The Pendulum

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Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s assume, as people often claim, that education is a pendulum that swings from one extreme to another.

This is certainly one way of viewing what has happened in England – but definitely not Australia – over the last ten years. Back in 2007, England had a new national curriculum that was light on content and heavy on generic skills, a little like the Australian Curriculum today. Around this time, Ofsted was beginning to enforce a particular teaching style by criticising teacher-talk and promoting the idea of students working in groups, solving problems and making decisions.

Today, the climate in England is very different. The academic establishment still appears to lean towards progressive ideology under the guise of constructivism, student-centred learning or inquiry learning and by promoting generic skills. However, they no longer hold sway in the same way. Ofsted no longer attacks teacher-led approaches and the free-school and academy movement seems to have enabled schools to experiment and pursue traditional curricula and explicit teaching.

But here’s the fear: Perhaps we risk replacing a mediocre progressivism with a mediocre traditionalism. All sides of the education debate are sometimes guilty of dismissing negative evidence with the suggestion that, ‘the teachers weren’t doing it properly’. No doubt, die hard progressive educators are just as convinced as they ever were, attributing any failures to implementation issues. Will traditionalists soon find themselves in the same position? Perhaps mediocre knowledge organisers and one-way, non-interactive lectures will proliferate as people latch on to the fashion for the explicit teaching of knowledge without quite understanding it. Will traditionalism fail and will traditionalists start making excuses about implementation?

I don’t think so, for two reasons.

1. Default teacher-led instruction is better than default student-centred instruction

It seems that everyday, bog-standard explicit teaching approaches simply work better than the alternative. If all we manage to do is is shift the mass of teachers to a more explicit approach, even one that is not the optimal form, we will probably make gains.

The evidence for this sits in some of the international data collected by the PISA and TIMSS programmes. For instance, one analysis of TIMSS science and maths teaching showed that teacher who used a ‘lecture style’ were more effective than those who utilised lots of group work. This is echoed in PISA 2010 and 2015 where better maths and science scores were generally associated with greater amounts of teacher-led instruction – except for the very highest amounts of teacher direction – and the use of student-centred and inquiry methods were generally associated with worse scores.

2. Teachers have changed

The pendulum theory assumes that the power and communication structures of teaching stay stable. I sense that, in England at least, there has been a significant shift that will be hard to row back from. The researchED movement, as well as other teacher-led groups, have started to take control of the profession for themselves. Teachers no longer face being told what to do by managers and consultants without the means to question or challenge. They now have resources to draw upon. Ironically, teachers have started to educate themselves, making up for the lost opportunity of so much training and professional development.

This is speculative, but I hope and perhaps believe that this will lead to a form of self-correction. Before dodgy implementations of fashionable ideas spread like grass-fires, there will hopefully be informed teachers – people like you – who will be able to ask the right questions in order to nudge things back on track.

And this is what I hope for Australia. We may be starting a little further back but we might not need to travel the same long journey as England. Social media means that we can swap ideas across the sea. There may not be many of us, yet. But we are starting to ask questions.

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