On 9 July, 2016, I will be taking part in the The Big Homerton Education Debate at the University of Cambridge. I will be...
Traditionalist nonsense or progressive flimflam?José Picardo
Innovation is desirable in every other aspect of life. The constant tinkering, tweaking and adjusting that makes for faster trains, safer aircraft and life-saving surgery. “No, Doctor, I don’t want any of that newfangled key-hole surgery, I want to be ripped right open just like in the good old days” said no one, ever. But not in education. Oh no. In education we’ll have none of that (spits) progressive flimflam.
The latest twitter spats and blogging battles seem to be being fought on the right by traditionalists who support a teacher centred approach where the student is a passive recipient of knowledge vs. progressives on the left, who espouse a child centred approach favouring change and innovation.
Just like when recently you were being asked to pick between teaching knowledge or skills (because, apparently, it had to be either or), now you need to pick between being a traditionalist or a progressive. And if you can’t or won’t, that’s because you’re probably either a little too simple -ah, bless- or you lack principles.
The thing is, when I think about my own teaching style I’m pretty traditional. I’m very much a starter/presentation/guided practice/feedback/further practice/plenary kind of guy. There is actually quite a bit of direct teacher instruction and didactic teaching in my lessons. A stickler for tradition, me. Why? Because it works.
But there is also quite a bit of group work, peer assessment and self assessment about my lessons, much of it supported by innovative use of technology. These are activities that lend themselves very easily to more a progressive approach to teaching and learning. Why? Well, for the same reason. Because it also works.
You see, I’m a languages teacher. I find grammar is best taught in a didactic manner in my setting. Lots of teacher input; clear explanations. But, in order to ensure that new vocabulary and structures are acquired and used and reused appropriately, students need a great deal of deliberate practice, which, in a classroom setting, is often best supplied by carefully planned group work. It’s really effective and, to boot, I have a bookshelf full of books that explain why that is so. Traditionalist chaps who have spent all this time deriding group work in their blogs will just have to take it from me (and the no-doutb-in-their-minds progressive blob who wrote those books) that, in languages, group work works and yes, they do learn from one another.
The use of new technologies and peer assessment are also often met with disapproval and a not insubstantial amount of condescension. “The only tablets my pupils need are the ones prescribed by their psychiatrist” I once read on twitter. Pretty unprofessional stuff, I hope you’ll agree. Not just because of the disdain shown to students, but also because of the sheer, wilful, proud lack of understanding of the potential new technologies have been shown to have.
Take this example. Year 8 writing and speaking. In Spanish. The work is started in class, finished for homework and completed with a peer assessment task, making the most of the available technology, in this case the faculty’s blog. The comments left by students for other students are beneficial per se, but what’s really valuable is the way that the comments help to tell me, the teacher, what progress the students have made, thus informing any future lesson planning. And it so happens that the student’s work and their comments are recorded as evidence in blog format for parents, inspectors and whoever else would like to take a peek. Yet some on twitter try to assure me that this is worthless progressive nonsense. Well, I respectfully disagree.
So, forgive me if I refuse to be made to choose between traditional and progressive teaching, because I am a well informed professional who knows what works in my classroom and can be traditional when I must and progressive when I need to be. I thought that was what all good teachers did.