Anything goes: Is there a right way to teach?

There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.

Shakespeare, Hamlet

I read Joe Kirby’s recent post on cognitive bias with interest because I’ve been pursuing a very similar line of enquiry. What if we’re fooling ourselves?

The wonderfully entertaining You Are Not So Smart by David Mcraney deals with many different varieties of self-delusion and makes excellent reading. But even armed with all this information, self-delusion is very hard to spot. One thing that’s become clear to me is that I should be suspicious of my intuition.

That said, I do try to open to criticism and new information and have as a result adjusted my beliefs quite considerably since beginning the blog. If you could be bothered to read though the 195 posts I’ve written over the past 2 and a half years in chronological order you’d have an idea of just how much my trajectory has altered. And this, I think, qualifies me to pontificate on such matters with a modest degree of perspicacity. Because you see I’ve thought an awful lot about whether there’s a right way to teach.

But you know what? Maybe I’m wrong.

Just because I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a better way that I can teach doesn’t mean I’m right. So, shouldn’t I just keep my gob shut and allow others to come to their own conclusions? Well, unsurprisingly perhaps, I don’t think so. Despite all the evidence and research that’s knocking around in education, there’s very little certainty that there is one teaching strategy to rule them all. There are no magic bullets. There is nothing that will always work in every context. Even Ofsted agree this:

OFSTED should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson; an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives with a plenary at the end.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, 2012

But that doesn’t stop teachers being told that there is a ‘right’ way to teach. It doesn’t stop consultants training teachers in what Ofsted will be looking for, and it doesn’t stop Ofsted Inspectors from condemning teachers for talking too much and failing to let pupils work independently on the scant evidence of 20 minutes observation in which they utterly fail to appreciate that this can tell us almost nothing about successful teaching. This being the case, I consider it important that I raise a contrarian voice. I may not be right, but I’ve put a lot of thought into my position and if by contradicting the prevailing views I might cause others to enter into some healthy professional scepticism, then that’s a pretty good outcome.

So that’s my message: If you put sufficient thought into what you want to achieve and why you want to achieve it then you’ll probably be OK. If you just follow instructions and do what you’ve been told is right, then you probably won’t. It’s the thinking that makes what we do good or bad. Obviously, I’m of the belief that sufficient thought will mean that you will end up agreeing with me, but in the meantime, I’m happy to cast doubt on dearly held assumptions and get teachers thinking.

20 Responses to Anything goes: Is there a right way to teach?

  1. mrlock says:

    I don’t think I agree with the message, though lots of what you say is correct. And I know you’ll say the fact that I’m thinking about it is enough. I don’t think it is enough, I think that way leads the kind of isolationist, fingers in ears, “it works for me” way of approaching pedagogy. And that way lies 6 thinking hats, multiple intelligences, and so on.

    If we take any given lesson, I’m sure most people could suggest we could improve that lesson. If there are theoretical improvements, then ultimately there must be a ‘perfect’ way to teach that lesson or selection of lessons once all improvements have happened (including the ones we don’t yet know about). Given the large number of variables in a 60 minute lesson with 30 students, that ‘perfect’ way may be unattainable, but it’s our job to get as close to that as possible. I don’t suggest that way is correct for every group of students in every classroom.

    I accept that thinking carefully about what we’re doing makes us more likely to get better lessons (though I know there’s a study by John Zahorik referenced by Harry Webb about 5 minutes preparation being better than 2 weeks: http://websofsubstance.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/we-love-it-when-a-plan-comes-together/)

    And it’s fair to say that a lot of thought has gone into teaching what I would consider the “wrong” ways – fun, engaging lessons such as those David wrote about at the start of his blog took a lot of thought. No-one would suggest that John Dewey didn’t think about teaching (and yet, I think David would reject most of what he concludes). And yet in this very blog, David has said those thoughts led to teaching the ‘wrong’ way.

    You could take this further and ask if there is any such thing as objective truth in *anything*. I think there is (including pedagogy), and we constantly strive to uncover it (and sometimes, when we think we have, we discover that we actually haven’t because of new discoveries). Some philosophers might suggest there isn’t an objective truth, but many truths relevant to the individual. I reject that and think that way lies child centred/ progressive education and no way of objectively uncovering what is *best*.

    I think it’s the same with pedagogy – particularly if we start to think of it as the science of teaching, then we should treat it like one, and strive to find the best way. It’s not thought that’s important, but the right kind of thought – and you don’t have to assume that my “kind of thought” as above is correct to suggest there is a ‘right’ way.

  2. David Didau says:

    Stuart – I don’t know enough to categorically state that Dewey or anyone else, was wrong. I think that with sufficient thought, planning and attention to detail you could make his ideas ‘work’. The problem is that everything has an impact; everything works to some degree. For me, Dewey’s ideas are inefficient. My own thought has led me to conclude that there are better ways to achieve my aims. But the fact that I think that these ways are better doesn’t make them so. It would be appallingly arrogant to say that they couldn’t work for someone else.

    One of the many things that’s wrong with CPD is that we assume that we know what is ‘right’ we force teachers to stop doing what works for them and make them do things that they struggle with. We take competent teachers and turn them into novices. This is to no one’s advantage.

    My approach to lesson observation is try, as far as possible not to make judgments but to ask them why they undertook a particular course of action. If they have a well thought out rationale and the lesson ‘worked’, it would be madness to tell them that I knew a better way.

  3. David Didau says:

    Stuart – I don’t know enough to categorically state that Dewey or anyone else, was wrong. I think that with sufficient thought, planning and attention to detail you could make his ideas ‘work’. The problem is that everything has an impact; everything works to some degree. For me, Dewey’s ideas are inefficient. My own thought has led me to conclude that there are better ways to achieve my aims. But the fact that I think that these ways are better doesn’t make them so. It would be appallingly arrogant to say that they couldn’t work for someone else.

    One of the many things that’s wrong with CPD is that we assume that we know what is ‘right’ we force teachers to stop doing what works for them and make them do things that they struggle with. We take competent teachers and turn them into novices. This is to no one’s advantage.

    My approach to lesson observation is try, as far as possible not to make judgments but to ask them why they undertook a particular course of action. If they have a well thought out rationale and the lesson ‘worked’, it would be madness to tell them to do it my way because my way is better. My way is only better because of the thought I’ve put into it. Compelling someone else to take my word for it robs them of their professionalism.

    Thanks, David

  4. mrlock says:

    But none of those things are what I argued David. I didn’t argue that I know the best way (though of course I think I do), and I certainly wouldn’t argue that I know how to teach someone else’s class better than they do. I also explicitly said that there are likely to be different things that are optimum in different classes.

    What I do argue is that there is an optimum way, and collectively, our thought should be directed at reaching that optimum. This is regardless of whether we can actually reach it (I’d suggest we might not be able to, because we’re human and there are so many unpredictable variables). What your blog seems to suggest is that there is no optimum, and hence everyone is doing equally well regardless of what they teach or how they teach it, as long as they’ve thought about it.

    Thought might be the key, but just because someone has thought about something doesn’t mean it is the ‘best’ way. Well, you seem to deny there is a ‘best’ way.

    Rather than think about feeding back to someone else, because I agree to try to foist your way on someone is unbelievably arrogant, how about considering your previous self. The one that did a lot of thinking but you’re now critical of. Was there a better way? Or was it OK even though there was a better way because the old you had thought about it.

  5. […] There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. Shakespeare, Hamlet I read Joe Kirby’s recent post on cognitive bias with interest because I’ve been pursuing a very similar line of enquiry. What if we’re fooling ourselves?  […]

  6. […] Anything goes: Is there a right way to teach? | David Didau: The Learning Spy […]

  7. […] the ‘Knowledge Curriculum’ of which I am a fan, as are many others. David Didau spoke in a recent blog entry about how he used to think “developing Higher Order Thinking skills was much more important than […]

  8. Debaser says:

    Surely the proof, to some extent at least, is in the pudding.

    If teacher A regularly gets better GCSE results than teacher B, and has more students who develop a sufficiently strong passion for the subject to take it forward to A-level, then surely teacher A’s methods are more effective.

    Obviously that’s only one (flawed) method for measuring success, but if we go around pretending that all teachers and all methods are equal we’re left with the kind of fuzzy relativism which is the enemy of genuine progress and innovation.

    • David Didau says:

      It would be very convenient if this were true.

      I can think of several reasons why teacher might get better results than teacher B which have nothing to do with their relative merits as teachers.

      But yes, one way to find out what works is to follow Doug Lemov’s approach and look for those teachers who get excellent results in tough schools and watch them to see what they do.

  9. […] the ‘Knowledge Curriculum’ of which I am a fan, as are many others. David Didau spoke in a recent blog entry about how he used to think “developing Higher Order Thinking skills was much more important than […]

  10. […] might sound arrogant, but as one of my fellow bloggers and inspirational pedagogue David Didau said here, I think I have earned the right to share my ideas because I have put an enormous amount of thought […]

  11. […] Just because you think there is a right way to teach, doesn’t necessarily mean that that particular method is the right way to teach EVERYTHING. Different people have different learning styles, which means that you, as the teacher, must have different teaching styles as well. One way to teach doesn’t mean that it will work with everyone in every content; sometimes you just have to go beyond and teach how someone learns. http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/anything-goes-right-way-teach/ […]

  12. […] Didau poses an interesting question in the title of this blog post. He says “If you put sufficient thought into what you want to achieve and why you want to […]

  13. […] Anything goes: Is there a right way to teach? | David Didau: The Learning Spy. […]

  14. […] his blog post, Anything goes: Is there a right way to teach?, David Didau explains how his teaching style has changed over the years.  He disagrees with the […]

  15. […] reading this blog post I was thinking about all of the different methods there are out there to teach successfully. […]

  16. […] post had me thinking about what we were told in our Educational Psychology class this semester:  The […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

%d bloggers like this: