Are there any new ideas in teaching?

They say the same old teaching ideas keep coming around again – but I'm not sure that's really the case, says Mark Enser

Mark Enser

Education research and pedagogy: Are there any new ideas in teaching?

I think I had been in a school for about five minutes before the first person told me that if you stay still long enough in education the same ideas will come around again. 

In the following 18 years, I have heard variations on this theme countless times: every new idea is just an old one being repacked and sold to people. One minute we are told to stop doing something and then we are told to start doing it again. We have heard it all before. 

It’s such a well-worn trope that I have found myself joining in with it in the past. I have enjoyed wrapping myself in a cloak of cynicism and adopting an air of intellectual superiority. After all, seeing through the smoke and mirrors and pulling back the curtain shows that you haven’t been taken in by the sales pitch. Well done, us. 

But I recently realised that I find it difficult to put my finger on anything that genuinely has come around again. I can’t really think of something that was being sold to me 18 years ago that has re-emerged in a new form now.

I think things may look as though they are coming around again because we haven’t really understood them and so fall back on what we did understand – something from the past.

Pedagogy: recycled teaching ideas?

Differentiation and scaffolding

When I started teaching, differentiation was king. Every lesson was expected to be differentiated half a dozen ways with different objectives for different pupils (for all, for most and for some), extension tasks and various activities that pupils could choose from so as to align to their personal learning style. That is what was meant by differentiation.

This is not an idea that has come around again (thank the gods). Instead, we are seeing more talk about scaffolding. This is fundamentally different to these previous ideas on differentiation.

They aren’t about people learning different things in different ways but putting in place cognitive support so that everyone can learn the same thing in much the same way. By all means, disagree that this is better than what we were being asked to do, but don’t pretend it is the same.

Assessment for Learning

On other occasions people point to things that never went away, they just seem to have forgotten about them, which is probably why someone has had to remind them of it in the first place. Take formative assessment, or Assessment for Learning, as an example. 

This is something that people have been talking about in education since at least the late 1990s. It isn’t back, it is just still here. What may be happening is a refinement and improvement of ideas that focused more on the “assessment” and less on the “formative”. 

I don’t think it is “repackaging” to look at formative assessment more as responsive teaching, thinking carefully about what we do with the information we gather from assessment. That is what we were always meant to be doing. 

Finally, I think some things do occasionally spiral back in new forms but not out of some cynical sales pitch (who exactly do people imagine makes big bucks from this stuff anyway?) but because something that seems promising fails to live up to this promise and so we try and try again. 

Dialogic teaching

An example of this might be dialogic teaching, something that it would seem can make a big difference if implemented well but is a complex approach and has usually been implemented badly. Every so often it gets picked up and refined and talked about again. One day we might get it right. 

On the surface, it might seem as though the world-weary sighs, rolled eyes and cries of “We’ve done it all before” are just a petty annoyance, but I think it could really matter.

If our first reaction to any new idea is to equate it with something that we think has failed in the past, we will either ignore it or, worse, do it in the same way as failed in the past. Perhaps we need to accept that the only thing that keeps coming around again is the cynical notion that everything keeps coming around again.

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His latest book, The CPD Curriculum, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark

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