Post-truth and the best way to teach

A thing is not necessarily true because badly uttered, nor false because spoken magnificently. St. Augustine

We’ve always had a tendency to defer to what is most said most magnificently and shun that which is badly uttered but now it’s a thing. To much fanfare, ‘post-truth’ has entered the lexicon and now we have a made-to-measure term for the emotively uttered truism that turns out not to be er… true. Deliberate falsehoods would be much easier to combat because, as Hannah Arendt put it, “The trouble with lying and deceiving is that their efficiency depends entirely upon a clear notion of the truth that the liar and deceiver wishes to hide. In this sense, truth, even if it does not prevail in public, possesses an ineradicable primacy over all falsehoods.” A post-truth claim is that it is one in which what’s true is swamped beneath ‘the feels’.

There are those who would have us believe that there is no best way to teach and that any and all decisions about how to approach teaching subjects or children is best left to the discretion of individual teachers. Part of the logic behind this is Ofsted’s decision to make it clear that inspectors’ preferences are irrelevant and that they should not be biased for or against particular teaching styles. This was a welcome development because for some years there really had been a ‘preferred Ofsted style’ and it was only with the appointment of Sir Michael Wilshaw that this began to be challenged. From 2012 onwards it started to become acceptable for teachers to talk for longer than 5 minutes and for students to work in silence.

But does this mean there is no best way to teach?

The last few years has increasingly seen a consensus that certain teaching strategies should have no place in education. For instance, most sensible people agree that trying to match instruction to a student’s preferred learning style is likely to be a waste of time. There’s also the well-evidenced finding that systematic synthetic phonics is the best approach to teaching early reading and that whole language approaches will fail for a significant minority of children. In fact, we’ve become so certain of this that phonics is mandated and a screening check has been introduced to try to ensure schools are teaching it properly. Of course this doesn’t mean that phonics continues to be the best approach to teaching reading once children are fluent and accurate decoders. At this point it seems clear that broadening children’s vocabulary and knowledge of the world is superior to allotting more than a few lessons to teaching generic comprehension skills. Then there’s the increasing weight of evidence against discovery approaches of teaching. Again, there’s a clear consensus within cognitive science that novices benefit far more from explicit instruction and if we’re doubtful we can also look to the surprising negative correlation between discovery learning and science outcomes revealed by the latest PISA results.

What should we make of teachers who refute these findings in favour of their own intuitions? Can they really claim that since we can never know with a 100% certainty that certain approaches to teaching are better than others that we should all do whatever we like? is it reasonable to ignore the weight of evidence in support of retrieval practice or spaced instruction? William James said, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” but there surely there comes a point when the evidence is sufficient? The Victorian polymath John Lubbock said, “Our duty is to believe that for which we have sufficient evidence, and to suspend our judgment when we have not.”

Of course, there are always caveats. I’ve argued before that context is not king: while the contexts in which we teach will naturally have some bearing on the approaches we should take, it’s certainly not the most important consideration. I’ve also cast doubt on teachers’ judgment as a reliable guide as to how to teach. Children are of course all different but in terms of how they learn their similarities far outweigh their differences. Education isn’t a hard science and there is most definitely room for teachers’ personalities to colour what they do in the classroom, but to claim we can know nothing about the best way to teach is simply ignorant.

Teachers will have learned through bitter experience that some approaches never seem to work and that others have a good chance, but often these certainties are built on flawed assumptions about what’s possible. When I starting teaching I assumed I’d have to accept a certain amount of bad behaviour and that if I wanted children to do anything challenging at all I’d have bribe, cajole and persuade them. Having seen children behaving immaculately in a variety of different circumstance I now know that isn’t true. But, depending on your school’s approach to behaviour you might just have to forego the best way to teach in favour of what you can get away with.

What we can say is that we shouldn’t try to teach everything in exactly the same way. No one thinks quadratic equations should be taught in the same way as dovetail joints or how to speak French, but should all aspects of, say, maths be taught in the same way? Probably not, although we can say that pretty much everyone will, for instance, best understand data when shown a graphical representation. By taking our cues from cognitive science and honing through trial and error in the classroom we can probably refine the best ways to explain difficult concepts and model how to complete challenging tasks. What we should aim for is a repertoire of ‘best ways’ so that if students struggle to grasp a concept when taught in one way, we’ll have some tried and tested alternatives to fall back on.

The bottom line is this: I have no idea what the might be the most effective way to teach number bonds to children in Year 1 or how best to explain diminishing marginal returns to A-level economics students but I feel pretty clear that in both cases explicit instruction will be the best starting point. To claim there is ‘no best way’ might make you feel good, but it is to embrace a post-truth narrative in which what you feel most strongly is automatically right.

How do I know? I don’t. But the best available evidence points that way. If I’m wrong, the new crop of schools and teachers who are increasingly embracing more traditional teaching methods will fail. Researchers will attempt to replicate studies like Project Follow Through and fail. Psychology and neuroscience will present new theories and prove the findings of the last thirty or so years false. When any of these things happen I’ll reevaluate what I think is the best way to teach. Eventually, if these things keep happening, I’ll change my mind. Until then, we have a duty to follow cautiously where the evidence leads.

14 Responses to Post-truth and the best way to teach

  1. gjw1973 says:

    Diminishing marginal returns, rather than ‘gains’ is more likely.

  2. “At this point it seems clear that broadening children’s vocabulary and knowledge of the world is superior to allotting more than a few lessons to teaching generic comprehension skills. ”

    Do you have any thoughts on how this should be done?

  3. Tom Burkard says:

    I always cringe when people say that phonics isn’t the best way to teach reading after they’ve learned to decode–this implies that there are generic reading skills such as comprehension that apply strictly to written language. Although it is true that written text usually contains a more extensive vocabulary than spoken language, once pupils learn to decode there are no significant differences between understanding of oral or written language. Almost half a century ago, this was put very elegantly by James Moffett:

    “A child who fails to understand a text either cannot decode letters, or else cannot understand the text for reasons having nothing to do with printed words; he would not understand the text even if it were read aloud to him. In other words, reading comprehension is merely comprehension.”

    None of this is to suggest that teachers shouldn’t discuss the meaning of text pupils have read: clearly, this is central to good pedagogy, especially in the humanities. Nonetheless, my objection is not just pedantic or a matter of semantic quibbling–efforts to teach generic ‘reading comprehension’ skills in primary school generally involve the use of children’s fiction which contains little if any subject matter outside the cosy world of painted wheelbarrows and friendly giants. Children are encouraged to ‘infer’ what might happen next or what a given character might feel. All of which appeals to boys as much a bucket of lukewarm vomit, and insults the intelligence of all children.

    As Hirsch argues, efforts to teach ‘reading comprehension’ only serve to displace more challenging pedagogy which would expand pupils’ knowledge in various domains–which, as you so rightly suggest, would in fact make them ‘cleverer’.

    • 1. The observation that there are no significant differences between understanding oral language and written language is a problem. Oral language in most cases takes place in situations in which the person or people speaking are in contact with the person or people listening. So, any individual word or segment of oral language may indeed resemble an individual word or segment of the written but the progress of oral and written are very different – most noticeably in the way in which the person or people listening can interrupt, and seek clarification. Meanwhile the person or people speaking can use a whole variety of strategies which short-cut strategies used in writing e.g. gesture, intonation, ellipsis, wider use of pronouns. On the written front, there are strategies we hardly use in writing – in particular multiple, varied subordination, fronting of those subordinates, – particularly if there’s a sequence of them, lack of repetition because we can see that the person on the receiving end is not concentrating and so on. Though this may not be a problem for experienced readers, these structures often pose problems for young inexperienced readers.
      2. ‘Children’s fiction contains little if any subject matter outside the cosy world of painted wheelbarrows and friendly giants’. Are you referring here to picture books, early chapter books, chapter books for older children, and Young Adult fiction? The whole lot, or one section of it? Do you think, say ‘The Snowman’ by Raymond Briggs fits your description or any of Shaun Tan’s work? Or, for older children, say, the work of Siobhan O’Dowd? What do you think of Mary Hoffmann’s ‘Amazing Grace’? Is that ‘cosy’? Or Beverley Naidoo’s ‘Journey to Jo’Burg’? Or- from the past Erich Kästner’s ‘Emil and the Detectives’ or even say, ‘Treasure Island’?
      3. I totally agree with you that many of the strategies for ‘teaching comprehension’ are bogus and are simply a means of measuring something measurable about reading – largely ‘inference’ and ‘retrieval’. However, (as I’ve been told many times) if you introduce ‘interpretation’ for younger children as a way of working out if these children are ‘understanding’ what they’re reading – even if we qualify that by ‘informed interpretation’ or ‘feasible interpretation’ – people will tell you that that can’t be assessed objectively. I think that’s a point at which ‘education’ is in conflict with ‘assessment’. (I realise there is more leeway for ‘interpretation’ for older school students.)

    • David Didau says:

      I take it you read this line: “At this point it seems clear that broadening children’s vocabulary and knowledge of the world is superior to allotting more than a few lessons to teaching generic comprehension skills”?

      • I take it you realised that I was responding directly to Tom’s post rather than responding directly to yours? Yes, I did read that line. That’s why i asked if you would amplify. Which you kindly did. Thanks.

        • David Didau says:

          I was responding to Tom, not you Michael. I thought you’d realise that I knew you’d read that line because you specifically asked about it. Tom on the other hand seems to think I’m in favour of generic reading strategies (I’m not). Sorry for the confusion

  4. Last summer’s KS1 SATs results show that 91% of children reached the required level of phonics and 74% reading level. This was after two years teaching of systematic synthetic phonics. So, that’s 26% of children didn’t reach the required level of reading – according to the government’s own criteria.

  5. Magnificently put, David.

  6. […] All this certainly gives the lie to the misconception that there’s ‘no best way’ to teach. […]

  7. […] who disingenuously argues that there is ‘no best way‘ to teach, that child-centred approaches are equally as valid as explicit instruction, […]

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