Can teaching cause learning?Posted: November 9, 2017 Embed from Getty Images
In The Conversation today, there is an article by Vaughan Prain and Russell Tytler that takes aim at ‘simplistic advice to teachers on how to teach’. I have some sympathy for the reservations they express about effect sizes because I also have reservations about the way that these are used. However, if readers are left with the impression that Hattie-style effect size tables are the only evidence we have for explicit teaching then that would be unfortunate because there is a wealth of evidence from a diverse range of studies; something that Rosenshine makes clear in this important piece. I think that the main issue is, perhaps, that many in academia, and the authors in particular, don’t really like the idea that explicit instruction is effective. It is at odds with the constructivist teaching philosophy that still permeates education faculties and in the social sciences, it is always possible to suggest that things might be more complex than we assume.
As might be expected, Tytler and Prain go the well-worn route of suggesting that we also need to teach reifications such as creativity, critical thinking and problem solving, implying that strategies such as explicit instruction are inadequate to meet this aim. Yet all the evidence suggests that these abilities are not discrete and are largely an emergent property of knowing a great deal about a particular subject. See, for instance, Dan Willingham on critical thinking or Tricot and Sweller on problem solving. The author’s claim that, “Explicit teaching… [is] effective in teaching basic skills, but less so for advanced creative problem-solving,” is one that I would dispute. To support their view, they link to an article by the Australian Literacy Educators Association that has not been peer-reviewed. Such as strong assertion requires far more robust evidence.
So far, however, we have encountered little that is new. All of this is to be expected from Australian education academics. For instance, I empathised with Michael Salter’s summary of the authors’ argument in the comments:
“…we know now that explicit teaching methods are more effective (as if any experienced teacher was unaware of this), but for a variety of nebulous reasons, we will continue to promote the usual constructivist canards in education degrees and/or teacher training courses, chiefly for ideological reasons.”
There is, perhaps, a grain of truth in that.
And it is in the comments where we find an idea that I am keen to highlight; something that perhaps illustrates the disconnect between academia, policy makers and the wider public. It is a comment by Scott Webster, a senior lecturer at Deakin University, and it contains this claim:
“The underlying assumption [of government department that promote particular strategies] is that teaching causes learning – but it doesn’t and can’t. Learning (whatever that might be) is something students do and of course as [the authors] argue, human persons are complex.”
The idea that teaching does not, and indeed cannot, cause learning is extraordinary. I understand that causation is a favourite topic of debate among philosophers but this particular idea is baffling. When challenged, Webster suggests:
“I could share with you several classrooms I have experienced where walking in the doorway and being immediately attacked and abused for being ‘white’ even before I opened my mouth would offer some challenge to your belief that somehow I could ‘cause’ those students to learn by simply applying something like High Impact Teaching Strategies.”
I am no philosopher, but I see a flaw in this argument. I am sure we can all think of instances where teaching will not cause learning. Perhaps the teacher speaks in a language that the students don’t understand or perhaps a bee enters the classroom and consumes the attention of the students. Neither of these examples demonstrate that teaching cannot cause learning. In my view, it manifestly does. We don’t need to run randomised controlled trials to demonstrate that. If not, what are we doing? What’s the point?
There is probably some arcane argument to justify this stance but my view is that its transparent absurdity makes it hard for anyone to engage with if they have not been initiated into the appropriate ideology. However, I can certainly see the value in thinking like this. If you believe that teaching cannot cause learning then explicit instruction simply won’t work, no matter what evidence is presented to show that it does. If you believe that teaching cannot cause learning then you might be more inclined to pursue problem-based learning, discovery learning and all those other methods that ask teachers to get out of the way and shut-up.
As the Queen in Through the Looking Glass suggests, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Perhaps that’s where the disconnect lies. Here we all are in the real world, trying to teach kids stuff, whereas some education academics have gone down a rabbit hole or through the looking glass.