For the reasons I’ve written about here and here, my acquisition of any sort of didactic competence was slow and faltering. Nonetheless I did improve and by the time I’d been teaching for five or so years, I was pretty proud of my ability to explain things clearly and concisely. A regular feature of my lessons was “Mr Newmark explains in five minutes”, in which I’d deliver didactically what the class then worked on for the remainder of the lesson. These sections seemed especially popular with my GCSE students and, about three years ago, a class suggested I videoed them so they could use them for revision. Flattered, I agreed.
I worked up a board on Vesalius and then got a student to video my explanation. The process took about twenty minutes and, with the student sent off to eat their sandwiches, I plugged my phone in to my computer and watched back the recording on my classroom’s LCD projector.
It was no better than OK. I said ‘um’ a lot. I overused the word ‘right’. I said everything was ‘a really important point’ which made me look desperate and gave the impression nothing I’d talked about really was. A comment I’d thought was funny when I said it made me cringe. Some of my explanations meandered away into dead ends. I stumbled over some words. Bluntly, it turned out that I was nowhere near as good as I thought I was.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Psychologists Van Yperen and Buunk coined the phrase ‘illusory superiority” in 1991 to describe the common phenomenon whereby individuals overestimate their own abilities in relation to others. Put simply, humans are not good at accurately assessing their own competence. In order to preserve our sense of self-value there is the possibility we are wired to assume we are better than others, when we might be of only the same or worse standard. It has also been suggested that the worse we are at something, the more likely we are to overestimate our performance at it. This is very sobering and, given how pleased I was with my ability to explain well, I’m glad I didn’t know about illusory superiority when I first watched back a video of my teaching for the first time!
Although unaware of why I’d overestimated my own performance at teaching didactically I was at least self-aware to know I needed to improve. I also knew I’d need to get feedback from others because I’d proved that my own instincts were not reliable in assessing my performance.
Fortunately that year I had a very gifted and, even more importantly, fearsomely honest Year 11 student who was both willing and able to effectively critique my didactic explanations. The student picked up the same issues I did when asked, and offered more as I made more videos. As a direct response to her feedback I planned my videos more carefully, practiced before videoing, varied my vocal tone and inflection, clarified board work, slowed down and stopped labouring and over-explaining. I then checked showed these videos to whole classes and asked them which they preferred and why. Once students were comfortable they weren’t going to hurt my feelings, the feedback they gave became quite insightful and the improvements I made can be seen in the difference between this video, and this one.
As I deliberately practiced my delivery I found my explanations, even when they weren’t being videoed, improved. I found myself stopping and starting again when I realised what I’d said was confusing, rather than just ploughing on regardless. This increased my confidence and I began talking for longer and longer in lessons. It was as student outcomes improved that I finally accepted that the length of my explanations had never been a problem; it had been the variable quality of them which resulted in students disengaging and not learning what they should.
This leads me to the final point I want to stress. It was deliberate practice and responding to feedback that made me better at teaching didactically. For years I’d overestimated by didactic ability, and didn’t improve until I sought out external feedback. Once I did realise I improved because I worked deliberately on weak areas, which has led to, in my view, better teaching.
And, of course, the process for me is ongoing. I know this because videos I once thought really strong now make me wince. This illustrates how far I’ve come but also suggests I still have a long way to go. Interestingly, as my position on what good explanation in history is has shifted, so has my opinion on some of my past work; at the time I was really proud of this video on the NHS but now feel it is so inappropriately and distractingly political that I’ve contemplated taking it down.
This might seem to imply that the process of critique and deliberate practice is a depressing one, but to me it isn’t. It leads me to hope and believe that my explanations are constantly improving. This is a very heartening thought.
If we want to get better at didactic teaching we need to view it the performance it is. We must know our material inside out, rehearse, insist on full attention from our audience, and seek and act upon feedback from others. Only by doing this can we overcome our own cognitive bias and be genuinely sure we are improving.