Education overcomplication

I have written before about the fashion where chefs, having been in the culinary game a long time, reach such a stage of mastery that they take ingredients *out* of dishes rather than add them. This refusal to overcomplicate ends up prioritising taste, and assuming taste is the most important part of restaurant dining, I’m all for it. That’s not to say that the odd dry ice moment isn’t welcome on a special occasion, but it shouldn’t be the main feature. It is also worth noting that if done too often or for too long, what passes for ‘wow’ moments today look tired in a year’s time.

Cooking, coaching or teaching: the temptation to overcomplicate is real. Education is stuck with a kind of ‘improvement narrative’ where the search for new paradigms is never-ending and real. Even when a new paradigm is found, further investigation reveals that is was a couple of old paradigms, one standing on the shoulders of the other and both wrapped in a large raincoat.

Despite advances in technology, we cannot speed up (or worse, bypass) the teaching of reading, writing or basic mathematics. Human beings develop cognitively at a broadly similar rate as they did a hundred years ago (and more). The fact it is now easier to find information at the click of a button will not ensure children gain expertise quicker in these areas. In fact, without appropriate guidance, they are far more likely to end up with misinformation and misunderstandings, with time wasted and frustration evident.

The most efficient and effective way to educate children is for the teacher to be an expert in what they are teaching and to pass on their knowledge and understanding of that subject. The skill of the teacher is to structure instruction into a logical sequence, to provide clear explanations where necessary, to pre-empt and address likely misunderstandings, to allow for appropriate practice so concepts are mastered and (just as importantly) to make the content come alive. The teacher should be an expert story-teller, sprinkling the occasionally dry subject matter with the holy water of interesting anecdote.

Lorraine Hammond wrote a good article in The Conversation recently, explaining what is meant by explicit instruction and how it helps children to learn. It is clear, logical, backed up by research and makes a strong case for effective teaching via this model. But explicit teaching is not the ‘go-to’ teaching model in Australia. Project-based and enquiry learning are more popular, seemingly because this allows children to follow their own interests and hence become more ‘engaged’. This also deals with the twin problem of poor behaviour (children will behave better if allowed to do what they like) and lack of teacher expertise (children can learn for themselves from the internet and the teacher can simply guide learning).

This is dressed up as a ‘democratic’ classroom, and given that modern-day veneration of children’s interests, it does appeal to parents. But just as we should not let ideology stand in the way of evidence, we should also be careful of overcomplication. A good example of this is the following comment, made in response to Lorraine Hammond’s article, by an associate professor of education at Deakin University. It is a good example of something that sounds sensible on the surface, even fundamental, but does not stand up to scrutiny. The author attempts to differentiate learning from education, and criticises explicit methodology as the passing on of information, or mere indoctrination, thus different from genuine conceptual understanding. This makes no sense – deeper understanding comes from learning more and being able to make more connections between what has been learned. This desire to overcomplicate, to pretend that intimately related areas of education are mutually exclusive, does no-one any favours. Flawed and dogmatic ideology is rife in Australian education. It is hard for people to sieve out the useful advice and ideas, and particularly so for those new to the profession who are more susceptible to seduction via new paradigms. How genuinely useful is the following comment:

And here’s the original article. You can make up your own mind here too.

3 thoughts on “Education overcomplication

  1. You write “Project-based and enquiry learning are more popular, seemingly because this allows children to follow their own interests and hence become more ‘engaged’. This also deals with the twin problem of poor behaviour (children will behave better if allowed to do what they like) and lack of teacher expertise (children can learn for themselves from the internet and the teacher can simply guide learning).”
    This is a total and possibly deliberate misunderstanding of inquiry learning. You set up s “straw man” and then topple it. Teachers canand do use both explicit teaching and inquiry learning.

    • Hello David. It’s good to have balance after so many positive comments. I find your cognitive dissonance odd; despite your disapproval of private education, you seem to support teaching methodology that will perpetuate education inequality. The recent report:

      https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/social-sector/our-insights/how-to-improve-student-educational-outcomes-new-insights-from-data-analytics

      shows that teacher directed instruction is more effective than enquiry, and that enquiry can only be successful as a ‘junior partner’. A preponderance of enquiry is associated with negative outcomes. My piece questioned the dominance of enquiry on the Australian scene and suggested a couple of reasons for it. I don’t think either point is controversial.

      You will also (I’m sure) be familiar with this paper:

      http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf

    • This is a total and possibly deliberate misunderstanding of inquiry learning. You set up s “straw man” and then topple it. Teachers can and do use both explicit teaching and inquiry learning.

      You can, and some do, but they shouldn’t.

      My biggest problem with inquiry teaching is that it is slow — you simply cannot get as much done in the time. Especially when you have to correct any misconceptions that arose because you allowed the students to make up their own procedures and concepts. The result is teachers who use inquiry techniques — until they run out of time and end up using explicit techniques to get the material covered in the time available, because that actually gets the material taught quickly and effectively.

      Explicit teaching can use inquiry. But it does so at the end of a topic, when the students already have the tools with which to reason. That should not be confused with “inquiry learning” which is philosophically quite different.

      You either give students the methods and reasons why explicitly at the start of the learning or you leave them to find them out for themselves. There is no half-way house on this. Some people may alternate between the two from topic to topic, but inside each topic you are either working explicitly or you are not.

      There’s an idea floating around that a mix of methods is intrinsically best, just because it’s a mix and therefor must be best. Well it isn’t true. The best techniques are the best techniques all the time — that’s what being the best techniques means.

      Inquiry learning works when you are teaching experts. Those with considerable prior knowledge and skills. At that point, explicit techniques are not so useful. But you still don’t mix them.

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