One of the key ideas that I’ve tried to capture in this blog and in my book, The Learning Rainforest, is that great teaching can emerge from the numerous tensions and contradictions that surround us. Not by dismissing them or by seeking to resolve them and not by picking a side – but by recognising them, embracing them and trying to making sense of them.
When you look at this image, what do you see: a grid surrounded by a cloud or a cloud with a grid inside?
Of course it is both of those things. However, different people will see this differently. Some people are more cloud; they embrace ambiguity; they are more comfortable where there is less structure even while seeing structures as a necessary. Others are more grid; they prefer things to be ordered; they seek to reduce ambiguity even while acknowledging that there is room for it. The challenge is to see structure and ambiguity as having a symbiotic relationship; they need each other; each is poorer, less healthy, diminished without the other.
How does this translate to teaching? Here’s a quick run-through:
There is a science to learning; it’s not magic. Our brains behave in certain ways that suggest some teaching approaches are more likely to be effective than others in given contexts. We can form models of learning processes that stand up to scrutiny and there’s a massive body of research that coheres around some common concepts.
At the same time, teaching does not consist of a series of discrete, isolated testable strategies. There’s a multi-layered complexity of interactions and decisions driven by the reality of having a class of individuals to teach at the same time. Teaching is nearly always a blend of multiple factors: relationships, behaviour routines, instructional techniques, questioning, practice – all interacting with the specific elements of the curriculum content. As evidence-informed as we might be, the process can feel more art than science: we are busking, responding, riffing, exploring, creating… Some teachers need to work on their science; some need to develop their art.
Schools are awash with systems – for behaviour management, quality assurance, assessment and feedback, professional development. At the same time, schools are also a complex mix of cultures and subcultures: among groups of staff and students, in each classroom. You can’t simply wish a ‘high trust culture’ into being – there won’t be a trust culture if the systems are heavy-handed and communicate something more like: we don’t trust you. You can’t talk about a ‘culture of learning’ unless you are doing specific things that provide a structure of that culture to come into being. At the same time, as we all know, the reality of school life is all about human interactions and, because we are not machines, systems only work if the culture is there to sustain them – so people do the right things right when nobody is looking because they believe in them or at least fully accept them.
If we try to break down an aspect of teachers’ practice – like strong behaviour management or effective formative assessment – identifying specific identifiable tasks to codify ‘effectiveness’, we end up with what might be a checklist of ‘things everyone should do’. However, very often, the sum of the parts doesn’t seem to add up to the whole.
You might find a teacher who is ‘doing the right things’ to the letter, but the spirit is missing. This means that they might not be sustaining the practice or responding intuitively to events or adapting the approach to secure better responses from students. They might be OTT with students in the way they enact routines for classroom discipline, misjudging the spirit of a behaviour code even if they would argue they are following it to the letter. They might consider that a few set-piece activities constitutes ‘doing formative assessment’ rather than seeing it as a broader approach that influences every interaction.
I’ve always felt it is important to avoid boiling things down to reductive tick lists wherever possible; the letter of a policy is a guide but the spirit is what really matters. For example, a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum can’t be boiled down to some knowledge organisers and related quizzes. That would be missing the point entirely. Knowledge-rich has implications for a whole set of values and practices that inform every lesson every day. However, sometimes an idea is too intangible to implement effectively without some definable concrete elements for people to work on. You need to start somewhere. The ‘spirit’ can be a nebulous hope in the absence of something solid.
This is an area I feel needs more attention. It has echoes in Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c where the dialectic has value alongside grammar. A great curriculum contains knowledge gains through experience: authentic, real-world, hands-on experience. In science for example, there is declarative knowledge to gain about how a motor works; there is procedural knowledge you can gain through practising rearranging equations to determine measurable quantities – but all of that makes a lot more sense if students have tacit knowledge gained through experience of handling motors, making motors, exploring the electromagnetic and mechanical variables involved. The same goes for chemical reactions or growing plants. There is value in putting your face into a meadow of grass to see the world of life that lies within… tacit knowledge about plant and bug-life that makes the theory of ecosystems come off the page.
Tacit knowledge is vital – and is often assumed; taken for granted. The same goes for poetry, history, music,… any subject. In maths, ‘playing’ with numbers, patterns and shapes informs procedural, operational routines. Very often, students with low confidence in maths have very weak schema for numbers at the tacit level – that sense of scale, pattern, sequence that good mathematicians have an intuition for. Unless we pay attention to that concretely, we’re building on very weak foundations. Knowledge elements can seem isolated and arbitrary until they take shape in a wider schema held together with a glue of tacit knowledge gained from experience. We need to make sure the opportunities for children to gain those experiences are built into our enacted curriculum within and beyond the classroom.
This links to the art:science and tacit: explicit axes but adds another dimension. As highly emotional beings, our memories and the relative value we give to elements of knowledge are shaped by the way we feel about them. Every person, every teacher I know has passions. Great teachers communicate enthusiasm for the knowledge they have; it’s not neutral information. The idea that joy, awe and wonder are somehow icing on the knowledge cake doesn’t quite work for me – the icing is melted into the cake; it runs through it..(metaphor mixing ,sorry). For me, when we’re teaching, there is power in always exploring why any element of knowledge matters. This isn’t some lame functional idea of ‘relevance’ that leads us down a utilitarian path. Far from it. It’s about exploring our emotional connection to the stories that unfold the more our knowledge grows – and the more our awareness of how much more there is to know grows. This is how curiosity and creativity develop – through knowledge linked to emotions. For me, the image of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field can bring tears to my eyes if I think about what it means: it’s just so deeply profound.
I put ‘Awe’ in amongst my 10 features of ‘great lessons’ . Knowledge can be functional; dry; prosaic; ordinary. But it can also be earth-shatteringly beautiful. What’s the point or learning X? There is always a point, a purpose, a reason that goes beyond the purely functional.
Finally, there is an axis around the interplay between our values and evidence in relation to what makes teaching effective and in the decisions we make in designing the curriculum. I’m a firm advocate of teachers developing ‘evidence-informed’ wisdom so that they are best placed to make good decisions in the heat of the complexity of classroom interactivity. We need to understand about schemas and cognitive load theory; that retrieval practice works for strengthening recall; that fluency requires practice; that spaced practice is important for long-term memory – and so on. I firmly reject the idea that ‘anything goes’.
However, we also need to understand that wisdom comes from experience – and includes knowledge of our students and ourselves. We are who we are; we can all improve but in seeking to teach like champions, we will always have personality and our own values; our hearts on our sleeves. If I want you to stand up and read poetry by heart- there is no evidence that tells me this is ‘an effective strategy in order to secure deeper understanding’ .. No. I am asking you to do it because, guided by my values and experience, I believe this to be a ‘a good thing that will enrich your soul’.
As evidence-driven as schools should be, it’s always part of the contract between schools and parents that “teachers will impose their values on your child”. We have no choice; it’s going to happen. The thing is to be explicit about what these values are and to seek as much alignment within a school community as possible. As a Head I used to say things like “at this school we teach that evolution is a fact…because it is!” I wanted this to be very clear. I would also make statements about work ethic and discipline and the curriculum much of which would values-driven more than evidence-based. Values matter – they are not some wishy-washy notion that impedes the flow of evidence; they are always part of how evidence is sought, filtered and mediated. The important thing is to recognise the bias-fest that constitutes research-engagement and be honest about it.
Along every axis, there is a context-specific sweet spot where the right balance is struck. But neither end is ‘right’ or ‘good’ compared to the other. It’s never either/or; it’s never a choice – it’s always both; always a blend; always a symbiotic synthesis. Not resolved but in tension; in equilibrium. Let’s embrace that. It’s what makes teaching so great!