Has The Psychology of Learning saved us?

All of us teaching today can recall a fair bit of Psychology in our teacher training. Most of this (‘obviously’) was to do with Developmental Psychology – general phases, patterns and trends in the ways that children in general seem to mature in their ways of processing and conceptualising information. By and large, I think we can agree that this focus has been useless to teachers. We get the (obvious) idea that we need to pitch things at an appropriate level for pupils, but beyond this, we are left with the uncertainty of being able to take what has been shown to be the ‘general trend’, and apply it with confidence to the ‘specific individual’.

As a consequence, the robust clarifications of Cognitive Psychology research have been a massive boost for the science of learning, giving us some genuinely concrete and generalizable insights which we can apply to every child.

Key areas of insight have involved the apparent limitations of what we can actively hold and process in working memory (Cognitive Load Theory), plus the most efficient ways of building-up patterns of long-term recall for otherwise unlikely to be remembered  information in the brain (“Desirable Difficulties”).

Additionally, the insights gained from the same field into the fundamental role which assimilated long-term knowledge plays in shaping our active thought processes give us a hugely valuable insight into what cannot be ignored in the development of skilled thought and behaviour. Just in case this is new to you  we essentially think using our existing knowledge, and intellectual skills are formed out of the interplay of this knowledge with new information (plus some metacognitive programs – once they’ve actually become habitual).

Together, these discoveries point to invariable features of the information processing structure of the brain and provide a badly needed scientific anchor for learning theory.

From a different direction, the Evolutionary Educational Psychology work of David Geary gives us a hugely persuasive framework from which to categorize forms of learning into two kinds, and explain why some things seem effortless to learn (and attractive), and other things effortful (and ‘boring’). (This chapter is behind a paywall – but well worth purchasing http://psycnet.apa.org/books/13273/020)

Essentially, our brains have evolved over millions of years to fit the basic social, naturalistic learning environment of primitive peoples, whereby various skills – such as speaking – and various ways of ‘Folk’ thinking about the world (all both essential and sufficient to survival on this planet as it has normally been) – can be acquired simply through a rudimentary upbringing in a traditional human culture. These forms of ‘Primary’ knowledge shouldn’t actually need to be taught [if we are bringing-up children in a traditional human culture………which perhaps sometimes we’re not].

The cultural artefacts of the past 2500 years however – the literary, philosophical & scientific advances in our understanding – have been incrementally gained, bit by bit, over much time, through a lot of hard work by the best positioned thinkers of their period, and they are difficult for the developing human mind to simply discover by itself, or even naturally apprehend. Consequently these ‘Secondary’ forms of human knowledge require effortful thought by the learner, and the focused transmission by a skilled teacher. Or in other words ‘Schooling’.

Taken together, these two areas – still badly missing from the taught or privately acquired pedagogical understanding of most teachers – might appear to provide a rigorous framework upon which a clear-sighted new teaching orthodoxy could be formed. For example:

A New Orthodoxy:

  1. Skills of social interaction and communication, as well as fundamental forms of everyday scientific understanding can be effortlessly acquired irrespective of the availability of formal schooling.
  2. ‘Higher-Order’ forms of skilled thinking fundamentally emerge from – and feed off – the accumulation of knowledge structures integrated by the individual thinker.
  3. Consequently, the focus of formal schooling needs to be on acquiring the cognitively challenging recent skill developments in human communication (reading and writing) and the various areas of knowledge, understanding and practice which have built-up around our culture.
  4. The best ways to fill-up our brains with these things is through efficient forms of explicit instruction, carefully shaped to focus the minute-to-minute cognitive resources of the learner, and which ensures long-term retention through a mixture of cunning exposure and retrieval techniques.


Except……. I don’t think it can be the end.

Despite the clarity of this hugely powerful fleshing-out of the Information Processing Metaphor, the  cognitive architecture of the human mind is still only one facet of everything which guides the behaviour of these wondrous beings we appear to be. And the cleverer we get, it would seem that we are no less equipped to escape from this. Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” shows many examples to this effect, and – even having read it – listened to it twice – understood it – appreciated and loved it – I still think that in the vast majority of situations, I personally think the same way about most everyday situations involving subtle statistical judgements that I would normally do.

Indeed, it could well be that the apparent rationality of our cognitive minds is simply a device evolved to enable greater social cohesion, and I will dedicate another post to looking at further implications for education of these thoughts.

The point is – whether we like it or not – despite the capacities of our machine-like cognitive architecture – we are biological animals, in a social and environmental context, with the capacity to reflect, choose and direct.


So what are the implications of all this?


  • If we want to avoid wasting a lot of time trying to teach the unnecessary, and also a lot of breath arguing about it, we should embrace the evolutionary distinction between Biologically Primary and Secondary Knowledge. This would also avoid us wasting time thinking that children will be able to discover for themselves the millennia of hard-won cultural knowledge and insight.
  • If we want to develop flexible, critical thinking skills, with rich creative insights, then we’d best not dismiss and deride the foundational filler of contextual and concept-forming knowledge.
  • If we want to ensure that children can pass traditional examinations, gaining the highest grades that they can, then we’d better ensure that we direct our efforts into carefully constructed interactive explicit instruction.
  • At the same time however, if we want to do the above things as cleanly as possible, then we must ensure that we cleanse the learning environment of the unwanted biological, social, environmental and existential contaminants which could interrupt the flow of information transfer. We would however need to be mindful that we would be diverting away natural human dynamics and either channelling them somewhere else, or suppressing them for another time.
  • Or… just possibly, we could embrace the best insights of the above points, accept the inescapable reality of the table I placed above them, and throw ourselves into the – always imperfect – regularly conflicted and frustrating – process of trying to engage the full range of human experience and dynamics in educating – as well as schooling – the humans in front of us. It just might be that we can achieve educational outcomes hitherto unachieved.

The Pulse of Learning: ATTEND, HOOK, NARRATE…


Something which I hope people realise in reading this blog is that I love creating new conceptual frameworks and digestible metaphors for seeing the teaching and learning process.

A particular passion for me in my day job involves me trying to provide for my colleagues evidence-informed sets of principles which – as long as they follow them in their classroom – can then free them up to teach however they want – giving them a motivating level of professional autonomy and the most powerful fit of technique to practitioner.

One thing which astonishes me is that there seems to be nothing out there to focus teachers on the absolute pulse of the learning process; The thing which in every lesson enables us to take learners from a place where they didn’t know something to a place where they now do.

I feel the need for something memorable that could fit on a sticker on the front of a teacher’s planner (and not one that is purely an inspirational or aspirational slogan… ‘Move them forward!’ ‘Get them to College!’ ‘Set them free!’)

Consequently, below I present a graphic which attempts to boil as much respectable brain-science as possible into the simplest core-learning takeaway for teachers to keep at the forefront of their minds as they go about their various pedagogical adventures.

This doesn’t fit every kind of human learning – for example simple stimulus-response arcs, or the many instances of peripheral ‘acquisition learning’ which is effectively how character develops. However, it provides a heuristic which should thoroughly match what we principally aim for in structured classroom situations – whether using explicit instruction or inquiry based learning.

As ever, suggestions on how I could improve this would be very welcome.

The Pulse of Learning

All Hail ‘Adaptation’ rather than ‘Differentiation’!

Last year I wrote a (very) lengthy post aimed at “Stripping the Ideology from Differentiation”.

I suggested that the regime of insisting on differentiation in lessons had effectively turned it into an end in itself – fuelled by a mistaken belief that in an ideal world we would deliver fully personalised lessons to each child in our classes.

I’m going to boil down and supplement my thoughts even more in this (much) shorter post, and add in a key proposal:

We should replace the label ‘Differentiation’ with the label ‘Adaptation’


– ‘Differentiation’ feeds the search for differences.

Whereasadaptationfocuses on accommodating needs.

– ‘Differentiation’ results in institutionalised diktats to arbitrarily discriminate between learners based on the presumed importance of token differences.

Whereasadaptationis responsive to different needs as and when they become salient

– ‘Differentiation’ results in teachers contriving to overly complicate and fragment their teaching, whilst bestowing self-fulfilling prophesies on their children.

Whereasadaptation allows them to retain the cohesive drive at the heart of their lessons; better benefiting all children through maintaining the social integrity of the group, and allowing an easy mechanism for anyone to gain support or extension as required.

Of course, adaptation includes all the things which differentiation, at its best, is intended to do.

But it also includes quite a lot less..….

Summary of key flaws in the differentiation ideology:

“A difference is only a difference if it makes a difference”

When young children are planning ‘fair test’ experiments in science, they will often describe controlling for something which doesn’t require it, simply because they are ardently looking for differences – “e.g. keep the tie colour of the person doing the experiment the same”

When we personalise education beyond what is in the moment or only just beyond it, we are in truth little more than toddlers playing God with sandcastles on the beach

Feel that you really ought to weave a clever web of individualised learning paths? We don’t know enough about:

  • The past of our pupils
  • The future of our pupils
  • The complex internal state of our pupils
  • The complex dynamics of how learning really works

When we split up a teacher’s focus beyond what is really necessary, we dilute their impact

Kids love to hunt in packs and follow a strong scent. Keep the pack together and keep the teaching direct, unambiguous and forthright.

How ‘ADAPTATION’ should work:

We DO need to think strategically and plan for the needs of our children. However, we have more ability to anticipate in general how people might struggle than we have to predict specifically how an individual pupil will struggle.

If you HAVE identified a specific performance weakness, or a performance ‘excess’ in a specific child, which is directly relevant to the next task at hand, then ask yourself:

  • “Where do the best interests of this child seem to lie?” And plan appropriately.



  • The most fruitful form of strategic adaptation (i.e. ‘planned in advance’) facilitates tactical adaptation (‘decided in the moment’) as and when it becomes necessary
    • Plan for ready-to-use support and extension mechanisms
  • It also caters for many potential differences between learners by providing for ALL children a multi-pronged approach to presenting and accessing material to be learned.
    • Ensure multiple ways of receiving learning – multi-modal access for ALL pupils
    • Encourage multiple ways of exploring the learning – multiple activities and routes through the subject matter
    • Allow multiple ways of demonstrating the learning – encourage the expression of a learner’s unique narrative.
  • Crucially, strategic adaptation should also make it as easy as possible for any child to step backwards or forwards regarding the difficulty of their work
    • Unless you think it is desirable that they wrestle with something more to develop their character and work habits,
    • Or unless you think it is desirable for them to consolidate an area and strive for higher standards of perfection before moving on.

DON’T assume that endless personalisation would be the ideal if only we could resource it – everything we choose differently for an individual child denies them what others are having. How often would you be omniscient enough to know what would genuinely favour them best in the long run?

DON’T assume that you should always carve 3 different groups out of the children you have, irrespective of the subject matter or the similarities between the children. It’s a contrivance for inspectors who by now should be starting to know better.


  • Select what strikes you as the most compelling way into a subject area. You want all children engaged in a challenging pursuit which facilitates desirable learning – and in which you can enthusiastically and wisely lead the way.
  • Ask yourself:
    • Could all children access this…?
    • Will all children be challenged by this…?”
      • then go from there

The Ladder of Adaptation

Why ‘To make people Cleverer’ just CAN’T suffice as the answer to “the most annoying question in education”

When Andrew Old wrote this post in December, I scan read it on my phone and thought “maybe he’s onto something after all”. He was irritated that yet again the British government was needing to inquire into “The purpose… of education in England” – as this question seems both to go round forever, whilst for him the answer should be simple and screamingly obvious:

The purpose of education is to make children cleverer.

That’s it.

Now, I like a huge amount of what Andrew stands for, but I really think this is an area which undermines him, and by association, other areas which I think he is right on.

Quite a bit of his post and the comments that followed involved defining what he meant by ‘clever’. He means intellectually capable, and I have no great difficulty with spotting this shorthand, though others did, and I can see why. He seemed to think that as a general concept in society this label could only really mean ‘intellectual ability’, but I think it’s also worth pointing out that people also have the general concept of wisdom – surely another intellectual capability? – and they might well choose to commonly distinguish that from cleverness. (Was it just my grandma who used to tilt at “the person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”?). I believe that being intellectually capable should imply wisdom as well, but maybe we lack a simple adjective in English to say all this in one word, so I’m not going to quibble with ‘cleverness’ just for that.

However… beyond this I think Andrew’s argument does crumble as an attempt to end all discussion of the matter, and in this post I’m going to try to be utterly clear as to why his most recent arguments just don’t stack-up to being a sustainable vision for what the purpose of education is or should be.

In my first ever blog post last year I pointed out that the aims of education are ultimately tied to the aims of the species – multitudinous and at root, a matter of personal sentimental preference, with no group having a pre-eminent right to decide. We educate for the reasons that we as a race want to educate. I still stand by all that, however here I’m presenting a new set of perspectives:

1) You just CAN’T draw an analogy between medicine and education

The purpose of education should be no more contentious than the purpose of medicine. The purpose of the former is to make people smarter, the purpose of the latter is to make them well.

So, would I be correct then to call medical doctors ‘doctors of the body’ and teachers ‘doctors of the mind’? I’m sure that Andrew would want to draw some kind of distinction here between the ‘mind’ and the ‘intellect’. I suspect that the use of the word ‘doctors’ would also ring alarm bells.

Doctors, hospitals and the general medical structures around the world are only analogous to the LEARNING SUPPORT sections of education. You just can’t avoid the ‘deficit model’ when talking about hospitals as being about ‘wellness’. We don’t send children to hospitals for years on end to get them up to a sufficient level of ‘wellness’ – we assume they are born ‘well’ and only need health care if that goes wrong.

Physical wellness is the default state maintained naturally by human organisms drawing on the resources they require growing up within their indigenous environment. Could we not indeed say the same about human intelligence? Why do we need schools for this?

Of course there are educators who do tend to see children in this light, and say that they are born perfectly clever enough and don’t need anything from an education system other than to get out of their way as they learn the way they will naturally do, and perhaps ‘fix deficits’ if they go wrong. I didn’t believe though that Andrew was a fan of Rousseau.

Ultimately, schools in ‘cleverness’ are more akin to fitness gyms and health clubs – providing a luxurious excess in what ‘healthiness’ can mean. Humans will happily adapt to the world they find themselves in and develop their intellect to survive. Perhaps schooling children in ‘cleverness’ is just a fetish of the evolving human intellect. Or is there a purpose to it…?

If we are indeed going to give over whole school days to making children ‘cleverer’ for the sake of making them cleverer, couldn’t it indeed be argued that ‘healthiness’ is as valuable in its own right as ‘cleverness’? Indeed, how about the following as a new model for childhood: Mornings they go to government sponsored ‘schools’ to be made ‘cleverer’. In the afternoon they go to government sponsored ‘fitness centres’ to be made ‘fitter & healthier’. If they show serious deficits in cleverness they go to learning support, if they show serious deficits in health and fitness they go to doctors and hospitals.

What makes ‘cleverness’ so valued over ‘fitness’…?

And this gets me on to my next point:

2)  Cleverness as its own end is just a value preference, like any other, ready to be imposed on others (– or correct me on this and point out its utility)

Now, I personally haven’t got a problem with the fact that we can’t escape from imposing our value judgements on other people; it is simply inevitable and just one part of the paradox of human existence. I do personally believe it’s good to try to minimise these things as best we can – but we can’t escape the fact, and so we should embrace the inevitable, if disconcerting, fuzziness in moral certainty, and the cognitive dissonance regarding our contrary actions. We need to just make the best job we can of the flawed realities of human existence. It irritates me when I see a position which thinks we can short-circuit this, and I’m sorry Andrew, but the ‘To make people cleverer’ position is one of them.

You see, we have sunk into arguments here between instrumentalism vs idealism, and paternalism vs libertarianism.

Very simply, instrumentalist approaches regard education as being valuable because it is USEFUL – either for productivity, citizenship or personal happiness, whereas an idealist approach might say that education is a metaphysically valuable end in itself. The ‘simply to make people cleverer’ position is either an idealist approach because it is saying that it is an intrinsic good to be ‘clever’, or else it is an ‘unquestioning cog in the instrumentalist machine’ approach, whereby it is not our position to question why we might want children to be clever. That’s just the job we have. And by ‘our position’ – I’m not just meaning humble teachers, teaching what the priority setters tell us to teach. Andrew would have it that the government keep their blinkers on as well – that none of us should question why we make people cleverer. It is just a gift without presumption.

I’m really not sure which one of these positions is most comfortable with Andrew’s socialism, though surely his Labour membership must make him more sympathetic to paternalism over libertarianism? Social responsibility vs allowing an ideology of freedom to really run its course?

Paternalism says that you’re better off if we guide and constrain your choices, and libertarianism says you’re better off if we don’t. (See American gun-control debates as a great example of this distinction).

The goal of simply making people cleverer without any presumption for what might be the point of it SURELY must be a libertarian approach, but without caveats, libertarianism is just as philosophically compromised as paternalism. Why?

Paternalist approaches are ultimately flawed by subjective judgements – our recommendations to people always arise from OUR personal values rather than timeless realities. For example, most reasonable people eventually start to question the legitimacy of their own pronouncements to their older teenagers and would find themselves saying (in the spirit of libertarianism)…

“Who am I to tell you…

  • … not to see that girl (it’s your life)?
  • … not to get a tattoo (it’s your life)?
  • … that you would be better off saving your money? (it’s your life) ?
  • … that you’d be better off staying at school (it’s your life) ?
  • … that you’d be better off not travelling to Syria at present to join a charity mission (it’s your life)?
  • … that you’d be better off not travelling to Syria at present to join a crusading group of rebel fighters (it’s your life)?
  • … that you’d be better off not drowning your sorrows in drink and drugs (it’s your life)?
  • … that you’d be better off not ending it all now… (it’s your life)?”

Most of us (I imagine) reach some limit, somewhere along that list, where we say ‘sorry I can’t just stand back and be neutral here – I’m a human being’.

The strange irony inherent in the Libertarian position – that “we think it’s better for you if we don’t tell you what’s better for you” – is commonly moderated by two constraints: Firstly – we’re happy for you to be as free as you like just so long as you don’t impinge on other people’s freedoms. Secondly – although in practice libertarianism may seem like a flawed position, if you try, even slightly, to take a stance regarding what is right for others, then you open the door to the chaos of competing subjective judgements… So you’re better off trying to remain as separate as possible.

In education then, can we ever really say that we personally have no agenda regarding what is in the best interests of the children we teach? The very act of choosing what to teach makes this inevitable, and as I’ve said earlier, libertarianism ultimately inflicts the outcomes of our choices on children as much as paternalism, simply by virtue of us declining to play a role.

3)  The ‘Intellectual domain’ is a leaky sieve concept – ‘cleverness’, as a clearly agreed-on shared idea, is an illusion

Now I accept that saying education is to make people smarter does not end all discussion. We still have to debate what a healthy intellect looks like. There is still room for debate over the role of knowledge, of the best types of thought, or the usefulness of exams. But these discussions elaborate the purpose of education, they don’t define it.

The whole ‘to make children cleverer’ position assumes we have a clearly defined outline of what this means. We don’t. Andrew tries to draw the distinction between the limited cleverness that IQ tests measure, and the common sense idea of cleverness which people understand. But common sense ideas just don’t know where to stop. If cleverness can’t be demonstrated beyond the mind of the beholder, does it have value? Does ‘clever behaviour’ of any kind not imply an intellectual aspect at some point?

  • If a child learns how to avoid upsetting another child, are they not now cleverer?
  • If a child learns how to pursue goals which make use of and benefit the whole team, are they not now cleverer?
  • If a child learns how to deal with success and failure and treat those two imposters just the same, are they not now cleverer?
  • If a child learns how to ride a bike, or swerve a kick, or to act a role, or to enjoy the present moment, are they not now cleverer?
  • If a child learns how to trick others, to fake an illness, to deal with boredom, to know when to speak-up and when not to, to recite details about the 6 wives of Henry XIII… are they not now cleverer?

Do not all aspects of these things involve knowledge of an intellectual kind? Where does learning to do something which bypasses the intellect , and therefore doesn’t make people cleverer, start?

Howard Gardner’s attempts to distinguish multiple forms of intelligence have been sniffily dismissed by traditionalists as having no real basis in neurology, but what basis DO we have for distinguishing the intellectual realm as discrete from any other realm?

Ultimately, if we eschew all instrumentalist notions of the aim of education, do we not therefore open the door to ANYTHING being an equally valid ingredient to a curriculum? – Everything making a person cleverer in some way and being worthwhile ‘as an end in itself’?

4) The Solution: Differentiation of Aims

I think we should just embrace an openly paternalistic and instrumentalist model of educational ends and work out the details of what those ends should best be for our nations, our communities and our classrooms. Here’s the thing, we don’t struggle too much to say that parents should make certain decisions for children. We have an acceptance that the extra knowledge and experience that they have gives them a relative wisdom regarding what might be best for the child. We know it’s not perfect, but it seems to work better than letting all children make all decisions for themselves.

A common phrase used in trying to orientate ourselves towards a libertarian ideal of education is the value of passing-on to new generations “the best that has been thought and done”. The inherent notion here is that society as a whole has a level of wisdom which individuals don’t, and that it would be a mistake to expect individuals to have to re-discover this all for themselves, or at the very least that we would in some way miss out if these things were lost. The value being in this being what exactly? What’s not instrumental or paternalistic in this?

I think we can’t escape from making decisions as society and as teachers regarding what the aims of education would best be for DIFFERENT people (even if subtly). Let’s play the game here of appealing to that reasonable ‘man on the Clapham Omnibus’:

Should, in all honesty, our schooling aims for all of the following boys simply be the same?

  • The son of the billionaire who knows he’ll never have to work
  • The son of a successful criminal who knows he never wants to work
  • The son of the intensely driven professionals, who believes that life will end if he doesn’t get to Oxbridge
  • The son of the labourer without any ambition to ever move away.
  • The son of the traveller without any expectation of ever staying
  • The physically disabled boy with an astonishing intellect
  • The physically athletic boy with limited reasoning skills

Not only might we teach these boys in a different way, might we not also view what might be the best education for them to be different? Try to avoid instinctively taking a side regarding whether you should go with and make the best of their situation, or whether you should perhaps help them to transcend their situation and have a different life. Are you flawed because you have a preferred perspective on what they might need, or are you just fulfilling your destiny as a human animal in human society?

My own solution to all this is the following:

  • Accept that we can’t avoid inflicting our values and judgements on new generations regarding what we think they should value.
  • Accept that, actually, being part of the same species and having to go through the same developmental stages on the same planet, what we have discovered to be useful for ourselves is also likely to have SOME usefulness to others in how they make the best of their own lives, and that, therefore, our best attempts at instrumental goals will benefit the success of the species as a whole.
  • Accept that we can’t – in any way which isn’t purely arbitrary – draw a clear distinction between ‘schooling to make children cleverer’ and wider education.
  • Engage with others in trying to define what might be the broadest instrumental ends of education which we ourselves have benefitted from (or would have liked to have benefited from) in our own lives, and which are relevant to our schools and communities.
  • Try to boil these ends down to the simplest, most encompassing definition of educational aims.

So here’s one I made earlier:

The aim of education is to prepare children for…

  • The World of Necessity (what they will likely have to deal with at some point)
  • The World of Opportunity (what they might wish to engage with if they get a chance)
  • The World of Experience (finding value in what comes their way… pleasure, meaning, whatever – for this is the magic dust which makes the whole damn ‘life’ thing worthwhile in the first place.)

Couldn’t every community adopt this and flesh it out as works best for them?

…And if we DO wish to maintain an idealist notion that an educated mind is an end in itself, is this not just another aspect of The World of Experience…?


The Thirst for Mastery: Eternal CPD – Part 1

If it is indeed true that “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers”, and that the variation of teaching quality within schools is greater than that between schools, then it goes without saying that schools wanting to improve the quality of teaching must find some way of improving the professional capabilities of their teachers.

It seems that most efforts to achieve this goal tend to focus on making training accessible to teachers and on enforcing whole school initiatives to deliver ‘best practice’ teaching techniques.

I actually believe that our understanding of the nature of human motivation and what produces the most powerful forms of teaching places us in the position to do a whole lot better than that.

In this two-part post I want to present a vision for how professional teachers can be the best that they can, creating a model which might harness their commitment and personal best practice – no matter what stage of their career.

In this first half, I’m going to lay out the rational for the CPD framework which I will go on to present in the second half.

To start off then, what are the fundamental ingredients of the model?

I have drawn upon three key realities:

  1. The reality that the best teaching by any individual teacher can never be fully ‘Evidence Based’ and be dictated by ‘Best Practice’. Rather, it needs to be ‘Evidence Informed’, guided by ‘Best Principles’, but fundamentally dictated by their professional judgement of how they as an individual might best affect learning in the unique context of the children before them and the relationship they have established at that time. See here for my own development of Dylan Wiliam and Tom Bennett’s summations of this.
  2. The reality that – using traditional forms of ‘managerial motivation’ – teachers at different career stages simply won’t be motivated by the same things to produce the same outcomes:

Example:Implement this (dubiously explained) initiative!

  • Trainee/Newly Qualified Teacher: “Yes!” – because I want to ‘make it’ as a professional teacher.
  • Aspiring educational leader: “Yes!” – because I want to further my managerial career prospects.
  • Experienced teacher with no particular career development plans: “Yes!” – because you will threaten me with capability proceedings if I don’t

The last category of teacher is often seen by managers as the kind of person who needs the ‘stick’ rather than the ‘carrot’.

“I just want to teach and be left alone”…  “I’ve seen it all before – we’re just trying to reinvent the wheel here” …  “There’s only so much you can do…” etc.

  1. The reality – now well established if you dig down into the research (see Dan Pink’s book here for a compelling summary of the position)that additional extrinsic motivators DO NOT produce better results in areas of human functioning which require original, creative, problem-solving forms of thinking. Rather, humans perform at their creatively productive best when given autonomy to pursue personal mastery and flow. Carrots and sticks  actually impede performance in these kinds of task.

There has been a bit of a stir in educational circles regarding the potential of flow as something we should strive to facilitate in learners in our lessons, as a means to them developing an intrinsic interest in learning (see my own formulation here), but there seems to have been very little thought regarding how this could be a tremendous route to enabling teachers to perform at their best in the classroom.

Essentially then, my “Thirst for Mastery” model of CPD is based on the following 3 principles:

  • Fundamentally, CPD is most successful when arising from the inherent drives of a teacher to develop themselves.
  • Teachers, almost without exception, would like to be professionally respected and to experience the satisfaction which comes from the pursuit of ‘mastery’ and ‘flow’ in their day to day teaching practice.
  • Teachers are at their most compelling when they are utilising teaching methods which, as well as being based on good pedagogical principles, are fully consonant with their beliefs, experience, personal qualities, and the practical classroom situation that they are faced with.

In part 2 I will outline a framework for how this could work in practice – fully harnessing the unique qualities of individual teachers whilst more than achieving the accountability goals of school leaders and inspectors.

Remodelling the ideal teacher: Sage 2.0

In 1993 an article was published which coined the phrases “Sage on the Stage” and “Guide on the side”.

The core idea in the original text was whether or not learners were seen as active constructors of their learning, and the distinction is now seen as being between a model where a lecturer tells students things which they memorise, and one where students actively construct their own meaning with teachers there to support and scaffold as required. Teachers no longer ‘teach’ – they ‘facilitate’ learning.

Aside from beliefs about how knowledge is best formed in our heads, three other beliefs have co-evolved alongside this to inform the “Guide…” model:

  1. The belief that children would learn better if only we would get out of their way and let them.
  2. The belief that with an explosion of information, it’s more productive to focus on teaching independent learning skills.
  3. The belief that technology could do a better job of personalising and opening up the educational experience than teachers can.

In practice, I think the majority of teachers use a mixture of teaching models as required, but as I’ve argued here, it doesn’t stop them having a nagging ‘ideal’ at the back of their minds. So, as a result of the above beliefs, I think that the dominant conception of ideal teaching looks a bit like this:

The apparently dominant model of an ideal teacher

What’s wrong with this model…?

Now… I DON’T intend to disagree with the idea that knowledge is constructed in an individual’s mind through an ACTIVE process of combining what is already known with what is newly encountered. Learners can’t be passive receivers, and everyone’s version of reality will be somewhat unique.

However, there are significant limitations with the three other beliefs inherent in the ‘Guide’ model which I started with:

  • “…children would learn better if only we would get out of their way and let them.…” In some ways, at some times, yes. This ISN’T a rant against inquiry-based learning in all its forms, as I’ll make clear in a subsequent post. However, the undoubted natural learning instinct in children is simply insufficient to induct them into modern society
    • One of the supreme triumphs of human evolution is the ability to directly transmit specific information to each other. Letting a child “find out for themselves” does not give them an advantage – being told by someone else does. We need to bring children up to speed on what’s been achieved prior to their arrival on Planet Earth, so they can then spend time improving things. Don’t waste their time making them discover what they could simply be told.
    • Secondly, letting children follow their natural areas of interest will often lead to them learning an awful lot about very little. Fully educated citizens need to understand a broad spread of things they may never develop an interest in, nor ever make direct use of. It helps them to better function within the whole, make better sense of life, be more creative with what they are good at, and generally ‘be prepared’.
  • “…with an explosion of information, it’s more productive to focus on teaching independent learning skills...” This has been the centre of a lot of discussion elsewhere. My own personal take on it is here.
    • Basically – independent learning skills DO offer an advantage… but one which is fundamentally constrained by the quality of knowledge that’s already in our heads.
  • “…technology could do a better job of personalising and opening up the educational experience than teachers can …” The impressive capabilities of computer technology have misdirected us from remembering the true power of having a human adult to guide a human youth.
    • Partly, this relates to the incredible way in which human teachers can detect, integrate and respond to the child before them, despite the myriad of subtle things that might be going-on at that moment – both within and around the pupil. [Perhaps the greatest feat a AI could ever hope to achieve]
    • Less obvious though is an argument I’ve made here and here regarding the dubious enterprise of ‘personalisation’ for children in the first place… We can never really know the long term future of an individual child, and we don’t really know the truth of who and what they are as they stand before us – just the symptoms they’re exhibiting at that moment and some possible influencers from their past and present. Teachers are at our most powerful with children when we “keep the pack together” and lead them strongly in the same direction, addressing individual needs that arise as we go.

…Most fundamentally though, I think we have also become blind to the subtle programming within the human psyche – particularly in children, but still there throughout adulthood – which means that we are drawn irresistibly towards adult human modelling, to confident authority figures, and to the emotional context which another human gives to any of our experiences.

  • As Bandura’s Social Learning Theory suggests, we learn a tremendous amount through both deliberate and unconscious observation of others, and the power differential that is set-up between a child and the adult who is granted dominion over them can be an intoxicating force for good.
    • Frankly put… We want gurus… We respond to good leaders… 

Take a look at the following model:

A more powerful model for teaching....

The real problem with the original ‘Sage on the Stage’ model of teaching was either that teachers didn’t do enough to ensure that pupils really were actively learning, or that they didn’t really know their stuff well enough to lead learning anyway. Effectively they were just ‘stooges on the stage’.

Now, it’s important to point out that this new model still places strong emphasis on teachers being expert in the creation and management of learning scenarios. They still need to know how to lead an active learning environment, and indeed to ensure that all their pupils are learning.

However, in line with what I’ve said earlier – this model reduces the active attempts to personalise learning. The aim is to keep the pack together, adapting to differences when they make a difference, but retaining the same central focus of the group.

This allows the teacher to become powerful again in their key position of being a TEACHER, and to put more of their time into becoming expert in what it is they actually want their pupils to learn about.

Simply put, pupils need teachers who can offer them wisdom and inspiration – but not simply for how they can become ‘better learners’. This is wisdom and inspiration in the actual areas that it may be most beneficial for them to learn about.

In this sense, there are two reasons for why my new model of the ideal teacher requires a focus on more than just ‘competent’ knowledge.

Teachers are at their strongest when their subject knowledge allows them to perform the following two functions:

Firstly they lead their pupils’ minds way out beyond their interests, experiences and self-judgements of ‘what’s relevant’. – And I mean ‘lead’ – not just drop them somewhere in the ocean without any idea how they got there. There are all sorts of ways in which ‘going off piste’ – ‘incidental’ knowledge – ‘going off at a tangent’ is actually incredibly useful for helping pupils not only make links between the new stuff and things they already know, but also for staking out the farther reaches of new terrain with intrinsically memorable features.

We will all have experienced children who can do this for themselves – making a wacky connection with something beyond the remit of the lesson, or indeed asking a great question which takes the subject matter into new waters. Yes, it’s fine to be able to say to a child – “You know what?  – That’s a great question which I don’t know the answer to. Why don’t you go away and research it…?” But it’s even more fruitful if the child comes up with the same question and you’re able to actually answer it, or say that you don’t know, but take it in a parallel direction drawing in other peripheral knowledge. Everybody in the room can benefit from that, and may well be interested in it too if it’s an unlikely way of looking at things.

Consider this last diagram:

The value of additional teacher knowledge

I think we all know the difference it makes to us as teachers when we’re teaching a topic we know a lot more about than is necessary. We find that we can explain the material in far more different ways and come up with just the right way to conceptualise something that will hit home with someone who isn’t really sure. We may even have noticed that pupils seem more naturally interested in what we’re saying, without there obviously being a reason why…

… Possibly the reason why we will have observed them seeming more interested however derives from the second really important function which a richly knowledgeable teacher can do: They channel for their pupils that which is intrinsically ‘vital’ about these strange new territories; not simply what is potentially ‘useful’ about them – but what it is that makes people love and obsess about them.

Few teachers wouldn’t say that they want their pupils to be inspired. But inspired by what?

  • NOT just by discovering themselves
  • NOT just by finding out more about something they love
  • NOT just by some naturally impressive, but perhaps untypical, teacher
  • … By being connected with what it is that is compelling, intriguing, satisfying and fulfilling in any area of human knowledge and endeavour.

In the absence of a pupil being able to properly immerse themselves in every aspect of life, it is the teacher who has the power and opportunity to transmit this subject ‘vitality’ into the hearts and minds of pupils.

Now, most subject-specialist teachers are specialists because at some point they found a passion for their subject and wanted to communicate what was great about it. Hopefully then they can ignite the flame of that passion when they are teaching others.

This might be more difficult for Primary teachers. It may well be that they chose that age range due to a lucky mixture of feeling invigorated by younger minds and a genuine enjoyment of a mixture of subjects.

However, we all have areas to teach sometimes which we don’t genuinely feel a passion for – that’s human life. BUT… even if we ourselves lack a natural passion for subject or topic area, it is perfectly possible for us to ‘get’ why other people DO feel a passion for it – if we just probe around it enough with an empathic, open mind.

This then should be the mission for all teachers: To regularly reconnect with what it is that we feel passionate about in the subjects that we teach, and to seek out what it is that can make other people feel quite fanatical about subject areas we would rather not teach. It is amazing just how much we can start to channel another person’s enthusiasm once we’ve got inside their way of looking at things…

So… to summarise:

I believe that the role of expert – or at least additional subject knowledge in teachers has been undervalued in recent decades, with the rise of the idea of teachers as facilitators of personalised learning.

I believe that the role of the ‘Sage on the Stage’ can be perfectly compatible with a conception of learning as being an active endeavour, and indeed is the most powerful way that we can accelerate the induction of the young into the world around them.

I also believe that if teachers cease to put so much focus on actively seeking out ways to personalise learning, then they would have the opportunity to immerse themselves more fully in the farther reaches of the subject which they are there to open-up for a child, and in the process better stretch learners into genuinely new areas of discovery and understanding.

‘ISMS’ exist – even if the ‘ISTS’ don’t…

I followed (and briefly participated in) a prolonged Twitter ‘dialogue’ yesterday afternoon revolving around whether there were any card carrying ‘progressivists’, and therefore whether arguments against progressivism were actually valid.

Now, I agree that it is rarely the most fruitful way forward in a debate to jab the finger and label our opponents, and I can sympathise with those rejecting the label ‘Progressivist’. Firstly – in debates, nobody EVER likes being labelled unless they have openly adopted that label themselves.

Secondly – in complete truth, rarely do many of us purely identify ourselves with one identity or another… and even less would we say that in our actions do we purely adhere to a particular philosophy. I believe that the vast majority of us live in some or other state of ‘cognitive dissonance’ – holding quite contrary beliefs which seem to act separately on different levels within us. This can result in varying degrees of discomfort and confusion, but we normally believe that there is coherence at some level or other.

Thirdly – what does it take to really be a progressivist? To act in certain ways…? To proclaim certain things…? Just to privately  believe certain things…?

“Do unto others as others would do…” – How many of us would say that this should be identified with what we actually do…? Most Christians would say that they don’t actually do this very well in practice. Many might even say that sometimes they think it perhaps isn’t the best thing to do. And yet pretty much all of them would suggest that it nevertheless informs how they think about things.

This is why it is perfectly acceptable to debate and critique the ideas of progressivism (as I have done on this blog), even if we can’t point to a single person who would admit to embodying it. It is because it provides a template – a guiding set of ‘shoulds’ – at the back of many people’s minds influencing, energising or undermining how and where they focus their energies.

I know this to be true because I’ve been one of those people who cradled progressive ideals and assumptions at the back of my own mind…even though the practicalities of my situation and competing thoughts within me never made them particularly well realised, and I never would have described myself as a ‘progressivist’. I nevertheless aspired to them and kept trying to ‘square the circle’.

I still cradle some now..