Quest must go on to solve the mysteries of teaching

19th October 2012 at 01:00
Critical reflection and focus on research evidence will be vital ingredients for a successful curriculum

Why do we teach the way we do? What lies behind the approaches we use daily in the classroom? Finding the answers to these deceptively simple questions has been a consistent preoccupation of educational research and policy and has spawned its own rapacious industry of gurus and snake-oil salesmen.

Of course, the first and most pervasive influence on a teacher may be the fact she or he was once a pupil. Our image of what it means to be a teacher has been conditioned by personal experience over many years and in many different settings. Similarly, parents, politicians and everyone else who has been to school will have expectations of teachers which are influenced by that experience.

That part of the iceberg which is visible to the pupil may well have a disproportionate effect on how teachers are perceived by adults and create powerful stereotypes of what a good teacher should look like. The problem, however, is that times change and the qualities which appeared to serve us well in the past may no longer meet the needs of 21st-century learning. Mr Chips would struggle to survive in today's classroom.

Our experience in the early years of teaching will also cement teaching styles and beliefs which may last an entire career. Advice from university staff and teachers while on placement can, indeed should, have a profound effect. Our exposure to colleagues who appear to be in command of the classroom will affect how we define success too. Finding approaches which work will inevitably dominate our early search for security in front of a class.

Teachers do not work in a controlled setting and the nature of the school culture, available resources and personal circumstances also shape what we do across a career. The working environment inevitably dictates much of what we regard as possible, let alone desirable.

What, then, does this mean for career-long professional growth and development? If our personal experience as a pupil and the influence of friends and colleagues are givens, then the need for high-quality early professional experience becomes more critical.

Initial teacher education and induction should take place in the kinds of setting which model professional practice, foster habits of reflection and experiment and establish from the outset the need to focus relentlessly on the impact of what we do on the learning of the young people in our charge. Passive acceptance of conventional thinking, seeking to replicate the behaviours of others, however exalted, and focusing on process without asking hard questions about impact should have no place in modern professionalism.

The freedom which Curriculum for Excellence gives to the profession brings with it the responsibility to engage with difficult issues and to be personally and collectively reflective. There are real dangers that, without that kind of hard-nosed reflection, teaching can become prey to habit, conventional wisdom and snake oil.

"Breakthroughs" associated with putative developments in neuroscience, for example, can give rise to all sorts of odd ideas. One such idea is the very confused thinking which surrounds learning styles. At its most extreme, this can lead to futile attempts to divine an individual's most effective means of learning and then to teach to that supposed style.

Apart from the flawed science which lies behind such an approach, the notion that we should seek to reinforce an inability to learn flexibly is itself an impoverished view of the purpose of education. Yet references to learning styles pepper educational discourse and advice, sometimes from apparently authoritative sources. Teachers should be armed with the skills and values to challenge such thinking and not to invest it with an authority which it does not deserve.

Similarly, the pedagogy of Curriculum for Excellence requires careful examination. John Hattie's work in synthesising the results of more than 800 meta- analyses relating to achievement should be an important point of reference for all teachers (Visible Learning, Routledge 2009). It suggests that "active and guided instruction is much more effective than unguided, facilitative instruction"; direct instruction trumps problem- based learning and is also more effective than inquiry-based teaching. Many teachers would regard such conclusions as almost heretical in terms of their understanding of what Curriculum for Excellence is all about.

Of course, Hattie's conclusions depend on what kind of learning you are seeking to develop and all of this is open to debate. However, the essential point is that research evidence of this kind ought to be critically examined in helping us to develop appropriate teaching and learning approaches. The much misunderstood concept of active learning, for example, is a prime candidate for such an examination.

There is no orthodoxy around the kind of teaching methods which Curriculum for Excellence requires. The key lies in using a range of approaches and constantly reflecting on what works for what purpose.

All of this reinforces the need for teachers who define their identity in terms of constantly developing their own and their colleagues' understanding of why we teach the way we do. Experience and intuition are vital, but so are critical reflection and an active engagement with the kind of research which helps us to meet the needs of the young people in our charge. In that way, the day-to-day work of teachers in classrooms across Scotland will itself be part of developing our understanding of the continuing mysteries of the teaching and learning process.

Graham Donaldson is professor of education at the University of Glasgow and author of the report Teaching Scotland's Future.

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