Learning from our past – teaching isn’t just a bunch of tricks

Teachers who are new to Twitter and blogging tend to be drawn towards tricks and tips. I often make the most of this when I write list-based posts such as, “My top seven classroom management tips“. These posts gather more hits and are shared more widely than arcane discussions of cognitive load theory.

Yet there is a danger in reducing teaching to nothing more than a toolkit full of spanners. The danger is that it becomes ahistorical and we lose a sense of the deep and significant philosophical battles that have shaped and scarred the educational landscape over the past century or more. When we lose our history, we lose the possibility of learning from the past. We end up with teachers who will claim in all earnestness that they are neither progressive nor traditional because they sometimes do a bit of group work and sometimes stand at the front of the class. Complex ideas become reduced to prosaic behaviours.

It is for these reasons that I wish that “The Academic Achievement Challenge” – written in 2000 by Jeanne Chall as she neared the end of her career – was required reading on all teacher education courses. I am late to this book which, in itself, probably tells us something significant about the education debate. In powerful, well-researched prose, Chall tells the story of education and education research over the last hundred years and she does it by drawing on the relentless archetypes that haunt the profession. The names change; traditional versus progressive, teaching-centred versus child-centred; mimetic versus transformative and so on. The names change but the tunes and the rhetoric remain the same.


The book avoids polemic. Chall’s is a measured, calm voice. But it does not sit on the fence. Of the two archetypes, Chall is clear that teacher-centred instruction has pretty much always held important advantages over child-centred instruction (Chall’s favoured way of presenting the two archetypes). Indeed, Chall makes the point that even in the fostering of higher order skills such as critical thinking, teacher-centred approaches have an advantage because you cannot think critically without substantial knowledge.

Chall reflects upon the two approaches and makes some fairly obvious points that, nevertheless, are worth repeating due to the denialism of some participants in the current debate:

“In general, there seems to be considerable agreement among educators and researchers on what characterizes a classic, teacher-centered approach and what characterizes a modern, student-centered one. There is general agreement that student-centered education has a more integrated curriculum, bases learning more on student interests, prefers small-group and individual instruction, and prefers individual diagnostic evaluation. There is also general agreement that a teacher-centered pattern is more formal, with a curriculum divided by grade levels and different subjects, and that textbooks and tests are more widely used in that setting.

In spite of the general consensus with regard to characteristics of each of the approaches, it is well to remember Gage’s caution that there is no complete agreement on the importance of each of the characteristics within an educational type. Nor is there agreement even on ways to measure the different characteristics, making comparisons between the two approaches difficult. And yet, in spite of these difficulties, it is important to note the rather strong consistency within each type. And as with other ideal types, it is also important to keep in mind… that ideal types do not exist in reality…”

You do not have to be 100% teacher-centred to take a generally teacher-centred view of education and anyone proposing cross-curricular project work is clearly speaking from the student-centred tradition.

Chall discusses reading at some length. She conducted her own reviews of the research in 1967, 1983 and 1996 and she notes that others have done the same. Every time, these reviews have shown that a teacher-centred approach of systematically building phonics knowledge is more effective than whatever the alternative was at the time such as ‘look-say’ or ‘whole language’. She makes the valuable point that none of these alternative methods totally repudiate phonics knowledge, rather they see it as something to be taught incidentally or implicitly. This is why the current notion of ‘balanced literacy’ is a bit of a con; its selling point is that it makes room for a bit of phonics but then so did all these other methods. Chall calls-out whole language advocates for suggesting that they invented the idea of reading ‘authentic’ texts when these were present in the more traditional reading texts of old.

Yet you can imagine the frustration of someone who has felt the need to conduct three reviews finding the same thing three times. Why do we keep reinventing poor methods of reading instruction? The answer is ideology; a set of romantic views:

“I propose that it is these views – views that focus on children’s interests and choices and the development of their higher mental processes from the start (i.e. student-centered views) – that attracted teachers to the whole word and sentence methods of the 1920s and to whole language in the 1980s and early 1990s. It is a romantic view of learning. It is imbued with love and hope. But, sadly, it has proven to be less effective for reading achievement than a more traditional, teacher-centered view, particularly for those who are at risk while learning to read.”

Chall goes on to describe Project Follow Through – and the ideological reaction to it – and lots of other process-product research. She reviews research into maths teaching, science and social studies, listing the advantages of teacher-centred instruction. Chall reviews other factors impacting on achievement such as socioeconomic conditions. It is a fascinating account with interesting conclusions and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in education today.

I will finish with a quote that resonates with some of the messages of this blog:

“The tendency of many teachers’ colleges to go along with the student-centered approach has also contributed to the “taking of sides.” That teacher training was not particularly strong in providing prospective teachers with a broad historical and research view on educational change has also contributed to teachers taking a strong position on one or the other approach.

Still another reason why we seem to have few compromises is the political nature of the two positions. From Dewey on, student-centered education has been associated with a liberal position in politics and teacher-centered education with a more conservative position.”

If you want to espouse teacher-centred views then you better get used to being accused of being a loathsome reactionary. It might be best to stick to the mundane tips after all.



7 thoughts on “Learning from our past – teaching isn’t just a bunch of tricks

  1. I followed some of the discussion on this post on twitter and I just want to support some of the comments you made.
    You are correct that I, and the teachers I know who now follow the prog/trad debate, feel that we were led down the progressive road during our teacher training. We then joyfully entered the classroom and slowly started to realise that this approach wasn’t really working and our kids were not doing that well. Some teachers then seemed to accept that this was just the reality of teaching and children in our socially disadvantaged school were not capable of achieving that much due to their family background and the culture of the area.As a consequence some teachers moved on to teach in less challenging environments, some left teaching, some decided to ensure their classroom was a caring and safe place for these poor children and some believed what they had been taught at college was correct and committed themselves to that approach. However, a few of us felt that we could do more and thought that surely there must be teachers out there who had cracked this teaching lark and from whom we could learn.
    One problem I faced was that I felt quite alone in my questioning of the teaching practices I was witnessing. Who was I to be thinking that there must be a better way? Who was I to think that the teacher training colleges and Department of Education in service trainers had got it wrong? The fact was that discussions on teaching theory were not really that welcome in the staffroom and were sometimes actively discouraged. Understandably tired and frustrated workers wanted half an hour to relax and regroup before heading back to the factory floor and did not wish to discuss production targets and worker efficiency! No, Netflix, Gaa results, last night’s trip to ….. were all generally more interesting than the question of methodologies in education.
    So, I turned to social media and began to look for answers and I was not disappointed. I discovered Susan Godsland and the passionate advocates for phonics. I discovered Tom Benett, David Didau, Michaela, some anonymous fella in Australia who stopped blogging and removed a brilliant blog because his was identifed (please repost all that stuff), Quirky teacher etc.
    What happened next was that one day, during one of the occasional educational discussions in the staffroom, somebody asked what proof was there that a certain approach worked. My ears pricked up and I mentioned researchED and from then on it was clear I was not the only teacher looking at social media for answers. I was not alone and in fact many teachers are interested in challenging their own thoughts on education and developing their teaching practices.
    In the discussion of this post on twitter the manner in which the debate between prog and trad is being carried out was criticised because people can be rude. I agree this can be the case. However, I say thank god that the debate is taking place somewhere and that I have had the opportunity to find out about Lemov, Direct Instruction, the case for rows of tables, Project Follow Through, SLANT, the extended phonic code, etc.
    In our school I believe we are discussing more frequently the challenges we face in our classrooms, but I fully accept that in the staffroom teachers need time to relax, recharge and discuss the likely hood of Carlow winning the All Ireland and the price a pint in O’Reilly’s (4 Euro 10 Cent! ).
    Here in Ireland the general debate between progressive and traditional approaches to teaching is not taking place in a very obvious and open way, in fact I can’t actually find it! So, I say thanks for your blog and thanks to all the other educational bloggers who help keep me motivated and aiming to be better at my job. The debate may be rude at times and that sometimes discourages people from taking part, but the most important thing is that certain people are passionate enough to ensure the debate takes place and I am very grateful for that.

    Who’s with me?
    (I’m sure I read that somewhere before)

  2. Great post, and fantastic comment from AL.

    After enduring the Twitter feed from math ed conferences in the U.S. this past week, I want to add also that *learning* about teaching shouldn’t be about absorbing a bunch of one-liner deepities and hackneyed slogans.

    My gosh, after this week, it certainly appears to be, though.

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