Lies my teacher training taught me #1: Don’t teach
‘The best lessons that I teach are those in which I hardly say a thing’
When I first became a teacher, I hoped to emulate the best teachers from my schooldays. These teachers could captivate a class explaining ideas, telling stories and generating discussions. There was an understanding that these teachers knew and loved their subject, and we as pupils had the privilege of benefitting from this. Such was the teacher I hoped to be.
Then I arrived at university to train for my Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE), and was told that I should not ‘teach’. Apparently, teaching from the front was ‘chalk and talk’, a cardinal sin in the modern classroom. We were told ‘chalk and talk’ is unforgivably boring, a style that forces pupils to be passive participants in the lesson, therefore never engaged in ‘real’ learning. Underlying this was the child-centred principle that teaching per se is wrong; instead we should place pupils in a position where they can find things out for themselves, a principle summed up by the common cliché, ‘think of yourself less as a teacher, more as a facilitator of learning.’
Once inside a school, this model of ‘best practice’ did not disappear. Whilst being observed, I was repeatedly told to teach less. One tutor informed me that in a one-hour lesson, I should never talk for more than ten minutes. Another claimed that to gain a top rating during an OFSTED inspection, the lesson must be ‘10% you, 90% pupils’.
Where does this aversion to teaching come from? It has been a central idea within progressive education since the days of Dewey, but reached the popular consciousness during the 1960s. This was not due to any genuine breakthrough in the workings of the human mind, but instead a new aversion amongst liberated baby-boomers for any teaching that smacked of authoritarianism or hierarchy. John Holt’s immensely popular 1964 book How Children Fail articulated this view, claiming that exams, teachers and formal lessons all stifle a child’s real desire to learn. His follow up How Children Learn, stated:
‘The most important thing any teacher has to learn, not to be learned in any school of education I ever heard of, can be expressed in seven words: Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.’
Sadly, this absurdity is now exactly what teachers learn at most ‘schools of education’. This progressive myth is backed up by the pseudo-science of ‘constructivist psychology’. Put simply, the constructivist learning theory claims that pupils learn by constructing their own knowledge according to previous learning, and this is not aided by the direct instruction of teachers. As a trainee, you will most probably be set an essay in which you are expected blindly to endorse constructivism. Constructivism’s most famous exponent, Vygotsky, wrote, ‘Practical experience also shows that direct teaching of concepts is impossible and fruitless. A teacher who tries to do this usually accomplishes nothing but empty verbalisation.’
Vygotsky’s scary Russian name and towering reputation prevents trainee teachers from really questioning his usefulness. Few appreciate that Vygotsky spent his entire career working in the Soviet Union, died in 1934, and has been superseded countless times.
Constructivist ideas take on many forms in the classroom, all of which intend to circumvent the direct instruction of the teacher: discovery learning, child-centred learning, incidental learning, project-based learning etc. It has been consistently shown to be not as effective as formal teaching, but continues regardless. For two pretty conclusive discreditings of constructivist teaching, click here and here.
The idea that teachers should not teach is based on the fallacy that there is something ‘passive’ about a pupil listening to a teacher. In the most bone-headed, literal way, this is true: for the member of SMT or OFSTED inspector who walks into a classroom, pupils junk modelling volcanoes are far more demonstrably engaged than pupils listening to a teacher explaining how volcanoes work. However, if that teacher is making the topic interesting and engaging, then the pupils will be active in the most important sense: mentally. As the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham writes, learning is the residue of thought. If you get your pupils to think about a topic, they will most probably have learnt something. He adds that there is a danger of setting pupils overly elaborate tasks in order to engage them, as the task supersedes the topic in their mental engagement. There are, of course, endless ways of getting pupils to think, but the most effective and consistent is good old fashioned teaching. It should be added that to do this, you need a quiet and well-behaved classroom, another reason perhaps why the child-centred educators have so much disdain for ‘chalk and talk’.
The greatest irony about the anti-teaching dogma in today’s classrooms is that whilst trainee teachers are constantly invoked to deliver active lessons (particularly when someone is coming to watch) most know deep down that, on a day-to-day basis, teaching works best. However, many teachers do this badly because being a ‘chalk and talk’ teacher is undervalued during their training. Subject knowledge, effective communication, and authoritative presence are pretty low on the list when it comes to ‘skills’ a PGCE equips one for, so when a new teacher has to fulfil them, they often fall flat. The moral of the story seems to be, if you think teaching is bad, you will be a bad teacher.