A pedagogy of privilege

It is hard to fathom quite what is going on over at the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL). On the one hand, its Chair, John Hattie, has made strong claims about evidence based teaching such as that, “We have a whole rhetoric about discovery learning, constructivism, about learning styles that has got zero evidence for them anywhere.” On the other hand, we have the AITSL Twitter account.

The Twitter account has a propensity to retweet all sorts of questionable stuff. A lot of this comes from the U.S. education blog site Edutopia – a source that long ago turned the hippy dial all the way up to ‘kaftan’. The latest such approving link was to a poster:

Given that AITSL curates the set of standards for Australian teachers, it is quite concerning that they would endorse the message that, “Teachers are no longer the carriers of knowledge, giving it to students and assessing if they can repeat the facts successfully. They are, instead, tasked with teaching students how to find the answers.”

The approach to education that this describes is aligned with fashionable rhetoric about project-based learning. The problem is that this represents a pedagogy of privilege and I will explain why.

Whenever a teacher ducks out of providing intentional instruction, learning is dependent upon the learner’s own resources. Some students will go to school with a lot of cultural capital. These will be the students who visit museums in the school holidays and discuss current affairs around the dinner table. They will know what sorts of questions to ask and they will have a chance of using this process to develop their knowledge and skills. Students without this capital will be at a disadvantage. Rather than leveling the playing field, the teacher is allowing this knowledge gap to persist and grow under the misapprehension that this will somehow develop students’ abilities to ask questions or something.

Imagine, for instance, setting students a project with the aim of devising an advertising campaign about a social issue. This was given as an example in the comments on a previous post. This could work really well if students are first taught about a particular social issue in some depth. However, if they are left to find the answers themselves then the results will depend a great deal upon prior knowledge. Yes, Google is a useful tool but you have to know what to look for and you have to be able to understand the results. Comprehension depends upon having relevant knowledge. When children just copy stuff off the internet without summarising or paraphrasing then this is likely to be because they don’t actually know what it means.

To believe that the subject matter of the advertising project is interchangeable is to assume that writing can be split into knowledge and skills. The particular context is not seen as important because it is just a mechanism for practising persuasive writing. Unfortunately, knowledge and skills are totally intertwined. It is easier to write persuasively about a familiar and simple issue than it is to write persuasively about a difficult and unfamiliar one. The students who are given the freedom to choose their subject matter and who choose to write about complex ideas are the ones who have brought these ideas in from elsewhere.

There is a lot of misguided practice caused by misunderstanding this issue. Standardised tests such as NAPLAN with its banal writing prompts feed the confusion. It is tempting to rehearse with similar prompts and produce dull and formulaic responses that are all about structures and “firstly, secondly, thirdly,”. To excel with a banal prompt, you probably need to be able to connect it to bigger ideas and draw in wider knowledge.

The educational current that argues for teachers as facilitators who must sit back and not intentionally teach knowledge to students is not only lacking in evidence, it is inequitable. It is startling to see AITSL endorse such messages. My advice to AITSL is to rethink the purpose of the Twitter account so that it links to serious papers and articles that are grounded in solid evidence. Teachers deserve better and expect more from the body that is in charge of their professional standards.


16 thoughts on “A pedagogy of privilege

  1. KenS says:

    As always, thought-provoking stuff, Mr. Ashman.

    Project-based learning is the rage in my school district here in the U.S. I have to wonder if it’s no coincidence that two of the three middle schools (ages 11 to 14) are under state scrutiny for being accredited with warning. The reason for this lack of full accreditation is that not enough of our students living in poverty and our students with disabilities pass the state standardized reading.

    Oh, and there was the imposition of a mostly content-less reading program in the elementary school some years ago.

    If I understand E.D. Hirsch’s argument in Why Knowledge Matters, my school’s situation could have been predicted from the two pedagogical choices I mention above.

    Thanks for your blogging and tweeting. I’m learning a lot.

      • KenS says:

        This blog entry is so reminiscent of Hirsch’s argument in the book, I’m surprised to find out you haven’t read it yet. That’s not to imply I thought you were merely parroting Hirsch, by the way; it’s heartening to know that your own reading has led you to this conclusion. It only makes the argument more compelling, in my opinion.

  2. Pat Stone says:

    Not teaching “…how to find the answers.” ?? Does that include maths?
    You may rely on prior knowledge to help you answer this question.

  3. Tempe says:

    I can’t bear the formulaic writing for Naplan. Getting my kids to let go of firstly, secondly and I strongly believe in their persuasive writing is very difficult. I fail to see how this is encouraging creativity.

    Once again I find I can no longer stomach this stuff (lack of knowledge transmission and sticking kids on Goggle) so I’ve chosen to homeschool again for high school. I know I’ve made the right decision when my daughter came home to tell me that for yr 8 English they would be designing a memes! No reading required though…

    ATSIL really need to do a whole lot better than this.

  4. Mike says:

    Great post, Greg.

    In my (perhaps jaundiced) view, AITSL, like ACARA, like the various Teachers’ Institutes, is just another unaccountable layer of bureaucracy designed to keep failed teachers in gainful employment and to keep working teachers swamped in pointless paperwork. To see them lazily endorsing drivel like the pic you reproduced above is hardly surprising.

    Needless to say, you are so right about the reinforcement of privilege via prior cultural capital which is implicit in so many of the brainless fads of the past fifty years. Not to mention the banality of those persuasive writing tasks! My daughter (in Year 1) is already being drilled in those horrendous “Firstly…secondly…in conclusion…” templates; the subject matter is completely subordinated to the stultifying predetermined structure. How to kill enthusiasm for any subject in one easy lesson.

  5. Queen's English says:

    “A lot of this comes from the U.S. education blog site Edutopia – a source that long ago turned the hippy dial all the way up to ‘kaftan’.” Love this.

    Starting to become worried that the pendulum will never swing back in a more reasonable direction. People are too invested in their ideological positions.

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  12. Julie Arsenault says:

    Interesting point of view, however I have to point out that project based learning does not generally just let students find the answers without any guidance or facilitation from teachers. I have developed several projects and it’s not that I ever just present the driving question and say ‘go’ – a true project involves a great deal of planning and the ability of the teacher to ensure that students DO find the answers. Sure, some students will be able to do so more independently, but this would be true of any learning in any classroom. It’s my job to know how to level the playing field in any form of teaching and learning scenario. My projects include some teacher direction, some student direction, some collaboration, some independent work. I don’t use PBL in all of my teaching, but I love the ones I do. The students work hard, learn a lot and develop skills throughout the entire process.

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