‘Experience alone won’t make you a great teacher’

As teachers, do we learn best from direct experience? We also need the space and time to reflect, says Mark Enser

Mark Enser

Teacher CPD: Why experience along won't make you a great teacher

There won’t be many teachers who have managed to avoid the "Cone of Learning". This is a graphic that purports to show how much pupils will learn from different activities. It tends to claim that pupils will only remember 10 per cent of what they read but 90 per cent of what they do, with a range of other activities in between, all giving helpfully round numbers to express their retention rate. 

The Cone of Learning is a corruption of Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience (1946), which showed how far different activities were from “authentic” experience. The numbers suggesting how much was learned from these experiences seem to have been added at a later date, without much, if any, data to support them. 

Nevertheless, an idea took hold: that we learn best from direct experience.

These ideas of experiential learning have most often been applied to adult education, where there was a need to find a way to take learning from vocational training into account. This challenge was taken up by David Kolb, who published his ideas in the form of the Experiential Learning Cycle (ELC) in 1984. The ELC aimed to show how people might best learn from direct experience.

His cycle consists of four stages:

  • Concrete experience: we do something.
  • Reflective observation: we watch something occur and think about what we have done.
  • Abstract conceptualisation: we learn about the underpinning theory of what we are doing.
  • Active experimentation: we consider how we might apply these ideas to what we want to do and come up with a plan to try. 

I would argue that when viewed through the prism of Kolb’s ELC, teacher development often falls short. 

Teacher development: Is direct experience best?

As teachers, we spend a huge amount of time with concrete experience. We are in the classroom hour after hour teaching, marking, planning, working. What is often missing is the space to truly reflect on what we are doing, much less to observe other people doing the same thing as us. 

On Inset days and in CPD, we might spend a lot of time focusing on abstract conceptualisation – we are given a lot of new ideas that we are meant to start putting into our own teaching – but then are often not given the time for active experimentation. By the time we come out of the training session, we have to immediately turn our minds back to preparing for more concrete experience and not thinking about and planning to use what we have just heard. 

This has certainly been my experience as a teacher working in a range of schools over the past 16 years. I am very grateful that in my current school, Heathfield Community College, our CPD (or continuous professional learning, as we call it) fits the ELC much more closely.

Every fortnight we have an additional hour of non-contact time where we meet with a small group of fellow teachers. We usually have something to read and reflect on together, some abstract conceptualisation, chosen by a pedagogy team made up of a mix of classroom teachers and SLT. We read it and discuss it and start to think about how we might apply it to our own teaching (active experimentation). We then try it out (concrete experience), and crucially also use one of our additional non-contact times to observe each other doing it (reflective observation). When we meet again we discuss what we saw in the light of what we read and what we did. The cycle is complete. 

Teaching is a crazy job. Five hours a day of semi-improvised theatre interspersed with duties, assessment, report writing, contact home and a myriad of other jobs. We get our fill of experience, but I would suggest it takes more than endless, unrelenting experience, to develop us as teachers. We need the space to meet with other professionals and reflect on these experiences. Despite what we might see in the Cone of Learning, we don’t only learn best from doing. 

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex. His latest book, Teach Like Nobody’s Watching, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark

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