In the late 1800s, Joseph Lister introduced antiseptic carbolic spray to his operating theater and deaths from infection more than halved. To begin with, his results were contested and his methods fiercely opposed by other surgeons. This is understandable. It all seemed too good to be true and the idea of invisible creatures killing fully grown men must have seemed positively medieval in the increasingly rational 19th century.
More difficult to understand is why so many surgeons stubbornly persisted in resistance even after the benefits of Lister’s methods had been proved. Perhaps it was nothing more than self-interested fear − admitting you’ve been doing something wrong your whole life is hard, especially if being good at your job is an important part of how you define yourself.
This is something I can relate to. For much of my training and my formative years as a teacher, I was schooled in “child-centered” education. Group work was a goal in itself. Differentiation meant planning a different lesson for each child in a class. Asking children to write an imaginative poem in a history lesson was regarded as completely appropriate and asking them to write an essay was almost child abuse.
Playtime is not learning time
For me, this just didn’t work. This was most visible with my remedial classes, who used my carefully planned group work as a chance to rap, shout or insult each other’s moms. Any learning that did occur was completely accidental and notable for its novelty.
The problem was less obvious with better-behaved groups. One year, my top performing 9th graders wrote and performed Ra-Ra Rasputin: The Musical. The kids wrote the songs, brought in instruments and costumes, then filmed their final production. Everyone had a lovely time and nobody learned anything new. It did no long-term harm and the children did well in their final exams, but this was in spite of, not because of, this sequence of lessons. When I look back now, I can only wonder just how much more this very able group could have achieved had I pushed them through lengthier, more involved reading and insisted that they wrote an essay instead of performing in a play.
Traditional teaching works in my classes. Ever since I became confident enough to insist on silence, teach unashamedly from the front and began expecting children to write well at length, students have learned quickly. Students look forward to my lessons because they love to get better at things that matter and understand that playtime happens after the bell.
Blazing a new trail of teaching from the front
I wish I’d realized this sooner. But for a long time, just like 19th-century surgeons, I resisted change because it meant admitting I’d been getting it wrong. It meant accepting that the poor performance of my students was my fault. It meant throwing away many of my old methods and starting again in an environment that was sometimes hostile to the changes I knew were necessary.
At the time it was frightening, but I’m glad I did it. The costs of continuing with my old methods might not have been as lethal as they were for 19th-century surgeons, but lives would have been damaged nonetheless. Our young people don’t want us to play with them. They have friends for that. We’re their teachers and we should not be afraid to teach.
Ben Newmark is head of humanities and a teacher of history at New College Leicester. He tweets @bennewmark.
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