Three things you're told about teaching that are wrong

When you’re a teacher, there’s no shortage of people with advice on how to do it right. Unfortunately, they often have it wrong, says Rebecca Foster

teachers myths

There are a lot of people who will tell you lots of things about how to teach: university lecturers, mentors, colleagues, CPD leaders, edu-authors, bloggers, Tweeters, Tes writers and Facebook commenters. 

Some of the things they tell you will be utterly invaluable.

And some will be complete and utter bollocks, such as: 

You can tell when a student has learned something

You can’t. Really, you can’t.

Learning is invisible. It happens inside our students’ heads and we just can’t see it, however much we might want to. It is a messy, long-term process that we cannot observe; the things we can observe are merely proxies for learning and some of them are better than others.

Just because our students are engaged, completing lots of work and behaving does not mean that they’re learning (although, of course, all of these things are desirable!).

teachers flat earth

A better indicator might be a student’s recall on a test taken some time after content has been taught (but that’s only a proxy too, albeit a better one).

You can measure progress in a lesson

What we see in lessons is not learning, but performance. The idea that we can measure the progress of learning in a lesson is farcical; we can only measure the difference in performance between two points in a lesson. 

This might be useful feedback to you as a teacher (it can tell you if students are struggling to understand a concept, for example) but just because a pupil performs better later in the lesson than at the start does not mean that they’ve made real progress.


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So what do all those plenaries (and, heaven help us, mini-plenaries) tell us? Not a lot, to be honest.

They tell us what students have managed to retain within a really short time-frame or what they can do in the specific context of a lesson. Just because they’re telling you the answer now doesn’t mean they’ll know it next week.

The best learning happens when students discover things for themselves

In my training, I was encouraged to be a “guide on the side” in the classroom. The idea was that we should guide our students to learn things for themselves because it is more meaningful and memorable than being told what you need to know (this message was delivered, without fail, by a university lecturer firmly in role as “sage on the stage”). 

There’s two reasons why this idea is nonsense. Firstly, it creates unnecessary workload.

Teachers tie themselves in knots thinking of ways to get students to know something that doesn’t involve telling them: putting information on paper around the room, setting up elaborate carousels, having a student take the lesson. 

Secondly, our students are novices and need expert teaching.

Self-directed learning has its place, but that place is not front and centre and certainly not at the start of a learning sequence because of the increased risk of students forming misconceptions that take time to unpick.

Rebecca Foster is head of English and specialist leader of education at Wyvern St Edmund’s Learning Campus

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