A quick introduction to the education debatePosted: August 6, 2017
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.