This week, I spoke to Daisy Christodoulou for my new podcast. Daisy is one of the smartest people I know involved in education and so it’s no surprise that I’ve been left with a few issues to think about as a result of our exchange.
At one point, we discussed the teaching of writing. In her new book, Teachers versus Tech, Daisy argues that we have fallen into the trap of setting up a false choice between teaching students rules for writing and just letting them write. Daisy suggests that these two seemingly opposite methods often go hand in hand – eg in genre-based writing curriculums – and what we actually need to give students to help them progress is carefully sequenced examples and tasks related to those examples.
To illustrate the issue, Daisy noted that when she was teaching, pretty much all students would state, if asked, that sentences should start with a capital letter, and yet many of them did not start sentences with a capital letter in their own writing. It’s as if there is a step missing.
This brought to mind two ideas I’ve been thinking about. The first is what we may call default explicit teaching. This is the kind of teaching I defaulted to early in my career when I realised the methods I was meant to employ simply didn’t work. Briefly, I would explain a concept or two or three, maybe model an example – although I didn’t appreciate their importance at the time – then ask students to complete a task.
Highly effective explicit teaching, as captured well in Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, is different to this. We could summarise it as proceeding in three phases: I do, we do, you do. Default explicit teaching has very little ‘we do’ and I have found that highly controlled micro practice with tight, concurrent feedback is the most challenging aspect of explicit teaching to first appreciate and then implement.
It’s through cycling through ‘I do’ and ‘we do’ that the capital letters issue is addressed. However, you have to get down to the nuts and bolts. You cannot talk in abstract terms. It’s not about exhortation. It has to be doggedly procedural.
Understandings such as this are what drive Filling the Pail. I am angry about the default explicit teaching I used to employ because I was not given a better alternative. Instead of learning about effective explicit teaching I was being encouraged to differentiate or set-up inquiry based learning experiences. And those were the more sensible suggestions. I wasn’t as good a teacher as I could have been and my students deserved better.
But another idea also springs to mind from this discussion – one I hadn’t really considered before. Knowing that sentences begin with capital letters is the kind of thing mathematics education researchers call ‘conceptual knowledge’ or, more broadly, ‘understanding’. And you can see why. A teacher turns up, explains something to their students, they understand it and feel they have learnt something and the teacher feels they have taught something. But none of it really matters if the students cannot put this understanding to use.
We tend to overemphasise conceptual understanding in mathematics when what it actually looks like is a series of rules and declarative statements. We say students don’t understand the principle of equivalence ie they don’t understand that a “=” sign means “the same as” and instead think it means “and the answer is”.
If we merely teach them to give back to us the correct definition of the equals sign, we haven’t achieved anything much. None of it matters until they can put this principle into practice to solve equations. Nothing matters until we get down to the procedural nuts and bolts.
A fuller understanding of the world should always be our goal as educators, but there are no shortcuts and the route is full of hard, detailed work. Be on the lookout for those capital letters.