Two Roads

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Robert Frost

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.

William Bartlett [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

William Bartlett [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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3 Comments on “Two Roads”

  1. I don’t see it as two roads. It’s a vast field.
    To take your first road and dismiss the first ensures massive gaps in understanding.
    To take your second road and abandon the first offers students less than a full education.
    Is feedback and consolidation and, I’ll add, mastery of content exclusive to the second road? Is authentic assessment, significance and relevance exclusive to the first?
    I see the push by many to take the first road while leaving behind the “traditional” second and empirical research almost forces us to create these dichotomies. Which is better, having an arm or a leg? Well actually, I work best with both.
    We must know why we make the choices we do in the best interests of our students. But to teach from an ideology (be it the first road or the second) seems a folly.

  2. Diarmuid says:

    There’s a better interpretation of the poem that is more strongly supported by the text itself. Frost is writing about the way that cognitive biases mislead us and rewrite history to make us the heroes of our own personal narratives.

    The situation is that he’s at a fork in the road with nothing that particularly distinguishes either option from the other. “Both that morning equally lay in leaves no steps had trodden black”. But the mind keeps intruding and pushing us to make a choice, so it begins to detect differences where really there are none (one path is more grassy and wants wear. Once a decision is made, our brains re-write history to justify our choices. At some point in the future, Frost tells us how our minds will create a false memory: one path was less travelled by; heroically, he took that one; this one decision has made all the difference.

    If we are to interpret this in our field, we could say that different approaches to teaching both serve the same purpose – both lead us away from where we currently are. The path we choose to wander down will shape the way we see the world. Our decisions colour our interpretations. We are not free agents who rationally decide. We act then justify our decisions. If you like, there’s scope for arguing that the “choice” comes after the decision has been made. The underlying assumption that we can teach in a way that is scientifically-proven to work will influence what we do and the way we see the world. But there is no guarantee that we are right – nor even that it is possible to teach scientifically!

    If Frost is telling us anything here, it is that we should be wary of our assumptions and the subtle ways they interfere with our ability to see the world as it really is. We are always enriched by tools that help us critically engage with our own beliefs and behaviours – your five questions included!


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