Look at any major resource sharing website for teachers and you will see a task-based culture dominates. Students produce things, complete worksheets, and get to the end of books. Differentiation might (if at all) remove conceptual thinking requirements. You will see schemes of work that prioritise completing things over the pedagogy of thinking about things.
Students don’t always have to think in a classroom. I know from many observations, from my own education, and from some of my early teaching practice, that believing thinking occurs upon task completion is a fallacy.
Students learn by thinking. Thinking is an internal activity. Teachers try to affect that internal activity through manipulating external behaviour: they try to get students to think by giving them tasks.
Not every task involves students thinking. And if they do think, they may not think about the concept itself. The apt example from Dan Daniel T. Willingham(sorry!) is that students baking food to simulate the experience of a slave demographic (probably not accurately) might spend 5% of the time thinking about the historical experience, and the remaining time thinking about the act of making cookies. However, to an external observer, the lesson would seem exciting and the students engaged. Everyone might also feel that the time was spent productively, and it would certainly be an experiential process that would be remembered.
Sadly, it is unlikely to embed anything conceptual.
My curriculum is academic. It aims to affect students’ thinking, and to get them to become more adept at think of difficult concepts.
To do this requires more than a lecturing style of learning, although an expert exposition is at the heart of it. I sat in an interesting keynote where representative of the Primary, Secondary and HE sectors discussed pedagogy for teaching Shakespeare. Of course, Peter Thomas spoke passionately about interesting and engaging pedagogy. The HE representative spoke in purposefully blunt terms of how the only pedagogy in the He sector is discussion. Peter Thomas somewhat recounted his previous passion, although he did so with typically skilled qualification. He’s such a character, and long-lasting and influential for a reason.
What is clear, however, is that there are discussion and idea based pedagogies that can be used whose prime purpose is to make the inner life of the student a thinking one. As a negation, is seeks to avoid ideas being distorted just for the desire to attain the interest or compliance or ‘enjoyment’ of students.
There are three main books I recommend:
The Full English: contains at least a dozen strategies that are conceptual. More on that later.
The EMC All Sorts (interesting, but really requires more guidance than is provided in the book. At its best EMC is THE best resource provider. This, though, is a little sparse and requires far too much editing externally to make it truly useful outside a collaborative department).
The Total Active Participation Book: This is a wonderful read, and tremendously useful. I’ll present CPD on this next week and will push these ideas forward a little more.
Two other forums I want to visit are:
Academic Reading Circles Book: Encouraging reading in a more systematic and deeper fashion.
Graphic Organisers: Necessary.
At the heart of what we do in English is (ideally) academic analysis. Of course, for some cohorts of teachers and students, this is deprioritised. However, conceptual thinking should be at the heart of the classroom from a pedagogical-viewpoint at least. For this to be effective, we need to manipulate the inner-life of the students.
I think that students need to come with at least a vague intention to learn, and with an essential level of literacy. Beyond that, it is the teacher’s job to stoke curiosity amongst all the social and institutional tensions of a school.