The laziest ideas in teaching

admin /   December 8, 2014 at 7:38 AM 984 views

I am going to define lazy ideas as those that are easily understood – perhaps even implicitly – and yet are demonstrably false. Here’s a few that will be familiar to my regular readers. Feel free to add to them in the comments.

Tests are bad

There is much wind expended in education about teaching children at their point of need and lots of groovy pedagogies seek to do this. But how can you possibly do this if you don’t know what your students know and what they don’t know? How can you teach students effectively if you make no attempt to find out if they’ve learnt the things you want them to learn? You may call this ‘testing’ if you like. You may call it ‘assessment’ if that suits. You may even do it in the classroom on mini-whiteboards and call this ‘formative assessment’. Yet, these are all essentially the same thing. Not only is assessment essential for testing the effect of your teaching, it also acts as an aid to learning in its own right.

It is not helpful to suggest that the only way that you can learn about what students know is by making them prepare complex, ‘authentic’ performances. These won’t tell you much because you won’t be able to untangle all of the overlapping, interacting constructs. So, where does the drive for this sort of thing come from? Well, on the one hand, testing can be a source of bad news and so we might subconsciously avoid it for that reason. No-one wants their self-image as an effective teacher challenged. Secondly, we may perceive a similar feeling in our students – they don’t like tests.

But, hang on, I test my students pretty much all the time. I ‘cold call’ them in class to answer verbal questions. And they’re fine with it. And they always have been, wherever I have worked. What is going on in these classes where everyone is so frightened of tests? Is it, perhaps, a reflection of the teacher’s own attitude? A lack of a growth mindset that influences the students?

PISA tells us nothing

Anti-testing reaches a new level with the dismissal of the value of international testing. I have many concerns about PISA. In particular, I am not a fan of the mathematics test which is based in the entirely wrong Dutch philosophy of ‘Realistic Mathematics Education’. However, even I will concede that performance on a maths test tells us something about how well students understand maths, even if the PISA maths questions unnecessarily end up assessing literacy at the same time.

It is also surprising to me as to why PISA gets all the attention when the more theoretically sound TIMSS tests pretty much corroborate the PISA findings in maths and science. I think I know why. When Finland was performing up the top of the PISA tables, many educationalists used this opportunity to push their own pet ideas. However, some myths have been forged in this process. In particular, people tend to conclude that what Finland is doing now is responsible for its prior performance in PISA. However, as we have seen, Finland has now started to slip in the rankings. So, perhaps we should be less interested in what they are doing now and more interested in what they did in the past. As Tim Oates explains, this involved quite a didactic approach to teaching, coupled with central control of the curriculum – including textbooks – and intensive programmes to support children who fall behind.

The future changes everything

No, it does not.

Old Andrew has written extensively about the ‘digital natives’ myth. However, it is still popular to claim that we are somehow in the midst of a revolution in information that means that textbooks will be redundant. Apparently, this is because it takes too long for them to respond to new information. Schools should not be in the business of predicting the future because the future is, well, unpredictable. The best way that we can equip our students for what it holds – and give them access to an enriching culture – is to give them knowledge of the ideas that have been the most enduring.

A moment’s thought displays the silliness of the technophile position. Exactly how fast will the relationship between the radius and circumference of a circle change? Even if grammar usage evolves during my lifetime, will this make knowledge of grammar as it currently stands redundant? Should we really prevent students from discussing the origins of the first world war because it is possible that a document will arise in ten years time that makes Moltke’s role clearer? And exactly when will the dates of the war change?

The best way to prepare for future knowledge is to learn a lot of what is currently known. Here is an example of some relatively newly produced knowledge in the journal Nature. To understand it, you would need a lot of textbook biology.

Enough

Cliches work to suppress original or analytic thought. They represent an unsatisfactory end-point when no such point has actually been proven. Let’s say we’ve had enough of them and let’s vow to use our brains instead.

Courtesy of Harry Webb at Webs of Substance

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