It's Just Nuts on a Plate

Monday October 5, 2015

I think I’ve read more education research in the last few years than at any point in my teaching career. Some of it has made me think differently about my practice and some of it has cemented my beliefs. Based on what I see on Twitter I suppose that’s the point.

Yet rather than opening up the debate about good teaching, what seems to be happening far more frequently is research being used to tell teachers in no uncertain terms exactly how to teach.

Taking research at face value and with an almost literal interpretation leads to the narrowing of a teacher’s repertoire. A recent article from the Australian Society for Evidence Based Teaching spells out eight powerful strategies that will make the biggest difference to students’ results.  The message is clear - follow the steps, and you’ll be successful; dare to be different, and you’ll fail. 

This is echoed in the recent collection of essays to accompany E.D Hirsch’s lecture for the right wing think tank Policy Exchange hosted at School Minister and Tory donor Lord Nash’s Pimlico Academy. The view from my classroom sees Nick Gibb MP and Katherine Birbalsingh standing out as two influential individuals with an incredibly limited view of education.  Direct instruction is heralded as the only worthwhile strategy, and any other pedagogical approach is sneered at.    

Gibb looks forward to ‘a new generation of classroom resources’, with teachers across the country using identical textbooks to deliver a core body of knowledge. (Surely not an-off the-shelf curriculum written for right wing think tank Civitas by Lord Nash’s Pimlico School – see here for more on whether there could be ‘a conflict of interest here when a minister recommends using the type of materials published by an academy chain with links to the minister’?). And Birbalsingh boasts of 100% consistency between staff - identical teaching methods to impart a rigid curriculum. 

This transmission model of education reduces our children to a diet of nuts on a plate.  Turn up, take the diet you’re given and shuffle off home again. 

The reasons for this approach seem to be based on the assumption that curriculum matters more than teachers.  Standardise the curriculum and you don’t have to train the teachers too much either.

And in this way all our problems are solved.

The more I work with schools on developing curriculum however, the more apparent it is that the actual curriculum doesn’t matter that much. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the same assumption is also evident in schools that would claim to have a highly creative curriculum.  They often appear creative and offer motivating and engaging topics for the children to work on, but frequently what this boils down to it still nuts on a plate, just with better china, posh nuts and some flashy garnish. 

A curriculum can help, but it definitely doesn’t guarantee the kind of insatiably curious creative thinkers we’re after.

For that, we need teachers. Good ones.  

Too much time is wasted by schools on developing a blended creative curriculum, and not enough time is spent on developing and fostering a blended pedagogy. The danger of the current obsession with research into what works means that there will be growing numbers of people who are happy to interpret the findings literally and strive for a single definitive pedagogical method. Hattie’s statement that teachers need to clearly state what they want the children to learn is interpreted as ‘you must write up the learning objective on the board at the start of every lesson and read it to the children'. I don’t necessarily disagree with the different aspects of the research, but there seems to be an implied belief that the only way of achieving gains in student achievement is by a prescribed transmission model.

To start with I have no issue at all with the idea of overt instruction being an effective way of imparting knowledge. Nuts on a plate works, and presenting learning with this 'path of least resistance' thinking is sometimes the most appropriate method. There’s a great blog post about this by Dr Phil Wood.

But as Ian Gilbert often says, ‘What are they learning when you’re teaching them?’

What really surprises me about the people who push direct instruction is that they seem to believe that the only pedagogical alternative available to teachers is 'discovery learning' (something that’s dismissed in both the Evidence-Based Teaching article, the Hirsch essays and by most of the teacehrs who are accused of doing it).  If I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve encountered pure discovery learning at any point in my career (with the possible exception of Sugata Mitra’s SOLE which I’ve yet to be convinced about), but thanks to this polarised debate, a range of interesting, complex and effective pedagogy is swept aside. Or at least it is in state schools. For those schools doing the IB curriculum it's their bread and butter.

In terms of a blended pedagogy, (and to keep the nut analogy going!) there is a range of different and equally valuable approaches available to teachers:

  • Nuts on a plate:

Direct instruction – creative direct teaching

  • Nuts scattered in the clearing:

Facilitated learning i.e. not teaching them anything, but having the means to learn readily accessible.

  • Nuts in the box:

Guided discovery i.e. not teaching them anything, and then creating (and managing) desirable difficulties to regulate complexity, struggle and challenge.

For me, the key to developing creativity and creative thinking in education is about getting the blend just right - teachers who can seamlessly move between different approaches.

In using this blended approach, I think it’s possible to utilise all of the elements identified in Hattie’s checklist, but with the children taking equal responsibility for this rather than being the passive recipients of his recommended strategies.

Feedback is the perfect example of this.  It’s wrong to say simply that ‘it is important to give your students feedback’ as it implies only the teacher can do this. I do not hold this to be true. It’s important that children get feedback but this does not need to be the sole responsibility of the teacher. I’m currently working on introducing 'peer critique' in my school (as a result of having read a brilliant book by Ron Berger called An Ethic of Excellence).  Properly implemented, peer critique can have an incredible impact on progress and allow teachers a means of not only ensuring that the responsibility for feedback is shared, but also that children develop greater autonomy in the guided discovery process.

A lot of the work done in primary schools seems stuck somewhere between nuts on a plate and nuts scattered in the clearing.  Achieving a blend of all three approaches is difficult, but without it, even the most creative of curriculum documents won’t make a blind bit of difference. So when it comes to your own development as a teacher, if someone offers you nuts on a plate and tells you it’s the only way, you know what to tell them… 

Jonathan Lear is an inner-city primary school teacher and deputy head. He is the author of the new book Guerrilla Teaching published by the Independent Thinking Press. 

Guerrilla Teaching 1 JL






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