The reason why poor teaching survives

If you were an engineer who was operating under a misconception about the laws of physics or the properties of different materials then your bridges would fall down. It wouldn’t matter whether you appealed to authenticity, excellence, creativity, inclusivity or anything else for that matter, the fact that your bridges fell down would be a problem. Your failure would be obvious and apparent to all. In the ancient world, you might have suffered a grisly fate and so I think it is no coincidence that columns and arches were understood pretty early in our history.

By Gun Powder Ma (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Hadrian’s Arch, Jordan (By Gun Powder Ma (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Medicine offers a more complex picture. On the one hand, a surgeon who kills his patients is going to run into trouble. However, if the alternative to surgery is certain death then even poor-quality, insanitary surgery might persist until something better comes along. In the case of illness, patients will often recover of their own accord. If this recovery coincides with a physician bleeding the patient or applying a patent medicine then these treatments gain credibility. Couple this with the complexity of the human body compared to the simplicity of a bridge and you can see why the advent of the scientific method was required before we could start to sort fact from fiction in medical research.

Education is also complex. It is hard to predict results at an individual level and so interventions need to be trialled across large numbers of students; a difficult and costly process. And just as patients will often recover of their own accord, students will often learn things on their own. The research question is therefore whether they learn relatively more this way or through some kind of instruction. We might also question whether a self-learning method will enable students to learn all of the things we think it is important for them to learn or only the stuff they find immediately appealing.

Regardless, I suspect most people would agree that children should learn to read. You might therefore think that the teaching of reading, at least, would be a bastion of evidence-based practice. Yet it is not. We know that a systematic, synthetic phonics (SSP) approach is the most effective method for teaching students to read and yet, in practice, phonics is often an incidental. As I have mentioned before, an Australian ‘best practice’ video treats phonics as a little old-fashioned and something of a last resort. You might find this astonishing.

It is not astonishing when you realise that SSP has only a relative advantage over other approaches. If it was the only way that children could learn to read then we would have a situation similar to the engineer and the bridge. Instead, there are lots of less efficient ways of teaching reading that still sort-of work. Many students will discover the alphabetic code for themselves, for instance. Directly teaching phonics does these students no harm and probably ensures that their knowledge is more systematic, whilst students who wouldn’t discover the principles for themselves will also learn. However, if you decide not to directly teach phonics then those students who fail to discover it may end-up labelled as having a learning difficulty. This then shifts the responsibility away from the teacher and his or her instruction. With these conditions and forces at play, a less effective strategy for teaching reading can survive and even thrive.

So mediocre, misconceived teaching persists because the harm it causes is relative and not immediately apparent.


14 thoughts on “The reason why poor teaching survives

  1. At least not to the people who perpetuate it. Whereas there are plenty of teachers – especially KS2 onwards in the UK who would want to change things. However, this is where Ofsted and LA ‘advisors’ have been at their worst by ensuring that other ways of teaching are seen as inadequate and peddling myths about teaching reading ‘too early’.

  2. I liked the analogy you started with, and even introducing teaching programmes in that context is fine. To me, however, the last paragraph seems a bit weak on evidence, because you basically seem to say other approaches ‘sort of’ work and then make the leap that “if you don’t decide to directly teach phonics then those students who fail to discover it may end up labelled as having a learning difficulty”. Is there actually any research this is the case, ‘may’ hardly is a basis. Together with the last sentence it’s almost as if you are suggesting learning difficulties are caused by teaching methods. Now, I happen to be extremely critical of learning difficulty labels but this really is one shortcut too far. After that, the last sentences then run with the assumptions and we are left with the standard direct=good, discovery=bad, which is a shame because the initial engineering analogy was nice. I feel this ‘relative’ notion of ‘not causing harm’ is a bit problematic because you would need to either prove harm by other methods and no harm by the preferred method. Better to stay with effectiveness which you did in several of the previous posts. Yes, that does pose a problem when two or more approaches are deemed ‘sort of’ effective but that might (pun intended) be a demonstration of the complex nature of education 😉

      1. What is it you found difficult? I can explain it some more. You directly seem to link ‘doing harm’ to certain teaching methods. In many posts you have argued for EI. Sometimes against discovery, and you have also asked discovery proponents to show/prove effectiveness. But this statement is different: you argue certain teaching methods are harmful and even suggest they might be the cause of (some?) learning disorder diagnoses. Taking your justified claim for evidence I can’t recall you having written a post where you show learning disorder diagnoses actually are a result of bad teaching. But maybe this is not what you are saying, please elaborate.

  3. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Greg makes an interesting point in this post, and he sure made me think. I’m don’t agree for a full 100%, as I’ve seen both poor teaching techniques survive for a long time but others also disappear rather quick. And: also in medicine there is also something such as ‘alternative’ approaches that just don’t seem to disappear. A third element I want to add is that maybe the different opinions on what is good education (often hiding in fact an opinion about the curriculum).

  4. Just quickly on the standard medicine vs alternative methods: Doctors help the vulnerable, the unconscious and those who need the right things done quickly to preserve life. They are heroes and I couldn’t be more grateful for their quick professional actions in my time, and the level of research and accountability behind it. They have my trust in emergences when my mind isn’t there. But student’s aren’t unconscious and education is not an emergency. To treat it so is to strip it of person to person connection and respect.

    Alternatives exist because they are true for some people, and I’m saying that’s OK as long as no one forces this. Alternative ‘healing’ exists because those methods are true for some people, for what they are looking for or need but, of course, no one of sense would forcibly administer these in emergencies because truth is; our science doesn’t support alternative methods. But education is for concious people.

    Ask any class of students; one teacher will do things in a way that opens some of their minds, while others are bored and visa versa with a different teacher using a different approach. We can use research so look at what has the most effect on more people but, geeez, sucks to be the kid who’s the outlier. “Stop thinking, we’re administering the best teaching methods on you.” Just let students move. Why do teachers need captive audiences? Then everyone can have the teaching they need.

  5. /*Just let students move. Why do teachers need captive audiences? Then everyone can have the teaching they need.*/ sure, great idea. let’s abolish the money system while we’re at it.

  6. The analogy, you start with, is an interesting one. I suggest that you go on thinking about its implications. No doubt, every kind of architecture, even “primitive” one, will be confronted with the laws of physics. But, and this seems to be an important point, not everyone building something needs to know those laws. On the other hand, if you know them, at least partially and maybe not in their mathematical formulation, you’ll be able to build much more complex and somewhat elegant buildings. But you can have huts and the like with very few knowledge – and certainly without any concepual knowledge.

    Isn’t it the same with school? You have to do wrong very much, if you want to prevent students from learning. so most teachers in some way build at least a “learning-hut”. Of course, it is quite different, if you wanna build the Eiffel tower of learning. You can’t do this just by some experience and common sense. You would need some good conceptual understanding of your matter. And this matter is a bit more complex than Newtons free fall. Sadly, even if you were interested in getting to know your matter, you will find a lot of advice that does NOT accept how complex the matter is. Proponents of both “guided instruction” AND “constructivist approaches” do often enough not care for this complexity – and therefore make you going on build huts, though you are no allowed to call them Eiffel towers…

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