David Petty, the name in collating evidenced-based teaching methods and justifications, says that expert teachers do not necessarily plan in detail individual lessons. However, if they speak about where the lessons are going, they enjoy a certain level of conceptual detail and subject awareness that is expert. Their awareness of what is happening, and what they want to happen, is both detailed and nuanced. And it is that idea of nuance in teaching to which I wish to pin the flag of my thoughts.
Having completed two modules so far of my Education MA, I am reminded of the differences between professional research into education, action research taken by busy and semi-trained teachers, and that research which actually impacts on classroom teaching. There is a perpetual space between these three fields.
This space is exacerbated by the knowledge teachers needed for legitimate pedagogical enquiry. Such knowledge is not easily within the grasp of all teachers. So far in my MA I have taken the psychology module, and I have taken the sociology module. During these modules, I have read the field focusing on metacognition and on cultural capital respectively. As Bernstein asserts, the humanities are horizontal subjects. In horizontal subjects (as opposed to vertical subjects like the sciences where knowledge can be built easily on previous foundations), the study of the humanities requires a knowledge of many disciplines: philosophy, sociology, psychology, politics, the classics, history, media and human geography. These link horizontally – they do not necessarily build on each other. They are also extensive fields where even reading tens of millions of words will cover, at best, something of a framework. The hours and intellectual energy required to truly educate yourself in these fields is a big ask of many classroom teachers.
Not least as classroom teaching is a physical and emotional sport. Even so, as I have written about extensively, classroom teaching is about aiming to affect the inner lives of students. Anything less is bunk. Inspiration should be the floor-level each day, every lesson.
You cannot legislate for inspiration teaching and teachers though. More than that, it is more than possible for an ‘inspirational’ teacher in the Western Education System to become an entertaining maverick that refuses a focus on hard-core intelligence and thinking. Students and leaders and parents can like the persona of a teacher who does not actually focus the students on learning. In short, a teacher’s job (especially the teacher of a core subject) is to get students to be interested in something they really should be interested in but who, for some reason, are not.
Therefore, the most legitimate remit of professional research into education has been, for me, the attempt to focus teachers and teaching on getting students to actually think. Not just do. And thinking has a social-emotional component which is also beyond the remit of legislation and teachers. It can, however, be nurtured in some classrooms.
The main issue with classroom teaching, and the discussions I read and hear in the profession, is the lack of noticing of nuance. For example, learning styles DO exist in the sense that people learn in different ways. However, the idea that there exists holistic approaches for different ‘personalities of the mind’ has received judicious criticism. Most notably, a number of schools compelled (and still do!) teachers to offer activities based on VAK under the idea that it will somehow instigate thought in the range of students. The specific requirements of thought needed by students to achieve in academic subjects are, it seems, mostly ignored in favour of generic tasks that can be done.
It is important to be clear. Without nuance all we have are logistics.
There is an argument of a lot of teaching just getting out of the way of the learner: inspire them to think, and then provide them with the means to acquire and consolidate that knowledge. I remember in Bejing teaching the son of two professors who later went to university early. Through project-based lessons, students of all abilities devised metaphors that developed a framework for understanding language. Understanding, debating and feeling the power of metaphor became a favourite lesson of students (although not easily!). The focus on hard-core academic thinking was a purposeful journey.
In my own MA work this year, I know that my action research needs to be based upon an understanding of my field: generic options are writing, marking and reading. Therefore, reading the range of meta-studies is a necessity. Without such knowledge, all we have are anecdotes and logistics. Any pedagogical discussion becomes merely an act of personality and attempted prescience. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just not really my thing.