The disconnectPosted: January 18, 2016
I’m quite a fan of the enlightenment but it appears that others are not. I don’t want to create schisms so I’ll step away from that metaphor and focus on another issue.
One question that I get asked is this: most teachers still teach in a fairly explicit way, despite my claims about ‘educationalists’, so what’s the problem?
The problem is the disconnect.
There are some notable exceptions but, by and large, schools of education, education consultants and state education bureaucracies tend to promote inquiry learning and its variants. They do so for philosophical reasons more than empirical ones because there isn’t much empirical evidence to support such methods. The establishment is also aware of the disconnect between what they promote and what most teachers actually do. This is why there is a research literature on trying to change teachers’ practice (eg here and here).
Why is this a problem? There are two main ways in which the disconnect between the educational establishment and ordinary teachers causes problems for teachers.
Firstly, not all explicit instruction is the same. The model that emerged from teacher effectiveness research is highly interactive but default explicit instruction might not be. There are a number of ways in which such teaching can be improved but these don’t generally get communicated to teachers because explicit instruction is demonised as ‘transmission teaching’. I felt guilty about the way I taught for much of my career because it conflicted with messages I had received from my school of education, consultants and government initiatives, all of which I thought were backed by empirical evidence. Many teachers want to become better at what they do but they are offered the wrong solutions and may become disillusioned when they can’t make these ideas work.
The other problem is that inquiry methods get promoted through curricula. This can happen at different scales. For instance, as part of the VCE maths and physics courses, students have to complete coursework that gets moderated against the school’s exam grades. There used to be some flexibility in how to conduct this and many schools effectively ran tests. The VCAA who administer these exams didn’t like this and so, in the newly revised study designs, they have gone to great lengths to specify these tasks in such a way that they can only be completed through an inquiry learning model. So they have decided to override a practice that teachers found effective.
The 2007 national curriculum in England is another example of an attempt to influence teachers through curriculum. Knowledge was downgraded and thinking skills were promoted. And pity the poor teachers in British Columbia who will have to teach a new curriculum that will, “emphasize higher-order concepts over facts to enable deeper learning and understanding.” They will probably make it work as best they can but it’s not ideal. And important things can go missing from curricula altogether. I was never taught grammar at school, for instance.
So there is a serious problem here and it won’t go away without challenge. Teachers will need to become more familiar with the research (or lack of it) and they will need to argue their case. I am optimistic about this. One day, we will be a profession that controls its own destiny but the first step is to ask some difficult questions. Of course, this development will not be welcomed by those people who currently tell teachers what to do.