Expanding our teaching repertoire: why is it so important and so bloody difficult?


Why expand our teaching repertoire? Peter Taylor and I respond below: 

Some practices will always count as good teaching. Hopefully, many of Australia’s adult population remember with affection and respect the capacity of a number of their past teachers to engage and inspire them in their schooling years well before the advent of the internet. And many of those same techniques – clear instruction, well-structured processes, timely feedback and so on – continue to be markers of highly effective teaching. Those teachers who could make the most of an ‘empty armpit’ opportunity unencumbered by books, boards, biros and other bric-a-brac, who knew how to milk a ‘teachable moment’ to engage even the most reluctant child – their practices have always been valuable in our classrooms, and will continue to be so.

It is also true that, in a digital age, some practices that were once at the core of classroom pedagogy are now much less relevant to the way that our students learn. For example, the ability to keep children anchored to their seats doing singular, silent deskwork – a managerial capacity much admired by many principals and parents in the past – is now less valuable as a teaching technique, just as memorisation is less valuable as a learning technique. While there is still a place for quiet, solitary reflection in learning, digital tools now give teachers many more opportunities to provoke peer-to-peer student conversations in order to optimise their learning.

While effective twentieth century teachers were inevitably concerned with building their students’ capacity for assessing the veracity of information sources, they could not have imagined the impact of the internet on information gathering and sharing, or on knowledge production. In the decades before the internet, Encyclopedia Britannica contained much of what was held to be necessary and true for student learning, and every aspirational household had a leather-bound set on a shelf somewhere – possibly even in the living room. Now it is becoming increasingly common for teachers to send their students off to Youtube to familiarise themselves with a set of concepts or processes, then build on that initial understanding together in the classroom. The classroom becomes a place where a community of learners pool and probe ideas that are drawn from many sources beyond the textbook or the teacher.

Introducing Meddler-in-the-Middle

It is for this reason that we think the old binary language of teacher as either Sage on the Stage or Guide on the Side will no longer suffice. It is apparent that, in digital times where the sources of information are multiple and shifting, we need a new category of effective teaching – Meddler in the Middle.

While the techniques of the Sage and the Guide still have their place in a twenty-first century teacher’s repertoire, Meddlers have the capacity to support and direct student learning within (and despite) the seductive affordances of the information-rich, distracting and unreliable digital world. They are co-learners, putting their ignorance and their curiosity to work; they don’t just rely on their existing knowledge. As such, they invite students to do likewise, to ask great questions, not just to give correct answers. Meddling teachers are adept at designing tasks that build their students capacity to edit their world in value-adding ways. Some shifts that are markers of the Meddler are outlined below:


From To
 •     Linear is cumulative ‘telling’•     Teacher as the authority•     Busyness – lecturettes/ppts, filling in fact sheets, low-level, show and tell projects

•     Staying within one discipline

•     ‘Correct answer’ assessment

•    Meta-question open up ‘essence’ of the field, sub-questions open up meta-question for wide and deep scrutiny•     Expertise is shared•     Learning intentions are the focus, not just activity intentions•     Opportunities for ‘border-crossing’

•     ‘Holistic assessment/student-designed evaluations/better questions rewarded



Meddling teachers recognise the power of social media to expand the spaces for learning and their students’ preferences for flexibility and interactivity, and so, in their pedagogical planning, they look to harness digital technologies to enhance their students’ learning experiences. This means moving beyond both using a tablet PC as a ‘thousand dollar pencil’, and doing ‘type and pray’ investigations on Google, and instead ensuring that the interactive capacity of in-class activities are directed towards ‘classroom-as-community’ learning. Put simply, effective pedagogy uses new technologies to mobilise and develop ‘the classroom brain’.

When they mobilise ‘the classroom brain’, teachers build their students’ capacity to evaluate the quality of information they engage with, and so can raise the bar on the quality of knowledge production in their classrooms. ‘Classroom brain’ strategies make student thinking visible and accessible to all members of the class. They are non-punitive (low threat), with no-one singled out for correct answers, yet neither is it easy for anyone to opt out of the high challenge thinking and responding. Digital tools are used for building editorial/evaluative/’high touch’ capacity[1], and peer-to-peer processes are more frequently used for evaluating quality. So there is visible evidence of the co-ownership of the learning, with the teacher acting as co-learner or ‘chair’ rather than ‘knower’ and arbiter. In doing so, they work to ensure that learning becomes as personally significant to each of their students as it is to them.

We have written elsewhere[2] about personally significant learning, and how it might be achieved, notwithstanding the ‘organisational facts of life’ that can constrain when and how teachers do what they do in school classrooms. It requires a pedagogical mindset that raises bar on challenge while eliminating the threat of individual humiliation or embarrassment, looking to maintain high expectation of all students at the same time as providing high levels of differentiated support. So the starting point is imaginative pedagogical design, not just ‘going digital’.

Doing something different

Not long ago, Erica observed a mathematics teacher conduct a lesson on probability with a class of fifteen year-old girls. He was the Head of Maths, with a lot of experience in preparing and delivering lessons like this, and he had invited her, as a visiting academic, to observe him at work. He began simply and clearly, asking the girls to consider the probability that a coin he tossed into the air would come down ‘heads’. The class of 20 or so girls responded – all hands up – not so hard. After twenty minutes or so, the problems he posed became harder and it soon became evident that most of the girls now had their arms folded, with only a couple still putting hands up, if somewhat tentatively. By the end of the lesson, only one girl was still giving a ‘hands-up’ response: the rest were leaving it all up to her.

Because this maths teacher had asked for feedback, Erica spoke to him after the lesson about the limitations of ‘hands-up’ pedagogy when it comes to high challenge problem-solving. She suggested that he might try a different technique for harder questions, such as giving the girls four prepared options and asking them to choose one by moving to stand in the respective corner of the room. There they could discuss their reasoning for their shared preference as a group and come to some consensus – a non-threatening strategy that would make it more likely that more girls would be intellectually engaged for longer. He agreed that most of the girls had become more passive as the lesson progressed and as the thinking became harder, and conceded that, yes, the second half of the lesson would have benefited from a shift in the pedagogy along the lines Erica suggested. He had a repeat lesson scheduled with another class and agreed he could try the new ‘4 corners’ technique to increase the overall engagement in high challenge maths thinking.

A few days later, Erica asked whether he had given the ‘4 corner’ strategy a go. Well, no, he hadn’t. Why did he not do so then, or in the weeks that followed, especially when he had agreed that it would make more sense as a ‘low threat, high challenge’ strategy for promoting student engagement? He was and is a capable, senior teacher with a good rapport with his students. How do we explain this?

Why so hard to do?

It is a question we have asked a number of teachers and school leaders in professional development forums since then. Interestingly, when we have put the question: ‘Do you think he actually opted to expand his repertoire in this way?’, most teachers presumed he had not done so, despite the fact that it made eminent pedagogical sense to do so. In their further reflections, a number of ‘reasons’ were put forward to explain this: he had his routines and was comfortable to stay in them; the girls might have resisted having to get up and move if they only ever sat at their desks when in his class; it might have taken quite a long time to get the new technique right (up to eighteen months was suggested in one case!); it is a badge of honour for some teachers (maths teachers were specified as one likely group!) that they teach to and for an elite and so this is what rigour looks like in their classrooms; that he was getting pretty good results with his normal routines so if it ain’t broke…; that he was afraid of losing control; and so on.

And here is one of the ongoing conundrums for us as teachers when it comes to expanding our repertoire. While we can see with rational clarity the value of a new approach or strategy, when it comes to doing something different, our response is more likely to be emotional rather than rational. Just as we ‘know’ that it makes more sense to use cruise control, if we have it, when driving on the open highway with little surrounding traffic – it will save us having to check our speed constantly and will give us one thing less to pay attention to – many of us just never get around to using it. ‘I feel that I have lost control’, is a common response, ‘if I surrender my use of the accelerator pedal’. Simply put, ‘I don’t like it’ is a more powerful motivation than ‘I can see how it can help me drive better so I’ll learn to do it’. Easier to stay with practices that do not ask us to think!

It’s only rational!

There is an emerging explanation for this. The work of neuroscience, popularised by authors Jonah Lehrer[3], David Eagleman[4] , and Daniel Kahneman[5] can help us understand why it is so hard for us as teachers to expand our repertoires, even when we ‘get’ the value of doing so. One aspect of their message is that the functioning of our brains reflects their evolution within environments that were constant. Initial learning took time, but once a skill or strategy was learnt, it would last a lifetime – later learning would be limited to tinkering with well established routines. David Cohen provides a useful illustration of why improving something as relatively simple as driving can be hard work. He observes:

Accomplished drivers … have to work quite hard to re-discover and make explicit all the sub-routines in their smooth clutch-and-accelerator work. I say re-discover because learning to drive is in part a matter of consciously learning and then automating many such operations, thus dispatching them from conscious attention and leaving the mind free to attend to oncoming cars or passing a truck.[6

According to Kahneman this initial learning, and later tinkering, involves two systems of mental functioning. The first system, System 1, works subconsciously, allowing us to draw on ‘the wisdom of experience’ without conscious effort on our part. The bulk of our brain functioning is devoted to System 1. It generates all the necessary ‘instructions’ for habitual behaviour – walking, talking, and the like, including the habitual behaviour teachers use in classrooms. It generates very fast, intuitive and emotional responses to challenges. The other system, System 2, is used when intuition fails. It is a slower, more deliberate and effortful form of thinking, which directs our attention and allows rational thought.

These two systems interact. Here, according to Kahneman, is how they do so:

Systems 1 and 2 are both active whenever we are awake. System 1 runs automatically and System 2 is normally in a comfortable low-effort mode, in which only a fraction of its capacity is engaged. System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification. You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires, and that is fine – usually.[7]

System 1 expresses ‘programs’ of neural connections built over time through repetitive experience, ‘programs’ which underlie our habits and routines. These ‘programs’ give rise to our professional competence as teachers. Most importantly, they ‘work’ without awareness or deliberation. While it is disconcerting to acknowledge it, System 1 has the greatest capacity for information processing. It allows us to draw on the breadth our experience, so that we can make very fast decisions with minimal new information, time or thought. These are the bread-and-butter decisions on which all ‘normal behaviour’, including teachers’ professional competence, depends.

But we need the conscious and rational System 2 when we encounter problems or situations that we have never encountered before, or when we want to engage with familiar situations in unfamiliar ways. This includes any attempt to expand our repertoire of classroom practices by adding an as yet untried strategy.

Unfortunately, that updating is not easily achieved. It is easiest where the ‘program’ is relatively simple—recognising a new ring tone on a mobile phone, for example. However, where the ‘program’ involves complex interactions of different parts of the brain, such as the circuits underlying a teacher’s classroom routines, updating is far more demanding. Neuroscience suggests that, in particular, it requires a quite systematic and sustained effort to focus on mistakes or failures of expectations and/or intentions. Clearly such an experience of failure requires the ‘learner’ to have a rudimentary sense of an alternative to their current routine. In other words, progress towards an intended change in routine requires a personal sense of what that new routine ‘looks like’ in practice.

System 2 complements the operation of System 1 in other ways. We use it to set goals, or intentions to change, and it gives us a capacity to monitor progress towards their achievement. This notion is referred to as self-regulation and/or meta-cognition, ideas that are often used in attempts to optimise student’s control over their learning.

Unfortunately, System 1’s capacity to recognise patterns is easily fooled into ‘seeing’ patterns in what are random events, or when experience has built biased expectations. As Lehrer observes, “voters tend to assimilate only the facts that confirm what they already believe”[8]. That is, our beliefs filter the information to which we give attention, giving rise to a ‘certainty bias’ – we prefer coherence and certainty in our thinking. To combat this certainty bias “[w]e must force ourselves to think about information we don’t want to think about, to pay attention to the data that disturbs our entrenched beliefs”.[9] But ‘entrenched beliefs’ operate subconsciously – we don’t know our biases and System 1 tends to ignore disconfirming data. The message here is that, to make progress, we must use System 2 in order to pay attention to the data that disturbs our entrenched beliefs and expectations. And there are strategies that can assist us in this challenge. In our recent work in supporting teacher learning we have found video recording practices, and then reflecting on what we see, is one very effective strategy – part of Smart Building[10].

Knowing the limitations of this System 1, neuroscience offer suggestions to minimise its bent to bias and pattern creation. First, we can deliberately explore alternative explanations as a means to challenge beliefs. Second, we can continually remind ourselves of what we don’t know or can’t really explain. Both suggestions invite us to engage consciously with uncertainty, rather than rely on our existing System 1 ‘programs’ that underlie certainty. A third involves the adoption of an ‘outsider’ or a broader framing of the issue/problem, while a fourth involves simply slowing down the speed at which we generate a response – for example, to take time to respond to a challenge, rather than simply react to it. Importantly, each of these strategies requires an explicit engagement in reflection – individually and/or through professional conversation as another aspect of Smart Building. It is not just done ‘on the hop’.

Collectively, these strategies for learning are based on the deliberate activation of the brain’s System 2, through the exercise of disciplined intentionality, that is, the deliberate and sustained focus of System 2’s attention on information related to specific and limited behaviours and their effects. This implies that, when we are attempting to expand our repertoire of classroom practices, we need to use System 2. However, competence is only achieved when the new practices are represented in new System 1 ‘programs’, ‘programs that can be enacted without further deliberate involvement of System 2. This is why we continue to argue that experience is the essential basis for the development of competence.

What implications for teacher PD?

While traditional professional development in the form of conferences, keynote addresses, seminars and workshops are important as sites for networking and updating, their capacity to ‘deliver’ expanded teaching repertoires is more limited than we might have anticipated. The above explanation of competence development explains why expanded competence can’t simply be ‘delivered’ to a passive audience. Put another way, listening to someone describe ‘enhanced’ practice or even watching an expert demonstrate an unfamiliar strategy cannot of themselves do the complex cognitive work of actually incorporating new practices alongside well-rehearsed ones.

That said, all effective teachers are constantly on the lookout for better ways of engaging their students, whether through conferences or other forums that promote active networking. They regularly scan the horizon of their profession and they do manage to incorporate unfamiliar but more effective strategies once they commit to doing the necessary work, to experiencing the necessary temporary discomfort, to tolerating the possibility of a brief period of regression in order to do so.

So it is not that formal, off-campus professional development has no value. It can challenge, it can inspire, it can provide ‘instances’ of alternative practice. But it is the teacher in the end, who can accept or reject in whole or part, that what they have heard and seen can and should be a part of their repertoire. Unfortunately it is too often a cargo cult of ‘show and tell’ that cannot, of itself, ‘transform’ a teacher’s daily professional practice. Neuro-science tells us why transformation requires much more effort and support, and the types of effort and support that are likely to be most effective.

The ‘washout’ effect is an all too familiar one for teachers returning from an energising conference to the familiar territory of ‘my classroom’ with ‘my kids’ doing it ‘my way’. However, where there is genuine learning leadership in the school context, where the school leadership understands, encourages and models the demanding work of progressing pedagogical thinking and doing in a school – and where they invest time and support in sustained on-site teacher capacity building – repertoires can and do expand. We are heartened in our engagement with a wide variety of schools in Australia and overseas to see evidence of just this sort of leadership in a number of schools. What an impact it would have on the learning of our next generation of teachers and students if such leadership was visible everywhere, and if such relevant, systematic processes were part and parcel of the daily life of every teacher!




[1] See Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind (2005), New York: Penguin, for an elaboration of the importance of ‘high concept’ and ‘high touch’ capacities to 21st century living, learning and earning .

[2] See http://www.ericamcwilliam.com.au/personally-significant-learning/ and also http://www.ericamcwilliam.com.au/schooling-for-personally-significant-learning-is-it-possible/ for our papers on this issue.

[3] Lehrer, J. (2009). The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind. Canongate: Edinburgh.

[4] Eagleman, D. (2011). Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Melbourne: Text Publishing.

[5] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Allen Lane.

[6] Cohen, D.K. (2008). Knowledge and teaching. Oxford Review of Education 34, pp. 360-361. (full article, pages 357- 378.)

[7] p. 24

[8] Lehrer 2008, p. 198.

[9] Ibid, p.208

[10] http://www.ericamcwilliam.com.au/schooling-for-personally-significant-learning-is-it-possible/

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