What to avoid when teaching

Durham University, the Sutton Trust and CEM published an interesting report called “What Makes Great Teaching” in October 2014. It’s an overview of what research appears to be telling us at the moment.

While it would be wonderful to think there is a simple, step-by-step formula to a perfect lesson, I’m not at all convinced it exists. In fact, I tend to think any complicated scenarios (classrooms, trading floors, warzones etc) preclude those sorts of plans beyond the “Stay in touch, keep moving and head for the high ground” heuristics.

One of the sections that caught my eye, though, was a list of things that don’t work. That instantly appeals.

The Don’ts

Don’t use praise lavishly.

This is Dweck, Hattie and others.

“Praise for successful performance on an easy task can be interpreted by a student as evidence that the teacher has a low perception of his or her ability. As a consequence, it can actually lower rather than enhance self-confidence. Criticism following poor performance can, under some circumstances, be interpreted as an indication of the teacher’s high perception of the student’s ability.”

Don’t allow learners to discover key ideas for themselves

Research evidence broadly favours direct instruction (Kirschner et al, 2006).

if teachers want them to learn new ideas, knowledge or methods they need to teach them directly.

Don’t group learners by ability

Evidence on the effects of grouping by ability, either by allocating students to different classes, or to within class groups, suggests that it makes very little difference to learning outcomes (Higgins et al, 2014). If anything,

[it] can result in teachers failing to make necessary accommodations for the range of different needs within a supposedly homogeneous ‘ability’ group, and over-doing their accommodations for different groups, going too fast with the high-ability groups and too slow with the low.

Don’t encourage re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas

Highlighting feels good but is deceptive – it doesn’t really work. A range of studies have shown that testing yourself, trying to generate answers, and deliberately creating intervals between study to allow forgetting, are all more effective approaches. (My notes on some of these studies are here)

Don’t address issues of confidence and low aspirations before you try to teach content

The effect of trying to boost morale before the content is near-zero. Poor motivation is actually a logical response to repeated failure. Start getting them to succeed and their motivation and confidence should increase.

Don’t present information to learners in their preferred learning style

Over 90% of teachers in several countries (including the UK) agreed with the claim that “Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic)”. Sadly, the psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits for learning from trying to present information to learners in their preferred learning style.

Don’t ensure learners are always active, rather than listening passively, if you want them to remember

If you want students to remember something you have to get them to think about it. This might be achieved by being ‘active’ or ‘passive’.


Careful Documentation

This (thank you Cristina) is a great mini-documentary about the impact of documentation as used in the Reggio Emilia schools and with the Making Learning Visible project

Documentation: Transforming Our Perspective from Melissa Rivard on Vimeo.

Intuitively, I am wholeheartedly behind this sort of approach. Instinctively, too, I worry about the biases that come with collecting. A while ago, I was interested in collecting and the biases, problems and difficulties with that. Documentation is clearly prone to that.

To summarise, though it’s a little jarring as a quote, you can use the wonderful Culture of Collecting:

“… if the cultural criterion of the desirable excludes anything tainted by ‘shit’, if the definition of a collectible rests on an implied ritual of cleansing … and if we never touch anything that is not already in a sense ‘our own’, then all conventional collecting can really offer is kitsch.”

Often the display work you see published online, or the student portfolios is similarly kitsch. Student work can be work that is “cleansed” by teachers, so to speak. Displays, while often remarkably talented, are also often remarkably kitsch.

Where the documentary scores for me is that those involved clearly see who “owns” the documentation to be an issue. For older students, what is helpful is that they become the protagonist in their own documentation. That, for me, is the exciting part. And that is what stops it being kitsch.


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“Tyrrany is the deliberate enemy of nuance”

Albert Maysles

Kurt Vonnegut, Art & Making Your Soul Grow

In 2006, an English teacher called Ms. Lockwood asked her students to write to their favourite author and ask him or her to visit the school. This was Kurt Vonnegut’s response.

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Trophic Cascades and Wolves