The teaching cycle

The world’s favourite non-teaching education expert defines creativity as ‘original ideas that have value’.  Not much to argue with here, except much that comes under the heading of creativity in education fails on at least one of these counts.  In the real world, having an original idea is easy (hearing aids for dogs, anyone?) but imparting value is trickier.

In education, it seems hard to find any genuinely original ideas, let alone ones with value.  The same ideas are recycled (preparing pupils for jobs that don’t exist; teaching grit, character and resilience; remote learning and the impact of technology; using research in neuroscience to develop teaching) but often as nebulous concepts that are hard to argue against and equally tough to pin down.  How might these ideas be enacted?  How is their success measured?  When these questions are asked, the creative ideas tend to be as easy to punch through as tissue paper.

We are of course preparing pupils for the future, and I agree with Greg Ashman when he states that to prepare for an uncertain future, we are best served to teach knowledge that has been useful in the past – that which has endured.

My approach to teaching has always been fairly traditional.  At various points in my career I have played around with technology, social media and a whole host of ‘engagement’ tactics.  I have tried double preparation, peer teaching, pupil voice and no hands up.  I have explored innovative marking techniques, learning triangles, WALTs and student logs.  I have two starred and wished and been both red and green carded.  Exit tickets have been collected, pupils have been greeted at the door before entering an innovative learning space.  The effect of lighting on learning space has been investigated and pupils have been paired by inverse ability to promote peer assistance.  I have tried a 5 minute lesson plan, complete with starters and plenaries.  I have instigated exercise as a means to stimulate concentration.  I have modeled my thinking to try to get pupils to think in the same way and I have explored meta-cognition as  way to get pupils to control their thinking.

Despite all this, my most successful teaching has always been by Direct Instruction, and I define success as having pupils learn the subject, understand the subject, being able to communicate the subject and to genuinely enjoy the subject.

I have stood at the front of the class, with pupils sat in rows, and I have taught them things – content, facts, knowledge.  I have backed my charisma to deliver content in an interesting manner and I have tested understanding through questioning, written work and standardised testing.  I have tested factual recall and problem solving.  I have tested single topics and concepts and the links between them.  As Joseph O’Neill says in The Dog, the ‘human race refreshes itself in complete ignorance’ and it is therefore the duty of each generation to supply the next with a body of knowledge, a tradition, to prepare them for the world, even if some of those jobs haven’t been invented yet.

 We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring 

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time

Eliot’s words sum up my teaching career fairly well.  I have done a fair amount of educational exploring, but I have now returned to the beginning.  This teaching cycle is similar to the journey taken by many chefs.  They are trained in the classics, go through a phase of creativity involving unusual food pairings and food philosophy; foams, gels and atomisers; liquid nitrogen and dry ice, but then return later in a career to the classics, the tried and tested, those recipes and food pairings that have stood the test of time.

I wonder if this is a good metaphor for teaching, and if so, whether we are able to skip the middle *creative* stage entirely?  Snail porridge isn’t actually very nice, after all.

3 thoughts on “The teaching cycle

  1. A persuavively poetic polemic, Ben. To deny that I have enjoyed & helped my students thrive from using Direct Instruction would be a lie. But I personally don’t want to stop my ‘cycle’ at the classics or the beginning, wherever that was, but start again with a new angle. To borrow from the narrative structure of my favourite novel, I would choose the spiral as my metaphor. Sure, it would have some negative connotations (the drafting spiral? the reporting spiral? the PD spiral?), but like Slavoj Zizek’s parallax effect, returning with a new angle helps me see things differently. Hopefully, like a satellite’s orbital trajectory, the gravity of the past will help slingshot me into new ways of teaching.

    • Why is a spiral opposed to Direct Instruction? I am a fan of Explicit Instruction and yet too use a “spiral” as a metaphor for my teaching style — coming back to something again and again, a bit higher each time.

      And, at the risk of being rude, why abandon DI if it works for your students? That you don’t want to stop there is irrelevant. It’s not about what you want. It’s about what is best for the students.

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