Good Teaching

I have just finished reading an article by Claire Golledge titled Listen to the children. This is what ‘good’ teaching looks like to them.

Based on interviews with students around their perceptions of teacher quality and quality teaching, it was found that students valued the relationship they had with their teacher first and foremost, a variety of teaching methods and teachers who could inspire through their deep subject knowledge. Claire states “…students saw the best teachers as those who used engaging and innovative pedagogies to, as one student expressed it, “get us out of our comfort zone.””

This is interesting and I can’t wait to talk to Claire at the upcoming AARE conference to find out more about her research. I admit that this doesn’t necessarily corrospond with my own personal experience as a student, a teacher and also in my role as Director of Teaching and Learning. Of course everything depends on context and I have found that when students have a relationship with the teacher everything else can follow. If the relationship breaks down, then both parents and students question the use of innovative pedagogies. What constitutes a good student-teacher relationship will be left for another day, but this article made me reflect on two Professors I had in University. These two gentleman had a subtle, yet profound impact on the way I approach teaching and learning.

One was a short German fellow who often stopped mid-sentence and stared out the window. One time we asked him what he was doing and he told us he was letting his mind wonder and just stopping his thoughts momentarily to enjoy the beauty of the universe. He encouraged us to do the same, whenever we felt the need, as he believed it promoted deep thinking and an unconscious advantage when engaged in heavy cognitive lifting – particular in that Advanced Calculus class. I thought this was eccentric at the time but appreciate the simplicity and beauty of it now. He was wonderfully supportive and encouraging, quite explicit, and would not hesitate in giving you critical feedback.

Another Professor taught Advanced Cryptography. He was the opposite. Very abstract and wanted us to think and learn for ourselves. He would pose interesting problems that hadn’t yet been solved and expect us to grapple with them.  He would often stand very close to the whiteboard, facing the white board, trying to show us how to work through a complicated problem. He would mumble, scribble some stuff on the board, rub it out, start rubbing his head perplexed, stare at the board some more, go to start writing on the board again only to stop, scratch his beard – you get the picture. Often times he would take 20 minutes trying to figure out how to explain something to us or how to solve a particular problem. Most of the class thought that he was either unprepared or just didn’t know what he was doing. I found it very difficult at the time.

With the benefit of hindsight I now think different about this experience. On reflection I was seeing a mathematician in pure problem solving mode, grappling with complexity and pushing himself to the edge of both personal and discipline knowledge. He was modelling, perhaps unintentionally, thought processes and the way he approached difficulty. What would of it had taken for me to be aware of this at the time? Perhaps he needed to be explicit to the class and explain to us this would be his approach and what we as learners of the subject would get out of it as a result?

What I am sure about is that there is no one formula for great teaching and that’s what makes our profession such a rewarding one. Just like learning is a deeply personal endeavour – so is teaching. Teacher quality does matter. We want great teachers teaching the eager young minds of tomorrow. We also have to work with those we currently have in the profession and understand that teaching quality matters more.

False Dichotomies

Constructivism is a fad according to Steve Dinham in his new book Leading Learning and Teaching.

He cites Hattie’s meta-analysis that gives constructivism an effect size of 0.15 against an effect size of 0.59 for direct instruction. Later in the book however, he suggests that the most powerful form of professional learning for teachers is via participation in an active learning community, which is very much a social constructivist endeavor.

Without getting into the critique of Hattie’s use of meta-analysis and effect sizes or examining how and if children and adults learn differently, I had the opportunity to discuss this and other topics with Steve on a keynote discussion panel at the recent Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER) Excellence in Professional Practice Conference.

Steve’s main point is that constructivism is a valid theory of learning but is not an effective approach to teaching. My argument is that theories of learning should inform our pedagogy and that a constructivist perspective develops a disposition of active inquiry through both a learning and teaching lens.

False dichotomies abound in education and the direct instruction/constructivist debate is a classic example. Those who self-identify as constructivists do not believe that children must discover all knowledge for themselves. That does not make sense. They do know that it is important to invite a learner to grapple with ideas and complexity through inquiry, but they also know when they need to step in and provide guidance.

The question is never just, “what works?” but rather “what works, for whom and under what conditions?”

From my limited experience the best pedagogy is very much constructivist in nature, learner centred and learner driven, project-based and experiential, but interspersed with purposeful periods of direct instruction. It is never just one or the other.

Dispositions of Teacher Learners

What are the dispositions of those teachers who naturally see themselves as learners and chief investigators of their own practice? What are the enabling and contextual factors?

This is what I am trying to find out through my PhD studies. My contention is that certain default and perhaps tacit understandings can predispose an individual to be unable to engage in the necessary formation and reformation of professional identity that is required to engage in new learning. This inhibiting behaviour results in an individual essentially “shutting up shop.” The inverse is also true however, and those teachers who are able to have multi-membership of different communities of practice within the broader landscape of practice seem to be at home in this process of identity formation and reformation. The insightful and intuitive organic dispositions of these individuals enable them to disregard boundaries and instead seamlessly cross boundaries of community, competence, knowledgeability and self-narrative whilst engaging in a multiplicity of practices within a specific context. This is what some might refer to as being innovative.

I’ve even started working on a model. It’s still early days but much of my current work is investigating Polanyi, Nonaka, Brock, Dreyfus, Agyris, Schon, Wenger, Beauchamp and Thomas.

model-diagram