“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Frost’s famous poem is often interpreted as a celebration of free-thinking; of not following the crowd. However, critics contend it has quite a different meaning; of how foolish it is to spend our time dwelling in past decisions and attributing blame – “If only I had…”. There will always be something that you missed on the other path; something of value. Such is life.
I am going to inhabit that ambiguity a little as I suggest the two paths that we face as educators who wish to do a better job.
We can all probably recognise the current state of affairs. Early years and primary school might be different, particularly with regard to reading and maths instruction, but I suspect that most secondary school teaching is a kind of suboptimal explicit instruction. This is not a harsh criticism. You can learn a lot this way but we should always strive to do better because we can always do better. This is human.
If you are keen to improve your teaching then there are two roads that you may choose to travel.
The first road has had many names but it basically involves the teacher talking less and the students doing more. But the things the children are doing are important. They can’t generally be completing long lists of sums or spelling drills. Their activity needs to look more like what people do in the real world. So science classes should involve students doing the sorts of things that professional scientists do. Mathematics must involve solving novel problems.
The idea is that this is both more motivating for students and that it leads to a deeper kind of learning. Rather than just knowing stuff, students can process knowledge better. This might be described in terms of generic skills that they will develop.
This first road represents something of a revolution. It involves a breaking-down prior to any building back up. It is widely encouraged.
The second road is quite different. This is about taking what is already there and making it better. One simple way to improve everyday explicit instruction is to look at how feedback is structured; both to the teacher and the students. There is nothing more pointless than taking-up exercise books every few weeks and marking them. By the time you read what your students have written, the moment has passed and you are onto something else, with no capacity to do anything about it. And your students have little capacity to respond.
It is better to gain regular feedback from students as you go along in order to avoid the ignorance deal; that state where students and teachers avoid feedback in order to collude in the idea that learning has taken place; a deal to avoid cognitive dissonance.
If you ask questions of all students, not just a few, you will get a better idea of what they really understand. To manage this, you will need good classroom behaviour and there are ways to work on that, provided that schools don’t adopt policies that militate against this. Short, regular tests can give good information to teachers, can give the students a clear idea of what they do and do not know and can also consolidate learning through retrieval practice. Space them out and return regularly to important concepts and you can disrupt the forgetting process.
I would also add that good quality curriculum materials that can be refined over time take away some of the chance element of learning; that tweak you made last year which seemed to result in an improved set of test scores can be carried over to this year.
It is clear which road I favour and where I think the evidence lies so let’s now return to the sense of Frost’s poem. Does it really matter all that much? Will we miss-out on something whichever path we choose to follow? Perhaps. And I will return to this another time.
For now, I will leave it for you to think about.