10 Tricky Questions for Teachers

In Debates and Polemics by Alex Quigley11 Comments

What if we were faced with uncomfortable questions about some of our brightest and best teaching and learning ideas? It would be uncomfortable and challenging, no doubt. Perhaps, though, such reflection on the potential of unintended consequences and unforeseen failures could prove both  revealing and instructive?

With this thought experiment in mind, I pose these ten tricky questions:

 

Spelling instruction: What if we are testing spelling, but never properly teaching spelling?

Whole-class feedback: What if every child thinks that the whole-class feedback we are giving them is for every other child and not them?

Dual coding: What if ‘dual coding’ results in teachers using an array of nice pictures that actually distracts students from reading and understanding complex texts?

Reading for pleasure: What if we are so focused on encouraging lots of reading for pleasure that we don’t address how effectively our students can actually read?

Drop everything and read (DEAR): What if ‘dropping everything’ and reading fiction in Science lessons makes our students worse at reading Science texts?

Oracy: What if a focus on oracy encourages a generation of over-confident Boris Johnson clones?

Mastery: What if ‘mastery’ is the new ‘growth mindset’, meaning everything and nothing to all people?

Assessment: What if teachers being grossly undertrained in assessment is one of the major factors that is hampering teaching, learning and school improvement in England?

Vocabulary instruction: What if a focus on vocabulary results in teachers merely undertaking a laborious gathering of vocabulary lists to be tested? [See question 1.]

Cognitive science: What if the majority of the research evidence from cognitive science cannot be translated successfully from the university laboratory into the classroom?

 

 

Comments

  1. I like this a lot. A few thoughts:

    What if ‘dual coding’ results in teachers using an array of nice pictures that actually distracts students from reading and understanding complex texts?

    – My understanding of dual coding is that it’s a way to convey complex ideas. If teachers are using an array of nice pictures which ware distracting from the text, they are not using dual coding (they are adding pictures!)

    Mastery: What if ‘mastery’ is the new ‘growth mindset’, meaning everything and nothing to all people?

    – Yes.

    Assessment: What if teachers being grossly undertrained in assessment is one of the major factors that is hampering teaching, learning and school improvement in England?

    – Leading question, but also yes.

    Cognitive science: What if the majority of the research evidence from cognitive science cannot be translated successfully from the university laboratory into the classroom?

    – This would be hugely challenging, but the exciting thing about much of it is that it has transferred from laboratories into controlled trials in classrooms. There’s a challenge in taking it from controlled to ‘uncontrolled’ settings, but it worries me less than mastery or growth mindset.

    1. Author

      Hi Harry,

      My dual coding question is as much a challenge to the interpretation of dual coding as to the faithful implementation of the specific research. I would be intrigued to find out how many people who are propounding dual coding have read anything of Paivio! Then you have the inevitable watering down of the original research. The very notion of dual coding is dangerous close to using nice pictures and so the danger is inherent. When formative assessment becomes colour cups and little else….

      Good points about cog. sci. As you can imagine, this is a challenge to myself here. It is also an implicit call for better evaluation of cognitive science and the other concepts and ideas mentioned in the post. When we begin with this challenging questions, the need for better evaluation, robust evidence and a consideration of careful and faithful implementation all become raised. This is what we too often miss in schools in the break-neck sprint for rapid school improvement.

    1. Author

      Hi David, Yes – lots of reading is one of the crucial keys to vocabulary and better spelling. And still, how does that happen? Can we cultivate pleasure through teaching vocabulary in a meaningful way? We begin to ask lots and lots of questions. What is clear is that we don’t know the essential ingredients of some of the things we take for granted are ‘good things’. I raise these questions as a provocation for us to think much harder, considering counterfactual positions and unintended consequences. Knowledge organizers ‘may’ be useful. I suspect they are potentially an excellent tool, whilst also potentially ineffective, depending upon how they are used in context. Given we have evaluated their impact so little, I would challenge your point that they are a ‘good way’ and ask, how do you know and what active ingredients mean they are effective in the classroom. Ultimately, we are once more left seeking better evidence, more robust evaluation, more nuanced thinking. This would be a good thing, in my opinion.

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  4. Hi Alex. Interesting list. I think the oracy/Boris issue is very low risk in most schools I’ve ever been to. It’s possibly a bit like worrying about obesity with people who are currently underfed. So many students I see lack basic confidence with speaking even when they have good knowledge – although clearly one informs the other. I’m yet to see any school oracy work that felt Boris-like, bluster over substance.

    1. Author

      Good to hear Tom! I am being provocative here! I suspect a lot of work around oracy in schools is highly intelligent and well implemented, woven intricately with academic reading, the broad needs of the curriculum and specific subject demands. I would say in secondary school, reading comprehension is the prime skill with regard to literacy; for very young children, oracy and language use is number one. Given this, I think we must think hard about curriculum priorities and respond accordingly. Whether oracy is the priority, well – I would need to know a great deal about the school to say so.

      I worry if oracy isn’t twinned with reading and challenging academic content (I have seen some examples of this, but it wasn’t rooted in any deep experience of the schools), then it is too Boris-Like. It is a complex and difficult to get right (Questions such as: can you ‘teach’ an academic resister in talk with limited vocabulary knowledge etc.) and therefore well worth asking questions about. Hence a provocation to stimulate some debate!

    2. Author

      I would add that I think teachers should explicitly teach talk and that high quality academic talk is a crucial aspect of teaching and learning. The work of the likes of Alexander and Mercer on talk is serious work and should be known by teachers (I have written on this for a project I am doing). In secondary, this needs a good deal of subject specific language focus and teacher knowledge.

      Whether this marries up with having ‘oracy leaders’ and promoting oracy plans, events etc. is a question for schools to address.

      1. I think your first sentence is what I mean when I say ‘oracy’. Although you can also learn to ‘orate’ in non-academic ways. As Martin Robinson would say: rhetoric, innit.

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