I have been meaning to write this post for a while, as a condensed conclusion from my long essays, Education’s coming revolution and In the beginning was the conversation. But the the spark that has persuaded me to get it down on paper was given to me by a Twitter conversation with Pete Bell, an ICT Examiner, who quoted J Bruner saying “Teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation”. The argument of this post is that teaching is a lot more than that.
I propose the following five key principles of good pedagogy:
- direction of activity;
- inviting imitation.
These principles may of course overlap and/or be sub-divided into sub-principles.
Motivation is what J Bruner was talking about when he says that “teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation”. All of the other principles, if applied, will also contribute to motivation by delivering an effective and engaging instructional process—but there is a sense in which motivation needs to be prior to the “delivery” of instruction. Motivation is likely to be dependent on the personality of the teacher and his or her ability to develop a good relationship with the student, understanding the student’s current world view, interests and experience, and framing the learning to be achieved in a way that makes sense to the student.
This is what people mean when they talk about teaching being “relevant”—although this formulation is not satisfactory because the purpose of teaching is to move the student beyond the limited outlook of ignorant childhood, raising expectations and revealing the much greater possibilities offered by the world outside their existing experience. Relevance to the student’s existing experience is a good starting point but not a good outcome of education.
The dependence of inspiration on the relationship with the teacher means that computers have only a supportive role to play in this field.
Exposition (“chalk and talk”) gets a bad rap. It is transmissive, casts the student in a passive role, and can often be dull. On the other hand, it is relatively cheap and easy to provide, if well done it can be motivating, it gives the teacher an opportunity to establish his or her presence and personality, it can summarise and articulate the key facts, principles and learning objectives. If well done and done at the right time and the right way, it can be an important ingredient in a wider mix—and for all the criticism that is made of it, it is still used heavily by all instructional processes.
Good exposition requires an ability at public performance combined with good subject knowledge, good preparation and often good supporting props. Exposition is easy to do badly: hard to do well. It is not essential that exposition is managed solely by the classroom teacher: online video delivered by e.g. the Khan Academy may provide a useful supplement to classroom exposition, especially as online video can be accessed anytime, anywhere and is likely to be of much higher quality than classroom exposition. That at least is the vision of the flipped classroom.
Direction of activity
As “we learn by doing”, so good instruction must rely heavily on activity. Pete Bell dislikes the term “direction”, considering it too “command and control”—so let me break this down into its constituent parts so we can at least agree what it is we are talking about.
Learning activity design
The design of activities that deliver particular learning objectives in an engaging way is a skilled business, particularly when the medium through which learning activities are delivered becomes digital (the production of serious games, simulations and creative tools is no trivial matter). At the moment, this process is largely performed (normally not very well) by front line classroom teachers. It is a central argument of Education’s coming revolution that this process needs to be systematised and centralised: digital learning activities produced by specialist designers need to become a commodity that can be bought or shared and automatically integrated with learning management software.
Learning activity delivery
Once a learning activity has been designed, the activity needs to be delivered. In the non-digital, physical world, the delivery of learning activity can be summarised by the term “facilitation”. In the digital world, delivery can largely be automated. In practice, a good instructional process will represent a blending of both types of activity.
Learning activity selection and sequencing
The selection of learning activities is a critical role of the teacher and needs to be directed by several further sub-principles. The selection of activities (or “progression management” as I have called it in In the beginning was the conversation) is highly suitable for automation by dedicated software systems.
Analysing the structure of the learning objectives
Clearly, learning activities should be relevant to the current learning objectives, which ultimately are not set by the teacher. What the teaching process does require, however, is the disaggregation of those top-level objectives into smaller prerequisite steps, that will guide the student through the learning in a logical sequence. If you want to teach long division, you need to ensure that the student is proficient at addition and subtraction first.
It is often said that you do not really understand a topic until you have to teach it. This is at least partly because to teach something well, you need to analyse the essential structure of the knowledge being taught.
This analysis is required for course design can be done by a course designer, who does not in turn need to be the same person who designed the constituent learning activities or the same person as the classroom teacher.
Responding to the conceptual state of the student
This may often go under the catch-phrase of adaptive learning. Not only does the teacher need at the beginning of the course to select learning activities that are appropriate to his or her students, but the teacher also needs constantly to monitor the extent of learning achieved by students at each stage of the course, selecting activities that respond to the learning and maybe misconceptions picked up at previous stages of the course. As argued (with reference to Dylan Wiliam) in In the beginning was the conversation, progression management is often a better response to student misconception that negative feedback.
Repetition and review
Memory (both knowing that and knowing how) tends to degrade. Learning activities therefore need to be repeated regularly at first in order to ensure that the learning is laid down in long-term and not just short-term memory. The intervals of review can becoming increasingly infrequent as the learning is mastered.
Much learning in formal systems consists of the mastery of abstract principles. An abstract principle that is studied only in abstract terms is never really understood at all, as the essence of the abstract is the ability to apply it to a range of different concrete contexts.
Similarly, if an abstract principle is only studied in a single context, it is likely that the student will learn only about the context in which the principle is learnt and not about the abstract principle. It is therefore important that the teacher selects activities that illustrate the same principle in a range of different contexts, so the student can practice the ability to recognise and apply the abstract principle in unfamiliar contexts.
Incremental increase in difficulty
It may be demotivating to fail too often—yet ignoring failure is likely to be harmful as it will entrench the undesirable behaviours that led to failure. One way to resolve this paradox is to reduce the chance of failure by sequencing activities so that the difficulty increases in small increments, maximising the chance of success at each stage. This was the approach taken by B F Skinner with machine learning. At the same time, having to progress at a snail’s pace through material that the student finds easy can also be highly demotivating, so this needs to be combined with the adaptive principle.
There are many ways in which activities may be made incrementally more difficult:
- instrinsically (e.g. by providing longer numbers for a sum in maths);
- by withdrawing help or scaffolding;
- increasing the number of stages of a problem that must be navigated;
- by creating more “open ended” activities (e.g. at higher levels on Bloom’s taxonomy);
- by unexpected timing (e.g. introducing an old topic out of the blue);
- by deeper contextualisation of an abstract principle (e.g. use of unfamiliar language).
Some will be uncomfortable with this word—but it is the right one. Criticism should be constructive of course and there are times when criticism may be withheld, to be replaced by progression management or an expectation that the student will work it out for themselves. Ultimately, however, criticism is an essential part of the conversational loop (see again In the beginning was the conversation). It is a key part of the teacher’s tool-set and students should learning to accept criticism in the constructive sense that it ought to be offered.
Component parts of criticism are:
- contextual repetition of exposition;
- target setting.
At higher levels, the expert evaluation required will be beyond the capacity of computers and will therefore be a primary function of the subject expert. At lower levels (e.g. routine marking of simple problems), offering instantaneous assessment and feedback are functions to which computer systems are well adapted.
Humans are mimics. Children and teenagers are naturally programmed to find role models and copy them. Ideally, a child will choose to admire a teacher and seek to imitate them. Children will also imitate each other and the degree to which this sort of imitation will be beneficial will depend on the extent to which the peer culture is constructive.
The criterion on which a teacher is likely to be selected as a role model will in large part be dependent on personality—and this is a tough call for teachers who may be expert at their subject and diligent in marking work, if they are not at the same time seen to be quite as cool as the latest celebrity on big brother.
Teachers can support each other in this respect. The willingness of children to look favourably on their teachers as role models may be influenced by the general culture of the school. Where learning is not respected, it may be almost impossible for a teacher to be a potential role model as well as being passionate about their subject. I suggest the following sub-principles which can help promote beneficial imitation:
- fostering a peer culture in which learning is valued;
- the appointment of charismatic teachers in senior position (e.g. Head Teacher, Leading Subject Teachers);
- the fostering of team-teaching whereby senior teachers can support junior teachers, and junior teachers can, by working alongside senior teachers, learn the tricks of the trade;
- developing good relationships with students;
- teacher acting as collaborator (or “guide on the side”), illustrating for the benefit of students ways in which problems can be addressed, which the student can then imitate;
- good discipline, where rival, negative peer role models are challenged early;
- personalisation of learning and effective use of praise.
As the last of these points illustrate, there is a relationship between effective motivational strategies and selection of role models: a highly motivational teacher is also likely to be adopted as a role model.
As much of this is a matter of personality, it may be argued that technology has little part of play. However, technology can help in a number of ways, including the management of personalisation and the reporting of learning outcomes to encourage the teacher in giving timely praise.
I would argue that the opportunities for video conferencing and remote tutoring can also help. This can help replace isolated classroom teachers with teaching teams led by “leading teachers” – people who combine compelling charisma with strong subject knowledge, able to champion the cause and help with the difficult task of offering a compelling alternative (and complementary) set of motivations to the modern entertainment industry. Such leading teachers would need to be supported by junior teachers and machine instruction, capable of addressing the bread-and-butter management of learning, reporting and aggregating learning outcome data in forms that are available to the whole teaching team.
Another advantage of the leading teacher concept will be that, being ultimately responsible for large numbers of students, it will be possible to pay leading teachers significantly more than can be afforded for classroom teachers, who are limited by the 30-in-a-classroom productivity ceiling. This will help attract high calibre entrants to the profession and keep them “in the classroom”.
Understanding the nature of pedagogy is a necessary prerequisite to understanding what role technology will have in supporting education—and also to the selection of terms that we should use to describe and classify the business of teaching.
Any comments, criticisms and suggestions for things that I might have missed are, as always, welcome.