Managing the complexity of the classroom

complexitySystematic pedagogy is not defeated by the complexity of the classroom: it is the solution

In my previous post, Pedagogical romanticism, the ninth in my series on educational purpose, I proposed that our current model of education provision, which relies heavily on the intuition of autonomous teachers, was failing to manage the scale of modern education. But the alternative to the intuition of the human teacher is some sort of systematic pedagogy, which is commonly thought to be defeated by the complexity and unpredictability of the classroom. In this part I respond.

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Flyvbjerg, phronesis and the expertise of teachers

chess-3How the modern variant on Aristotle’s theory of phronesis originated and why it offers a partial and unhelpful account of teaching expertise

Aristotle’s theory of phronesis has been widely cited by progressive educationalists as supporting their view that teachers and educationalists should be able to determine their own objectives, using their intuitive assessment of their particular classrooms. In my previous post, I explained why this view depends on a misunderstanding of Aristotle’s position. This post completes my rebuttal by examining how the modern account of Aristotle’s phronesis originated and why it offers an unsatisfactory account of teaching expertise. 

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Aristotle’s phronesis misunderstood


When educationalists use the theory of phronesis to argue that teachers should determine educational purpose, they misrepresent Aristotle.

My investigation into educational purpose has so far focused on the mistaken assumptions of many progressive educationalists, starting from the position of Professor Gert Biesta at the recent Commons Education Select Committee conference. I cannot complete this first part without addressing the theory of phronesis, which has been widely used, by Professor Biesta among others, to argue that teachers should be left to determine the purposes of their own teaching. In this post, I explain why the modern version of the theory misrepresents Aristotle.

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The purpose of education

Monty Python and the Holy GrailWhy progress on edtech is dependent on a better understanding of educational purpose

If my last post was a light-hearted love story, this one is more of an attempt to write a Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. But I hope that the reader will be compensated by finding the argument to be original. I make the case that the recommendations of the recent Commission on Assessment without Levels are fundamentally mistaken.

It is a response I submitted to the current House of Commons Select Committee’s enquiry into the purpose of education. When announced, this enquiry was dismissed by Andrew Old as a waste of time: the purpose of education, said Andrew, was simply to make people cleverer. While I know where Andrew is coming from (who needs another waffle-fest with a lot of high-faluting rhetoric?) and agree with Andrew most of the time, I disagree with him that this is a pointless enquiry, if the question is understood in the way that I will suggest.

As my previous posts have argued (especially How technology will revolutionize education), technology is not about generic kit, but about the systematic means by which we pursue our ends. If no-one can be sure what our ends (or purposes) are, then any technological approach to education is doomed to fail. If we are not taking a technological approach to the business of teaching itself, then what hope is there in applying digital technology to education productively? Judging by the success we have had so far, the answer has to be “not a lot”.

My contention in this piece is therefore that the development of systematic pedagogy will never be achieved until (a) we know how to describe our educational objectives more clearly and consistently, and (b) until we understand the role of digital technology, both in supporting the description of educational objectives and in implementing the pedagogies required to attain those objectives.

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How edtech will revolutionize research

Researchers working at microscopesWhy the only realistic way of improving the quality of educational research (and of education itself) is by the intelligent application of education technology

I gave this talk at Research Ed 2015 on 5 September, the latest in a series of three national conferences organized by Tom Bennett.

Research Ed has grown into a vital event in the annual calendar for teachers interested in the theory of teaching. Nevertheless, my impression is that the centre of gravity of many of the talks at ResearchEd has veered away from an agenda that tries to promote sound, quantitative research, and is replaced with a softer account of both the role and methodology of research, as is suggested by the language of “action research” and “research-informed” teaching.

I believe that the problems with research are systemic and not just the result of incompetence. I argue in this piece that these systemic problems can (and can only) be solved by seeing teaching as a business which has a larger technical element than we commonly admit, and one that is less dependent on personal intuition (or what some call “tacit knowledge”). Such a realignment of our views on what teaching is, and how research into teaching should be conducted, will also underline a radical reevaluation of the role of technology in the classroom.

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Its the technology, stupid!

wheelThe consensus is that we should not mind the technology but that we should focus instead on the learning. The consensus is wrong.

This is the transcript of a presentation I gave at the EdExec conference, held by ICT Matters in London on 6 November 2013. The ostensible argument in my talk is that “procurement matters”, which I will admit, probably isn’t going to set your heart racing. But perhaps it should. The reason why procurement matters is that technology matters – and this is a point that much of the ICT community do not generally admit. Time and again, you hear the old saw being repeated, “never mind the technology, where’s the learning?” Most of my talk addressed addressed this point—and in doing so, I take on (as is my wont in this blog) a lot of shibboleths. I summarise some arguments with which those of you who have read previous posts may be familiar, and I also shadow some arguments that I will develop in greater detail in future. And I return to a promise that I made in my first post to this blog in January 2012, which is to discuss in rather more depth than I have done before why Becta’s approach to procurement was so lamentable. Continue reading

Why teachers don’t know best

The blind leading the blind by  Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568It is not surprising that teachers get impatient when others tell them how to do their job: “we are the experts”, they complain, “not you”. What should surprise the rest of us is how wrong they are: most teachers know little about teaching as a technical discipline.

This post responds to a comment by someone nicknamed subminiature, who argued on the Radio Times website that teachers knew what they were doing and should just be left to get on with the job. In this lengthy response, I argue the opposite: through no fault of their own, teachers do not have the skill-set that is required to improve the chronic under-performance of our education service. This will only be achieved by the implementation of education technology, backed by sound pedagogy. It is not surprising that teachers are not technology-experts: what is surprising is that they are not experts in pedagogy either. Expecting teachers to lead the sort of transformative development that is required in education is about as sensible as expecting a group of horse-drawn carriage drivers to design the first steam engine. Yet that is precisely the assumption on which government policy has been based over the last 15 years. A policy based on teachers sharing ed-tech best practice is analogous to Breugel’s allegory of the blind leading the blind.

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