In my first post on this topic I noted that Australia’s education system was a federal system and I suggested that this might be relevant to the UK as it adopts a more federal approach. However, I must make it clear that the idea that education in Australia is completely decentralised is far from correct.
The City Surf School was part of a chain of surf schools that operated up and down the coast. Recently, head office had taken note of the low completion and proficiency rates at the City Surf School and had received a few complaints from customers. They decided to send Jane to discuss the situation with the school’s instructors. A meeting was convened.
“So,” asked Jane, “what are your thoughts on the low proficiency rates?”
There was a pause. The room was tense. The assorted instructors looked stoney-faced. Eventually, Julius spoke, “That’s actually quite a narrow measure…”
Taking heart, the other instructors started to nod. “Just because something can be measured,” continued Julius, “it doesn’t mean it’s the most important thing.”
“OK,” said Jane, “but – setting that aside for a minute – why do you think the proficiency rates are low?”
Marie took up the thread. “Well, being close to the city, we get a lot of people who don’t really engage much in sport. They’re not particularly well-coordinated. They have no real sporting – let alone water-sports – background. I think that makes us a little bit different.”
“So how do you teach them to surf?” asked Jane.
Marie warmed to the theme, “The most important thing,” she explained, “is to engage our beginning surfers in what real surfers do. We take them out into the waves and we explain the strategies used by world champions. We ensure that they have the right mindset with which to approach the challenge.”
“Hmmm,” said Jane, “do you practice on the sand first?”
Julius looked incredulous, “Sand-surfing!” he spat. “That’s not real surfing. We want to give our beginning surfers an authentic surfing experience not a contrived and artificial one. We don’t want to reduce surfing to a mechanistic set of procedures to be rote memorised. We want our beginning surfers to truly understand surfing in the way that real surfers do.”
“But isn’t practising on the sand an effective strategy?” Queried Jane.
“You’ve never taught surfing, have you?” Suggested Brian who, up until this point, had been staring out of the window.
“No,” said Jane, “But I understand that’s what our more successful schools do.”
“Really?” Said Marie.
“Yes,” Reiterated Jane. “I understand it’s an effective teaching method.”
There was a pause.
Marie looked sceptical, “You see,” explained Marie, “I’m just not sure that there really is such a thing as a teaching method – well not in the way you suggest – not one that can be simply transplanted from one context to another. Teaching surfing is a complex process and it involves human beings. Yes, you may think you know what a method is and what it looks like, but if you transplant it to a new context with new relationships between people then how can it possibly be the same? We teach from a different beach than any other school. We have different beginning surfers. Skilled instructors mediate countless unplanned interactions between themselves and their students. You cannot possibly capture all of this in some sort of reductive, universal concept of a ‘teaching method’. It lacks an understanding of how social interactions mediate cause-and-effect relationships. Frankly, it’s a positivist approach.” She spoke this last sentence with a sense of triumph.
“But isn’t ‘sand-surfing’ worth a try; particularly if your students are struggling?” Asked Jane, “More people might learn to surf?”
“As Julius explained,” said Marie, “This is a narrow view of what we do here.”
“Quite.” Agreed Brian.
“Surfing is about much more than rote memorising handed-down procedures,” explained Julius. “We need to build beginning surfers’ self-concept as surfers. We need to enable their creativity. How can we develop their critical thinking skills if we are just barking orders at them on the beach; orders that they are expected to mindlessly follow? We need to involve them in real, authentic expressions of surfing that are relevant to their lived experiences in order to foster their engagement.”
Jane frowned, “But won’t they become disengaged if they don’t actually learn to surf?”
“Do you know how many types of water-sports there are?” Asked Marie. “There are literally billions. There is no way we could ever hope to teach our beginning surfers how to compete at a professional level in all of the water-sports that they may come across in the future. It’s a fool’s errand. It is far better to equip them with the skills and dispositions to be able to learn any water-sport, should the need arise. We need to foster the skill of learning how to learn. We need to encourage resilience so that our students will persist in the face of difficulty.”
“I have a motivational poster.” Added Brian.
Jane turned to Marie, “But you’re not doing that, are you?”
“Doing what? What do you mean?” asked Marie.
“You’re not teaching them how to learn any water-sport, should the need arise. And you’re not teaching them how to surf.”
This post was partly inspired by a conversation with @Smithre5
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.
Margot Kelly is a Sydney journalist with an interest in the issue of young women’s engagement in science. She tweeted earlier today about the fact that she dropped science at fifteen and now thinks that she was wrong. She has also put together a radio report on the issue. As a father of two young girls, I am also concerned. I want my daughters to see the beauty and wonder of science, whether they ultimately decide to make a career in it or not. I worry that they might not give it a fair go.
I have mentioned Margot’s radio report before. It is quite unsurprising that inquiry learning was offered by some of the contributors as a solution. This is a popular idea. Panelists on the BBC radio show “The Infinite Monkey Cage” gave much the same verdict (discussion starts at about 30 minutes). Yet this has been the solution of choice for quite some time now and it doesn’t seem to have fixed anything.
The logic of the argument appears sound: Professional scientists run experiments and stuff like that and so we should give students this authentic experience. We should quit with all the fact learning and teacher-talk and set our students free to run their own investigations.
The problem is that this offers something of a false prospectus. Like the folks who decided to limit the number of mathematical questions on the New South Wales physics exam, we are trying to sell science by making it something that it is not. School science is not really about open-ended investigation; it is about coming to terms with the world in a new way and realising that your intuition is often wrong. Students of science need to unlearn many well-known misconceptions and they need a language for talking about science. Inquiry doesn’t deliver this.
I can state this quite confidently due to the research evidence. In this study, students who sat the PISA science test were asked about their science lessons. Those who reported more inquiry-based learning reported above-average levels of interest in science. So this is strong evidence in favour of using inquiry to engage students. However, they also demonstrated below average levels of scientific literacy. And by this, I don’t mean the recall of factual information, something that inquiry learning advocates might be happy to give away. PISA assesses scientific literacy by asking questions like this one. They are exactly the sorts of real-life, contextualised reasoning problems that inquiry learning is supposed to be good for.
A study using the international TIMSS assessment found a remarkably similar result.
It’s not hard to understand. To reason well about science you need to know an awful lot of science and so methods that directly teach this knowledge are going to be superior. Trying to engage students in science by teaching through inquiry is a little like trying to increase students’ interest in swimming by making them climb trees. They may well enjoy climbing the trees but there will come a time when they realise that they cannot actually swim and this is likely to be a bit of a letdown.
Why wouldn’t students designing their own experiments work if that’s what real scientists do? Well, that’s because real scientists are experts with a lot of book learning behind them (even if the ones pontificating on radio shows often forget this). Students are novices who don’t know as much. Paul Kirschner discusses this well here.
So this plan is flawed. Science teachers either stay true to inquiry and ill-equip their students for future science study or they speak with forked tongues, talking-up investigations whilst delivering powerpoints on the anatomy of the flower. Students will see though this.
Interestingly, we haven’t mentioned women yet. There are two linked problems here. The first is a general lack of interest in learning science and the second is a lack of interest specifically amongst women.
I don’t subscribe to a cognitive hypothesis. I am aware of little evidence that men and women are wired differently, resulting in natural sympathies with particular school subjects. It is probably more social. You could try arguing that science is perhaps less creative than, say, English and you might decide that women are more creative or something. But then you are left with the problem of why women study foreign languages in such numbers; a subject that is objective and fact-based, at least in the early stages.
I looked at women’s under-representation in the sciences as part of my teaching qualification. I found a study (the reference long forgotten) that seemed to show that women who did pursue scientific careers tended to be quite strong-willed individuals. This is highly suggestive of the notion that they had a need for this character trait.
Put simply, the reason why we have a lack of women in science is that we have a lack of women in science. Popular stereotypes play to this and so women don’t imagine themselves in such roles. They don’t see a scientific career as congruent with being a woman. The lack of women also means that the ones who do pursue science are often subjected to the kind of overt sexism that has been diminished in more balanced workplaces.
What can we do about social attitudes? I am highly ambivalent about the whole idea of making nerdiness cool; the Big Bang Theory approach. On the one hand, it might make people less worried about appearing nerdy; something that might put students of both genders off science. On the other hand, it perpetuates the stereotype that scientists are nerdy. The majority of scientists and science teachers that I know are just normal people. If there is one trait that they often do share it is a tendency towards frankness.
I think the only viable long-term solution is an outbreak of honesty about science. We need to share what science actually is with students. We need to be clear that it is tough but rewarding work. It is not just about playing around with bunsen burners.
We also need to tell the stories of science. If you have the opportunity then try this little experiment; walk into a class of students in about Year 7 or Year 8 who are studying “science” and ask them what “physics” is. The chances are that they won’t really know. They will have certainly studied some physics but they won’t know it as that. And this is a problem because how can you imagine your future as a scientist when you lack such knowledge?
It is this metaknowledge that we need to teach, especially when competing careers are often portrayed positively in the media whilst science is misconstrued or replaced by science fiction.
I worked in a school once where we increased the numbers of students of both genders studying advanced level physics. We did this by making the GCSE course – studied by 15- and 16-year-olds – more rigorous. Instead of double science, we insisted that the higher ability groups studied triple science. This course was heavier on content and traditional scientific concepts. My view is that students who were potentially wary of science realised that they could succeed at it. It was challenging but they could see themselves meeting that challenge.
That’s the kind of experience that our young men and young women need and its the sort of experience that might convince more of them to give it a go.
I think that people might be getting the wrong idea about progressive education.
A recent piece by William Stewart in the TES discussed a talk given by John Hattie. Apart from revealing Hattie’s seemingly instrumental view of education – baristas and panel-beaters apparently don’t need to know about Shakespeare or chemistry – there is a throwaway line that particularly jarred. Hattie was asked about Daisy Christodoulou and Robert Peal who have written books on education. It’s not clear from the article whether Hattie has heard of Christodoulou or Peal or read their works. However, the piece describes these books as ‘polemics against “so-called progressive” education.’ I am not sure whether this is a quote from Hattie but it seems to suggest that progressive education is a bit of a myth or that the term is being mistakenly used; a straw man that has been created by certain writers as something to argue against. A position that nobody actually holds.
And so I started to wonder whether people think this more generally. Perhaps, in discussions on Twitter and blogs, some teachers think that the term ‘progressive’ doesn’t actually stand for anything and is just a rhetorical flourish. It also concerns me that people might conflate progressive education with progressive politics and that would be a mistake.
In 1919 the “Progressive Education Association” (PEA) was formed in the United States. This was a significant stage in a journey that had started with the writings of a number of philosophers such as Rousseau and Spencer. John Dewey briefly served as president of the association, although he did express some doubts about the movement in later works.
Some of the aims of the early progressives, such as having science labs in schools and the elimination of corporal punishment, are now not serious issues of debate. They have been normalised and this is to the credit of the movement. However, other ideas like giving students control over the learning process are still promoted as new and innovative and are much more open to debate. If you are interested in the early progressives then I would recommend Keiran Egan’s excellent book on the subject.
There is an unbroken thread that links these early, self-described progressives with modern education. Dewey is still studied by trainee teachers, particularly in the US. Approaches such as inquiry learning are direct descendants of the “project method” promoted in 1918 by William Kilpatrick, a key figure in progressive education – his essay is almost the foundational text of the PEA.
If you want a modern view of what progressive education stands for then a good source is Alfie Kohn. He is a keen advocate of progressive education and so his definition is a sympathetic one (even if he seems to invoke its irreducible complexity). Key features include students helping to direct the curriculum, students seeking and finding their own answers, a focus on intrinsic motivation that eschews coercion and the drawing of a distinction between knowledge and understanding in order to focus on the latter.
When Christodoulou or Peal are arguing against “so-called progressives” then it is ideas like these that they are arguing against.