Today I had the immense pleasure of attending the #BrewEd event at Hackney Pirates organised by Clare Sealy. In planning for it, I’d decided to try doing a talk without slides for the first time. I’ve become a bit a slave to the clicker so this was a nice change. The title of the talk: Does being an edugeek make you a better teacher?
I started by talking about how, as a Headteacher, you know how good a teacher is. I’ve written about the triangulation process here: it’s a combination of using observation, using data and taking account of informal knowledge – which includes a teacher’s reputational standing amongst parents and students. Without question, some of the best teachers I’ve known would not have considered themselves edugeeks. They had an instinct for questioning or sequencing concepts without having heard of cognitive load theory or read an edu-blog in their lives. So, clearly, it’s far from being a prerequisite – or sufficient. Reading lots of blogs won’t directly turn you into an expert.
But, can we improve our practice through a bit of edu-geekery- through engaging with online debates and ideas from cognitive science? I think we can – if we find an idea, make choice to change and then work on it until our habits begin to shift so we teach slightly better every day.
An important part of this is to continually improve our ideas about how learning works – our mental model for the whole process. This idea comes up all the time – eg in Nuthall’s Hidden Lives of Learners, in Peps McCrae’s Memorable Teaching or with Deans for Impact’s Emerging Science of Teacher Expertise. It’s also something I’ve talked about in this ‘Building Great Teachers: Theory of Action’ post. I’ve often found that, where teachers struggle to improve, their theory of action or mental model needs attention.
In my talk I used two examples:
1. Applying the idea that ‘memory is the residue of thought’ from Dan Willingham to teaching practice.
Here, both the practical activity of making motors and the theory that links forces, current and magnetic field are important. Practicals support building tacit knowledge plus inject that all-important dose of awe and wonder. The theory is essential for deeper analysis and understanding. But, with a bit of cognitive science know-how, both to avoid overload and to make sure the thinking and, therefore, subsequent memories are focused on the learning you want, it pays to separate theory and practical lessons. If you want students to remember F = BIL, then they should be thinking about this equation and its meaning and application in numerical calculations. If you layer this on top of the practical, chances are the memory will mainly be about whizzing motor coils and sparks.
I made a similar case for thermal decomposition of copper carbonate. If you focus too much on the practical, the memory of setting up the kit and that the green stuff turned to black stuff might override the formulaic equations and atomic models. Worse, the black final product might be associated with burning – so they’ll remember (wrongly) that you burned the copper carbonate. Here, I’m sure that some edugeekery would help to plan this sequence more effectively.
I also shared the classic example in Willingham’s book: powerpoint. If you ask students to do a powerpoint about the Amazon river, a lot of their thinking is going to be about font size and clipart… not river facts. The strongest memory is likely to be ‘we made a powerpoint about the Amazon’ but it’s possible that no single fact about the Amazon will be remembered because so little time was spent thinking about the actual facts.
2. Questioning as an element of responsive teaching.
I’ve explored this extensively in several previous posts including this one about questioning as one of the teaching fundamentals. . Here I was talking about improving our mental model for the interactions involved and their purpose. We want feedback to us from our students about what they know so that we can improve our teaching. One-off answers won’t do – simply airing one correct answers doesn’t give us the feedback we need or ensure that learning has happened. It’s also not much good compiling an answer from multiple fragments offered around the room – because this doesn’t mean any single student knows a full answer.
We tried this out with a question I love for testing people on something they really should know: Why does the sun rise in the East? In pairs, discuss.
Oh boy! People were challenged. Whilst having a sense that it was related to the Earth’s rotation, the reason for it being in the East with some clarity about the sun’s position – wasn’t strong! Evidently the direction of Earth’s rotation (anticlockwise around the North pole) isn’t that well known! It worked well as an exercise to illustrate that I’d need to ask for multiple responses, to probe and to check for understanding after we’d reached a good answer – to go to some lengths to make the interaction productive and to instruct the class on a correct answer quite early.
With a model of learning based on individual schemas in each person’s head, based on their prior knowledge, I’m more likely to see that I need to probe and question more extensively – it helps to reaffirm that practice as necessary and important. I certainly find this to be true in my work with schools. Superficial questioning is quite widespread and I’m convinced that a bit of edugeekery permeating into staffrooms is going to be really helpful in this area.
Finally, I talked about the need to deal with those folk whose ideas about teaching are so entrenched that they have a reason to bat back any attempt to change them. Like the Flat Earth Society members, they have a reason to dispute and doubt any evidence presented to them that challenges their beliefs. Flat Earthers think that all scientists and astronauts are part of a giant conspiracy; the ISS is a set in Hollywood somewhere. To persuade them that the Earth is round, they would need to go up in space themselves and see it with their own eyes – even then they’d need to be sure it wasn’t some giant virtual reality con trick.
The point is that, for some people, telling them stuff means nothing; they need to see it in their context; to see it working with their students. This is where teacher enquiry can be so important. A culture of enquiry that makes us ask questions is very powerful and can help shift habits if people start to see things improve. It’s not about how we feel or what we guess might be ‘good teaching’ in the performance in lessons, here and now; it’s about finding evidence of success – or otherwise- in student work over time.
So, yes, edugeeks of the world let’s unite and share our ideas widely. But let’s be sure to bring people with us.
Thanks to Clare Sealy for organising today’s event. BrewEd with Tea – what a superb idea. Thanks also to Ed Finch for his support and to my fellow presenters, Jonny Walker, Loic Menzies and Rebekah Liyambo. A good time was had by all.