubious, but most is in danger of falling into the ‘How Obvious‘ camp. Before embracing or dismissing any of these principles do please read the report, then read Greg Ashman’s post, I do that already. […]


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