Two years ago, Stuart Lock posted a blog based upon a talk he had given titled, “Pedagogy is overrated.” I agree with much of what Lock wrote and the purpose of this post is not to rebut it. Particularly in England, too much focus had been placed on often gimmicky ideas about teaching and too little attention had been placed on the curriculum. This is epitomised by the invalid and unreliable practice of grading lesson observations; a practice that was ubiquitous until sustained pressure caused a change in policy by the English schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted.
However, I still believe that teaching methods are of critical importance and I wish to explain why.
The thing that really matters about education is what it is that is retained by the person being educated. We can frame this in a number of ways, but one useful way of thinking about it is: what schema have been created, grown and maintained in long-term memory? Schema are interconnected webs of ideas – think of a big and complex concept map.
As I have implied, schema are dynamic. They can grow, they can change and they can fade. Most of the business of education involves hanging things on to preexisting schema, although this may also be the cause of some significant misconceptions.
We cannot directly observe schemas. Maybe one day we will be able to do this with some advanced form of brain imaging, but right now we have to use the proxy of assessment. If you want to find out what schemas are present in someone’s head then you need to ask them questions. However, it is not sufficient to do this once, due to the dynamic natures of schemas.
An effective educational process therefore involves assessment across a range of times, not least because assessment has a dual role in that is also helps embed the schema being assessed. When initially teaching a concept, teachers may ask questions to clarify which schema are already present, whether students are successfully assigning new concepts the the right schema, whether they actually understand what the teacher is trying to say and so on. However, just because they answer all these questions correctly, this does not mean that this schema will be present in the future. So you need regular short assessments and later synoptic assessments.
Lock suggested that a focus on teaching methods had resulted in a neglect of curriculum. There are efforts in England to right this wrong that are being spearheaded by a reformed Ofsted. However, curriculum alone is not enough.
Imagine two classrooms. In the first classroom, students are being directly taught concepts relating to the English Civil War. The teacher is in full story-telling mode, pausing only to ask questions of the students and clarify. In the second classroom, students are working in groups to complete a card-sort about the English Civil War. At times, they are able to connect cards due to surface features e.g. “these two statements relate to a battle”. Some of the students rely on others doing the work for them and the teacher focuses on the ‘skill’ of collaboration.
Ignoring any subsequent lessons or assessments, we can be pretty sure that the first group is likely to build better schema about the English Civil War than the second group. And yet both teachers could, to some extent, claim to have delivered the same curriculum.
This is what we see when calls for a knowledge-rich curriculum are met with, ‘But we have always taught knowledge’. It is also the tactic deployed by advocates of so-called ‘balanced literacy’ which is simply a rebranding of whole language reading instruction. In this approach, phonics is notionally a part of the curriculum, it is just that students are meant to pick it up implicitly rather than be explicitly taught letter-sound relationships. No, in this case the curriculum is certainly not identical to that of a rigorous phonics programme, but the passing reference to phonics in the balanced literacy curriculum is a useful fig leaf for those who wish to defend it.
I cannot bring myself to call teaching methods ‘pedagogy’ for many of the same reasons Lock dislikes the term, but from what I have written above, you can see that I think teaching methods are pretty central. Curriculum, teaching methods and, oddly, assessment are the inputs, with assessment also being one of the outputs. Despite agreeing with Lock that teaching methods vary across subjects, there is clear evidence to favour more explicit and direct approaches. A generic skill of ‘teaching’ makes sense if we think of teaching as a biologically primary process, something that seems likely given its prevalence across all human cultures, whether formal or not.
So no, we may not be able to validly and reliably give a grade or score to teaching, but not everything that matters can be measured (or maybe not measured yet). And teaching methods still matter.