I am currently in a reflective mood and I have been thinking about is what it is that I stand for. I have argued before that you should be suspicious of those who apparently stand for nothing and only ever question. They have an agenda too, but for some reason they are hiding it from you. In contrast, I think my agenda is pretty clear. Nonetheless, from time to time, it is worth rethinking and restating our positions.
To this end, there are four issues that define my writing and the purpose of this blog.
1. Teacher professionalism
Teaching is the Cinderella profession. We are not a true profession because we do not regulate ourselves and we are not the ones who are in charge of creating and defining teachers’ professional knowledge. Everyone has been to school and everyone has an opinion, a phenomenon that often characterises education stories in the mainstream press, even if there are some great education journalists out there. If anything, we are even more badly served by our trade magazines which often seem driven by the desire to sell edtech or to platform consultants.
However, things are changing. There is a grassroots movement on social media, through Twitter and blogs, that involves teachers speaking to other teachers directly, avoiding the traditional gatekeepers. With the advent of researchED, we have seen a global awakening focused on connecting teachers to the best education research. I know that many teachers have felt empowered by a better understanding of research because they often write to me to tell me this. Which leads to the second issue…
2. Quality research
A great deal of education research is not worth the time of the person who conducted it, particularly much of the research that follows current trends in sociology. It is of no use at all to teachers who are seeking to improve their practice and it has no wish to be.
Beyond the genuinely pointless stuff, there is a vast swathe of literature that attempts to answer important questions that matter to teachers, but that uses flawed approaches to doing so. Look for the confounds. Look for the research that could only ever deliver a result in one direction. Look for research that extends the definitions of concepts into new territory in order to deliver forgone conclusions. These problems don’t disappear if you mush all this bad research together in a dodgy meta-analysis.
However, there is again reason for optimism. Although I have been critical of the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation and, by extension, its Australian offshoot, Evidence for Learning, at least we now have well-funded organisations committed to running randomised controlled trials in education. I am also hopeful that as the process of teachers professionalising themselves gathers pace, more will be persuaded to conduct their own serious-minded research.
3. Explicit teaching
My own research journey began when I read Hattie’s Visible Learning through which I chased down a reference to Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s 2006 paper, Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Up until this point, I knew the evidence suggested that inquiry-style forms of teaching were more effective, but I had never been able to make them work. Once I read this paper, I realised that this was not what the evidence suggested and I wondered how I had been led to think that is was. Now, instead of it being a guilty secret, I could actively seek ways of making my explicit teaching style more effective.
Significantly, explicit teaching is a whole system, not a part of a lesson. It is about the gradual release of control from the teacher to the students. It is the process of I do, we do, you do and all the complicated details involved in working out the most effective way to manage that process for different subject matter and different students. Rosenshine sums it up well.
The first post on my now defunct, Webs of Substance, blog was titled ’21st century knowledge’ and was a call to refocus the curriculum on knowledge. Knowledge has therefore been a driving force for me from day one. Academic skills such as reading and calculation are important, but they originate in knowledge and essentially represent the fluent application of knowledge held in long-term memory. Many other constructs that commentators proffer as generic skills are either not skills at all, or the generic component is trivial compared with the subject knowledge needed to deploy the skill.
There is a large potential opportunity cost in attempts to place an ever greater focus on (non)skills such as critical thinking, creativity, entrepreneurship and so on, and yet this seems to be the direction of travel for Australia’s curriculum reforms.
Plenty of work to be done
I think we are making progress on teacher professionalism and the quality of education research, even if we are not even past the end of the beginning when it comes to addressing these issues. I also get a sense that explicit teaching has become less of a bogeyman in recent years. The term is even quite popular in Australia, but I wonder whether this is because people think it is some discrete thing they can dip in and out of on occasion, or something that suits a narrow range of objectives. The education establishment is quite capable of absorbing words and making them mean the opposite of what they actually mean (e.g. ‘fluency’ and mathematics). The knowledge agenda is an interesting one. It is not something that even registers in Australia, where critical thinking is all the rage, but the English school system seems to be charging off in this direction at a pace. Perhaps that will allow us to draw useful contrasts in time.