Four easy steps to improve teaching

I was going to write a blog post today but then we discovered two mixer taps at my place that were leaking and so I had to fix those. Instead, I offer a post from my old websofsubstance blog from October 2014. Most of the links were dead so I have taken them out.

The problem we face in the teaching profession is that we don’t really know what we are doing. Of course, nobody really and truly knows what they are doing, but doctors and engineers have the edge on us here; they at least have some pretty sound, well-accepted principles that they can rely on. I sometimes tell my senior students that most people in the world are fools who are just winging it and the worst fools are those who are in charge of important things. Important things like companies and governments tend to be complex and so you need to be quite deluded to think that you can pull this lever over here and a certain thing will happen over there. And yet we let these people pull levers, break everything and walk off with all of our money.

Given that we don’t really know what we are doing in teaching, we tend to overemphasise things that are easy to measure or observe. I once heard a – presumably apocryphal – story about a city banker who, when he arrived at work, would feel the front of his underlings’ cars. The idea was that if the car was still warm then the banker had not arrived early enough for work and must be a bit lazy. This is the sort of thing that I mean.

My argument is that, in teaching, this has led us to focus too much on some aspects of our craft while gently neglecting others. My case is not black and white. I am going to suggest that we should focus less on some things even though I still think that they are quite important. Not paying attention to them at all would also be a big mistake. I am arguing for a new balance.

1. We should focus less on who we are teaching

I was taught by a student teacher for a few weeks when I was studying GCSE Science in England. He came into our class and wrote, “surfactants and surface active agents,” on the board. Not only that, he also expected us to have some idea of what this meant. He had woefully misjudged the class and had not properly considered who he would be teaching. This is a classic error for a new teacher, but it is quite extreme.

I have also been in a situation where a science teacher was expected to know what all of her students achieved in an English exam three years earlier. Apparently, this knowledge is essential to being able to plan appropriately to meet the needs of all of the students in her class. This is the other extreme. Exactly how would the lesson plan be different if we knew Charlie was at level four rather than level five? Indeed, we might even lower our expectations if we are aware of lots of previous low scores and we all know the dangers of low expectations.

Some educators also think that different students learn in different ways and that we should cater to that. However, as Dan Willingham writes, “Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.” The idea that students possess different learning styles that need to be catered for has been comprehensively debunked.

Detailed planning is easy for managers, consultants and the like to request and to scrutinise. It’s pretty clear to see if such planning includes nods towards differentiation and whether teachers have filled-in boxes with students’ prior attainment data. This is the problem; looking for this stuff is used a a proxy for good teaching and yet there is little evidence to suggest that it’s a good proxy.

2. We should focus less on how we are teaching

I have written many words on this blog about different ways of teaching. However, with the exception of phonics, this has usually been to argue against mandation rather than in favour of it. For instance, I am no fan of group work and I have outlined my reasons but I would not seek to prevent others from utilising it. I would hold teachers accountable for the results.

Yes, I do think that teaching approaches are important. However, they suffer from being easily observable and are therefore far too high-profile. It is this that leads to us being plagued with exhortations for teachers to talk for a maximum of ten minutes or check progress every twenty minutes and so on.

I tend to think that most people come up with pretty decent teaching approaches without too much prompting. We have all been to school and so we tend to try to replicate what we found most effective and what suits us as teachers. Indeed, I think that some pedagogies are so ineffective that they require coercion to perpetuate and I believe that a lack coercion would lead to a mass breaking-out of common sense. I’m all for that.

We can also better select between teaching approaches if we pay more attention to my next two points.

3. We should focus more on what we are teaching

A major problem we face is when teachers do not think enough about the content that they intend to teach. To teach something, you need to know it in great detail. You need to know what comes before it, after it and beside it.

A lack of knowledge leads to maths teachers who only teach procedures without explaining how the procedures work (because you can’t explain what you don’t understand). It leads to history teachers who are so focused on a source that they cannot provide background detail or answer basic questions about the attendant history. It leads to English teachers who don’t understand grammar.

However, if you spend the majority of your planning time thinking about the content and selecting or producing appropriate resources then the teaching approach often chooses itself. “Oh,” you’ll think, “I’ll need to demonstrate that,” or “I’ll need to explain that carefully,” or “They’ll need plenty of practice at doing that,” or even, “They might need to debate that so that they are exposed to different perspectives.”

4. We should focus more on getting feedback on our teaching

And finally – perhaps most importantly of all – we should seek feedback on the success of our teaching. Most teachers, even when explicitly instructed to do otherwise, tend to view feedback solely as advice that they give to students. However, an extremely effective form of feedback is when students reflect back to us the evidence of what they have learnt. This might happen when we mark tests or books or it might happen in the classroom when we ask questions or ask students to write an answer on their mini-whiteboards.

If the teaching has hit the wrong note, like my GCSE Science teacher’s did, then we’ll rapidly become aware of it. And this kind of information is far more powerful than anything we could divine in prior attainment data because it will be specific to the task in hand and much more relevant to what the students are trying to learn. It is at this micro-scale – a scale that you could not hope to capture with even the most complex assessment system – that effective instructional decisions are made. It is this that will enable you to respond to the actual students in front of you rather than some abstracted notion of them.

And again, teaching approaches will suggest themselves either because you will need to return to certain concepts or because you will need to build low stakes assessment into how you run your class.

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4 thoughts on “Four easy steps to improve teaching

  1. I presented at a Science Club and my best lesson was with surfactants. From the lady at Hobby Craft helping me spend the bare minimum on soap materials to the production line manufacturing process and sense of purpose that seemed to take over the wide age range of kids on the day. Of course I have had epic fails but it is how you cope that is key.

    Finally I would take issue with: “we don’t really know what we are doing. Of course, nobody really and truly knows what they are doing” I assume you are talking about Australian Rules Football

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