Where is the joy in Education?
Cognitive Science, tracking the teacher, embedding routines, recap testing… where’s the joy?
I remember telling a colleague five years ago that my main priority as a teacher was to get my students interested in my subject. I said that if they got the bug for my subject there would be no stopping them. I felt that interest in my subject was the key to opening the door to wonderful learning.
And yet, I was wrong.
I’m fascinated by the cello. I would love to be able to play the cello. And yet, if I wanted to learn the cello (and I’ve got a cello by the way, that I can’t play), what I would need to do is undertake a labyrinthine journey of dedication, discipline, hard work, working closely with a teacher and hours upon hours of practice.
The students at this school get fantastic results. It’s great. One of the reasons I think we’re all involved in comprehensive education is to be part of a great success like this. We’ve all either been at results day, or seen the pictures. There’s joy. That’s real joy.
I want to put forward the argument that the joy of school is inherent in the curriculum. That is to say: gaining proficiency, working towards great exam results, and mastering our wide array of subjects is a joy so wonderful it needs no adornments.
When I speak to Y11s and they can tell me in detail about their interests in Macbeth, as well as being able to solve a quadratic equation, and inform me of the ins and outs of supply and demand, and give me the design argument for the existence of God, and tell me how to spot the difference between a Beethoven and a Mozart symphony, that is a true joy of school.
Exam success and learning. These are the product of teaching our curriculum well and these are the joys of school. Some of the greatest joys anyone ever experiences.
The point of talking about cognitive science, tracking the teacher, routines and recap testing is that there is good evidence to suggest that these things all feed into being the best way for students to learn the curriculum. Routines maximise the time teachers have to teach, cognitive science gives us great insight into the way students learn, every student tracking is essential if we are to get a calm environment where all students can think about what we are teaching, and recap testing has so many benefits for learning and involves so little work for teachers that we should be talking about it, and doing it much more than we already are. All these strategies are about the wonderful joy of learning.
And part of talking about what works in the classroom is looking at what doesn’t work. There have been innumerable teacher hours wasted on things that have no impact, such as learning styles. Time is the most precious asset a teacher has. We need to be judicious and wise with how we spend our time inside and outside lessons.
I want to make the point that not all ideas in teaching are good. In fact, lots of ideas about teaching are bad. I want to try a thought experiment. I want you to think about your classes and I want you to think about how you would approach teaching each of these classes if you were timetabled with them for a double lesson every Friday afternoon.
Thank you. I think that we need to get to a position where everyone is thinking one thing for every one of those classes: “Excellent, that’s 100 minutes where the students can learn a huge amount.”
The point I am making is that this is not always the reaction. I know from speaking to others and from my own experience that often the thought is “how am I going to get them to concentrate for that amount of time”, which leads to ideas about activities that they might find interesting. Which leads me back to the point I made a number of years ago to my colleague.
If you’re thinking about how best to get the students to be interested in what you’re teaching then I think you’re underestimating the joy of learning. Learning is inherently interesting. Sure, students might grumble about having to work hard, but we know, we know that the benefits and joy of it is there. We know that all that hard work and discipline will pay off. I was wrong about making my subject interesting being paramount. I think a huge amount of bad ideas about teaching stem from thoughts like these. I think we have to acknowledge that learning is often hard, but always worth it.
Let’s look at some of the evidence of how our students will learn a huge amount. Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. Instruction is basically an American word for teaching, so it’s his Principles of Teaching. Rosenshine combined research in cognitive science, research into teachers whose students made the most progress and research into cognitive supports such as modelling work for students to come up with ten principles. What he found was that these 3 sources all came up with the same answers, the research from each field supported the others. Rosenshine’s article really is a must-read. Please find the link for it here.