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.