Teaching is not two distinct theories. This is a lie promoted by the echo chamber of social media.

My social media feed (I mostly use Twitter) makes it look like education is polarising. Over the last few years two distinct camps have emerged; two camps that most of the people I follow have firmly pinned their colours to.

Group A (often called Traditionalists) – This group promote the fact that we should just give knowledge to our students. In their world the teacher is the font of all knowledge and their job is to pass this to the kids and their lessons are knowledge rich. Progress is kids knowing more stuff. According to them we need more academic rigour and less focus on skills. They don’t like discovery learning. This group is all about the subject.

Group B (often called Progressivists) – This group is all about the skills and the fun and the engagement. They want kids to know stuff but that isn’t their primary purpose. Instead they want to create engaging learning experiences where they learn life skills and lessons are often focused purely on getting them through the exam. They really like discovery learning. This group is less about the subject.

Why is a purely Group A approach limited?

  • Knowledge is important but it is not the be all and end all of teaching.
  • How much ‘stuff’ do kids actually remember at the end of the year? My lesson is three hours out of fifty per fortnight. It isn’t possible for them to remember that much and I am good at my job (I think). This raises an elephant in the room – if they aren’t going to remember that stuff why should I focus purely on them remembering stuff?
  • Kids have to sit exams. If we don’t explicitly teach them skills and how to answer an exam question (whether we like it or not) they won’t do as well. And if they don’t get their grades we are affecting their university choices and job prospects.

Why is a purely Group B approach limited?

  • Making a model out of pipe cleaners is a laugh but what you taught them in an hour you could have just told them in five minutes.
  • A stop motion film is fun but where is the learning about the intricacies of your subject. Where is the grappling with the academic rigour of your subject?
  • Skills are needed but you cannot teach skills without knowledge. You have to know something to test your skills. It can’t therefore be all about skills.
  • Beating students with the exam stick takes out any fun or bits that are unique about your subject.

In short, teaching purely like A or purely like B will not help the students you teach understand more and learn more. It doesn’t work in isolation.

Why the rant though Mr Kennett?

What concerns me about the situation I have described above is that this is not what the majority of us do. In fact I have a suspicion that both Group A and B are the very loud but extreme minority of teachers. If you just teach like A or B I would also suggest that you don’t do a very good job. Teaching needs a bit of both A and B. Sometimes you need to just give them the facts, other times you need the kids on your side and creating an engaging learning activity that might be quite light hearted is needed.

My fear is that new teachers join social media and see the proponents of A or B who have a huge numbers of followers and think that therefore they should be like them and teach only like A or B. They shouldn’t. You need to be both A and B.

Why is social media like this? I suppose that arguing for one cause makes for a more interesting blog or Twitter feed. Sometimes people write posts just to elicit a debate or show off a particular point. There is nothing wrong with that – that is arguably what I am doing here. Except the polarisation of education isn’t what most of us actually do in the classroom. Additionally this is linked to the problem we have in politics on social media – social media is an echo chamber. You probably only follow people who think like you do. You scream at the converted and in doing so the popularity of their voice increases whilst the silent majority sit back and get unnoticed.

I am also concerned that some people naively link this to politics. Traditionalist = right wing. Progressivist = left wing. But these theories are not right or left wing. Hirsch, the Yoda of all traditionalists is left wing Democrat. He wants us to all teach more knowledge so that working class kids get the same cultural capital as the middle class and upper class ones do. I am not doubting that there is obviously some crossover between political ideology and educational theory but on the whole these two schools of thought operate in separate spheres of influence.

The unsaid (on social media) truth – good teaching needs A and B

Here is my week so far…

  • I started the week lecturing Year 13 about the strength of the Soviet Union in 1941. I did this because they just needed some facts and they needed it quickly. Lecturing was the best vehicle to do it.
  • I taught a lesson to Year 9 about interpretations of Operation Dynamo. I barely spoke. I let Year 9 work with different interpretations on their own, unpicking them and questioning them. Through this bit of discovery learning they learnt less about Dunkirk but a lot about how and why interpretations differ.
  • I did a lesson with Year 11 just looking at how you answer source questions in exams. Each group had three or four source questions and they presented to the rest about how they would answer it. Their mock is this week and this was crucial for them to succeed in it and build their confidence during this crucial year.
  • I used a textbook with Year 10 to learn about living conditions in the twentieth century. I introduced the topic and they made notes about the key features. At the end of the lesson I briefly wrapped up what they had learnt.
  • Year 7 were finishing an assessment on medieval control. Once they had finished they designed book covers as if they were a historian assessing control. It was a bit of fun after a long bit of writing but consolidated their thoughts.

As I hope you have picked up, some lessons were more heavily weighted toward A, some were heavily B, most were a mixture of both. This is normal. In each scenario I planned for what is best for the kids. I did not let the very loud but extreme minority influence my planning, I used the technique that that led to the best learning.

We need to shout about normality

What I have described above is normal. I suspect this is probably what your teaching week might have looked like. Except Twitter doesn’t really ever show this. Now I am not saying that I want the polar opinions to vanish. I don’t. Sometimes polar opinions can make you think which is good. What I do want is more normality to appear. Those of us (the quieter majority of A and B) need to write blogs that show what we do.

Polarisation leads to dysfunction. This leads to increased polarisation which in the US has led to the rise of Donald Trump. Good Lord we need to ensure this dysfunction doesn’t happen to the debate in education.


Note: My colleague Sam helped me to write large sections of this!

2 thoughts on “Teaching is not two distinct theories. This is a lie promoted by the echo chamber of social media.

  1. I think the attempts by those who wish to control the content and even whether there is a debate is more concerning than any views expressed.

    As for protecting those new to teaching, that is an assumption that new teachers are immature and easily led which I don’t agree they are. It is perfectly possible for them, as adults, to make up their own mind. As with all teachers they will try out different types of lessons and work out what works in different situations and scenarios.

    Just because ideas may lead to polarisation doesn’t necessarily mean they do and neither does it automatically mean dysfunction.

    You are simply doing what you accuse others of doing, which is shouting about what you think is the best way. You have every right to do so as does everyone else.

  2. This is such a well timed contribution to the ‘debate’ (though entrenched shouting match might better describe it). This entrenchment and derision of others’ approaches is something that alarms me greatly – not only because it downplays the flexibility and adaptability that are good teachers’ hallmarks, but also because it means that we can’t learn from each other.

    I bet you a cup of tea that someone will come along and claim you’re a ‘denier’ of something at some point.

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