How to teach better
Three dominating issues facing the education profession were the focus of this week's Curriculum Corporation annual conference in Perth. The conference theme - 'How to teach better' - provoked contributions and lively debate on pedagogy, teaching standards and teacher professionalism.
Opening the conference, Western Australia's Education Minister, Alan Carpenter, reflected on his government's efforts to generate 'dramatic improvement in education'. One of the central messages from the Ministerial Task Force on Education's report was that nothing is more important for achieving improved student learning than the quality of teaching. Better teacher professional learning and raising the status of the profession are two closely interrelated priorities. Improving career paths for teachers so exemplary practitioners in the classroom are retained in the profession is also vital.
Voicing a sentiment that most educators would share, the Minister said nothing that government does is more important than providing educational opportunities, because that is 'the only way to positively change people's lives in the long term'.
Bruce Wilson: Pedagogy - what's wrong
Bruce Wilson, Chief Executive Officer of Curriculum Corporation, challenged five contemporary orthodoxies about pedagogy:
He asserted that in treating learning and teaching as an integral whole, the educational community had lost sight of the potential of teaching 'as a discipline in itself, with its own qualities, skills and criteria for success'. This was one of many areas in which, in the process of redressing an imbalance, 'we have tipped the cart over'.
According to Wilson, teachers suffer from lack of respect and esteem, largely because the profession itself has 'progressively articulated a role for teachers which sounds marginal and passive'. Experts talk about the need for teachers to move from being the 'sage on the stage' to 'the guide on the side', but teaching is, or ought to be, an interventionist profession, 'a big, bold, adventurous, dramatic, exciting profession'. The current constructions of teaching, in fact, leave the teacher as 'the dork with the chalk' or 'the fraud at the board'. There is a need to restore the idea of 'inspirational, powerful teaching conducted by an individual with strong ideas and a rich base of knowledge'.
A third issue highlighed by Wilson is that in the anxiety to escape from an exaggerated conception of teaching focused on factual knowledge and recall, the need for teachers to have a deep understanding of the particular things that are to be taught has been lost. The conceptual problems such knowledge entails and how to help students over those hurdles requires 'pedagogical content knowledge'.
While constructivism is widely agreed upon as a theory of knowing, Australian operational views of constructivism have sometimes confused a theory of knowing with a theory of teaching. The focus is on the action of the student in the construction of knowledge rather than the action of the teacher in engaging with the child's current misconceptions and structuring experiences to challenge them. It is conceived that the teacher is relatively passive in the process, whereas the child is active.
Wilson argues that we have turned away from the notion of failure, but this has not made failure disappear. If children are to be given the chance to gain the most powerful possible learning, 'we must be able to expose them to the risk of failure, help them understand failure and success, and support them in trying again at something which has so far defeated them'.
In Wilson's view, the common characteristic in these myths and misdirections is that 'they are all based on beliefs rather than evidence'. The one change that will best assist in making teaching more effective is, he believes, 'to listen to and act on the evidence'.
David Hopkins: Good pedagogy is good learning
Professor David Hopkins, the head of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit in the UK Department for Education and Skills, addressed the reasons why reform initiatives in education have difficulty in leading to enhanced levels of student learning and achievement. The main problem is that most school improvement efforts do not drive down to the 'learning level'.
He also warned of the dangers inherent in defining effective student learning exclusively in terms of outcomes and targets. This 'can lead to a reductionist and impoverished interpretation of what constitutes learning'.
The challenge is to raise attainment levels but at the same time help students become more powerful learners, by expanding and articulating their repertoire of learning strategies. High quality teaching involves creating powerful learning experiences. It is not a question of content versus process, but of integrating content with process and with 'social climate'.
Hopkins advanced a framework for powerful teaching which revolves around three aspects of teaching that are often regarded as being contradictory rather than complementary: teaching skills, teaching relationships, and teaching models.
A key factor in determining how much is learned is the extent of opportunity to learn, which in turn is substantially determined by teacher behaviours. Active teaching, high levels of time allocation to instruction, extensive content coverage, maintaining a brisk pace, structuring information and effective questioning are some of the 'cues and tactics' essential to effective teaching. Self-awareness and planning by teachers are therefore important skills that relate to student learning.
Teaching relationships are also crucial. 'The teacher's ability to generate and sustain an authentic relationship with her students' and the way teachers convey an optimistic sense of expectations are characteristics of quality teaching.
The consistent and strategic use of specific teaching models is potentially hugely beneficial, but care is needed that they do not become 'panaceas to be followed slavishly' or 'adopted uncritically'. Such models should not be put forward as certain solutions but rather as 'a provisional specification claiming no more than to be worth putting to the test of practice. Such proposals claim to be intelligent rather than correct'.
Hopkins concluded by identifying six characteristics of high quality teachers:
Finally he noted that 'powerful teaching and learning occurs in powerful schools ... (where) all improvement and development efforts are focused on learning and teaching' and where the school operates as a truly professional learning community.
This article is based on the conference report, prepared by Vic Zbar of Zbar Consulting Pty Ltd, on behalf of the conference organisers. Conference support was provided by National Curriculum Services.
Next week's edition of Curriculum Leadership will report on how the issue of teaching standards was addressed at Curriculum Corporation's annual conference. The conference papers will be available in full on the Curriculum Corporation website in the near future.
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