I’m not sure that apportioning blame is entirely constructive when it comes to the problems we face in schools. However, there are plenty who view the workload issues that teachers face as the fault of national governments implementing ‘neoliberal’ testing and accountability regimes.
Even at their worst, such regimes usually involve a maximum of one standardised test per year. Although such tests are meant to be a snapshot that require no special preparation, it is clear that their high stakes nature means that teachers will invest additional time in preparation and may worry about the results.
We have also recently seen blame apportioned to schools who institute onerous marking policies. These affect a teacher’s day-to-day work and so are likely to be a major cause of unnecessary workload in schools that have such rules.
It is therefore in this context that I would like to comment on a recent article by John Fischetti in The Conversation. It is an odd piece that basically uses the ‘Shift Happens’ trope to argue that the future fundamentally changes everything and teacher education needs to take account of this. The old-fashioned way of teaching is ‘2D’ – a pejorative label that I had not come across before. According to Fischetti:
“Most of the pedagogies taught are about “fixing” student deficits rather than building upon the amazing capacity and evolving cognitive capacity of every child.”
I cannot see how this statement could apply to the teaching of calculus or the Russian revolution but that’s not the major issue here.
Regular readers will know that I am sceptical of ‘the future changes everything’ argument for a number of reasons. Firstly, the fundamental point about the future is that it is unpredictable. We simply cannot know what knowledge will be needed for jobs that have not been invented yet but our best guide is likely to be knowledge that has been useful in the past; that which has endured.
Secondly, advocates such as Fischetti rarely propose replacing old kinds of knowledge with new kinds of knowledge (although coding is sometimes mentioned and I’m sympathetic to this). Instead, whilst recognising the important of ‘literacy’ – a term that has come to mean anything you like – they advocate the development of reified skills such as creativity and critical thinking. But these simply cannot be developed in a vacuum. You cannot develop a form of creativity in an art class that you can then apply to an engineering problem. Such ‘skills’ are highly domain specific – you need a lot of knowledge of a particular subject to think critically or creatively about that subject and your ability to do this does not then transfer to other subjects. So, first, we must decide which subjects we want children to study to this deep level.
The most significant piece of Fischetti’s article, however, is his comments on differentiation. It seems that a key priority for education in the future is making it highly personalised. He links to another article in The Conversation, one that I have criticised here. My basic point is that ‘differentiation’ is poorly defined. Far from misunderstanding what it means, I am all too aware that it can refer to a multitude of different things, some of which are damaging. For instance, Fischetti describes the bleak, 2D past that we need to move away from:
“When I was in school in the 1960s and 1970s, teachers had one lesson plan, one textbook, one chalkboard, one pedagogical approach, one style of desk and one discipline strategy for the whole class.
My classmates and I were expected to adjust to the teacher and the plan.
“Differentiation” at that time meant that the taller students typically sat in the back of the classroom while those who had trouble seeing the chalkboard were moved closer to the front. Those students caught being “naughty” sat next to the teacher’s desk.”
The clear implication is that children are now so different that, amongst other things, we need to produce multiple lesson plans and resources in order to teach them. Teacher education therefore needs to be about preparing teachers for doing just that. Yet I have been criticised for suggesting that differentiation means anything like this.
Even if such a form of differentiation were desirable, it represents a massive increase in workload for ordinary teachers. I don’t think our education systems would survive it. More likely, it will be something that teachers will be exhorted to do, will fail to achieve on a daily basis and so will therefore make them feel worn-down and dejected rather than free to teach.
Fetishising student difference is not only an overt attack on teachers’ working conditions, it ignores the fact that children have much more in common in the way that they learn than they have differences. As cognitive scientists Dan Willingham and David Daniel explain:
“…when it comes to applying research to the classroom, it seems inadvisable to categorize students into more and more specialized groups on the basis of peripheral differences when education and cognitive sciences have made significant progress in describing the core competencies all students share. Teachers can make great strides in improving student achievement by leveraging this body of research and teaching to commonalities, not differences.”
Dylan Wiliam writes about differentiated instruction in his latest book. He notes the fact that it is poorly defined and that some of these definitions are questionable. If differentiation involves grouping students then he suggest that it, “can produce small improvements in student learning, but many studies have found that teachers end up spending up to half their time keeping groups engaged.” And he notes that, “while differentiated instruction has neither an agreed definition nor a coherent research foundation, leaders are often required to ensure that the instruction in their buildings is differentiated.” Quite so. As Linda Graham and others have pointed out to me, in Australia, differentiation is the law!
Despite this, differentiation has all of the hallmarks of an educational fad that is based more upon philosophical notions of treating students as individuals than any solid evidence. Like a 1950s artist imagining us all whizzing about in personal flying saucers, it is not the way of the future. As with most educational fads over the last century, it is a dead-end that we are destined to quietly reverse out of and then forget about before someone reinvents the idea in ten years time under a new name.Embed from Getty Images