“If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.”
“I thought I’d be told what to teach, and how to teach it…”
I’m going to argue for the following, teaching is:
- Knowing what idea is to be communicated
- Communicating it well
Oh I know, it’s an almost tiresome question; at least, it’s tiresome that we don’t yet have an agreed upon answer to this. No-one in the other professions seems to ask ‘what is practising law,’ or ‘what is accounting,’ yet here we are.
I’ve seen the first quote above, or variants of it, attributed to Voltaire, Locke, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Regardless, it’s such an important and fundamental part of any debate to first ensure everyone understands what you mean by what you say.
I was reminded of the importance of defining our terms when I read this short blog post, Send in the Clowns, written a while back now. It’s been on my mind ever since. I read the argument as essentially ‘no-one can tell you how to teach, and if that’s how we run teacher training (by… I guess, actually training teachers) then we would have a cohort of inexpert buffoons in our classrooms.’ Setting aside for a moment the irony that clown schools exist and that clowns are actually well trained, what I found so interesting upon reading it was how diametrically opposed our views were here. The argument was that you can only become a teacher through years of hard-won experience of teaching. By contrast, already my own experience tells me this simply isn’t true. There is ‘truth to it,’ of course everyone’s going to become better at anything through time and practice, but there are so many ways to teach mathematics that I’ve simply been told by a colleague over the past few years, and it took little more than that. I didn’t need ‘experience’ to be able to deliver their explanation, I just needed to know it, and that could have been achieved long before I got into the classroom.
Thinking about all this, I noticed this stark disagreement is probably realised because we’re working with very different definitions of what we mean when we say ‘teaching.’ In fact the more I thought about it, the more I realised I see this lexical ambiguity all the time. Teaching, being as multi-faceted as it is, allows people to choose their areas of focus. From that point, people talk about ‘teaching’ and what they think leads to ‘good teaching,’ without ever really defining what they mean by teaching…
In my opinion, the worst definitions of teaching try to explode this out into as many categories as possible.
What is teaching?
As before, it’s not so much that there isn’t truth to the above, it just looks like its purpose is more to convince non-teachers that we work really hard, rather than to say anything meaningful about what teaching is; anything that could help a teacher get better at teaching.
So I had a go at trying to structure this out a little, in as simple way as I could manage while still covering the most important and fundamental aspects of the job. I know it’s not perfect and complete, but it served as a jumping off point for me:
- Ideas (what we need to communicate)
- Delivery vehicle (how we attempt to communicate it)
- Assessment (AFL)
- Curriculum structure
- Assessment (Mastery)
- Classroom Management
I showed this to one friend, and she quickly noted that ‘classroom management’ isn’t even teaching, it’s ‘something that teachers do.’ That was interesting to me, the distinction between ‘what teaching is’ and ‘what teachers do.’
As the poster above suggests, we seem to spend a lot of our time not teaching. It’s not to say those other things aren’t important, or don’t serve a role in building relationships which can lead to better classroom experiences and better teaching, it’s just very important that we define our terms, very clearly; giving someone half your lunch isn’t teaching by any definition I would ascribe to. It might be something some teachers find they need to do, but it’s acting as a surrogate parent, not teaching. I’m aware there are always ways of word-smithing to turn just about anything into anything else – it’s so easy to suggest that in such an instance one would be ‘teaching kindness’ or generosity etc. This wouldn’t be helpful. Rather, the more clear and simple is our baseline definition, the more powerful and focussed our thinking can become.
There’s a distinction between what teaching is, and what teachers do
(Also, the similarities between many of these posters for teachers on Google Images is telling, and worrying…)
A Clean, Simple Definition of Teaching
When I think about teaching, and learning how to teach, my principle focus is in the first category, communication. That’s just my personal choice. I focus very carefully on what I want pupils to know, and then how I’m going to help them to understand it in some way. Usually, I find this process much faster, and with better results, when someone more experienced tells me how to do it. I wish there were a good book I could turn to which had those explanations collated for reference. Instead, the books out there in this space mostly seem to focus on yet more divergence. ‘100 generic ideas’ that grow increasingly wild and whacky and laud ‘innovation’ for its own sake, rather than getting to the heart of two or three really good ways of explaining a specific concept.
I tend to focus on things where pupils and teachers are the same; I was struck by a line in Willingham’s book which read ‘Students are more alike in how they learn than they are different.’ When my mentor explained to me how to explain division by a ratio, I could see immediately that this was always going to work for every child, regardless their level of ‘ability.’ It was far better than anything I would have come up with; in fact, I had wasted nearly a week’s time trying to do it ‘my way’ and had to redo some lessons.
By contrast, some spend a great deal of time talking about, and focussing on ‘people’ and relationships, and emphasise the differences between pupils and teachers. That’s their personal choice, and there is obviously truth to the notion that ‘people are all different,’ just as much as there is truth to the notion that ‘people are mostly the same.’ What’s more important is recognising when these things are true, and what is worth focussing on. If focusing on the differences leads one to conclude that ‘no-one can be taught how to teach,’ I would suggest we have a problem. The subtleties and nuances of teaching, the things we do that aren’t teaching in its simplest sense of communicating an idea, they will need to be developed slowly, through experience. We can teach classroom management techniques, but no-one’s going to be great at that on their first day, with no experience. We can teach explanations that help pupils understand, but getting the delivery of those explanations just right might take time, and experience. We can teach strategies for classroom feedback, but actually distributing feedback time effectively and efficiently between thirty pupils is inevitably going to take a long time to master, and certainly, this need will vary from class to class. Regardless, starting with something is inevitably better than going in with nothing. We can change and adapt based on our experience.
Not really sure what this image is… but yes, something is better than nothing
Keep it Simple
Teaching will always present us with challenges; we don’t need to work to make it sound more complicated than it needs to be. If we can tell a new teacher how to teach (explain) something, then by all means let’s do it. If Lemov or Old Andrew can offer suggestions about what works in classrooms, let them. If new teachers find something doesn’t quite work, by all means let’s think about why, together. The irony is that this is happening all the time in schools; I’m not sure why there’s such aversion to it on a wider scale from some in the community. Where I’ve seen this fall down is when the teaching methods being advocated are (again) unnecessarily complex – things involving lots of group work, moving around the classroom and collaborating to find coloured bits of card. Those complex ideas might work in some schools, for some teachers working with some kids (in the sense that children go along with it and are engaged – whether or not the levels of ‘academic learning time’ were high is another question), but certainly not all; I suppose this might lead some people to conclude naïvely that it’s always the case that ‘different things work in different contexts.’
If, when we think of teaching, we’re thinking about whether pupils should be ‘lined up outside the classroom’ or ‘moved off the corridor as quickly as possible,’ well I’ve seen both of those succeed and fail depending on school context. If we’re talking about complex delivery vehicles for ideas, then I’ve seen them fail or succeed as well. If we’re talking about a simple delivery vehicle, like a good explanation… well I’ve never really seen a good teacher explanation ‘fail’ in any meaningful way – though I suppose by definition that would have to be the case for it to be ‘good’!
A simple teacher explanation and a simple series of activities/questions that help pupils experience a sense of success might not be the most innovative classroom environment one could conjure up, but it’s likely to see more success in the more challenging schools, and therefore more likely to succeed overall. This is why I focus on this simple definition of teaching; from that solid foundation, if people wish to develop in new ways, taking advantage of some form of context unique to them, by all means let them. Building a foundation of this kind need not take decades though; these are the aspects of teaching that could be communicated and understood quickly by all.
In conclusion, for my part when I think or speak about teaching, I’m usually thinking of:
- What needs to be communicated?
- How can we explain it?
Those aren’t things that need, nor should, vary infinitely from teacher to teacher, and pupil to pupil, fortunately.
Incidentally, the second quote was me, speaking with my subject mentor, about two months in. Thank you to the teachers who’ve shared their knowledge of what and how to teach, it’s thanks to you that I can teach anything at all. In the meantime, I’m still waiting for the rest of the blanks to be filled in. Like everyone I can come up with my own inexpert ideas, trial them, fail, adjust, adapt, but like everyone I cannot compare with decades, maybe centuries of institutional wisdom, and like everyone I could learn a lot from that wisdom if it existed as a codified body of mathematical pedagogical knowledge, if only. So in the meantime I wait, and I work as best I can, as do most teachers (given half leave after 5 years), and while we wait, it is to the detriment of pupils we work with.
Let’s not laud the idea of teaching ‘not being easy’ or having to spend the rest of our lives ‘learning to teach.’ Let’s accept that no career is easy, let’s accept that everyone can always improve in any career, and let’s move towards a definition of teaching that is clean, simple, and speaks to actual act of teaching. The rest of the job isn’t going anywhere, and we can still work on that over time.