Anyone following my work over the last couple of years might have noticed my thinking on lots of things has shifted. This has been, almost entirely, because of Twitter. When I first signed up I was a secret traditionalist without really knowing I was one; for most of my career I’d believed, as I’d been taught to, that skills based student centred methodology was accepted by all and teaching any other way was both unprofessional and morally suspect. But I knew that traditional methods (although I didn’t even know ‘traditional’ was a thing) worked better for me and my students. So, of course and as thousands of teachers do, I paid lip service to student centred methodology and, when the door was closed and particularly with KS4, I taught didactically. Not only was I a secret traditionalist, I was also a furtively guilty one because I felt that teaching this way showed I’d failed at ‘proper’ teaching; if I had to tell the students the right answers it was because I hadn’t been able to guide them there. The students might know what I’d taught them, but in some vague but very important way, I’d cheated.
Twitter was a revelation. It wasn’t long before I realised that there were successful teachers who not only taught like me but were proud to do so. Of course not all the people I came to admire agreed with each other about everything but none seemed to share my ideological shame. I read Hirsch (who I’d heard of but saw as some mysterious, childhood-devouring American ogre), Willingham, Didau and Christodoulou. I was helped tremendously by people who disagreed with what I was reading but were able to articulate ideas and draw on a store of knowledge to defend their views I just didn’t have. Put most simply, I’d been plugged in and found myself learning and thinking about pedagogy, and specifically the pedagogy of history teaching, in a way I’d never done before, because I’d realised that debate and disagreement existed and were allowed.
As I gradually lost my shame at being didactic my teaching improved; rather than trying to minimise my explanations I thought hard about how I could make them more memorable. My board-work improved. I read more history than I’d done before and became more knowledgeable, articulate and clearer. I gave children lists of facts and tested them. I answered questions directly instead of turning them back on students. Children in my classes learned faster. Grades went up.
While it’s clear which style of teaching I prefer and think most effective, this really isn’t a blog about whether traditional or progressive teaching is better. It’s more about why not being aware of wider debates can really damage improving teaching. Before I was plugged in I couldn’t improve at traditional teaching, which I know is most effective at least for me, because I was doing it secretly and shamefully. I felt if I asked for help with explaining better, I’d be judged because it was an admission I wanted to speak to my class for longer. I wouldn’t have dared ask about how to improve my students’ memories because this would be an admission I was focusing on knowledge and the ‘lower order’ skill of recall. Of course, if I’d actually read Hirsch or Willingham, I’d have been more confident but because I thought there was no debate I didn’t, because I’d somehow, somewhere picked up the impression their work was discredited and that even reading it would make me some sort of outmoded, pedagogical anachronism.
Twitter is packed full of plugged in teachers, of varying philosophies and with differing motivations and I’ve definitely become better by watching and contributing to the sometimes fierce debate. But, in the midst of the parry and riposte, I think we are sometimes at risk of missing what might be the most important point. Most teachers aren’t on Twitter. A lot of teachers aren’t taking part in the debate, aren’t reading and aren’t aware that there is robust philosophical disagreement between different pedagogical schools of thought. I know this because for a long time I was one of them. If they’re anything like me this isn’t because they are lazy, or disengaged or that they don’t care about the best way to help their students. It’s because, just as I didn’t, they don’t know that the methods they were trained, and continue to be trained in, have been challenged. In a vacuum of ideas they’ve come to believe that there is inherent validity in the orthodoxy of their own experience. Teachers who can’t teach in this way teach guiltily and some leave the profession, not because they lack the potential to be really good, but because they can’t teach in a style they believe is the only one that exists.
I have an issue with claims that there is ‘no best way’, not because I definitely believe that traditional styles are The Best in all circumstances, but because I feel it implies that the debates I’ve found so helpful are irrelevant and don’t need to be taken seriously. I’m also concerned by claims that because many schools don’t engage in these debates, profound philosophical disagreements can be dismissed when I believe precisely the opposite; schools should be aware of wider pedagogical discourse and using the fact many aren’t as evidence of the debate’s irrelevance is to reach, in my view at least, the wrong conclusion.
I’d far rather a child I care about was taught by a teacher of a different pedagogical bent engaged in educational debate than by one who, for whatever reason, doesn’t know the debate exists at all. I like the debate. I think we’re better for it and certainly wouldn’t want to bleed teacher training of progressive influences in the way my own was bled of traditional ones. I’d prefer to see our140 character disagreements, civilly of course, played out across our entire educational ecosystem. My biggest worry is not whether progressive or traditional education is better but that many, if not most, teachers aren’t aware they have a choice at all.