Education needs to stop spinning in circles

Talk to any teacher with 20 years experience and they will tell you that education goes around in circles with trends and fads, be it student-centred, project-based, a new technology focus, reciprocal reading etc. Why is this? 

  • Why does education keep changing its mind on what to do next?
  • Why does it keep returning to things it did 20 years ago?
  • Why do some ‘early adopters” keep jumping from one fad to another?

Answer: Teaching has always lacked an important habit: confirm what actually makes a difference and stick with it.

I’ve got a feeling

It’s amazing how many teachers don’t work on the basis of keeping what works and ditching what doesn’t. The reason for this is because most teachers are not in the habit of being truly concerned about whether something actually made a positive difference and it is understood that simply feeling one way or another is enough. 

Teachers are only expected to go as far as:

  • “That went ok, I think.”
  • “They seemed to really enjoy that”
  • “I feel the kids really understood that”

The reality of teaching does not include having to link teaching and learning decisions to actual outcomes. In most cases, when final results come out, teachers have no idea which of their activities or new initiatives might have made a difference. In many cases, teachers will stick with an approach or change it regardless of results or without collecting any feedback. This is shown in that few teachers track their trend lines in results for their classes, courses, depts, or school. Knowing and tracking what might have made a difference is just not part of the teaching job.

Post: What makes an expert teacher?

The missing profession

If there had been a coherent and interconnected teaching profession during the last 50 years, then it would have been a steady improvement of practice. There would be an understanding through evidence that spending time on preparing certain resources and class activity would not be worth the effort and time. 

True professions, like medicine, have documented disagreements but the general practice moves forward, discounting or sticking with old methods and only moving onto new initiatives where there is a confirmed need to. The medical profession doesn’t allow nurses to just try random drugs on patients and not even follow up on the consequences. The fact that educational decisions don’t lead to death, doesn’t make random trials with no follow-up any less of a crazy approach. 

Education presents itself as a profession but lacks a genuine understanding amongst teachers that there is a central profession that should be respected and followed. You have thousands of teachers arguing for a 19th century approach and thousands arguing for “21st century approaches” that are unrecognisable to many people as education. 

These arguments spin around in circles due to a lack of practitioners expecting to have to provide evidence or be accountable and respectful to a profession. In other terms, teachers don’t believe that teaching is smart enough to really know what it’s talking about and so all head off in different directions without feeling they need to report back on the consequences.

Keep it simple

Just like statistics, research to back up one’s argument for where education should be heading can be found or manipulated too easily. Given the current lack of professionalism, a simpler focus would be to talk to teachers about building their own evidence-based culture from their existing work. Nothing big or fancy, just try to collect more data and student feedback on the things you do in class as you do them. Remember, students can be disconnected from the metacognitive understanding and also have a desire to“not upset their teacher” and so building a school culture across the whole community that is honest and determined to know what truely makes a difference is key. 

In New Zealand, we call it Teaching as Inquiry but it remains a struggle to embed it properly into the school cultures that are led the inertia of historical assumptions and beliefs. There are also too many examples of Teaching as Inquiry that don’t involve the students themselves enough to build a deeply metacognitive learning environment.

A benefit to this culture is that it is not an argument for one approach over another until evidence is produces otherwise. You can be teacher-centric and lecture for an hour or be student-centric and involve the interests of each learner, just confirm that more students benefited from and appreciated your approach and encourage suggestions.

Teacher workload

The simple upside for teachers is that an evidence-based metacognitive culture reduces workload in the long run. Focusing students and teachers on evaluating classroom activity eventually leads to teachers doing less work for more impact. Time isn’t wasted on resources and activities that aren’t going to be appreciated or understood. 

If there had been an evidence-based visible education profession for the last 50 years, teaching would currently be a much easier, fun, and rewarding job. If you are a teacher and you feel over worked, then it’s time to start working with your students to stop everyone from spinning round and round in circles.