What is teaching?

“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.

Different Definitions

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.

More than a teacher

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:

  • Communication
    • Ideas (what we need to communicate)
    • Delivery vehicle (how we attempt to communicate it)
    • Assessment (AFL)
  • Memory
    • Curriculum structure
    • Practice
    • 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.

 What teachers do

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.

 Do something

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.


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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41 Responses to What is teaching?

  1. Hi Kris … Welcome to the real world of teaching. When older teachers like me complain about change, it’s generally got a lot to do with the ideas in your post. It takes a village to raise a child, so let’s just get on with it and accept that your final paragraph is true. Thanks. John.

  2. suecowley says:

    That blog post wasn’t an argument, though, Kris. It was just me trying to express my frustration at people saying that there is one ‘correct’ way to teach and that it must always be exactly like this or like that . Of course teachers can and do learn how to give a good explanation, or how to handle the instruction giving part of teaching. That’s part of what I teach when I work with teachers. But what I don’t do is say that it ‘has’ to be like anything, because what it ‘has’ to be like is what works for you in your specific context, for your subject and for your age range. And having worked in a number of different schools and with all the age groups, I have found that what works varies from place to place and even from day to day. Yes there is a core of good practice, but with experience you learn to vary how you teach as you are actually teaching. I hope that makes sense.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      It does… but here’s why I wanted to define what I think of when I talk about ‘teaching’ – it seems to me that a good explanation is very often a good explanation, regardless of who’s delivering it, or who’s hearing it. That doesn’t mean that *has* to be the explanation used, perhaps, and perhaps it won’t *always* be the most effective for every individual, but it’s a hell of a start, and it doesn’t take years and years to learn a good explanation, just the time it takes to have it explained to you!

      With respect to the other elements of teaching, here the lines probably blur all the more. I often wouldn’t advocate ‘the classroom must be run like x’, but there are certainly some things that are not acceptable, aren’t there? For example no-one would be happy with a teacher that screamed and shouted every lesson.

      Then books like Lemov’s are brilliant – consider the alternative, gifted us by teacher training, which was effectively being told nothing at all. If you want a vision of what it looks like to ‘send in the clowns,’ then look no further! This doesn’t mean that everything in the book is to be adhered to as scripture, which seems to be most people’s fear of it. I tried some things that just didn’t work. I tried others which were gold dust. In another school context, other things suddenly work much more effectively. Ironically, I was struck by the quote Joe used about table layout in Beadle’s book:

      “Having your desks set out in groups is the right way to organise your classroom. Period. No discussion. No arguing.”

      c.f. Lemov’s words on this, where, in advocating for rows and explaining his reasoning, he also uses lines like:

      “I’m giving my own biases about classroom layout away here…”

      “…you don’t have to agree with me…”

      and “Regardless of the layout you use…”

      My point I suppose is that even in the arena of ‘classroom management,’ or ‘things teachers do that aren’t teaching,’ we need to give teachers *something* to work with, rather than nothing at all, asking them to think up everything, and call it liberating. There are few things less liberating in fact than choice paralysis!

      • suecowley says:

        I don’t think we’re actually disagreeing, Kris, just expressing ourselves differently. I don’t think I ever said that teachers should make everything up (otherwise I wouldn’t write practical books for them), but I do think there are some things in teaching that have to be learned over time. I would take issue with your comment about teacher training, my 4 year BEd course taught me a lot about how to teach. I thank my lucky stars that I had such a long time to learn and to practice and to experiment and to watch other teachers at work. This is something that I think we will come to regret losing when we look back on how teacher training has changed.

        I also think that I’m a much better teacher now than I was 10 or 15 years ago, and that is not so much that I have read more about it, or been taught more techniques, but that I have had a chance to learn more through my experiences in different contexts. This is not to say that new teachers cannot be great, just that with time comes a different perspective.

      • Kris Boulton says:

        Maybe we’re not. I’ve just re-read your post to remind me of its content. I think it probably doesn’t sit well with me because of what I described to Tait as ‘revelling in complexity;’ it seems to do that, a kind of ‘teaching is so complex that no-one can tell you how to do it,’ mentality. That might not have been what you intended, and it may even be largely correct in the domain to which you were speaking. You said that teaching was all about people, and of course it is, well… it’s about people, but I disagree that it’s *all* about people. In fact, as many have pointed out, it’s about many things, it is complex.

        So you focus on people, I focus on the subject to be communicated. There’s a reason I choose that focus, which I will probably write about (in another 4 months’ time, if my current track record is anything to go by…)

        I would disagree with the notion that ‘You can’t sum it up in a database, or map it in a study.’ though. I suppose here I still worry about the nihilism that comes across. To go back to my earlier comment about Lemov, absolutely it proved no silver bullet of how to get everything perfect, but it gave me something at least. I suppose my point is ‘You can sum it up, and map it out, but yes, as you say in the next line, that doesn’t automatically mean all will be fine.’

        As for teacher training… something I spend a lot of time thinking, and worrying about. The length of training is an interesting one… we had a ‘medicine and law’ model, now we have a ‘consultancy and finance’ model.

        Anyway, as you say, perhaps not so much in disagreement; I’m just always wary when it looks like ‘No-one should command how you teach’ might turn into ‘No-one can teach you how to teach.’ Even in that first statement I’m not 100% sure… it intuitively feels right, I often wouldn’t feel comfortable ‘telling others how to teach,’ but then I sometimes wonder if we risk doing pupils a disservice if that is our approach.

  3. One of my favourite of your posts I think – measured, thoughtful, and right on the button.

    I think once we discussed and you were (/seemed to be) quite strongly of the view that ‘knowing what ideas to communicate’ was not the job of a teacher – that what one does in the classroom should be separated from that part – planning what it would be that would be communicated – and ideally (?) jobs done by separate people. Have your ideas shifted on that, or did I misinterpret you?

    It’s Jess btw.

  4. kapernickn says:

    This is an astute consideration of what we are as teachers. I think the fact that we question and examine our work and methods so thoroughly IS what makes our profession unique . And others such as politicians mistake this as a sign of inadequacy or incompetence or inexperience . I love that you are very oractically minded. Thanks.

  5. This blog post has made me thing=k more deeply than any post for a long tome. A long time on Twitter is about a month. I do think that the difference between what teaching is and what teachers do is the main challenge for me to get to grips with. I both like the concept and think it is too simple. Having decided what teaching is, and you define an outcome, I think, will teachers then be doing different things? How much will these different things be a function of the different knowledge the children in a class will have as a result of their previous learning experiences? Are these differences inevitable or have they been created by a lack of clarity from previous teachers? I have to keep thinking.

    What I do totally agree with is the Willingham statement that children are more alike than they are different in the process of learning. But they will seem different because they know different things and they know those things in different degrees. Does that difference matter? Does it impact on what teaching is?

    • Kris Boulton says:

      To be honest I never realised it was going to cause so much controversy; I thought this was a relatively mundane conclusion!

      Oh it’s certainly simple, but then that’s the point of it. It’s a foundation, or starting off point, as I say. It’s where I figure I can get the greatest gain if I focus time, but then of course there are a great many other things to consider next if success does not ensue for a group, or an individual.

      Do the differences matter? I suppose I it might effect the efficacy of an explanation. If an explanation depends on prior knowledge, and that knowledge isn’t there, then it surely won’t be effective! So, one would have to adapt, either to the group or the individual.

      • Try reading Jo Boaler’s work on Maths teaching. Read The Elephant in the Classroom.

      • Kris Boulton says:

        I’ve read her Amber Hill and Railside studies. They have some very serious issues…

        Will read the book eventually, but also followed her course at Stanford. As ever, the recognition of the symptomatic problems is probably spot on, but the diagnoses of the cause and solution are deeply flawed. There are plenty of other people who’ve already dissected her ideas though, I don’t have much desire to – not least because I think it’s great that she’s out there thinking about these things, and creating approaches to mathematics teaching that perhaps we’ll eventually benefit from integrating in a more robust curriculum. As it stands though, I think her overall approach doesn’t so much ‘fix the problem’ as it does ‘introduce a different set of problems.’

  6. thesecretdos says:

    Hi Kris
    I think that it would help to go beyond saying that teaching is knowing what is to be said and saying it well. Taken as it stands, this could be used to infer that teaching is all about transmitting knowledge to students whereas there is obviously an element of standing by them as they flounder around in their developing skills (oh god…oh god…this is NOT meant to be a skills V knowledge comment).

    For me, Martin Robinson’s return to the trivium has been very helpful: teaching is partly communicating the basic knowledge that has been deemed essential to pass on to the newer generations; it is also partly teaching them how to question this knowledge and explore its relevance to their lives and their time; it is also teaching them how to either build on or reject this knowledge in a manner that is appropriate to the circumstances within which they find themselves.

    To complicate matters, teaching is also serving the demands of the educational system: students have to be graded, branded, categorised. Cost efficiency means that less optimal practices become part of the day-to-day reality for many: large class sizes, mixed abilities, different cultural expectations, unsuitable resources etc all serve to challenge teachers. So to the defining characteristics of success: students are considered to have performed well if they obtain the requisite grades and can progress to what other people have determined are appropriate pathways for them.

    My brief definition of what a teacher is would probably be: someone who is paid to find a way, despite the obstacles placed in their path, to teach people the foundation knowledge that they nee; then teaching them how to question this knowledge and how to critically exploit it to achieve the goals that they have set themselves.

    How’s that?

    • Kris Boulton says:

      I wouldn’t, probably couldn’t, disagree with much of what you’re saying. I think my purpose in this post hasn’t been clear to some, so will attempt to augment it eventually with a follow-up.

      Given the complexity of the system, we can contrive whatever complex definition of teaching we desire, and not be incorrect! (see the poster I included in the post…) I suppose in brief my point is that wallowing in this complexity is actually not helpful, and revelling in it is even worse.

      Perhaps think of it this way – step one, understand what’s to be communicated. Step two, know how to communicate it effectively. Step three, evaluate success of communication attempt. Did it work? Great. Did it not, why not? Kids bouncing off tables? Hard working child just didn’t get it? Glazed over child doesn’t care? There are so many behavioural reasons why a child might not understand an explanation, but before considering any of those I would argue that the first step is ensuring the mode of communication was designed as effectively as can objectively be! This is something Engelmann would describe as ‘faultless communication’ – is your explanation logically impossible to fail to understand?

      Now, the more complex the concept, the more diverse the range of barriers could be. Suddenly explanations might depend on prior knowledge – does the learner have that knowledge? Then, we get to yet another stage of complexity; as you say, is all this ‘communication of a body of knowledge’ entirely sufficient?! Through this process alone, are we seeing learners slowly develop the ‘skills’ or ‘habits of mind’ or ‘intellect’ or however we want to phrase, that we wish to accompany their burgeoning knowledge… ?

      Then, all this, I know, still doesn’t cover the range of things that we need to consider and think about!

      So yes, of course teaching is complex, but none of those complex needs will be met, if, at the very start, we cannot string together a well-designed explanation.

      This is partly why I choose to start here, and, sadly, it means my time and attention are detracted from all those complexities. If only great explanations were something all maths teachers were already expected to have and know before they even started teaching, it would free us to better concern ourselves with the other elements of teaching. Because, and I suppose here’s another important part to my point, I believe that those ‘good’ explanations can be effective for the vast majority of people. Perhaps not all, but the vast, vast majority, and so these are things we could be developing institutionally, instead of wasting so much teacher time reinventing them time and again.

      p.s. Haven’t yet read Trivium, but have the book, and am very excited to read it soon!

  7. suecowley says:

    Hi again Kris, the ‘reply’ button has dropped off our discussion above (we must stop chatting like this!) I think what you sense as ‘nihilism’ in that blog post is my emotions and frustrations about the direction education is going in coming through. (I wonder if I had just read something Mr Gove had said when I wrote it.) I do think that a longer teacher training gives you the chance to experiment and to see how techniques work in different contexts. As well as learning the techniques and skills from books, and from being told them, you get to build your own style through a process of experimentation and observing other teachers at work on their craft. With a very short time spent training, I guess of necessity you must be given a kind of ‘blueprint’. When I finished working at my first school, and moved to my second, I was really surprised at how a different context meant I needed to adapt what had worked before to suit the different setting. I was even more surprised (shocked even) when I moved to my third school where quite a lot of what I had done before had to be discarded or completely changed.

    I still reckon that teaching is about the teacher, as much as about the techniques (again, this is not to decry the transmission of techniques, which is of course vital). At the end of the day it is *you* in a room with the kids. The approaches you use have to come at least partly from your personality, your experiences, your knowledge, your ‘style’, your social and cultural background. I use a very dramatic style which I know others would not choose to adopt. It ‘works’ for me not because it is a blueprint for good teaching, but because I have refined it is as ‘me’ the teacher. Always good to chat about such things. 🙂

  8. Pingback: Defining our terms: What is Teaching? | teachaldenham

  9. Marcus says:

    I agree with you more than I disagree with you, however I think that you have made the model too simple. Even if your explanation of a particular topic is flawless it still requires the student to have the desire to both pay attention and follow the explanation.

    I feel more important than the explanation is the student’s desire to learn and I don’t think that comes through instruction, instruction, instruction but through allowing them to investigate mathematics on their own terms – with a gentle nudge from us towards some interesting problems. There is a clear need for them to have a mastery of the fundamentals of mathematics but they must have a reason to learn it.

    I looked through a few direct instruction website with a series of shapes that were something or other and I learned immediately which was what, however now I can’t recall what the rule was, nor the name the shapes were given.

    Finish with a link to back myself up a little: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10508406.2011.591717

    (If it doesn’t work I will come back for you!)

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Hi Marcus,

      I wonder, did you read my response to ‘Thesecretdos’ above, before posting your comment? If you didn’t, it would be interesting to see what you think after reading it, as I attempted to address one of the concerns you raised about simplicity. I’m thinking of posting it as a short ‘addendum’ post on its own, so it would be good to know in advance whether or not you feel it helps clarify my position.

      I can only read the abstract to the report, not the report itself. Do you have a link to the full article?

      I would necessarily read it ‘on my guard’, since, confirmation bias aside, I’m aware of a wealth of similar research that says exactly the opposite, and that also debunks many papers that have effectively said the same in their conclusions as the one you posted, albeit, as also noted, each time the process (e.g. discovery learning, problem based learning, investigative learning etc.) goes through a change of name, in this instance, ‘productive failure.’ In principle they tend to be very similar. There’s one paper here that addresses exactly this concern; the continued failure of the approach, only to see it reincarnate in another guise:


      Re: DI – you certainly wouldn’t remember anything! This is one of the most compelling things about the design of DI programmes: unlike a conventional approach to teaching, it doesn’t assume anyone will simply ‘learn’ and ‘remember’ anything from just one lesson. If you look at the structure over time here:


      You can see that it’s designed to develop storage strength of memories *over time*, which is essential, since that’s the *only* way to develop storage strength!

  10. I was pondering the same recently

    What is teaching? What is learning? http://optikodes.com/education-reform/teaching-learning/

    At the end of your post you mention the ‘act of teaching’. I noticed that I wanted it to be ‘art of teaching’.

    I like what Lily Tomlin said – I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework.

    This you have accomplished.

  11. Marcus says:

    I did read your reply to ‘Thesecretdocs’ but I feel my argument was not about behaviour but about ‘ignition’ something that Matthew Syed talks about in Bounce. You can have students that are responsive but still don’t learn ‘effectively’ (and by effectively I simply mean take on board knowledge to perform well on test of a similar set of questions on covered topics) so I thought the ‘ignition’ element was quite an important one. Different to the ‘behaviour’ element, unless we are implying that perfect behaviour comes with the caveat of being extremely interested in mathematics. I hope this makes sense.

    On to the report – I only have a printed out copy of it, as I lack the required access to view it online also but I have a friend that can procure research documents for me. I will try and give you the gist of it and why it isn’t ‘discovery learning’ per se (or what I understand what discovery learning is).

    What the teachers have done in the ‘productive failure’ model set a task and allowed the pupils some on task time to get to grips with and struggle with the problem, but instead of just sitting back and doing nothing after about 10 minutes called the class together and looked at ideas towards how to get to a solution then allowed the students some more time to get to new stuck points. It was also allowing the students to recognise areas where they themselves were stuck and to ask questions to move their own learning forward.

    For example a question about triangle that necessarily leads to students asking about Pythagoras’ Theorem – so give 3 triangles that have the same perimeter to 2 decimal places, and then after the students struggle introduce the idea of Pythagoras’ Theorem.

    Also, the idea that every time an idea is ‘quashed’ a new idea comes back, slightly different, is that not a sign of progress, moving towards a better ideal?

    As for DI I thought that this had also been panned by Alfie Kohn (http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/ece.htm) also in his book ‘The Schools Our Children Deserve’ he again offers a takedown of DI.

    I will finish with a paraphrasing of Bjork from his ‘Laboratory of Learning and Forgetting’ how forgetting is essential to learning things in greater depth and how making things too easy is not good for long term learning – http://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/research.html#idd

    I know I have rabbited on here, and I know that my thoughts are difficult to follow and my written work is pretty appalling, however I find this discussion helps, I have been an avid reader of your blog for a while and decided to ‘jump in’.

    Thanks for the reply!

    PS Your claim at the end is a little incorrect I think – you mean to increase the retrieval strength of memories over time. Storage strength is to do with how well you understand something at the time of ‘learning’ whereas retrieval strength is to do with the accessing of the memory.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      so I thought the ‘ignition’ element was quite an important one. Different to the ‘behaviour’ element, unless we are implying that perfect behaviour comes with the caveat of being extremely interested in mathematics. I hope this makes sense.

      I think two things on the behaviour question. The first would be that it certainly isn’t the case that interest in a lesson is necessary for good behaviour; this is a terrible myth that some SLT hide behind in order to abdicate themselves from their responsibility for school discipline.

      That said, I would suggestion that the ‘ignition’ or ‘curiosity’ element could well be incorporated in the idea of ‘how to communicate effectively. It may be that, first, a mode of communication is designed to well communicate the concept, or method to be learnt. From there though, that mode of communication may be improved upon, with an eye to making is inspire greater interest in a subject. For my part, I would go so far as to argue that such an explanation would necessarily be better! However, not necessarily necessary. By this, I mean that interest or engagement which leads to no learning is vacuous. Therefore, a good explanation must first communicate an idea effectively, and then may be improved to as to spark greater interest or emotional engagement. It may well be that the added interest leads to yet more and more effective learning – so much the better!


      With respect to PF, I will always be on my guard of anything that sounds a little too much like old ideas being rehashed. That said, based on your example, it sounds similar to a few things I already do. For example, when introducing advanced trig I will tend to present kids with a series of right-angled triangles, asking them to find missing sides and angles, then throwing in a non-right angled triangle at the end. They will tend to spot that they can’t use their current methods for this one, thus leading to the conclusion that something new is needed.
      I like the idea of the Pythagoras question as well – in fact I’m teaching in next half term, and may well use that! Or at least I’ll give it some thought, to determine whether/how it might work.

      Also, the idea that every time an idea is ‘quashed’ a new idea comes back, slightly different, is that not a sign of progress, moving towards a better ideal?

      Not if it’s basically just the same thing, rebranded.


      Re: DI – I know the name Kohn from somewhere… but can’t recall where. Waiting on a few others to get back to me. In the meantime, he’s basically ignored plenty of other research beyond Follow Through that supports the efficacy of DI (much of which is summarised in Hattie) – and made some *very* strong claims about the supposed ‘harm’ of it, to the extent that I find it incredible.
      Without wanting to get entangled in a huge debate about it, I would simply say that Kohn certainly hasn’t come close to scratching it, if that’s all he’s got…


      I’m a big fan of Bjork’s work; it’s had a significant influence on me. The part about ‘making things too easy’ I’m still reconciling (see comments section here: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/cult-outstanding/)
      I’m going to boldly correct your PS, and in this I feel fairly confident. I certainly do *not* mean to build retrieval strength over time. As I understand it, retrieval strength fluctuates wildly – it’s what we might ordinarily think of as ‘remembering’ and ‘forgetting.’ You can read that 18*26 is 468, and moments later be able to recall that fact <- super high retrieval strength, and yet a minute later have completely ‘forgotten’ <- very low retrieval strength.

      Storage strength, as I understand it, has *nothing* to do with ‘understanding,’ and even less to do with the time of learning! Storage strength is the property associated with any formed memory that *never* deteriorates, meaning that, counter to popular belief, we never really ‘lose’ memories, we simply lose our ability to access them (low retrieval strength.) So, storage strength is something that can but accumulate over time, and indeed, *only* accumulates over time – it cannot be built instantaneously.

      This has significant implications for how we plan curricula over time, since storage strength is the only thing we can reliably seek to build, as it were, and actually most of our curricula to date do not focus on it at all.
      If you can find anything in Bjork’s work that contradicts the above, please do link me to it!


      Certainly glad you have jumped in, and hope it’s all been interesting and useful!

      • Kris Boulton says:

        Hi again Marcus,

        Just received a reply from a friend who knows a bit more about Kohn than I do:

        “Alfie Kohn is perhaps the most ardent expositor of progressive education in the United States. He is totally outfield, and seems not to believe in any form of testing or teacher instruction. According to Daniel Willingham in 2008, ‘Alfie Kohn is bad for you and dangerous for your children’


        Just been having a quick browse, and his article seems to have research by Schweinhart at its centre. Schweinhart discovers that if you are taught by DI, you will not get married, be emotionally illiterate, and end up in jail. It is not a piece of research we need to take seriously. It was carried out by Schweinhart, in his home town, by his own High/Scope foundation – a constructivist teaching programme that DI was being pitted against. The groups of students were small, with 18 pupils each, and the results were taken from self-reported measures in interviews with the researchers which apparently had ‘questionable measures’ and ‘design flaws’. This is essentially data that Schweinhart went out looking for.


  12. tombourner says:

    Wow, I feel very lucky to have stumbled upon such a debate of which I do not feel entirely worthy contributing too, however I cannot leave without throwing my hat into the ring. I will try to keep things as brief as possible but if I digress slightly I apologise in advance.

    I believe that most of what you say, Kris, is correct, especially when it comes down to ‘good’ teacher explanations of a particular topic. Having worked in the school system for many years I can honestly say that there is nothing worse than seeing a teacher attempt to teach a subject area in which they are not proficient, or simply do not have the knowledge required to give an adequate explanation. I also must agree with what you say when you discuss how someone more experienced telling you how to do something can be a vital tool to get across important information to the pupil as surely as ‘good’ teachers learning from others’ mistakes and successes are equally important in there own right.

    However reading through this entire discussion there are several points that I feel I must comment on. I am not skilled enough to embed quotes and the like so I will instead simply refer to ideas you have introduced. As someone who has worked with some of the most disadvantaged and deprived children in this country, to say that ‘it certainly isn’t the case that interest in a lesson is necessary for good behaviour’ for me is a very sweeping generalisation. I know many children who the second they do not engage with what you are saying will be jumping across tables, calling out and in general disrupting the learning of other children.

    This links back to ideas raised in the ‘send in the clowns’ article which comes back to knowing your class, and acting accordingly depending on their particular needs. This is surely one of the many skills of the teacher, that sets us apart from many professions. If someone has an illness there is a particular medicine, if something needs to be built there is usually a particular way. The difference is with teaching is that there are so many ways to communicate a n idea, that surely we need as many ‘tools in our bag’ to allow us to communicate to as many pupils as possible.

    Now I know this is not always possible, and the fact that we are always improving saddens me in a way that I feel that not all pupils are getting the best education they possibly could from us. However as educators our job is not simply the passing on or ‘communicating’ information as you state at the very beginning of this article, and I ask what happened about caring for pupils, taking an interest in them to improve our practice, and mould ourselves to the needs of our pupils, who after all are the end users of a service that we are employed to provide.

    Sorry that my argument is not as well constructed or researched as those of previous posters, as I stated previously I simply wanted to join in on an incredibly interesting discussion, and I hope my comments are taken as such.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Hi Tom, thanks for chipping in.

      On behaviour

      “I know many children who the second they do not engage with what you are saying will be jumping across tables, calling out and in general disrupting the learning of other children.”

      Having taught in similar schools, I too am familiar with this behaviour. However, I have also had the good fortune to witness schools in exactly the same circumstances where this is certainly *not* the case. Old Andrew spoke well on this long ago when he talked about the distinction between ‘motivation to misbehave’ and ‘opportunity to misbehave.’ I can’t find the exact post alas… though it’s hinted at here:


      The idea is simply that bad lessons and relationships, and many other things aside, *might* contribute to a person feeling motivated to misbehave, to not make the right choices, to not engage or participate. However, this is fundamentally distinct from that child who now wishes to misbehave actually having the opportunity to do so. In other words, despite being bored and looking for some other outlet, if the systems (and ideally culture) are sufficiently strong, they won’t take it, because they will know already what the consequences of their actions will be, without equivocation. The ‘joy’ of misbehaving is stripped from them before they’ve even taken action.
      I’ve seen this work to excellent effect. KIPP charter schools and the Uncommon schools network in the US are obvious examples of where this is being effected en masse. This isn’t to say that simply quelling opportunity is sufficient; of course the ideal is to eliminate motivation/desire to misbehave! However, this is a minimum standard that every teacher and school pupil should expect, and it’s down to the school leadership, not any lone teacher, to make it happen. It can be done.

      On ‘the child’

      “I ask what happened about caring for pupils, taking an interest in them to improve our practice, and mould ourselves to the needs of our pupils, who after all are the end users of a service that we are employed to provide.”

      A few people have questioned this, so to be clear, I did state:

      “The rest of the job isn’t going anywhere, and we can still work on that over time.”

      By that I meant of course that yes, all these other things exist, but there aren’t many efficiencies to be gained in focussing on them at the national level. People are people, they will build relationships with those they teach, and their schools will (or should) individually support and facilitate this. But all those good relationships are for naught if the teacher can’t actually communicate an idea effectively! More than that, a positive relationship is built on trust, in this case, both trust that the teacher has the child’s interest at heart, and that they’re capable of helping the child to succeed! That therefore necessitates, again, being able to communicate effectively. This effective communication is our foundation, our 20% input for 80% output. It’s not the be all and end all, and it may not be a simple 80/20 split, but I argue it’s where we *start* out conversation. By contrast, many other commentators ignore it completely, and teacher training currently ignores it completely – bizarre, when it’s of such fundamental importance…

      “If someone has an illness there is a particular medicine, if something needs to be built there is usually a particular way. The difference is with teaching is that there are so many ways to communicate a n idea, that surely we need as many ‘tools in our bag’ to allow us to communicate to as many pupils as possible.”

      The irony is that I’m not so sure this is true… for example, medicine isn’t actually quite that straight forward. This is why there are varieties of treatments for any given affliction, the results of which often need to be monitored and adjusted over time – not so dissimilar to education.

      I stand by the claim that a ‘good’ explanation, by its very definition, will be effective the vast majority of the time. It may well remain that such an explanation need be tweaked, or reiterated, for a variety of reasons. However, we are not so bizarrely unique as individuals that we need completely unique and hyper-differentiated explanations to help us understand or learn/remember something! Certainly some adjustment; different pupils obviously kick off each day with subtly, or even sometimes greatly differing prior knowledge, but few people’s brains are so different, it seems to me, that every person requires their own personalised explanation to be concocted.

      • tombourner1 says:

        Hey Kris

        thanks for taking the time to reply. I do agree that whole school culture has a massive impact on determining general behaviour and I think that this is something that I have seen first hand on both sides of the coin. I think it is unfortunate that many ‘managers’ in the school system do not seem to realise this and are quick to blame individuals instead of looking at what is going on in the school as a whole.

        I obviously miscomprehended exactly what you were saying in relation to ‘the child’ and again I have to agree that if you have many good explanations then you are at least armed with the some initial tools, and will obviously continue learn and improve as you go, but I still feel that teaching is so much broader than this that I would want to be armed with more than just a good explanation. There seems to be a large emphasis in the UK right now on getting people with maths degrees to train to become maths teachers as it is perceived that they would be better teachers than people without the same degree. I am sure they could give good explanations, however does mean they will be an effective teacher? I am not sure.

        Thank you again for the reply, like I said most things you have said I totally agree with, and until I finish my teaching degree I can only comment on my classroom experience. I have found this article and the conversations that have been generated by it to be very enlightening and I am certainly going to continue to follow this conversation, and your future articles. Keep up the good work 🙂


  13. Marcus says:

    As an aside to the ‘Direct Instruction’ route and Bjork, how can you reconcile those differences? With the idea that performance is not the same as learning and the introduction of desirable difficulties – whereas Direct Instruction is about ‘Flawless’ communication. Surely DI only serves to increase performance and provide ‘rapid and sustained progress’ which is bad for learning. Surely DI is actually made for performance?

    I’m a teacher in a difficult place intellectually. I have _no_ idea what to do, I have _no_ idea what is best. My position is ‘require more data’.

    I was going to start speaking about the flaws in the all of Hattie’s research but as you say, an argument in the basis of research is pointless to us in the classroom.

    • Kris Boulton says:

      Something that I’m working on. My intuition is to suspect that the results of Bjork’s work are currently being misinterpreted. I think there’s a model that makes sense, and reconciles Bjork and Cog Load theory if it’s along the lines of beginning with faultless communication and minimising cognitive load, and then later looks at introducing variability and ‘desirable difficulties.’

      This might run parallel with the concept of moving from ‘novice to expert.’ We have to bear in mind that most of Bjork’s work revolves around simply recalling lists of words, rather than more complex ideas as we attempt to convey in schools. Introducing variability at the initial stage might make sense when the knowledge to be recalled is so incredibly simplistic, and often disconnected, but it doesn’t make sense to immediately provide someone with a task that is ‘too difficult’ for them in school. It certainly *does* make sense to ramp up difficult of task in this way, though, once the simple, initial ideas have been sufficiently well internalised.

      I’m thinking it’s something I’d like to / might have to blog about in the distant future.

      • gulzar ali khokhar says:

        Teaching is commitment of in lives. All places, roots, trees, buildings, mountains or seas are the models of teaching. But some some points are start in classrooms from the teachers for the children and adults. Teaching means learning something. “Gulzar”

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  17. Dharmistha says:

    Teaching is long life learning process between teacher and students.

  18. Pingback: Building a Better Teacher – a review | must do better...

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  21. Fredrick says:

    Thanks for that information Kris. Am grateful because i have learn something new but what is the difference between teaching and learning?

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