Locked in my own head

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir,? J.M. Keynes

In my last post, I observed that if we are expecting the blogosphere (one day) to deliver answers by way of improving education, I think we are going to be disappointed. In many ways, it is a fantastic device for professional discourse, and it has enriched my own professional experience very greatly, causing me to consider many issues and outlooks that I might not otherwise have encountered.

But the operative word is ‘consider’ – for ultimately the benchmark by which I evaluate what I encounter is always my own prior understanding of learning. Nothing that I have yet seen has carried sufficient objective robustness to demolish those preconceptions to the extent that a total rethink has proved necessary.

There are those who would probably argue that this is just evidence of my fixed mindset – or at least inflexibility. Those of a scientific bent might well argue that my own preconceptions simply should not come into it: what we should be looking for are scientific truths about what works in education, and if the weight of evidence is against me, then I should change my views. All well and good – but just where is the evidence that does carry that level of confidence? I’m still waiting…

I am not going to say that people are wrong to seek greater rigour in education – but I think that the attempt to build a generalised definition of good practice risks diverting us from the place we really need to be looking. Even the most dispassionate of scientists amongst us cannot escape the realities of the educational world: when we deal with (young) people, we are operating in the social and human domain, for which scientific approaches may just prove too technically precise; those soppy soft skills may actually be better. As my afternoon lesson today showed all too well, there are times when trying to be efficiently scientific in the way one deals with a situation simply do not produce the expected results….

While it may be perfectly possible to share good practice when it comes to class management, this is not at all the same as the cognitive process that is Learning. They may be related in the school setting but the former is a logistical exercise in people-management that comes about simply because society chooses to educate its young in groups where their collective behavioural dynamic needs to be steered. The latter, by contrast, is an invisible cerebral process that takes place solely within the brain of the individual, even though it is of course capable of outward expression. Much of the discussion of what constitutes good or successful teaching risks conflating these two elements.

It is a simple existential truth that at one level, each of us is locked inside our own head. For all that we can communicate with each other, each person’s experience of this world is entirely unique to them and not directly sharable with any other. Therefore the only kind of learning  of which we can gain any direct experience is our own. Even that is not easy, because the process can elude even the individual concerned, with the fact that learning did take place (possibly in a highly convoluted way) only becoming apparent in hindsight. So how much more difficult is it to make confident assertions about what or how others have learned, when we have not the slightest ability to know what really goes on in their heads?

I suspect that this is why educational discussion largely remains mired in a mass of anecdote, subjectivity and emotional (over?) reaction  – mine included. The inescapable fact is that the reference base-line is our own knowledge and experience of what it means to learn, as experienced by us and us alone. And why not? This is the only reasonably tangible experience we actually have to go on. Therefore, when we read something that brings new information, the prime reality-check is whether it fits with our own experiences or not; it may also explain the depth of feeling that debates on these issues often generate. A discussion of teaching and learning cannot help but be a discussion of our own core values and life-experiences – and who is going to dare to stand up and judge who is ‘right’ and who not on matters such as those?

I think this issue does, however, have more than philosophical implications. It means that if we want to understand the nature of learning, we perhaps need to spend less time in conferences and webinars and more time looking inwards at our own experiences as successful learners. The best thing to do to ensure that you do not go stale as a teacher is simply to keep learning yourself – and then taking the time to reflect as rationally as possible on what that process means.

To my mind, learning is not some kind of rarefied and elusive thing – it is the most natural, even common thing that the brain can do – arguably its raison d’etre. A life spent playing computer games or at the roulette table will not be devoid of learning; nor will a life spent in the company of criminals. This is not to say, of course, that all types of learning are equally useful or socially desirable – and I would suggest that some forms of activity are more learning-dense than others. But be that as it may, one of the most important things we can do as teachers is to reflect on our own experiences, and then to replicate them (possibly in modified form) in a way that will help others to follow the same path.

The implication of this is that one’s classroom style is probably inseparable from one’s own psyche and outlook; it may have consequences for the success that different teachers have with different pupils, and perhaps the way that such matches are made. But I would suggest that it is simply impossible to separate any individual from the way their own brain works. It is impossible fundamentally to think in any way other than your own – though this need not mean that one’s thinking is incapable of evolution over time. The trick is to understand how that happens.

The logical conclusion is that we need to accept that teachers are what they are when it comes to their teaching style; while we may reasonably make judgments about their effectiveness with respect to the various proxies we use for learning, people can only really teach in the way they do. It also means that, in the interests of fairness and accuracy, we need to be very wary of the limitations of those proxies in judging the real effect of a teacher on his or her pupils.

It means that any attempt to define ‘better’ and worse’ ways of teaching is a futile exercise, partly because there are just too many to categorise usefully – and partly because learning itself is so diverse and personal a process that it is impossible to judge what works and what doesn’t in any universal sense.

Finally, this might also allow us to achieve a degree of peace in the ever-churning cauldron of conscience regarding what we ’ought to do’, and how we justify it. There will be as many acceptable answers as there are reflective practitioners. My conclusions that traditional methods work best (for me – and hopefully my pupils) derive purely from my own experience, and there is little that can match that experience when it comes to individual decision-making.

In my case, my continuous learning has been in the fields of my musical and model-making activities (and much reading), all of which are learning-dense and where I constantly put myself in the shoes of the learner. For example, when I started learning the violin several years ago, I took online lessons which I followed roughly weekly – with associated practice. While I did have some useful prior experience (the mandolin shares a lot with the violin), there is no doubt in my  mind that progress was most rapid and focused when I was being shown precisely what to do, and given exercises to allow me repeatedly to imitate and develop. There were aspects of technique that I simply would have not discovered – at least nowhere near as quickly and accurately as by being shown them by an expert.

In recent years, I have stopped the lessons, and have allowed my ‘learning’ to be more serendipitous and self-guided. The result is that I have made nowhere near as much progress as I was doing under tuition; I have fallen into some bad habits and have probably not developed the degree of further proficiency that might have been expected. While learning through ‘idle play’ is less pressurised and in some ways more pleasurable, it is simply not delivering the results of a more formal programme – despite the fact that I do now have a degree of proficiency that I can bring to bear on the matter.

I am certainly not going to claim that this is cast-iron proof that direct instruction always works best, although I have had a couple of other recent experiences where ‘guide on the side’ style teaching has simply left me feeling I had never got to grips with the nuts-and-bolts of the topic we were supposedly studying.

According to my own logic, there will be as many answers to this question as there are people asking it – but I would suggest that I really don’t need much more evidence or justification for why I hold the views I do, and why I teach the way I do. It is also why attempts to create consensus about what is great teaching (whether online or elsewhere) stand about as much chance of success as those of defining great Art.

While we do have a responsibility to consider the individual needs of our students, I think it is perhaps unrealistic to expect teachers to operate in ways that make no personal sense to them, any more than we do artists. And we need to accept that this is all the justification that can, or needs to be given.


7 thoughts on “Locked in my own head

  1. I would argue that the extent to which someone’s practice can be improved by reading about evidence depends on what that practice was like to start with. Similarly, it will also depend on the subject and age groups being taught. Drama teachers are unlikely to be affected by the evidence about the relative ineffectiveness of group work in teaching maths, for example.

    Secondary schools are, in comparison to primary schools, relatively insulated from the pressure to use less effective teaching methods, because of the need to produce good GCSE results. Also, the younger the child, the more powerful the romantic view that children should always learn ‘naturally’, and the more likely parents are to accept it.

    The evidence against the methods preferred by the education establishment is strongest for the teaching of the basics, in my opinion. I am thinking here of reading, spelling, maths and the ability to write coherently and correctly. For example, since systematic phonics replaced the literacy strategy, the numbers passing the key stage 1 reading comprehension tests have risen by 5 percentage points in as many years, from their previous plateau; 8 percentage points in 3 years for children with SEN.

    The huge resistance from educationalists, and from many teachers, to the substantial body of evidence supporting explicit phonics teaching succeeded in delaying its introduction for a number of years. This is a shocking indictment of the dishonest tactics used by education academics and others to discredit that research over the years. And many schools are still resistant to teaching phonics properly.

    My problem with the idea that the best way to improve one’s teaching is to look within, is that this was/is one of the main arguments used to resist using phonics. That, and the certainty (produced partly by confirmation bias) that previous methods “work”, without considering that the question should actually be what works BEST).

    Phonics does not appear to be an isolated case here. There is also evidence pointing toward likely ways to improve the primary school teaching of maths, writing and spelling, along with the usefulness of explicitly teaching vocabulary and knowledge of the world if we wish to improve reading comprehension. All of these involve methods frowned on by educationalists.

    A book I found very helpful on these issues was written by an academic in psychology, Carol Tarvis. It’s called Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me, and deals with the problem of self-serving cognitive biases in the professions, how professionals over-estimate their own judgment, and how these problems can sometimes be hugely damaging to the people professionals are trying to help. It’s well-written and very illuminating, and certainly made me think.

    • Thanks for this. I was aware that this post probably raises more questions than answers – but it would have been ridiculously long had I tried to cover them all. I thought I’d throw it out there and see what response it got…

      My point was that our own learning is the only direct experience of that process that anyone can ever have. But the introspection needs to be directed pragmatically and honestly at understanding what we found/find worked for us – and that it inevitably will form almost inescapable part of how we ourselves teach. It does require a high level of self-awareness, motivation and intellectual honesty. I was not suggesting that our internal ideologies and preconceptions are what we should be relying on, and I know it can be very difficult to separate the two.

      It is very hard to provide external evidence for this, but that should not invalidate the point. Yet such experiences are frequently dismissed as prejudiced or ‘unscientific’. I’m certainly not suggesting that external observations can never explain those experiences, nor that our ideas cannot therefore develop. But the chances of the profession ever agreeing on universal good practice while this is the limiting reality are vanishingly slim.

      I certainly agree that subject and age group are relevant here. Where teaching core skills is concerned, it’s probably easier to ascertain whether such skills have indeed been learned by simple observation. That may provide more concrete evidence that some teaching techniques work better than others. It is more difficult where one needs to distinguish between knowledge, understanding and ‘mere’ facts – and at higher levels of study more generally.

      But even with core skill learning, I think we should beware over-confidence in claims made for one technique over another. While it is fairly clear who can read and who can’t, accurately assessing *how well* in terms of comprehension is not so clear-cut. And there is still the small matter that the only person who really experiences the learning is the learner – no matter how many proxy indicators are devised by external agencies. It is inescapable.

      As for the need of secondary schools to produce good G.C.S.E. results: well that’s hardly worth disputing – but I would still say that this is not inevitably the same as generating good, real learning. I encounter plenty of pupils with good exam results who still seem to have not to have *understood* or who long-term *know* (as opposed to short-term memorised) very much at all.

    • I’ve taken a couple of days to ponder this more after first reading it.

      I agree with the fundamental premise that we are forever having to compare what we are told is apparently the case with what our perception of reality tells us is so. In some cases this is easier to digest than others, and we do it reasonably easily. (“The Sun goes round the Earth? Really? Ok.”)

      With things going on inside the human mind however things are less clear. It was not on a whim that the Behaviourists of the 20th Century decided that anything other than outward behaviour simply couldn’t be studied scientifically. Add to that the fact that it is rare in education for us to agree with absolute precision what it is we are trying to achieve in the mind of a child and things get murkier still.

      I think that there is something quite true in Chris Nicholson’s point about the starting point of someone’s practice being relevant as to whether they can improve it by reading about it. If they always teach a subject through getting people to copy details from the board, and then they read that it can be more effective for them to also ask some questions about the material, then they can clearly change to that format. What might be up for grabs is whether they BELIEVE it will genuinely make it better or not, and here assessment data might sway them – if they are content that the assessment data is measuring something relevant to what they are aiming for in the first place.

      Things start to become more uncertain however as things become more subtle and more interpersonal. It may be that the recommended change is to increase the amount of discussion in the lesson, and there may come a point here where, due to their natural way of doing things, even if they believe that this would be an improvement, the teacher simply doesn’t have the right mix of interpersonal skills to make this work the way it could, and they would indeed be better teaching in a way which is more in tune with their strengths.

      For sure, any teacher could have some training in getting the most out of discussions – but this training will be more effective with an on the scene expert, rather than from a book, and any of us will have limits regarding what we can do with such an approach, because we’re starting to dip our hands directly into that hidden, personal world of the learner which TP talks about.

      There is clearly going to be an intersect point where what we are told to do as teachers crosses beyond what we can credibly believe is a better way of doing things – whatever the research data shows. There is also clearly going to be a personal intersect point where the level of technique required in a strategy means that a given teacher is no longer going to be as effective if they pursue this strategy – even if other teachers are more effective using it.

      This will be particularly so – and particularly dangerous to force matters with – if the techniques that we are asking teachers to swap between involve a high degree of getting stuck-in interpersonally with pupils.

      I’m shortly going to be posting a pretty weighty attempt to map out a way forward for ‘Evidence-Informed’ practice – trying to get a better grip on how we can match-up scientific generalisations and professional experience. I’ll link to this post and your thoughts in that if you don’t mind – and perhaps come back to this and stick a link to that here as well.

      Thanks 🙂

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