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.