The Future of Teaching: Is It for You?
The Future of Teaching and the Myths that Hold It Back is getting some pushback. It certainly seems to be ruffling all the right feathers! It would be failing in its purpose if it wasn’t. As I say in the book, it was not written to try to persuade the unpersuadable: that would be futile. It is written to reassure the millions of teachers out there who are used to using elegantly interwoven mixtures of ‘exploration’ and ‘explanation’ in their classrooms that they are perfectly within their rights to do so. There are no good scientific grounds for believing that only Direct Instruction ‘works’ and that anything that involves students in thinking, grappling and discussing before they have everything explained to them ‘doesn’t work’.
Such sweeping and simplistic claims are not supported by an accurate and up-to-date reading of the research literature. What the research shows is that didactic teaching is good for some audiences, for some topics, and for some purposes – but not for all. For example, if your purpose is only short-term gains in test performance on material such as equations, formulae, facts and definitions, then ‘Explain – Practise – Test – Retest’ (EPTR) can be effective and efficient. Such teaching has a place in teachers’ repertoires. I have no problem with learning your times tables by chanting and testing, as indeed I did. But if your aim is for deeper and more long-term understanding, or for the parallel cultivation of useful, transferable dispositions such as self-discipline, intellectual humility, curiosity, skepticism and imagination, then ‘direct instruction’ is not the pedagogy of choice.
To be absolutely clear: The Future of Teaching is not against didactic methods per se. It is not a reiteration of the view that ‘progressive’ teaching is good and ‘traditional’ teaching is bad. We have to get beyond such unproductive polarisations. Some so-called progressive teaching methods have been stimulating and well-designed, and some have been misguided, over-hyped and naïve, just as some traditional teaching has been boring, ill-judged and stultifying, while some has been efficient and necessary. Trad vs Prog is not my fight.
My fight is only with a particularly virulent form of traditionalist extremism that claims (a) that there is only one effective method of teaching, (b) that this one size fits all students, all topics and all purposes; and, most critically, (c) that cognitive science provides an unarguable mandate for such a view. On this view, everything that isn’t strict EPTR – the vast multidimensional field of teaching styles and methods, bar one tiny corner – is lumped together, pejoratively labelled ‘progressive’ and contemptuously dismissed. This extreme view has been expressed in a number of recent publications that have had an inordinate and detrimental effect on educational debate, and on teachers’ confidence in their right to use a fluid and variegated mix of teaching methods. In particular these pronouncements have been gleefully weaponised by reactionary policy-makers and politicians keen to promote an antiquated and simplistic model of education. It is these published works that The Future of Teaching submits to rigorous scrutiny. Their authors may have moved on or behave differently in actual classrooms, but it is their writing that is at issue here. I make no apology for doing my best to debunk these polarised and exaggerated claims as robustly as I can before they do any more damage to the ingenuity and professional intuition of the teaching profession worldwide.
There are a number of values that lie behind my critique, and it might help to make them explicit. The fewer of these you share with me, the more likely you are to want to pick holes in it. I pose them as a number of questions:
Do you think that education ought to be a preparation for life, rather than just a preparation to access the next stage of education? I do.
Are you convinced that Literacy, Numeracy, good Grades and some general Knowledge (LNGK) are not enough to prepare young people to prosper in the 21st century – that LNGK are necessary but not sufficient? I am.
Do you suspect that some general, skilful orientations to thinking and learning - such as self-discipline, determination, intellectual humility, curiosity, skepticism and imagination – are also needed? I do.
Do you think that it is school’s business to try to cultivate such core dispositions (rather than, say, passivity, credulity, compliance, timidity and extrinsic motivation)? I do.
Do you believe that, in the process of filling students’ minds with secure and valuable knowledge, these dispositions will somehow automatically appear? I don’t, no. (I know plenty of people who are knowledgeable and also opinionated, closed-minded or gullible.)
So do you think it is important and timely for teachers and researchers to be exploring and developing kinds of curricula and pedagogy that are effective in achieving both sets of desirable outcomes – LNGK and useful, transferable mental dispositions? Yes I do.
Do you suspect that these mental attitudes are probably best developed not through direct instruction or exhortation (e.g. posters, worksheets and stilted discussions), but through immersion over time in classrooms where the atmosphere and activities implicitly invite and shape and strengthen such dispositions? I do.
Do you think that there are (or might be) ways of teaching that convey knowledge and build this multifaceted mental competence side-by-side, in the same room, at the same time? In other words, do you think it is unnecessary and unhelpful to present these two sets of desirable outcomes as essentially at odds? I most certainly do.
Do you suspect or hope that students whose confidence and capacity to learn effectively have been strengthened in this manner will do better, not worse, on conventional tests of attainment? I do.
Do you accept the evidence that all students will benefit from such teaching, but that students who are low-achieving and/or come from backgrounds of hardship or disadvantage, will benefit the most? Absolutely I do.
Do you believe that teaching is a highly sophisticated craft that teachers can (and maybe should) keep developing throughout their careers? Do you think that excellent teaching involves more than quiet, industrious classrooms and getting good results? I do.
Do you think (or at least hope) that most teachers are perfectly capable of developing these skills, given sufficient clarity about the overarching purpose and the tweaks to their practice that are involved; and also given the time, support and coaching that are necessary to embed the shifts in their routine practice? Yes I do.
Do you think it is acceptable for teachers who have dabbled with non-traditional teaching methods but done so naively, or who have overestimated the readiness of a class to respond maturely to being given some latitude and responsibility, and consequently have had bad experiences, should conclude on that basis that all non-traditional teaching is dangerous rubbish, and start loudly proclaiming this ‘discovery’ to their peers? I do not.
So do you think there might be something fishy about arguments that claim that traditional didactic or explicit instruction – “Explain – Practise – Test - Retest” (EPTR) pedagogy - is the only valid or effective way of teaching, and which assert that any deviations from strict EPTR teaching - any attempts to weave in opportunities for students to grapple, explore and discuss - are doomed to distract (and thus detract) from the proper business of education which is conveying knowledge? Yes I do.
If you agree with me – or at least have an open mind - on most of these points then I think there is a good chance you will find this book interesting and informative. If, on the other hand, you are indelibly convinced that these articles of faith are just “trendy progressive claptrap”, then I suggest you leave The Future of Teaching book well alone.
You can order The Future of Teaching and the Myths that Hold It Back here.