“Seems quite traditional and outdated thinking?”
This was the challenge posed to us recently by a teacher who was commenting on a resource we shared online. I call it a resource, but it’s more a summary of some general advice about what perhaps we should or shouldn’t do in the classroom. It explores some of the things we would or wouldn’t do if we were teaching somebody to drive and calls the reader to consider the relevance of these points to the classroom environment.
It probably doesn’t take a genius to notice that we’re strong supporters of direct instruction and not huge advocates of discovery approaches to learning. I should point out from the offset that this line of thinking is as the result of our own professional learning, and not our default ‘modes’ or ‘tastes’. We’re both teachers who, during our training, were taught that the teacher is a facilitator of learning; a kind of guide who sits at the edges of the learning experience, gently guiding and questioning on occasions. As ‘constructivists’, we believed that children constructed meaning most effectively by discovering new information for themselves. We were actively discouraged from doing too much “teacher talk” in our early years of teaching – children wouldn’t learn this way. We both had a fairly dismissive attitude towards knowledge and curriculum content – we believed that our primary goal as teachers was to develop the 21st century skills the children would need in order to thrive in an ever-changing world. This perspective was felt strongly by another teacher who commented on the same thread:
“Education is all about developing the passion to learn and to discover things for themselves… otherwise we’ll never have lifelong learners.”
So what is it that has transformed us from two ‘progressive’ teachers into advocates of this “outdated” approach? There are three reasons I wanted to share
1. We’ve come to realise that you can’t think about what you don’t know
It has only been in the past two years of my teaching career that I’ve heard voices strongly and passionately talking about the value of knowledge. This was very challenging for me. I liked the idea that knowledge was unimportant. Having been educated in a system that seemingly also felt this way, my own knowledge of the world was sort of limited and it was hard to accept that perhaps I might be lacking something of use!
But here’s the thing: you can’t think about what you don’t know. A while ago I decided to be a bit of a geek and downloaded a flag-quiz app; purely because I was so useless at recognising any. Each day I’d go on to the app for a couple of minutes and learn a few more flags. As I moved through the levels, I’d enjoy the ease at which I could remember the flags in the earlier levels and liked the challenge of learning the new, harder flags. So was this just isolated, rote-learning? No. The real beauty of this simple activity was it began to change what I could see, the connections I could make, and what I noticed in the world around me. I liked learning about the meaning behind some of the symbols on flags. For example, the bird (crane) on the Ugandan flag is standing with one foot in the air. I learnt that this represents the idea of the country always moving forward and progressing. I began to spot how Islamic symbolism was prevalent on many flags of the world, which in turn developed my understanding about the countries in which Islam was the predominant faith. I noticed on the news one day that there was a march happening in Venezuela and found that I actually listened because I was so excited by the fact that I recognised the flags being waved! New knowledge had literally transformed what I could, or indeed wanted to see.
Wait a minute… wasn’t this an example of discovery learning?
First of all: I’m an adult with enough prerequisite knowledge to choose a reliable-looking app. Secondly, I wasn’t randomly discovering complex content via Google or chatting about it with novices. I was using technology to develop, rather than to outsource my memory (I’ll say more about this in a minute).
So how does this focus on the importance of knowledge apply to the driving-instruction analogy? Well, knowledge is vital in order to drive. I couldn’t just say to a learner-driver: “knowledge isn’t important, it’s the skill that matters – off you go.” The poor soul wouldn’t know where to start. They would need to know what the main parts of the car are. They’d need to know the Highway Code. They’d need to develop an understanding of every individual process over time, such as using the pedals, the gearstick, the steering wheel and so on. If I used a discovery approach for even a small portion of this content, I’d hit all sorts of barriers. Even if you ignored the clear danger of death (not so relevant to the classroom!) I would risk all sorts of misconceptions and bad habits forming if I left them to it. Instead, we advocate in the resource that we don’t start letting go as a strategy for developing the student’s independence. I learnt to drive successfully because I was heavily supported through each step and given opportunities to practise each skill along the way.
2. We’ve come to understand how memory works
In Daisy Christodoulou’s latest book ‘Teachers vs Tech’ she proposes that the reason technology has failed to have any significant outcomes on pupil attainment is because we have used tech to outsource memory, rather than to strengthen it. In the book, Christodoulou explains some key points that we have learned from cognitive science – here are some significant ones:
- Our working memory (which we use all the time) is extremely limited and easily overwhelmed.
- Our long-term memory is an incredibly powerful storehouse of seemingly infinite capacity.
- When we solve problems or do any form of ‘skill’, we’re constantly drawing upon information in our long-term memory to make the task easier. Driving is a great example of this. You do not have many demands on your short-term memory once you’re an experienced driver. Your long-term memory is doing its thing without you thinking about it: this is why you can get all the way home without remembering much from the journey!
- When we outsource knowledge to the internet, we force the working memory to be overwhelmed. I loved this hilarious tweet I saw recently which illustrates the point beautifully:
In this example, the tweeter spent so much time ‘googling’ the meaning of words in the recipe, the cooking experience was not one to be enjoyed. If she had more knowledge of American foods in her long-term memory, she’d be able to do the skill of cooking with much more ease! When it comes to the classroom, the more that children just ‘know’, the more that their working memories can be freed up to enjoy the actual experience. Daisy talks about the example of reading in a recent podcast she did with us, which you can listen to here: link.chtbl.com/KnowledgeIsPower. Daisy explains how reading should be a pleasurable experience, but for many children this is disrupted by the fact that they can’t make sense of so much of the vocabulary or the content itself.
3. A lot of our teaching methods that look ‘constructivist’ really aren’t
Most educators would agree that children construct meaning, and that this is essential. Clare Sealy recently explored the importance of ‘meaning-making’ in a wonderful blog: https://primarytimery.com/2020/06/09/how-to-speak-truthfully-about-what-it-means-to-be-human-a-users-handbook/
Constructivist theories are the basis of so much teacher-training material. But at the heart of the issue is this: which teaching methods are most effective in helping children to construct meaning? Richard Mayer talks about this in his article, “Should There Be a Three-Strikes Rule Against Pure Discovery Learning?”:
“The constructivist teaching fallacy is that the only way to achieve constructivist learning is through active methods of teaching … In contrast, my hypothesis in this article is that a variety of instructional methods can lead to constructivist learning … a challenge facing educational researchers is to discover instructional methods that promote appropriate processing in learners rather than methods that promote hands-on activity or group discussion as ends in themselves.”
In the article Mayer draws upon research which solidly indicates that children do not construct meaning more effectively by discovering it for themselves. This is a big challenge to what has become quite a conventional view in education. Many of us were taught to the contrary, and I think this is why our resource was called “outdated”.
I think we need to stop leaping at the idea that teaching methods involving the teacher talking or explaining something are in some way old-fashioned or obsolete. I have observed many lessons where teachers seem scared to just tell the children something because they have had it drilled into them that children don’t learn that way. The truth is that the teacher is the qualified person in the room and unashamedly, the expert. They shouldn’t be scared to explain – that is their job! I know that the driving analogy isn’t perfect (is any analogy?) but we stand by the resource as a useful think-piece – if nothing else – about how we best take our students on a journey of learning towards a complex outcome. The end goal for me is the same as my critics: I want life-long learners. We might just disagree on what the journey should look like.