Things I was led to believe in my early years of teaching that I have come to question

As each year passes, I feel happier and more confident as a teacher. In part, I believe that this is because I have the confidence to teach in a way that I consider to be effective. I have come to question many of things I was led to believe during my first few years in teaching. Below is a list of things that I was led to believe which I now consider to be dubious, along with some brief thoughts:

  1. Pupils learn best through discussion in small groups. I am not against discussion; I think it is very useful for helping pupils to work through their understanding and reinforce what they have learned. My gripe is with the assumption that this then means that pupils should primarily work in groups of 4-6. I would contend that the most fruitful discussions in lessons are whole-class discussions that are directed by the teacher, or brief discussions in pairs. I would also contend that groups of 4-6 are impractical and often ineffective; they take a lot of planning and maintenance, and they afford pupils opportunities to loaf or, dare I say, mess about. Of course, I would be fine with this if I was convinced they do in fact produce the best learning, but I am not. For instance, they are far from the best method for transmitting knowledge. At this point, I am sure there are people who will accuse me of attacking a strawman, as group work is just one method that should be used as a part of a ‘balanced diet’. The problem is I have been told on numerous occasions that small group discussion should be the primary method of teaching.
  2. The best way to arrange tables is in groups. This is closely linked to number 1. I can see the logic in this, as, in theory, it allows for a quick transition between independent work and group work. However, this assumes that small group work is desirable in every lesson, which I don’t believe to be the case. Even if it were, I would argue that it is still quick and easy to transition to small groups when tables are arranged in rows. But my biggest issue with tables being arranged in groups is that it means that pupils are likely to be facing each other instead of the teacher. This is not conducive to effective whole-class explicit instruction, and it provides pupils with an unnecessary temptation to be distracted.
  3. Teacher talk should be limited to short bursts. In my opinion, this idea is based on two big fallacies. The first being that a teacher should be the ‘guide on the side’ rather than the ‘sage on the stage’, and the second being that the solution to ineffective teacher talk is to limit teacher talk. As others have pointed out, the solution to ineffective teacher talk is to improve the quality of teacher talk, not marginalise it.
  4. It is better for pupils to be guided to discover something for themselves than to be explicitly taught it. I have lost count of the number of times I have been subjected to this quotation attributed to Piaget: Children should be able to do their own experimenting and their own research. Teachers, of course, can guide them by providing appropriate materials, but the essential thing is that in order for a child to understand something, he must construct it himself, he must re-invent it. Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself. On the other hand that which we allow him to discover by himself will remain with him visibly. Perhaps I have taken this out of context – if so, it has always been shared with me out of context, including in teaching guides. In my experience, this is an incredibly inefficient way of learning.
  5. Learning objectives should be skills-based, not knowledge-based. I wasted so much time in my training year concocting learning objectives that did not use the words ‘know’ or ‘understand’. The quality of my lessons only suffered for it.
  6. The main reason pupils misbehave is because of poor lesson planning. I remember fully buying into this idea. Whilst I think it is fair to say that the behaviour of teachers can exacerbate poor behaviour, the best planned lesson is absolutely no guarantee of good behaviour.
  7. Every lesson should begin with an engaging starter that captures the pupils’ interest. This follows from number 6. If you believe that poor behaviour is the result of poor lesson planning, it makes sense that every lesson should begin with an exciting starter that immediately hooks the pupils. I wasted an inordinate amount of time and money trying to start every lesson with a new and innovative starter. Now, my lessons almost always begin in the same way (I intend to blog about this at a later date), and, in my opinion, they are much better for it.
  8. Rote learning is only useful for being able to regurgitate/parrot/mindlessly recite information. This is a huge bugbear of mine, and it does not hold up to scrutiny – think of all the geniuses and virtuosos throughout history who were educated primarily through rote learning. If you really believe this to be the case, can I please ask you to read Seven Myths about Education by Daisy Christodoulou. My lessons have improved infinitely since I have embraced rote learning.
  9. Given a choice, classic texts should be avoided as they are dated/boring/elitist. One of the reasons that texts are considered classic is because they are timeless; they say something about the human condition that speaks to all generations. Of course, they are not always easy to read, but this is all the more reason to teach these texts in school; with help from a teacher, they can become accessible. As for being elitist, denying pupils access to the classics is a sure-fire way of further entrenching inequality; these texts do not belong to the upper classes – no one should be denied access to them.

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