What counts as good teaching?

We hear a great deal about the importance of good teaching these days.  Yet we still seem to struggle when it comes to putting flesh on the bones of what good teaching looks and feels like for digital times. It seems that the more we celebrate ‘quality’ teaching, or ‘excellent’ teaching (we don’t call teachers ‘great’ any more!), the more elusive our quest becomes for high quality, sustainable, digitally-enhanced teacher practice. Indeed, while many schools are introducing more digital technology with the expectation that this will enrich schooling outcomes, some schools are now reversing the trend by banning digital tools for part or all of the school week.

Why is there still such a confused landscape of advocacy and ambivalence when it comes to the value of digital tools in the classroom?  

The answer seems to lie, at least in part, in the perceived failure of technology to deliver the enhanced learning benefits promised at the turn of this century. According to the current OECD’s Director for Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, technology is not adding value to student learning outcomes, in the main, because “we have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogies”[1] that optimise the value of digital tools for student learning. He elaborates:

If students end up cutting and pasting from Google to prefabricated questions, you know that’s not giving any better learning than what we’ve got traditionally. What we actually see is it’s the emphasis on conceptual understanding [that matters]…learning is a very social process and if we lose that and technology gets in the way of that, we may get outcomes that are worse than in a traditional learning environment…. So, it’s really about transforming the learning environments…[2]

Simple – all we need is to transform traditional classrooms into relevant learning environments. So why isn’t it happening?

Well, we could decide to blame the design of classrooms themselves. After all, as John Medina, author of Brain Rules,[3] has pointed out, if you wanted to design a space that worked against what the brain is good at doing, that design would be the traditional classroom.

Or we could decide to blame the teaching profession itself. Certainly, the OECD Director cited above wasted no time in throwing an organically grown tomato or two at the Australian teaching profession on his recent visit to our shores. “There really is a complete lack of intellectual attractiveness to the teaching profession once you have that very industrial work organisation behind you” he declared.[4] This ‘semi-professionalism’ shows itself in teachers’ desire for more professional autonomy and their desire to spend less time in formal sessions of professional learning. Both the ‘boxed in’ organisation of the profession and the quality of teachers’ professional development are implicated here.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast!

However, while ‘egg-crate’ classroom design and the unattractive organisation of Australia’s teaching are clearly factors de-limiting pedagogical possibilities, we would argue that there is a more powerful, and more immediate, brake on good teaching in digital times – the culture of the classroom itself.

Classroom culture – that tacit set of historical, social, environmental and cognitive conditions that is experienced as ‘normal’ by those who are ‘in it’ – is the most powerful force for shaping expectations of what goes on inside  classroom walls. It follows that, while a forward-looking strategic plan is de rigueur in aspirational Australia’s schools, a traditional classroom culture can quickly shut down most of what strategy might seek to open up. In other words, the adage “culture eats strategy for breakfast” [5] is as relevant to schools as it is to any other workplace.

In our experience, strategic planning at the leadership level rarely transforms, or even targets, ‘business as usual’ classroom pedagogy. At best, it works at the edges by re-framing behavioural expectations. When it comes to the day-to-day, lesson-to-lesson, minute-by-minute action, a strategic plan is unlikely to extend the reach of school leaders into the interactive dynamics that are at the core of classroom pedagogy. Once classroom expectations are routinised in order to express a particular culture of learning, they are highly resistant to change. Students expect to sit down most of the time. They expect teachers to tell them what to do. Teachers still expect to stand up out front and talk for much of the time. ‘Hands up’, which is too often code for ‘who has been listening’, is the most common interactive signal. What the teacher says is more important that what students say. Teachers are expected to ‘cover the content’. And so on.

No-where is culture’s brake on progressive pedagogy more starkly in evidence than in the final year of schooling. High stakes exams are in, so innovative pedagogy is out. While ‘experimentation’ might be acceptable in the middle years of schooling (Naplan notwithstanding), departmental heads are quick to cordon off the Senior school from any possibility of innovation when it comes to pedagogical intervention. The logic is that, in doing so, teachers can focus squarely on ‘covering the content’ to be examined at the end of Year 12. In other words, traditional pedagogical methods—teacher talking, passive student listening and note taking, followed by practice testing—are unassailable when high stakes exams loom large.[6]

If and when performance does slip in a particular exit year, despite a semester of death-by-dot-point cramming and practice testing, we can blame the student cohort (‘you could see it coming back in their Year 9 Naplan results’); or blame the parents (‘we would like to have been more innovative but the parents won’t wear it’). So it can seem like a particularly brave move, ironically, to design for student learning by seeking to provide the conditions under which students actually learn best.

What is good for student learning?

We now know things about student learning that were less evident to us in the previous century. So we know the following to be myths:

  • That students learn best when a teacher instructs.
  • That student collaboration inevitably slows ‘coverage’ down.
  • That practice tests are the key to better exam performance.

Yet knowing these to be myths is merely rational. When it comes to high stakes exams, emotion trumps rationality, anxiety breeds anxiety, busy-ness overwhelms learning productivity and culture trumps strategy.

Teachers love to talk. It is not that teacher talk serves no purpose, but its importance to student learning can be highly inflated. TED Talks continue to be one of a host of ways that ideas are effectively disseminated world-wide, but it is worth noting that TED speakers are given a maximum of 18 minutes to present their ideas, and they are required to use the most innovative and engaging means at their disposal. Meanwhile, in classrooms, standard lessons can often involve teachers’ talking for at least twice as long, and with much less excitement. Little wonder that twelve years of schooling may be experienced as a boring necessity rather than a rigorous pleasure.

We have argued elsewhere that if young people leave school with the firm conviction tht learning is all about passing exams, which are in turn only about university entrance, or pleasing our parents or our teachers, then we have failed them.[7] The more desirable alternative is that young people leave schooling having experienced the pleasure of the rigour of ‘low threat, high challenge’ learning, and continue seek it out after they have finished their formal days of schooling.

In asserting this, we are not unaware of the importance of standardised testing results to schools. Both of us have worked as heads of disciplinary departments in secondary schools, and we know well the accountabilities that accompany such roles. We know school reputations – and particularly those with comparatively high fees – depend, in part at least, on teachers actively developing strategies to remediate sub-optimal patterns of test performance. In other words, we understand that, in the schooling market, what’s counted counts! But we also insist that a strong test performance and a highly collaborative learning environment should be twin bedfellows.

This, for us, is the piece of the pedagogical puzzle that is missing when it comes to optimising the value of digital tools in the classroom. Rather than designing for highly collaborative social processes of learning, we have inserted technology into classrooms as add-ons to classroom cultures. Teachers still talking out front; students still sitting and waiting to be told; i-Pads working as ‘thousand dollar pencils’; students ‘typing and praying’ for answers on Google; teachers still designing and evaluating tests.

It needs to be said that any observation of classrooms in Australian schools would demonstrate that much more ‘group work’ is now in evidence than we would have seen last century. However, it should be noted that ‘group work’ is not to be simply equated with collaboration. Collaboration involves students working alongside each other, in pairs or small groups, to achieve some set task.  This occurs when pedagogical design is predicated on peer-with-peer student engagement in rigorous, well-structured learning activities, so that the thinking behind the response of the more cognitively agile students becomes accessible to those who are less so.  Its hallmark is active listening of the sort that allows every individual to access how their peers understand both the nature of the task and what it means to be successful in completing it.

In our observations collaboration is often undertaken without teacher input, and against their expressed expectation that students complete the task ‘on their own’.  The irony is that you can ask the teacher for help, but you are not to ask the student beside you for advice.  When the teacher promotes collaboration at a whole-of-class level, the sharing of the thinking behind responses allows all students access to that understanding, in turn, building a ‘classroom brain’.

Group work, on the other hand, extends collaboration through requiring each group member to take on a particular role in order to cooperatively achieve some set task.  While collaboration occurs naturally, it is unusual to see role-based group work emerge without strategic intervention by the teacher.

Through our extensive work as educational consultants, we conclude that much of the collaborative pedagogy/ ‘group work’ we have seen in classrooms is less than optimal, for reasons given below:

  1. The nature and purpose of the collaboration itself is unclear – often to the teacher, and too often to the students. If the focus is on getting the right answer, then collaborators will just share answers rather than explore options.   
  1. Teachers spend too much time introducing the task. We have seen teachers more than a third of the lesson time clarifying what they want students to do, then reiterating this any number of times (including for students who arrive late to class). Meanwhile, the task also appears in writing on a powerpoint slide. This goes to the more general point that, as teachers, we talk far too much, and our students, in the main, are so forgiving (and poor at listening – see below)!
  1. Teachers rush in to help too soon. The effect if that group work in many classrooms has the teacher providing any number of private tutorials over the period of time allowed for the group work to be done. Meanwhile, some groups may not have engaged with the task, and this is something that the teacher only comes to notice as s/he moves on to her next private tutorial. In some cases, she is working so hard as a tutor that she fails to notice non-engagement at all! While this is certainly a step up from absent-mindedly wandering around the room without purpose, it is less than optimal when it comes to ensuring that all students are engaged from the outset.
  1. Students are given too long to complete low-level collaborative tasks. When students are given, say, 20 minutes to complete a 6-minute task, their focus is bound to drift, especially if they expect the teacher to come to their aid by reminding them again about the task and even do much of it for them. It is understandable that, where group work is conducted in this way, we could anticipate heightened teacher concerns about ‘not covering the content’. Teacher instruction would be much more efficient!
  1. Students are not given enough time to collaborate around high-level tasks. If and when a task is inherently complex, thinking about possibilities will take time, even for the most capable students. They will need to experience the discomfort of ‘not yet’ more than once in order to get to the pleasure of the rigour of problem-posing and problem-solving at an advanced intellectual level. In our experience, many students arrive at university with the idea that learning is easy and success is easily attainable. This does suggest that not enough young people are being asked to ‘stay in the grey’ of high challenge thinking in their years of schooling. Moreover, when, in a spirit of helping, teachers ‘interrupt’ student thinking by presenting the ‘solution’ too soon, students will not expect to struggle for academic success. Instead, they will blame teachers and examiners for  ‘marking too hard’.
  1. Teachers provide activity intentions, but not learning intentions. We have observed and analysed literally thousands of lessons.  Teachers tell kids what to do, but very few indicate what they want the kids to be thinking about as they engage with the task.  As a result kids can tell you what they are ‘working on’, but those same kids almost never can tell you why they are doing this work, in any learning sense.
  1. Students do not listen well to each other. Peer-with-peer learning is not likely to be effective if and when students listen to the teacher and not to each other. As teachers, particularly in the senior years, we do not model listening when we spend so much time talking.  And students, just like teachers, need well-developed listening skills if they are to benefit from collaborative activities. ‘Classroom brain’ activities are designed to allow the thinking of the most cognitively agile students to be accessible to all. This cannot happen where there are no clear expectations around how communication works best in a classroom.
  1. Teachers are the sole arbiters of the quality of the response. In many of the classrooms we have observed, plenary sessions follow ‘group work’, with the teacher evaluating each response. They usually try to say something positive, even if the response is lack-lustre, so the tendency is to praise the unpraiseworthy and fill all the gaps. Students do not have to listen to each other when this occurs – it is much smarter to wait for the teacher’s summary. Even if they do listen, they are likely to remain confused when it comes to assessing the relative worth of the responses, given that ‘excellent’ might be evoked in almost every case, and the actual thinking behind the response (or the teacher’s summary) left unexplored.
  1. Too much lesson time is ‘learning light’. A lack of clear routines around transitions can cut into quality learning time and this is a phenomenon that is magnified in the long term. The instruction to ‘get into groups of 3’ or ‘find a partner’ or ‘find a group space’ means a transition is about to take place. This may or may not happen efficiently. Once students have nestled into their accustomed seats (and this can also be a time-consuming transition at the start of a lesson) there may be resistance to moving anywhere else. This can make for some of the more powerful personalities insisting that the group gathers around them, or continuing to work individually despite the ‘group-work’ imperative.

What can be done to ensure better learning outcomes from ‘group work’, or alternatively, how can group work be designed and enacted more collaboratively?

  1. Explicit planning for learning and teaching

If we know, as we do, that passivity is an impediment to learning, then our planning needs to focus on what students will be actively doing to engage with the subject matter.

  1. Explicit discussion of collaboration as a set of behaviours and expectations linked to how we learn

This means sharing a language of learning and the behavioural expectations that are the ‘new routines’ of peer-to-peer and peer-with-peer collaboration.  Students are clear about the intended learning goals of a lesson or set of lessons, not simply the activity intentions. This means they know what they are to be thinking about as they engage in lesson tasks. And they have a shared language to talk about their own learning, and to provide feedback to the teacher on the value of particular pedagogical strategies for that learning

  1. Building and sustaining a non-punitive, no-opting out classroom culture of learning

There are many ways to make student reasoning a centrepiece of the learning culture. What is most important is the principle that all students are involved in evaluating and improving of the quality of responses. Students design questions, rather than simply giving answers. This involves a shift in the teacher’s role to conversational chair and provocateur in addition to being knower and judge – ‘Do you agree?’ ‘Why? Can you add something to that?’

  1. Modelling of listening by the teacher

Active listening is not something that comes easily, especially to those of us who like to talk so much to a ‘captive audience’. Good teachers model what active listening looks and sounds like, so parity of esteem is evident no matter who is doing the talking at any one time.

  1. Attention to appropriateness of timing of activities

Where there are high expectations of collaborative activities, the time allowed for their completion is neither too long, nor too brief. This can be a matter of trial and error, but regular scanning is helpful here. Good routines around transitions, ie, from group discussion to individual blogging, can also assist in the efficient use of time for collaborating,

  1. Digital tools to support peer-with-peer sharing and ‘smart editing’

Systematic inquiry is not confined to the library or the Internet. It is something that can be productively done by students sharing their ideas with others. Sharing can be productively done by students when standing rather than sitting as they report to others.  Each member of a group of three might find two other individuals to share their progress on a task, in order to give and receive some ideas from others. This way of working and reporting on ideas is an exponential process for building and tapping into the ‘classroom brain’ in order to improve collaborative learning outcomes.

  1. Teachers refrain from providing ‘correct’ answers at the end of any ‘group’ (or individual) activity

It takes little time for students to understand that if the teacher knows best, and will soon tell the correct answer, it is better to wait for the teacher to tell than to actively engage in any collaborative attempt to complete a task. This does not mean that a teacher might accept a collaboratively generated incorrect response – the challenge is to build in the students a greater capacity to evaluate and improve of the response. That is, to challenge the students to improve their response, rather than ‘to give a better response’.

  1. Teachers view their own pedagogy for ‘smart building’ purposes

Good teachers see the value of watching themselves in action. They quickly overcome any mawkishness around being filmed, once they begin to make use of the video record for the purposes of improvement of their work. Peter Taylor’s paper on this ‘smart building’ process is available at http://www.ericamcwilliam.com.au/smart-building-for-a-practice-focussed-profession/

Finally, good teaching is not for the pedagogically stunted or anaemic. Nor is it simply about a warm and nurturing relationship with students, although that is very important too. For the good teacher, there is always something to improve, something new to learn, and some technique worth trying out. And it is for this reason that good teachers engage in pedagogical practice is both successful and improvable.

[1] Editorial (2016) Gadgets no substitute for good teaching, The Sun Herald, Sunday April 3. 2016, page 37.

[2] The Research Files Episode 14: Andreas Schleicher on the impact of technology on learning outcomes, Teacher Magazine, October 2015, https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/article/the-research-files-episode-14-andreas-schleicher

[3] Medina, J. (2009) Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, Pear Press/Perseus Books Group.

[4] See http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/oecd-education-chief-andreas-schleicher-blasts-australias-education-system-20160313-gnhz6t.html#ixzz44iYdn8bT, accessed 3 April, 2016.

[5] This adage from the change management literature is often attributed to Peter Drucker but its actual origins are unclear. See https://www.quora.com/Did-Peter-Drucker-actually-say-culture-eats-strategy-for-breakfast-and-if-so-where-when, accessed 3 April, 2016.

[6] There is a whole paper that could be written on whether a school leaving/university entrance score is as ‘high stakes’ as is popularly understood. New pathways are constantly being created around tertiary course entry – universities can’t afford to hold out potential clients for too long!

[7] See http://www.ericamcwilliam.com.au/personally-significant-learning/


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