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Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Science versus Dogma; The Teaching Methods versus Learning Dichotomy

Some days ago, my good friend Josephus, a man some may know, very well versed in the subject of 'teaching' and 'learning', sent me an article from The Spectator. Somewhat provocatively titled "Teacher Trainings War on Science", it discusses the conflict between what is taught in teacher training colleges and courses today, with what scientific studies of how children learn tells us about how best to teach. For at least the last fifty years, teachers have been taught, and curricula arranged, around the concept of 'facilitating learning' and 'encouraging' development by surrounding a child with tasks designed to expose them to information and knowledge which, so the theory goers, they will successfully 'absorb'.

My own experience at school rather inclines me toward the scientific results, which is that the best way to impart the basic knowledge is by 'rote' and 'lecture' or 'I tell; you listen and absorb' sessions. Once the key knowledge is in place, the wider skills of application, understanding, analysis and so on can be developed. Now I have to confess that I am in two minds about some, at least, of this. Again, my own experience suggests that MY learning style (and I stress it is individual) is that I learn best as part of a group. Certainly in my primary school days, a lot of this was learning by 'rote' with the whole class reciting the Multiplication Tables, or following the teacher's pointer as he or she had us read words from a blackboard, or do sums and so on. We learned to recognise certain relationships between numbers and sets of numbers or letters. Unconsciously, we were learning to apply the basic knowledge we'd acquired by 'rote'.

Josephus, in his note accompanying this wrote - 
I'd get boring if I tried this one, a result of being an BEd undergrad in the early 70s, two years of Masters research mid/late nineties into curriculum design and seven years of EdD post-grad research more recently.
The two ideas that have influenced me though are firstly, the words of a fellow student at Birmingham who, like me, focused on working professionals (Nurses) rather than children.  She told us one day that her faculty had just commissioned a series of six, new-build, tiered lecture theatres (I had told our group how the ones at the College were being used less and less as the government had told us that "lectures don't work.") for the first-year nursing undergrads.  Apparently, in the seminar and study group environment of the first of the then "new" nursing graduate courses, all the (mostly young girls) could contribute was a discussion about their mobile phones, so semester one of the course became didactic knowledge transfer in the lecture room, lecture wall to wall week after week; semester two could then have discussion groups developing understanding from the knowledge imparted in those lectures.
The second one is from my favourite educational psychologist, still not popular but more approachable in modern translations (He was a pre-Stalin era Russian.) 
"Practical experience also shows that direct teaching of concepts is impossible and fruitless.  A teacher who tries to do this usually accomplishes nothing but empty verbalism, a parrotlike repetition of words by the child, simulating a knowledge of the corresponding concepts but actually covering up a vacuum."
Vygotsky, L. (1986)  critical analysis of thought and language  MIT Press; Boston, Mass.
The third question I often dwell upon relates to several photographs of "learning environments" that I used for some outline research in 2006,  most people I surveyed who could read, write and count, preferred the image of 1950s children sitting at attention, some with hands on their heads, to the brightly decorated, small group tables of the modern primary school room when asked to think about multiplication tables. 
Now, according to the scientific study, that acquisition of the base knowledge is not being efficiently acquired, and this impacts heavily on the performance of the students as they advance through their education. That would certainly seem to be in accordance with my experience again. Through contracting a rather nasty illness just at the start of my High School years, I missed the vital foundations as my contemporaries started to learn Algebra. I never managed to catch up, and, as anyone who has done Mathematics knows, Algebra is more or less the absolute 'key' to Trigonometry and almost all the rest of Mathematics. Ironically, Geometry I mastered - because I was able to learn a great deal of the underlying principles by 'rote', but Trigonometry remained a mystery as did Algebra. That has had a major influence on my career path, closing the door to my original ambition of 'going to sea', and even in my ultimate career as a firefighter/fire officer, I eventually had to (in my 30s) get lessons in the basic mathematics that had stumped me at school in order to pass the promotion exams, make sense of hydraulic formulae and eventually develop my knowledge in the 'engineering' required for fire safety enforcement.  

The Spectator article has the statement, from the thinking prevalent in Teacher Training - 
Schools and traditional subject boundaries are silos which stifle the natural creativity we all have within us. And this last fact especially: there is no point teaching a body of knowledge, because within a few years it will be outdated and useless. Don’t teach the what, teach the how. ‘Drill and kill’ and ‘chalk and talk’ will lead to passive and unhappy pupils.
This is where it does get rather interesting, since, as I've said above, I have found that the knowledge I did acquire in the 'old' methods of 'Drill and Kill' and 'Chalk and Talk' was what stuck most effectively, and has been absolutley vital in my later learning. Even as an adult, I needed and still need, the stimulus of listening to someone knowledgable to fire up what passes for my intellect and to give me the basic foundation on which I can build some new understanding or knowledge. Perhaps the 'educationists' do need to reconsider their position. The more we learn about how our brains work, and about how we learn, the more it appears the Educational Establishment needs to adjust their ideas. 

Something both Josephus and I have noted increasingly over our years in training and Adult education is that 'skills' and 'base knowledge' we took for granted in our generation, were simply not present in our students. Where we could stand in front of a class and do mental arithmetic on a white board, our students were frantically trying to find calculators and it came down to what we were carrying around in our heads from our days at school. As Josephus said at the tail of his letter - 
Funny how we of a "certain age" can still carry out mental arithmetic in our dotage when rote learning is so terribly ineffective...
As is said in another field - the science would seem to be 'settled' on this. The evidence is there, but I suspect there are a lot of careers now so vested in denouncing 'rote' learning and teaching, it will take an earth shattering event to get a change. And that could be on the horizon, since the 'League Tables' so beloved of Whitehall show that 'immigrant' students are outperforming their UK contemporaries. Whitehall refuses to break these down in a way that would permit anyone to identify the immigrant children's background or origins, but teachers themselves often remark on the fact that certain ethnic groups seem to have a better grasp of things that can be taught by 'rote' very efficiently, than the other children. One or two have made the connection - most of those immigrant children come from countries where 'teaching by rote' is still done, and, having learned the technique - that is how these kids study at home.

The final word from The Spectator
More and more teachers are realising the gap between the theory they are taught and their practical experience. More and more books are being published which explain the insights of cognitive science and the implications they have for classroom teachers. Instead of the warmed-through fads of the past century, I think the next few years will see evidence-based reforms that lead to genuine educational improvements.


  1. The other hypothesis of mine, which to some extent I had published here;

    has a tl;dr (too long didn't read) which states, “Teaching is almost invariably a group activity, whereas learning is almost always an individual experience.

    As an introvert with MBTI type INTP, unlike the Monk I did not always respond well to group learning situations and whenever I heard the phrase “action learning set” my blood ran cold. Bullied by those with types beginning “ES” I would join in and was occasionally complimented upon my contribution which had launched valuable discussion. What I could never get them to understand was, yes, I contributed, I am a professional and I enjoy “facilitating learning”, but this was all one way, I end up exhausted, but no wiser as I cannot learn effectively in such an environment. (apart from learning just how ignorant certain people can be.) The traffic is all one way, me giving, them taking. I ended the sessions no wiser but quite exhausted, in fact, if it is true that nature abhors a vacuum, then I probably ended the sessions dumber than when I started.

    To much emphasis in recent times on “Learning” not enough on “Teaching”.

    It is the use of teaching methods that facilitates a meaningful learning environment, but pedagogy is a forbidden term in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century classroom. The one thing that I specifically remember teacher training not teaching me was how to teach. It is about time that they started doing so, particularly as a majority of their students will not have “learned” much of the basics.

    My doctoral research was trying to investigate teaching methods that would facilitate learning in the Fire Service College environment. I knew it could be done as still to this day I get feedback from former students telling me that I “changed their way of looking at things.” However, the majority of our students sat in lectures and to paraphrase Vygotsky gave the semblance of learning, using empty phrases to cover the intellectual vacuum. They behaved like students for the time required and reverted to type once back in their workplace... Result a very expensive training failure.

    My problem was, that each time I got a research question devised, the government or CACFOA / CFOA or the Home Office / DLGR / ODPM / DCLG or whoever, would step in and tell us how to do it... Rewrite research question. A moving target is not a good basis for doctoral study!

  2. Certain types of 'Group Learning' left me feeling like Josephus - drained, and not much enlightened. My point concerning learning in a 'group' is that I lack the focus if left to my own devices and seldom studied effectively on my own, whereas when sat down in a group under tuition, I got a great deal out of it. That is back to the 'chalk and talk'. I never successfully completed a school 'project' which required me to work independently and work things out for myself. I needed that stimulus of listening to a teacher and I needed the interaction of others to keep me focussed.

    As I've aged, this has changed, and like Josephus, I fall into the 'IN' group of learners.

    Funny that, when I did my Adult Ed and Training course - the one thing we were NOT taught, was how to teach. Got a lot of practice filling in forms, writing reviews of performance and so on though.

  3. I think, perhaps the Monk hit the proverbial nail upon the head. Teaching (never mind learning, that's the pupil / student's problem) is a matter of following due process, never mind that the learner does not learn, I have put in my necessary hours, I have covered the objectives specified in the DS brief / lesson plan / syllabus / module (ad inf; ad naus) dismissed my students and left the learning space ready for the next session. (BOY did it bug me when I walked into a classroom to find the whiteboards covered in the last lesson!) I have therefore fulfilled my part of the contract, if the learners don't learn, that's their problem, I've done my job.

    I could list the names of the guilty there and one of them was once stupid enough to sit in on one of my sessions and file a poor report. Apparently I didn't ask Johnny the right question at the right time, sorry, I was too busy inspiring my students, whetting their appetites and posing questions that they thirsted to know the answers to. Thankfully, the head of department knew what to do with that report.

    Odd thing was that the person in question was so busy going to development meetings that they did very little contact teaching, there was a reason for that, they knew all the rules but had no soul, no interest in the student and, unfortunately represented the type of "teacher" that recent teacher training can turn out.

    When an enthusiast turns up in a classroom, it is probable that the students will turn up too. I was never too fond of following the rules to the letter, I wouldn't last five minutes today. The lunatics have taken over the asylum and you toe the line, teach in an approved manner or get the Hell out.

    Sadly it is the Fudge / Umbridge method... I once suggested to a senior HMI that our College had begun to resemble Hogwarts in "The Order of the Phoenix". He suggested that I didn't say that too loudly...

    1. I had a similar review from the same person. As you say, fortunately our Head of School knew what to do with it. Funny thing, I was scheduled to 'review' the person concerned, but it was postponed several times and then became irrelevant. They'd moved out of teaching into 'development' to become an expert in spouting acronyms, or something.

      As you say, Hogwarts under Umbrage. The HMI was probably right, telling the Emperor he's naked probably isn't a good career move.