If you are not perfect, you are not yet finished

There seems to be a battle raging on twitter with a divide between didactic and interactive teaching partly stoked by Daisy Christodoulou’s book Seven Myths About Education. I don’t really get it. Delivering purely one or the other doesn’t make sense to me. It’s a bit like arguing over whether a saw or a drill is the best tool. Simply be the best that you can be at both, make the most of what you are good at and get better at the rest. To borrow and corrupt a term quoted by David Didau (If it is not perfect, it is not finished) if you are not perfect, then you are not finished. In any lesson I need to impart some knowledge and also need students to explore their understanding, to do something with that knowledge. If I don’t do this it is like teaching them how to swim but without water. They can answer exam questions on the technique of swimming, but they cant actually swim, nor know the joy of applying it to be able to snorkel, scuba dive, surf …

This post is based purely on my own beliefs and experiences, because it is the only thing I feel qualified to write about.  I am still not a finished product, nor will I ever be, irrespective of books read and experiences encountered. That is to me the endless fascination of teaching. I am still a long way off perfection, but twitter and blogs are helping me go in the right direction

I am not a huge fan of educational research as I cant see how we can evaluate the effectiveness of strategies that can work brilliantly with one class and bomb with the next. The variables that can affect the outcome can be the weather, the temperature, the wind (?) , a fight in the morning, the teacher in the lesson before you, a boring assembly…. this is before you even start to consider the moody bunch of young people in front of you. How on earth can we ever get valid results with this many variables?

I can see that google can replace the learning of facts if that fact does not interconnect with anything else , but I cant think of a single example in science where this is the case. I will never be able to see how things fit together if I rely on google. It would be like trying to construct a jigsaw puzzle but some of the pieces are in different boxes and I have to find them myself by searching. This is compounded by not even knowing what the piece looks like. I would argue that it is more important to consider when the knowledge is taught and to me this is when the students realise they need it. When they realise there is a piece missing as I wrote here , however this may just be me confirming my bias as this is the way I learn best.

I have seen too many lessons where students carry out experiments for no real purpose, but also ones with students totally switched off as a teacher drones on. From a personal point of view I would rather have exploration, as in this case I am not restricted by the teacher and may will learn something. In some elite schools I have seen brilliant teaching, in others the students have learned despite their teachers, doing well in exams but not considering carrying on in science at a higher level.

There is a lot of fantastic debate intellectualising teaching and I have learned hugely from this, but some seem to  ignore the complexities and motivations of those young people in front of us.

I teach young people science, not science to young people. There is a fundamental difference; it is a two way interaction between human beings. I see in front of me, fragile, beautiful, complex, frustrating human beings hormonally programmed to fight me. I treat all of them as I would want my own children treated. I don’t always like them, but I have a duty to them. They have one shot at education and I can inspire or destroy. It may sound corny , but I like Khalil Gibram’s ideas – I am the bow and they are the arrows. I send them forth into the world, hopefully equipped to deal with the trials and tribulations of life, but not dependent on me. Their success goes beyond exam results, if they give up and don’t see the relevance of my lessons I have failed them.

It may or may not be more efficient in terms of their scientific knowledge to treat students as vessels to be filled and indeed it may improve their performance, but I am interested in learning above performance. I want my students to do more than pass exams, to be able to apply scientific reasoning to all situations. They shouldn’t be vulnerable to exam questions worded differently. This is science for life, not as an abstract concept. I also firmly believe they need knowledge, lots of it otherwise they will never see the interconnections between concepts. However the giving of knowledge without a clear purpose approach seems strange to me. Like teaching them how to use all the tools needed to build a boat, the drill and the saw, but they never get to see it, let alone build it.

I dont seek to make them like me or to compress them.  If they surprise me I know I am teaching well as I haven’t limited them. I don’t want or make them do things simply to show that I can, to force compliance. I am in charge , I am the leader with non negotiable rules and this is about learning. I cannot make them learn, but I can stop them interfering with the learning of others. I have taught many students who are more intelligent than me, but few I consider wiser, wisdom comes from experience and failure. I want my students to be resilient and not see failure as the end, simply as a learning experience.  I am a product of failure, because I have taken risks, have gone too far, learned from it and have then gone too far again.

too far

@oldandrewuk one of Mr Gove’s favourite blogger talks a lot of sense but I have to take issue with some things in this post

Lies, Damned Lies and Things You are Told During Teacher Training

He says not to assume these are true, I feel we should assume them to be true unless there is evidence they are not.

  1. Children learn better when they are happy. – I’d rather my kids were happy as there is no evidence that happiness is a barrier to learning.
  2. A good lesson is entertaining – No, but it has to be engaging.
  3. Good lessons result in good behaviour – Not always true, but bad lessons usually result in bad behaviour
  4. Behaviour is determined by the relationship between student and teacher. – Depends if you are looking simply for compliance or engagement. A shared journey based on mutual respect vs a whip.
  5. Lessons need a variety of activities. There is evidence for multi – modal learning being more effective and a fundamental of human fulfillment
  6. Learning will result from discussion between students. – See the work of Prof Mazur
  7. Children are more interested in topics relevant to their lives.  I feel they are better at applying concepts to things they can relate to.
  8. Knowledge and understanding can be distinguished and taught separately. Interlinked
  9. Children like using technology. – Their future will be digital and interconnected if we dont teach them to use the tools we are failing them.
  10. If you teach well, your students will like you – It’s not a popularity contest it’s about equipping them for their future, but if you teach badly they wont like you for good reason!

Advice given to me by my father (a teacher ) :  Be yourself, be the best that you can be and never stop learning

5 blogs, chosen  out of the many I have found useful that you may want to read

Tom Sherrington www.headguruteacher.com

John Tomsett http://johntomsett.wordpress.com

David Didau www.learningspy.co.uk

Kev Bartle www.dailygenius.wordpress.com

Mark Anderson  http://ictevangelist.com

9 thoughts on “If you are not perfect, you are not yet finished

  1. “He says not to assume these are true, I feel we should assume them to be true unless there is evidence they are not.”

    Why? I mean seriously, why? Because we’d like them to be true? Because you like the sort of person who believes these sorts of things? My point is that assuming them to be true in cases where they are not will be harmful, and for obvious reasons.

    “Children learn better when they are happy. – I’d rather my kids were happy as there is no evidence that happiness is a barrier to learning.”

    I’d suggest you look into that.

    “A good lesson is entertaining – No, but it has to be engaging.”

    I try to avoid the word “engaging” in education debates mainly because it is very unclear in most arguments how it differs from “entertaining”. It is often used to describe activities whose only real appeal is that they are entertaining.

    “Good lessons result in good behaviour – Not always true, but bad lessons usually result in bad behaviour”

    Do they? I don’t think so. A lesson can be bad because it entertained the kids rather than educated them, but kids don’t usually behave worse because they are being entertained. Many (not all) kids behave better if the work is easier, which again means a bad lesson can improve behaviour with those students.

    “Behaviour is determined by the relationship between student and teacher. – Depends if you are looking simply for compliance or engagement. A shared journey based on mutual respect vs a whip.”

    I am looking for kids to learn as much as possible. Obviously that requires compliance more than it requires entertainment. (I make that distinction because “engagement” can refer to either.)

    “Lessons need a variety of activities. There is evidence for multi – modal learning being more effective and a fundamental of human fulfillment”

    Is there?

    “Learning will result from discussion between students. – See the work of Prof Mazur”

    Do I need to? Is it not trivially obvious that a lot of discussion between students is not educational? Or that students can learn a lot without discussing anything with each other?

    “Children are more interested in topics relevant to their lives. I feel they are better at applying concepts to things they can relate to.”

    Not my point. Although I’d be curious as to why what they can relate is more important than what they understand.

    “Children like using technology. – Their future will be digital and interconnected if we dont teach them to use the tools we are failing them.”

    Again not my point. Also I do wonder how much training from us kids will need to use digital technology.

    “If you teach well, your students will like you – It’s not a popularity contest it’s about equipping them for their future, but if you teach badly they wont like you for good reason!”

    Again, something that seems trivially not true. There are teachers out there with appalling subject knowledge and low expectations who are loved by kids. Children’s entertainers are always going to be more popular than educators.

    • There is very little cast iron evidence within education the variables are too great and hence we are arguing from our own belief systems. Things you consider trivial my experience have found to be important. I feel that it is sad that so much time, energy and powerful intellect is being used to try and trash either progressive or traditional. Different things work differently depending on the teacher,school,class,student. I feel we should celebrate diversity and learn from each other. I left teaching due to a hearing loss but am now privileged to be able to teach in elite schools in the country as well as some of the most challenging. Teaching the same lessons in different schools is fascinating and has convinced me that there is no one ‘best’ way. Shouldn’t the battle be with the higher authorities who try to compress us and turn us into something that we are not. I fully appreciate the anger of those traditional teachers and I have seen some truly superb ones, forced to move away from what they are best at into the realms of what they feel uncomfortable doing. My favourite teacher at school would be destroyed by OFSTED. I cannot teach the way he did as I am not as compelling a speaker. Having four children go through education has also shaped my perception, though I don’t for a moment see myself as superior to those who have none. To one of my sons I would be the perfect teacher (if I wasn’t his father) to one of the others I would be a nightmare.

      A few things are clear to me :
      Poor subject knowledge hampers learning, but better subject knowledge does not always mean a better teacher. I was taught by some of the finest physicists, but poorest communicators on the planet.
      Learning is far more important than entertainment, but I don’t feel they need to be mutually exclusive. I use engagement to mean that their brains are doing something appropriate to the learning. Either listening or solving problems. Some teachers are massively engaging and I can listen to them for hours, others are not and either ned to improve or use a different strategy.
      The world is changing, our student’s brains are being shaped by digital experiences, we need to constantly be evaluating our practice to ensure we are equipping them for their future lives

      To answer one of your specific questions

      “Children are more interested in topics relevant to their lives. I feel they are better at applying concepts to things they can relate to.”

      Not my point. Although I’d be curious as to why what they can relate is more important than what they understand.

      I am interested in learning and am far more likely to be able to get a skateboarder to understand forces, moments and rotation by using an example that they already intuitively know as they are already using these concepts to perform tricks.

      • “There is very little cast iron evidence within education the variables are too great and hence we are arguing from our own belief systems.”

        Hang on, I explicitly said as much and that was why I argued for scepticism about those points. You argued against my scepticism. If you know admit a lack of hard evidence, surely that just strengthens my point?

        “Things you consider trivial my experience have found to be important. I feel that it is sad that so much time, energy and powerful intellect is being used to try and trash either progressive or traditional.”

        If beliefs are false and potentially harmful, should they not be challenged?

        “Different things work differently depending on the teacher,school,class,student.”

        Again, that appears to confirm what I claimed, i.e. that those beliefs I listed are not always true.

        “I feel we should celebrate diversity and learn from each other.”

        Well, we could celebrate the diversity involved in some beliefs being wrong and some being right, or we could search for the truth.

        “I left teaching due to a hearing loss but am now privileged to be able to teach in elite schools in the country as well as some of the most challenging. Teaching the same lessons in different schools is fascinating and has convinced me that there is no one ‘best’ way. Shouldn’t the battle be with the higher authorities who try to compress us and turn us into something that we are not.”

        I thought that was what I was doing.

        “I fully appreciate the anger of those traditional teachers and I have seen some truly superb ones, forced to move away from what they are best at into the realms of what they feel uncomfortable doing. My favourite teacher at school would be destroyed by OFSTED. I cannot teach the way he did as I am not as compelling a speaker. Having four children go through education has also shaped my perception, though I don’t for a moment see myself as superior to those who have none. To one of my sons I would be the perfect teacher (if I wasn’t his father) to one of the others I would be a nightmare.”

        Is that a matter of their tastes though, rather than how much they would learn?

        “A few things are clear to me : Poor subject knowledge hampers learning, but better subject knowledge does not always mean a better teacher. I was taught by some of the finest physicists, but poorest communicators on the planet.”

        Obviously there is more to teaching than teacher knowledge, but everything else being equal more knowledgeable teachers are a good thing.

        “Learning is far more important than entertainment, but I don’t feel they need to be mutually exclusive.”

        Nobody said they were mutually exclusive. The problem is that they are probably not positively correlated.

        “I use engagement to mean that their brains are doing something appropriate to the learning.”

        Which seems to undermine your whole argument. That could happen even if kids are hating what they are doing.

        “Either listening or solving problems. Some teachers are massively engaging and I can listen to them for hours, others are not and either ned to improve or use a different strategy.”

        This claim seems to suggest you have already forgotten your own definition of “engagement”.

        “The world is changing,”

        It always has. Probably more slowly now than it once did.

        “our student’s brains are being shaped by digital experiences,”

        Brains have always been shaped by experience. Nothing new here.

        “we need to constantly be evaluating our practice to ensure we are equipping them for their future lives”

        Really? A moment ago you just wanted to celebrate diversity and argue from beliefs.

        “To answer one of your specific questions I am interested in learning and am far more likely to be able to get a skateboarder to understand forces, moments and rotation by using an example that they already intuitively know as they are already using these concepts to perform tricks.”

        Nobody is against the use of prior knowledge or prior understanding. But why does that have to be relevant to their lives? Do students not have prior knowledge and understanding of things such as, say, outer space or dinosaurs that are not part of their everyday lives?

        Anyway, this all seems to miss the point. I put forward a list of beliefs that should not be blindly accepted. You disagreed, but now seem to be unable to find any supporting argument for those beliefs. Do you now accept that those beliefs are not necessarily true and, therefore, should not be taught as if they were?

  2. The points you made were under the title “Lies, Damned Lies and Things You are Told During Teacher Training.” These are not proven to be true, but neither are they proven to be false – unless you can provide evidence which goes beyond simply stating things are trivial. My objection was that you put them as lies. If our students were all sorted and homogenous then a single strategy would be fine. If there is doubt then I would prefer to treat them like individual human beings rather than objects that we talk at

    • I suggest you reread the blogpost. The lies mentioned in the title were in the first half. The list in the second half was described in the following way:

      “Other things you might hear while being trained as a teacher are more within the realm of opinion, but you may find that you don’t get to hear other opinions or even any acknowledgement that there are any cases where popular assumptions should not be made. I’m not going to claim any of the following are necessarily false but none of them should ever be assumed to be true without qualification”

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