The Future of Teaching, And the Myths that Hold It Back
Updated: Apr 20, 2021
My new book is out on 29th April – yippee! It’s called The Future of Teaching and the Myths that Hold It Back. The first part of the title is the positive bit: it’s clear that, to give young people the start on life they need, pedagogy – our teaching styles and methods – have to be of a certain general type. We know what the schools of the future should look like, but there aren’t nearly enough of them yet.
The second part of the title says: one of the reasons for the slow update of these targeted pedagogies is the current prevalence of some misinformation about the way young minds work, and these are forming a kind of logjam that prevents innovation. A strong claim is being made that cognitive science has shown, beyond question, that “direct instruction in a knowledge rich curriculum” – teachers tell students things, they practise, and then are tested (TPT) - is the only one that “works”, and that anything else – anything that smacks of inquiry or discussion-based learning – distracts, and actually detracts, from young people’s education, especially for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.
This argument has been promoted by a few teachers who, I suspect, tried early in their careers to use “progressive” teaching methods that were not well-designed with children who were not ready for them. So they had a bad experience and concluded not that they needed to build up students’ readiness but that all such teaching simply “doesn’t work” and is deeply misguided. And their arguments have been seized on by politicians who lack the ability, the inclination and the courage to think deeply and creatively about the future of education, and want simple, stultifying “solutions” that hark back to a fantasy version of the “good old days” that never were.
My book uncovers the many misconceptions, half-truths, false dichotomies and semantic confusions on which this claim is based. The hope is that, by exposing these errors, teachers will be reassured that other styles of teaching are desirable, possible, and indeed more equitable and enjoyable, and will get their creativity back. Here are just a few of these pernicious mistakes, and the alternative views which the book comes to:
Anything that isn’t strict TPT is useless and damaging. Nonsense. There are many nuanced kinds of teaching that conform to neither Traditional nor Progressive stereotypes, and many are highly effective.
Students are novices who know nothing, and they need to be stuffed with “facts” before they can begin to think. Nonsense. All learning builds upon and extends existing understanding and competence – for both “novices” and “experts”- through exploring, applying, discussing and thinking.
Knowledge is facts. Some small part of knowledge is factual and granular. The vast majority consists of evolving webs of understanding and routines of competence, much of which cannot be verbally described or explained.
Knowledge can only get into “long-term memory” (LTM) by squeezing through a narrow vestibule called “working memory”, and this problem of “cognitive load” is mitigated by having previously stuffed lots of facts into LTM. The model of mind (or “architecture of cognition”) on which this idea rests is way out-of-date. It derives from experiments that made people learning strings of random nonsense and does not apply to most of what goes on in classrooms.
The high-status subjects of the traditional curriculum constitute a kind of “powerful knowledge” that underpins social mobility for all pupils, especially those from “disadvantaged” backgrounds. Of course, there are various bodies of skill and understanding the lack of which can hold you back. Many of these (such as coding or oracy) are not taught or cultivated effectively by the traditional curriculum. And there is much in the traditional curriculum that is there because it seems amenable to quasi-objective forms of teaching and assessing, not because it empowers the vast majority of youngsters to make their way in “the real world”.
Knowing lots makes you ‘clever’. Not if you mean “declarative knowledge” it doesn’t: such explicit factual knowledge makes you a pundit, and good at game shows like University Challenge and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Having some declarative knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for acting intelligently in the world.
Research will tell us ‘what works’ in teaching. No it won’t. There is no ‘what works’ without specifying for what purpose, in what context, and with whom. The search for sure-fire, single-method “best practice” is naïve and unhelpful. Methods that ‘work’ in a high-achieving Year 9 maths lesson will very probably not work in a mixed-ability art lesson with six-year-olds. The search for such simplistic prescriptions holds the development of education back.
That’s just a taster. All the argument and evidence are in the book. You might like to read it before you decide who’s right!
You can order The Future of Teaching and the Myths that Hold It Back here.