Teaching methods and fitness for purpose

Education has always been subject to wild swings of the pendulum, and current shifts in school practices – in Scotland and further afield – are not atypical. With the possible exception of England, where there has been a traditionalist turn, at least in policy since 2010, we are witnessing a curricular turn that is characterised by a number of key features. These include a focus on the learner, the twin notions of personalisation and choice, and an emphasis on pedagogy. This latter focus is evidenced through current discourses about flipped classrooms, collaborative learning and teachers as facilitators of learning. These trends are accompanied in many cases by a downgrading of knowledge. In one recent conversation with a teacher, I was told that knowledge is simply not important any more, that instead the focus is on skills development, and the vehicle for achieving this is pedagogy. I have covered the question of knowledge in two recent posts on this blog so I will not dwell further on the issue for now (see https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/curriculum-for-excellence-and-the-question-of-knowledge/  and https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/262/ ). Instead, I wish to reflect here on pedagogy, or more specifically on its narrow and widely construed meaning as teaching methods.

Scottish secondary schools offer a microcosm of the development of ‘new’ teaching methods (new to Scotland at least – many such techniques have been widely used for decades elsewhere). On my arrival here in 2001, schools tended to primarily utilise quite traditional, didactic approaches; teacher chalk and talk and the ubiquitous workbook were the bread and butter approaches used by most teachers. The focus was primarily on individualised learning, and on the transmission of content. This transmissionist hegemony has been progressively eroded, first by the influence of the Assessment is for Learning programme, which promoted formative assessment, and later by the promotion of various collaborative learning models (CSP, Cooperative Learning) via local authority CPD. There has been an increasing influence of critical thinking pedagogy, and teachers increasingly use models like Bloom’s Taxonomy (the 6 cognitive levels) to structure their interactions with young people. Much of this is to be welcomed in my view, as it shows increased attention to issues such as how people learn. However, I wish to sound a few words of caution.

First, let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater (to use a hackneyed metaphor). Intrinsically, there is nothing wrong with the transmissionist techniques that were formerly [over-]used in Scottish schools). Let us not replace ‘death by a thousand worksheets’ with ‘death by cooperative learning’. Our research suggests that many young people are becoming tired of groupwork, which in some cases is now experienced across the timetable. I would suggest that both approaches have their merits. Second, and linked to this, is the issue of ‘fitness for purpose’. Research suggests that many new techniques are adopted wholesale with little consideration of purpose. Assessment for Learning offers a powerful example of this. The early work associated with the Black Box series (Paul Black, et al.) was about teachers developing techniques on the basis of consideration of principles and purposes. In many cases, these techniques have subsequently become set in stone and are used unreflectively. For example, the sharing of learning intentions can be justified for all sorts of good reasons, not least that it enhances communication about learning. However, writing learning intentions on the board, and getting pupils to copy them has become a well-worn ritual in many classrooms, that often serves little educational purpose. Judging teaching methods in respect of fitness for purpose would avoid this scenario. Cooperative learning, for example has many purposes – sense-making through dialogue, and the development of collaborative skills, to name two. However, it is arguably less useful for other purposes, such as communicating key concepts. Here, more didactic methods are potentially fit for purpose.

Teachers have many responsibilities. Part of these is to engage and motivate young people.  However, an excessive focus on classroom process to achieve this militates against consideration of long term educational purposes and values. This responsibility is about ‘giving serious consideration to the desirable and less desirable long-term effects of the constantly improvised learning environment’ (Salomon, 1991*). By doing so, I would argue that it becomes easier to identify and employ teaching methods that are eclectic, and above all fit for purpose.

*Salomon, G. (1992). The changing role of the teacher: from information transmitter to orchestrator of teaching. In F.K. Oser, A. Dick, J-L. Patry (Eds.). Effective and responsible teaching: the new synthesis (pp. 37-49). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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