Learning. The primary goal of teaching is that students should learn. But what is learning? What is the purpose of learning and education? If I can answer these questions a whole host of others appears on the horizon – What do I want my students to learn? What’s the best way to teach them? How will I know that they have learned what I want them to? These are a few of the questions which I have started to grapple with over the past year as my outlook on teaching has taken a significant shift and I have sought to embrace a more evidence informed approach. Here I give a brief outline of my teaching journey and how engaging with research has altered my trajectory, I hope for the better.
As a student at school, my preferred lessons were those when my teachers stood at the front, gave me the information I needed, instructed me in how to apply it and asked me to put it into practice. However, this mode of teaching was not encouraged when I became a teacher in 2011. A quick flick through the five lever arch files full of my teacher training ‘evidence’ quickly reveals the practices which pervaded the profession at that time – every lesson plan is annotated to show how learning styles would be catered for, I spent hours making differentiated worksheets and many activities were student led involving ‘discovery learning’ and lots of group work. Although I had disliked being taught in these ways myself, I embraced them, presuming that the experts with experience of teaching knew better than I did. After all, the majority of people were less introverted than my teenage self, surely most of my students would enjoy all these interactive, discovery based activities? I bought into the belief that the most important thing was to engage my students with a variety of activities to keep them interested whatever their preferred learning style. I was persuaded that this was the secret to minimising disruptive behaviour. I fell into the trap of believing that if I sat students in rows and taught them good science from the front of the classroom, my lessons would be boring and behaviour would be poor.
Explicit instruction combined with lots of practice was the way I learned best. Sadly, only a small portion of my education was delivered in this way, for which I lay no blame at the door of those who taught me, they were doing what they believed to be best. I passed through the education system at a time when discovery and project based learning and “doing the Romans” (Sherrington, 2018) were vogue. Although I would be considered to have achieved highly and to be well educated, I have often felt to lack the breadth and depth of knowledge that I would like to possess. I don’t have automaticity of basic factual knowledge such as my times tables. I can’t tell you the dates of, or people involved in more than a very few major historical events and have little idea of the broader context and historical narrative in which they sit. My knowledge of languages, the Arts and literature is quite limited. Even as a Science teacher, I don’t have the stories behind the great scientific discoveries at my fingertips to pass onto the students I teach.
The education I received accomplished its purpose in preparing me well to succeed in the eyes of society, but I look back and feel that I could have learned so much more. I was fortunate to have parents who did their best to plug this gap and enrich my cultural experience. I grew up in a house full of books, we often visited museums and historical sites and my dad sometimes read poetry to us after dinner on family holidays (I definitely can’t claim to have appreciated this at the time)! In spite of this I lack a depth and breadth in my knowledge, even of those subjects I particularly enjoyed, which would probably not have made a difference to the path I have taken, but would have enriched my experience as I walk that path in ways which are difficult to put into words. When it is said that, “the purpose of education is to prepare people for life, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to contribute to a thriving society” (Welcome Trust, 2016), this is true but reflects a sadly narrow and utilitarian view of what education could be. Do we really want our young people to learn only what is practically useful? (Newmark, 2019).
I have become convinced that all students are entitled to a certain, although not necessarily constant or uniform, body of knowledge (Young, 2014), and that the primary purpose of a school is to induct them into this knowledge. This is why the recent move towards a more knowledge-rich curriculum, combined with the rise in profile of evidence informed practice in teaching has caught my imagination as I have started to explore this field over the past year. My teaching practice had already made a gradual shift towards more explicit instruction, but the guilty voice in my mind wouldn’t go away. Occasionally I would plan a ‘discovery’ lesson to muffle it for a while. Learning more about research and the evidence for good teaching has given me the courage to speak out about my convictions and rethink the way that I was taught to teach. The teaching profession is starting to regain a degree of intellectual rigour, engaging in the conversation regarding what we should be teaching and the best way to accomplish that aim. The grass-roots movements to spread the word and motivate others are exciting and encouraging.
Since reading Why Don’t Students Like School? (Willingham, 2010) and The Learning Rainforest (Sherrington, 2017), joining the Chartered College, discovering the world of EduTwitter, and the #CogSciSci group, my thoughts on the role of cognitive science, curriculum content and design, assessment, best practice in science teaching and many other areas have been changing. I have altered my classroom practice and I hope my students will reap the benefits. I have already written about how I’ve used knowledge organisers and hope to share more about the impact of engaging with research on my practice as a classroom teacher and Head of Science. I’m no expert, but perhaps my thoughts and experiences might be of help to others on a similar journey. In the meanwhile I will endeavour to give all my students the best possible education by continuing to learn to teach.
Sherrington (2018) – https://teacherhead.com/2018/06/06/what-is-a-knowledge-rich-curriculum-principle-and-practice/ (accessed 05/07/2019)
Welcome Trust (2016) – https://wellcome.ac.uk/sites/default/files/wtp060177.pdf(accessed 21/06/2019)
Newmark (2019) – https://bennewmark.wordpress.com/2019/02/10/why-teach/(accessed 21/06/2019)
Young (2014) – Knowledge and the Future School. Bloomsbury.
Willingham (2010) – Why Don’t Students Like School? Jossey Bass.
Sherrington (2017) – The Learning Rainforest. John Catt Educational Ltd.