In a recent blog, a respected former colleague of mine wrote a blog entitled “MIND SHIFT: Leaders of Learning Creating Independent Learners”. In it he argues that teachers should become Leaders of Learning and that we should all implement a student-centred approach. These ideas have been bandied about for many years in education now, and I’d argue that while they may have a degree of relevance in some situations, it is wrong to suggest that they are the best approach for all subjects and all teachers.
As an English teacher and HoD, with all the responsibilities to students and their families that these roles bring, I’d argue that to simply go for the student—centred collaborative approach as a default setting is a recipe for disaster and risks doing a gross disservice to our students. The texts and concepts that we deal with in my subject are just too complex and slippery for students to be allowed to go off and discuss and “discover” in groups before I’ve ensured that they have a good understanding of them. The thought of studying great literature with a group of KS3 or KS4 students using only collaborative, student-centred approaches makes my blood run cold. Even with a series of carefully designed collaborative tasks and the aids of support materials and reference books, I just couldn’t be sure that they would understand or engage with these texts in ways that were useful, and there’s always the added risk that they could be completely alienated from what they are studying without a healthy dose of direct instruction and whole class discussion directed by a subject expert (i.e. the teacher) to keep them on the right track.
I suppose fundamentally it comes down to the question of what we think our subjects and schools are for. I’ve previously written on what I think English is for in blog imaginatively entitled “What English is For”, and although I do agree that we have a duty to develop literate citizens who can communicate at a functional level in our society, this is in fact the duty of all teachers, and English is about so much more than that. I also want to see my learners engage with great texts in a way that helps them shed light on the human condition: I want them to think about why people behave in the way they do and grapple with big moral questions, as well as being good communicators. To do this they need to have expert teaching from somebody who can clearly explain concepts and ideas to them or ask the right probing questions that will move them to deeper levels of thinking. In the post, my ex-colleague asks:
“But does a teacher ‘guide’ or does a teacher ‘tell’?”
I would argue that this is a false dichotomy and that in actual fact a great teacher finds a middle ground in which he questions and explains expertly to advance learning. The blogger acknowledges that a learner is a beginner, and in my experience all learners in all contexts need experts to make things clear, and standing at the front of a classroom doing this to a class of students is usually the most efficient and effective starting point.
There is a big emphasis in the blog on independence and the design of lessons around questions. I agree with this, but in a slightly different way. I’ve been designing my lessons around a big question for a couple of years now and have kicked learning objectives into touch. My objective is simply that the students will be equipped to answer the question in as higher level a way as possible by the end of the learning episode (see my previous blog “The Big Question: raising challenge through dropping objectives”). At the end of each episode they are given time to write the best answer they can to the big question, independently and in silence, and in the next few days my written feedback and their responses to this creates further opportunity or improving skills and knowledge.
Over the last few years there has been far too much emphasis on having busy, noisy classrooms where students are doing lots. This has its place, but it mustn’t be at the expense of quiet reflection time. The best thinking comes through a combination of rich debate and quiet, independent reflective thought, and it’s crucial that we provide time and space for this type of learning to take place.
Another prescription made in the blog is that:
“The classroom cannot be set up in a 1950’s style straight rows with the teacher at the front and all the learners lined up. This will never have the effect of creating an environment that is conducive to developing skills that learners can use for higher education and the workplace.”
Until recently, I was a big believer in this idea, and experimented widely on different table configurations and set-ups informed by the peddlings of various snake-oil sellers (some of my earlier blogs were actually on this very topic). But this year I’ve gone back to rows. The rows aren’t quite traditional, as my room effectively has two fronts, so it’s more of a “herring-bone” layout with rows facing in two directions, but it is still rows. Let me quickly explain why.
For the first three years of my career I was peripatetic: I taught in rooms across the building, struggling to arrive to lessons before students, never knowing whether tables would be in the same layout as last time, and not knowing if the things I needed would still be there. I bobbed along as a barely satisfactory teacher, gazing in wonder and admiration at my calm and organised colleagues whose lessons seemed to be havens of learning and reflection, while I dutifully raged my mobile, guerrilla war of attrition against low level disruption throughout the school in numerous locations. In my fourth year I inherited a room. My teaching suddenly became organised and competent and most of the low-level disruption disappeared almost overnight. That year my results were the best they’d ever been (in a mixed ability English and Media group, 90% of students made 3+Lops), and for the next two years I continued to have great results.
At this point, I inherited a subject responsibility for Media. At that time the school offered both BTEC and GCSE Media Studies; I hated the BTEC course due to its vocational pretensions in which kids wasted hours pretending to be doing some quasi-vocational project when in fact they could have been learning useful stuff. At this time I had to leave my lovely English room to move to an equally pleasant Media Suite. In the spirit of the course the tables were set up in groups, and as I was doing a lot of reading about educational theory that championed group work and tables set out in groups I continued with various combinations of table groupings. Over the next 3 years, my Media results (both BTEC and GCSE) continued to be very good (always in the 70-90% A*-C range) but my English results dropped. During this period I experimented with a lot of student-led and student-centred approaches: I tried using various Kagan structures (which I still use in small doses) and also began involving students in planning how the learning in units would progress (see early blogs on using SOLO to involve students in planning). The students loved these approaches and felt empowered, and at the time I thought I had discovered a whole new world of learning, but the English results simply didn’t support this. Enjoyment and engagement were clearly visible, but the learning was, by comparison to my previous groups, fatuous and superficial.
Not long ago I came across a research review paper that attempted to compare and analyse research that had been done into the effect of table layout in classrooms, and the findings quite strongly suggested that students make the most progress when seated in rows. There are many reasons for this: concentration is improved, low-level disruption is more easily detected and eradicated, and it is easier for the expert teacher to bring the whole class back together to put them back on track and explain key concepts.
Furthermore, I would argue that although a part of what we do in education is to prepare students for the workplace (whatever that may look like – and let’s face it we don’t know what it will look like in the future), the classroom – particularly the classroom of the academic subject – is not the workplace, and to pretend it is is a nonsense, as seen in those pointless BTEC Media lessons mentioned earlier. Team-working structures may work in some subjects with some teachers, but in my experience they hinder progress and slow learning right down..
My subject is academic, and as such I want to foster an academic atmosphere of inquiry and curiosity in it, not some proto-quasi- office space in which students can pretend to be project managers, sales assistants or tea-boys. They’ll get enough practice at that when they leave school and no longer have time to wallow in the exploration of knowledge.
So, my point is that in some subjects (my Maths and Science colleagues would agree with me here) direct instruction to rows of students is the most efficient and effective method of delivery. Students are not experts in these types of subjects and allowing them to fumble about in groups while I pretend to be some kind of wishy-washy “facilitator” or “guide on the side” (>cringe<) just isn’t a good way to deliver these subjects. Good teaching is about expert instruction, the chance to practise, and smart, effective feedback, not about wearing thinking hats or dishing out pretend roles in some factory floor simulation.