One small step

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If teachers can’t agree on what schools of the future should be like, someone else is going to decide for them

In All Change Please!‘s recent “You Say Right and I Say Left, Oh No…” post, it concluded by suggesting:

“At the end of the day/lesson, the debate should not really be focused on whether traditional teaching is any better or worse that so-called progressive teaching, but simply whether traditional and more progressive methods are being applied well or badly in the classroom.”

This sentence was picked up and re-tweeted a number of times, so to extend this thought, here are some extreme examples of good and bad traditional and progressive approaches to lessons that All Change Please! has at some point had the fortune, or misfortune, to observe. Although they didn’t all occur in the same school at the same time, they are things that actually happened in real lessons.

A ’traditional’ teacher is sitting at his desk at the front of the class. He addresses the class, who have learnt to sit still and face the front in fear of being individually demeaned by the teacher’s penchant for sarcasm or informing them they are both stupid and failures. After pouring his considerable knowledge into the empty vessels before him, he writes some notes on the whiteboard (while still lamenting the removal of his blackboard) and tells the students to make some notes about what he has just said, which they do, in silence. He then asks a question and the children slowly begin to put their hands up, cautiously responding to his ‘Guess what I’m thinking’ game. Eventually he reveals the correct answer which, they are informed, is the one they will need to give in their final examination. Without variation, this approach continues to the end of the lesson, and homework – to ‘read the next chapter of the textbook for a test next period’ is set.

In an adjoining classroom is another ‘traditional’ teacher, standing at the front of a class. She has smilingly welcomed the students in and starts by re-capping the last lesson with them. A number of keywords have been written on the board, which are particularly checked for recall and understanding. By using more open-ended question and answers she is able to judge how much knowledge has been retained, and by whom. While she challenges those who have obviously not been listening or have not completed the set homework, she is positive and encouraging, and clearly has a good rapport with the class. Her explanation of the lesson content is enlivened by a PowerPoint presentation that highlights the key points with some strong, memorable images. She uses analogies and metaphors to help the students relate the concepts she is explaining to situations they will be more familiar with, and tellingly she draws on her own experiences of life outside school. During the lesson, the children are asked to briefly discuss an issue, either with a partner or in a small group, before making their own notes. To keep the pace of the lesson moving, there is a strict time-limit imposed. At the end of the lesson there’s a re-cap, as at the start, and she explains how today’s lesson has informed the next. Clear learning objectives have been set, and met. She sets the homework which is to study the next chapter and compare its content and presentation with a given web page on the same topic, ready to present during this next lesson.

Meanwhile in another part of the school a ‘progressive’ teacher is working with a class who are mid-way through a term-long project. They are working in groups. At the start of the lesson the teacher told them to get on with their work, and she is now circulating, becoming absorbed in sorting out in each group’s projects and problems one at a time. The rest of the class sit are round chatting and have little idea what they are supposed to be doing, and find working together difficult. They have done some research, mainly printing out pages from Wikipedia. Some students have decided what they are going to do, while others are still unsure, or claim they have finished. The teacher has no idea as to the extent and level of the problem-solving skills they have already developed in previous work, and as a result few children manage to extend their capabilities. During the lesson the teacher makes no whole-class input, or seeks to break-up the long double-lesson time. The room is noisy, with some minor instances of misbehaviour occurring, which the teacher ignores. The bell rings and the children dash off to their next lesson.

But next door, it’s a different story. Another ‘progressive’ teacher, working with a different class on the same project topic has started the lesson with a class review of progress to date from each group. He introduces some new content that he wants the class to consider and incorporate during the first part of the lesson, which they do while he goes round and quickly checks what each child has done for homework. He then asks the class to break off from their on-going work to reflect on how well their group is working and to establish some clear targets for the next fortnight. One group learns that one of their members is likely to be off sick for some time, so they re-allocate their roles amongst themselves accordingly. Back on their project, everyone is working and there is a busy, lively, purposeful atmosphere. Many of the children are talking, but the conversation is about their work. The teacher is circulating, but generally observing rather than directing, and being available as and when needed. Well before the end of the lesson the teacher stops everyone working and sets an individual research task, informing the class that simply printing off a page from Wikipedia will not be acceptable, and that they need to consult a variety of sources, evaluate the reliability of each and state their own conclusion. At the end of the lesson he asks one group to share an account of their progress with the whole class and uses what they say to ask some searching questions and highlight both positive achievements and where greater application is needed if they are to progress further.

In both the successful traditional and progressive teachers’ classes, there are some children who clearly shine and prefer either the more knowledge-based or more process/skill-based approach. What’s important is that children get the chance to experience both types of teaching and learning, and that they are properly supported in the approach they feel least comfortable with.

Meanwhile a striking feature of the two ‘good’ lesson examples is that they are not actually that different. As the new ‘academic’ (as opposed to practical?) year gets underway, isn’t it about time we stopped arguing amongst ourselves about whether traditional or modern educational methods are best, and start to develop a broader, more consensual approach to teaching and learning? We need to take the best of both approaches, and not be afraid to mix them up and make them nice. And in reality of course that’s what already happening in a lot of schools.

Meanwhile teachers are certainly are going to need to be singing from the same song-sheet if they are to successfully rise to the real challenge of the next few years and ensure that low-cost, second-rate, multiple-choice assessed computer-based teaching and learning systems do not become accepted as an adequate substitute for the real thing.

Why replacing teachers with automated education lacks imagination

or, as Timothy Leary didn’t put it in the 1960s:

‘Sit down, switch on and shut up!’

 

Image credit: Flickr/bsfinhull