By focusing on data and "maximum efficiency" in teaching, we miss the mark for what works for learning

26th April 2016 at 11:03
Our education must be human first and data-driven second.

The ambitions of what might (very) loosely be referred to as "traditionalism" in education have certainly changed over recent years. What was once a principled defense of an educational philosophy against those who would refuse it legitimacy, seems often now to refuse legitimacy to anything else. It is in this context that the argument for maximum efficiency is often to be found – why waste time, we hear, doing those things which are least effective? The poorest, we are told, have no such time to lose. Who could deny them, it is demanded, the very best possible education?

In other words, do what works best, according to the desired outcome of immediate knowledge transfer, and don’t waste time doing anything else.

Of course, one might find it hard to argue against such an instinct. It is certainly compelling. And in its intellectual tidiness does its immediate power lie.

Some matters of contention

But one might yet quibble. After all, the idea that every moment in the classroom has to be maximally efficient can exclude from the educational encounter those things that are not so readily expendable. It might well be hard to argue with pious appeals to helping those who struggle, but this need not lead to an embrace of the language and logic of manufacture, as if this alone were sufficient explanation for what happens in the classroom, an educational etiological fallacy that negates competing claims for educational flourishing.

It is in this narrowing that one might take issue. Because at heart, education is about relationships – a blindspot of the educational revolution which I have previously criticised – which means that it is not always efficient. Indeed, it is sometimes messy. And it is in this messiness – the complex interconnected web that confounds the calculations of technocrat and bureaucrat alike – that one can, and indeed must, find learning. And of which those philosophies that direct everything we do in the classroom, must take account.

In other words, our education must be human.

Education, then, can be as much a group walk as a singular sprint. One might roam through a curriculum, not to idle, but because to frenziedly press one’s nose firmly to the grindstone might mean the beauty of the wider world struggles to enter into sight. Sometimes this means learning things in different ways, not because research suggests it has greatest technical efficiency, but because it offers an alternative angle from which to approach and absorb what might otherwise be obscure. Every second in the classroom does indeed count – but it is an unwarranted logical jump to so firmly wed this to isolated task efficiency.

A broader view

This is not to say that the lesson must always to bend to the will and whim of the student – the teacher is the principal agent. But neither must it require one to reject a holistic account of what it means for humans to learn, together.

In other words, sometimes the teacher might choose an activity not because it is the single best strategy for knowledge transfer at a particular point in time, but because it is an effective wider strategy for creating the environment in which that knowledge transfer can effectively happen. No particular strategy should be judged from within a vacuum, but from within the wider scope of the learning milieu. The cultivation of a group, of an individual, of learning, can legitimate an approach because the whole really is greater than the sum of its isolated parts. Think of the sports team trying to address poor form with a team-bonding session at a local paintball centre, and we’re getting toward the point I am trying to make.

As for what this means in the classroom, this could be something a teacher has found to quickly settle a class into learning, or something that allows learning to proceed when her kids are tired at the end of a day, or just something that she happens to be able to deliver very successfully, through her skill and experience, irrespective of how others might struggle to do the same.

It could be something that the teacher thinks will raise the mood, to improve the learning enthusiasm of the students, or because the teacher judges that this complex social organism that sits before her might just need to let off a bit off steam by trying something different.

And we could go further: it might even be something that she herself enjoys doing, to occasionally break up the monotony, and to give her the necessary boost to crack on during those bleak times of the year when teaching really is very difficult and those little boosts really aren’t luxuries. And that’s ok too, because as much as some would like pedagogy to be entirely child-centred, the well-being of the teacher is not irrelevant to the discussion either –the desire for fulfilment and the need for free-agency, within reasonable limits, are not optional extras but the very heart and soul of being human – and an effective teacher.

Never say never

Perhaps, then, discussion of pedagogy, which for most teachers is a fringe issue, might begin to take account of wider realities. To say group work should never be used because it is not as effective as direct instruction is a little like saying that since fruit and vegetables are best for a healthy diet, therefore we should never eat chocolate – it is replicate in the realm of pedagogy that puritanism so triumphant elsewhere.

In other words, it is narrowing, and excludes from view the richness of life, the depth of what it means to be human, and the complex milieu in which a teacher must exist.

So that, perhaps ironically, it is in the quest for maximal efficiency that one loses sight of what, in the final analysis, might be the most effective approach to teaching and learning.

Michael Merrick is a a full-time teacher. He tweets at @Michael_Merrick This article orginally appeared on his website.

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow TES USA on Twitter and like TES USA on Facebook.


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today