Teaching is simply complicated

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It takes a lot of work to make teaching simple

Two stories are often told about teaching. The first is that it is very simple but some outside “other” comes to complicate it, the second that it is very complicated but some outside “other” fails to recognise this. So which is the most prevalent view among twitter’s teachers? As clear as ever.

Teaching is simple

I would say that teaching is essentially very simple. There are things that I know, understand and can do that I think pupils should know, understand and be able to do. I pass this on through either fairly direct instruction (by telling/showing) or by creating activities that allow them to build it themselves. I recap this frequently and give them feedback so they know what else they need to do.

  • Recap
  • Input
  • Application
  • Test
  • Feedback

Simple!

Teaching is complex

There is though a pretty big “however” coming up.

However, doing these things well is complex and requires training, experience and reflection. Hattie’s work shows that almost everything a teacher tries leads to some kind of positive effect. It isn’t a question of what works but what works where, when and, importantly, best.

It is possible to explain something really well in a way that makes it stick and do it badly so that pupils just end up more confused. We can create activities that involve deliberate practice and challenge or busy work that leads to nothing being learnt. On top of this we have the issue of opportunity cost. I could give feedback in a way that works, but doesn’t work as well as something else. Or I could give feedback in a way that works very well but is so time consuming I don’t have time to plan an effective recap session and so skip this. This makes teaching more complex.

Other areas of teaching are complex because of the intellectual demand that it requires. Assessments designed to be reliable and valid is complex. Putting together the curriculum for your subject and recontextualising it is complex.

This is why I have a library of teaching books, spend time reading educational research and talking to teachers. It is why I write this blog and why I’m writing Making Every Geography Lesson Count. Exploring the complexity of teaching is fascinating and something we can always improve on.

Teaching is complicated 

These two aspects of teaching, the simplicity and complexity are what makes teaching so rewarding. It is simple enough to have a clear idea of what you need to do but complex enough to mean you can keep improving.

The more frustrating parts of teaching tends to come from those things that complicate it. For example, the demand to meet the need of different audiences. Leaders who want learning made visible for their quality assurance or parents who want schools to confirm to their own ideas of how things should be run around their child. A need to track progress towards an ill defined target is complicated to the point of impossibility. Managing the behaviour of hundreds of individuals within a school’s behaviour system could be complicated.

Conclusion

At its heart teaching is simple. There are a few basic components that we can work on and master. Doing them well is complex but this complexity adds the intellectual challenge that makes the job rewarding. Complications tend to be frustrations that are added to the job and are often the result of trying to do the impossible.

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