A quick introduction to the education debate

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There is a great debate going on in education about what and how we teach. A lot of teachers are unaware of this discussion, even if they notice the specific effects of it. Oddly, this lack of knowledge is used by some to dismiss the debate as unimportant. And yet how can something as fundamental as what and how we teach be unimportant to teachers?

It’s time to address this. If teachers really don’t know about this debate then I think we have a duty to inform them about it. Please share this post. Perhaps you might print it out and pin it to a notice board in your staffroom.

What we teach

The dominant view in education is that curriculum content is functional; it serves a wider purpose. We don’t read literature or study science in order to know literature and know science. Instead, these are contexts for developing higher order skills such as critical thinking or scientific literacy.

In this view, content becomes interchangeable. Why read Macbeth if you can read Holes? You can, after all, develop these generic skills whatever the context. This argument has frequently been supported by appeals to the future: we don’t know what knowledge will be needed in the future and so it is better to develop generic skills that can be applied to a wide range of situations.

The alternative view is that skills like critical thinking are not generic. Instead, they depend upon strong knowledge of a particular area. For instance, if you want to think critically about the ethnic make-up of Roman Britain then you need to know a lot about Roman Britain. And yet knowing about Roman Britain won’t help you think critically about genetically modified foods.

How can we then prepare students for an unpredictable future? By teaching them knowledge that has endured. The logic is that knowledge that had proved valuable and enriching over time is likely to be valuable and enriching in the future. Whereas knowledge of a specific word-processing package may become obsolete quickly, quadratic equations or the structure of English grammar are likely to continue to matter. Academic subjects encapsulate ways of thinking that have endured and so they should be the basis on which the curriculum is organised.

So the choice is between content as a context for developing valuable skills and content as a valuable end in itself.

How we teach

The dominant view is that we need to engage students in their learning and that this looks like some kind of physical activity. Group work is valued because it involves students talking to each other. Children dressing up as vikings is better than children listening to a teacher talk about vikings.

This view has its roots in naturalism; the idea that learning in schools should be natural, joyful and relatively effortless like it is for learning to speak or walk. If students appear demotivated by a lesson then this is a sign that the content or delivery is developmentally inappropriate. Teachers should not need to use their authority to coerce students to work because, if the lesson is right, they won’t need such external carrots and sticks.

Given that content is interchangeable, one solution for demotivated students is to simply change the content for something more appealing. Similarly, students might be given choices so that they may choose contexts that appeal to them. Another solution is to make the mode of learning more naturalistic; more authentic. What do real mathematicians or scientists or historians or writers do? Let’s ask students to do that. This leads to a preference for inquiry learning and other broadly constructivist approaches where students find things out for themselves. What is more, these approaches are thought to help develop generic skills such as hypothesising or collaborating.

The alternative view is that academic learning is fundamentally different to learning to speak or walk. It is necessarily effortful and frequently difficult. By working through these difficulties, students may or may not develop a love for the subject. It is a teacher’s responsibility to help students through this struggle, drawing on their authority and sometimes with the help of external motivators.

In this view, explicit teaching is efficient and effective. People have been using it for centuries and it gets the job done. There is no naturalistic preference for alternatives to explicit teaching and no reason for them based on the objective of developing generic skills because these skills don’t really exist.

Why does this matter?

None of our education systems are aligned completely with either the dominant view or the alternative view. There is usually a kind of tension between educationalists who promote the dominant view and teach it to new teachers, and politicians who generally don’t understand the debate but seek to appease voting parents by imposing testing and national curricula.

It is also not at all obvious whether one view is right or whether the truth lies in a mix of these perspectives or maybe somewhere else entirely. And that is why the debate is so healthy. I have avoided references here but there is a range of evidence and theory that proponents of either position draw upon when they construct their arguments, much of it is interesting and some I find compelling.

In any given school it may be true that the teachers use a mix of approaches and are unaware of this debate. But what if the particular mix of approaches they are using is not delivering the best possible education to their students? That should matter to teachers. If it doesn’t then they either lack the capacity to imagine they may be wrong or they are complacent. I believe in teachers and I believe that we are better than that.


10 thoughts on “A quick introduction to the education debate

  1. It is certainly true that many teachers would be unaware there is a debate, in many countries they have been trained in and are expected to work according to a dominant paradigm of educational thought – the student centered-engagement model is one way it can be described (Eric Kalenze – Education is Upside Down). That there is an alternative view is not obvious and teachers are not encouraged to question the evidence base for their practice. What is most troubling is an unwillingness to embrace, where they can be applied, rigorous methods of ascertaining the best teaching practices. What is the best evidence based on quantitative data and cognitive science? If none is available by all means proceed according to social theory or whatever your experience suggests. There is definitely a wider debate in society pertaining to this; the value given to scientific evidence. For example in New Zealand the Chief Scientific adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, has been trying to persuade the government that scientific evidence should be given a special weighting when it can inform decision making…with some difficulty I understand.

    1. Exactly – I am an English teacher. I operate within the murky world of values and qualitative assumptions. At the same time, I understand the scientific method is the best approach we currently have for finding the truth. Therein, there is better and worse science, but when we have valid, reliable and replicating quantitative data showing something is better than something else, we should embrace it. After all, that’s how we have established the engineering and medical marvels of the modern world.

      As a society, the argument shouldn’t be ‘whose science’?, but ‘how good is the science?’. Fortunately, the science of education is already well-established. It beggars belief how beholden decision-makers in education are to ideology.

      As a postscript, when the debate is presented in these terms (content vs. skills), I think it has more traction than trad/prog., which has too many dogmatic assumptions for the layteacher. Ultimately, though it should just be about evidence, and the stone cold truth is that skills-focused education has no evidence to support it :(.

  2. It’s an interesting viewpoint Greg.

    I agree with your comment that critical thinking (using your definition) is not transferable. I think it should be called critical skills because what you are often discussing there are procedures ie: how to factorise. However, I think both ends of the argument are presenting the wrong Aim for their reasons. Yes, saying we don’t know what students will become is lazy but nor can we say that knowing Macbeth or quadratic equations will be useful to a majority of the population. We can say that public speaking, working in groups, and functional financial mathematics will be important so shouldn’t we teach these with the best methods.

    It seems that both ends have simply terrible ways to measure success with Greg having demonstrated the lack of rigour by the constructivist and society consistently demonstrating how poor over-testing (especially of generic wide-spanning international tests) is for student wellbeing and overall holistic development. Yes, you can tell me “I don’t teach holistic skills in my classroom of…..” but can you say you are teaching relevant skills. Drop-out rates, suicide statistics, etc paint a scary picture of over testing. Look at the countries that succeed here and there are some troubling numbers.

    The argument for explicit teaching is fantastic when embraced as a whole. When it is corrupted by National curriculum schemes based around a learners age rather than urgent understanding it creates a jarring disconnect that is as devastating to education as the poorly implemented PBL taught by someone without passion or understanding of the goals. While success continues to be graded on what is known rather than what has been learnt (yes there is a huge difference) the argument for either end of the spectrum is a little flawed.

    Greg your articles continue to make me think and question what I’m doing, but more and more make me wonder if rather than asking the teacher to critically assess their approach but whether the starting and end points need reassessing.

  3. I share many of your same concerns about this debate. However, I’m genuinely curious. When emphasizing content as a valuable end in itself, what should teachers do when their students can’t access that content? Deliberate practice after explicit, didactic instruction (a nicer, more academically appealing way of saying drill and kill)? Because of the paucity of time in our schools, wouldn’t it be better to provide students with content they can access?

    Also, what do you mean when you say, “It is a teacher’s responsibility to help students through this struggle, drawing on their authority and sometimes with the help of external motivators.” Authority? Are the “external motivators” you’re referring to akin to “rewards”? Can you clarify?

    It might be beneficial to provide my educational context. I work in a district where 98% of students come from low socioeconomic status backgrounds. Over 2/3s of my district are ELL. We have a mobility rate of 40%. The majority of students entering my district are scoring at the 15-20th percentile on the district local assessment. In no way am I implying that these students can’t access the grade level/appropriate content. However, it’s quite common for teachers to have students entering their classrooms reading 4-6 grade levels behind and doing math at 3-5 grade levels behind.

    1. The answer to this is complex and I certainly do not want to downplay the difficulty of your situation. Your most difficult problem of all is the high mobility which will make it hard to see things through.

      There is a small minority of students who will have a cognitive impairment which means they will never be able to access certain elements of an academic curriculum and they are likely to be present in higher numbers in areas of poverty. However, many others can make progress if taught effectively. I would be less concerned with grade level standards and more concerned with ensuring they have a good grasp of phonics, can read with fluency and can perform basic mathematical operations. Without this grounding, they will struggle to access academic content. Content should then be selected to take students to places they otherwise would not have visited. There is a huge gap between the academic vocabulary and background knowledge of kids from different backgrounds so we need to focus on building that knowledge rather than situate learning in contexts with which they are already familiar. The latter is a lost opportunity. If students cannot access a text then we need to consider teaching them what they need in order to access it. In my view, it is a fantasy that students can develop higher order, generic skills without any of these basics in place.

    2. Because of the paucity of time in our schools, wouldn’t it be better to provide students with content they can access?

      We have them for plenty of time. I’d be all for lengthening the school year, but I don’t think you’d get many takers for lengthening the school day. Getting them to do significant amounts of work at home is effectively just lengthening the school day, but ineffectively, since there are no teachers to help.

      Myself, I don’t ever struggle to teach what I am expected to teach to students who show up every day ready to go. Absenteeism and students changing schools, especially mid year is a major issue that affects learning heavily, but giving those students “access to content” isn’t really going to help those students. If anything it will continue to advantage those with strong stable home lives over those without.

  4. A mix, because exam results prove this. BUT this also depends upon the nature of the learner. For some exam classes it is active learning until the very last minute but for others active learning is too much like beating about the bush and needs to be ditched for chalk and talk. That’s the challenge; when does the teacher go aganst the school’s policy and preference for learning and ACTUALLY tailor the teaching for thier learners?

  5. Wonderfully written post. I have supervised many teachers that seem to be unaware of the bigger picture. They view their job as getting their students to the next step in the textbook without understanding the importance of teaching their students to do more than finish the chapter or prepare for the next standardized test. I also enjoyed your point about politicians in relation to education. We do not have enough people trained in education making decisions for the future of the system and this is true at many levels. Local school boards are often made up of local business leaders and parents who feel slighted by the system. This can lead to schools that try new things that are not supported by the research and work of those in educational circles. At the state and federal levels we also have decision makers who have no knowledge of the inner workings of education other than what they remember from their days of school.

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