The invisible nature of teaching well
Many of the elements of great teaching are invisible to the naked eye. It comprises of the tiny adjustments we make in the classroom, there and then, in response to events as they unfold. These decisions are based on a combination of professional knowledge and experience.
As our experience grows, the ability to make these decisions subconsciously grow as well; the human brain excels at doing familiar things without thinking about them. Other decisions are deliberate and calculated but are done so in a split second and that decision may make little sense to an outside observer.
Great feedback, differentiation and behaviour management are great because they are woven seamlessly into the lesson. They are great, in part, because they don’t draw attention to themselves. The problem comes when this invisible teaching becomes warped by a desire to make it visible to outside observers – the point when we move from teachers to demonstrators of teaching.
A Culture of Demonstration
The invisible nature of great teaching becomes apparent when we try and make some kind of judgement on what we see in the classroom. Lets take questioning as an example – a very visible element of classroom practice.
We might have an idea of what good questioning looks like. We might decide that it involves
- the teacher targeting pupils rather than relying on hands up,
- the use of open questions,
- thinking time,
- follow up questions to deepen understanding,
and so on.
Now picture yourself walking into a classroom. A teacher asks a closed question, pupils put their hands up and one is chosen to answer it and the teacher cuts them off mid-question to say that is wrong. Have you just seen bad questioning?
Or have you seen a teacher who moments before you stepped through the door had a fleeting feeling that a misconception had snuck in, wanted to take a quick poll of the room to see if they were right and stopped a pupil before they spent more time articulating, and therefore embedding, the misconception? The only way to know would be to ask the teacher afterwards and hope they can remember the thought process behind the dozens of micro-decisions they have made that day.
Would it have been better for the teacher to have seen you come in, think “crap – best do some top quality questioning!” and demonstrated what they know you want to see?
A Culture of Doing
I think the problem actually goes much deeper than teachers demonstrating teaching for lesson observations and learning walks. I worry that it has permeated the culture and led to teachers focusing on the demonstration of learning too. A culture of doing.
I think this manifests itself in a few ways. Firstly, we see it in the focus on activity in the classroom. Karpicke and Grimaldi (2012) explore the difference between seeing learning as happening through encoding of information and seeing it happen through a process of retrieving information. They explain
Karpicke (2012) noted that the emphasis on encoding and the relative neglect of retrieval might be related to common metaphors people use to describe the mind and learning. Many metaphors used to describe the mind treat it as a place where knowledge is stored and treat knowledge as a collection of objects located in that storage space (Roediger 1980). Similarly, in education, a common metaphor invoked to describe learning is that of a physical building. Knowledge is constructed by learners who actively build knowledge structures; researchers seek to understand the architecture of the mind; and instructors aid students by providing scaffolding for learning (for discussions of this metaphor
They go on to say
Learning is often identified with the acquisition and encoding of new knowledge, and retrieval may be considered a separate matter involved in the measurement of the contents of mental storage.
We can see an impact of this focus on encoding new information, on activity, in the results of this poll.
*** NEW POLL ***
“I don’t mind pupils chatting in my classroom as long as they get the work done”— Mark Enser 🌍 (@EnserMark) December 30, 2018
This wasn’t a question about talking about a task in order to complete it but about chatting as long as it was completed. Most teachers were happy for pupils to chat away. This is despite the vast majority of teachers agreeing that pupils learn best if free from distraction.
*** NEW POLL ***
Pupils learn more in class if free from distractions.— Mark Enser 🌍 (@EnserMark) December 30, 2018
The comments under the poll revealed a number of different reasons for the results but one of them was that it couldn’t matter if they were chatting because the question pointed out the work was done regardless.
Here we see the primacy of activity, of doing, of demonstration. The work has indeed been done despite the chatting but has it been learnt with these distractions in place? Why are we not more concerned about that? I would suggest that one reason is this fetishisation of visible signs of teaching and learning that infects our professional culture. The activity becomes the thing. When a teacher cries out “but you did this!” in the face of blank stares a few weeks later, we are seeing this problem played out. “Did” and “learnt” are two very different beasts.
It also manifests itself in the things that many teachers spend much of their time doing. The things that are immediately visible. A quick search on Pinterest for teacher displays is illuminating and dispiriting. The amount of time it takes to make a 3D Incredible Hulk model for a display board of “incredible work” must be out of proportion to its impact; but it is very visible and shows keenness.
The actual business of invisible teaching is unglamorous. No one is going to see those tiny decisions you make to teach well. They won’t know, or appreciate, the feedback you gave a pupil there and then in the moment. There is no external reward. No praise.
Spend time on something more demonstrable though, the elaborate lesson activity, the beautifully marked books replete with comments in pens of many colours and those display boards can get admiring glances and the buzz of an “I don’t know how you do it” from colleagues. Teachers come from unusually keen stock. Teacher Tapp polls have revealed that teachers, and in particular school leaders, were disproportionately likely to have been prefects in schools and to have had prime roles in school plays. I’d suggest that many teachers respond well to external validation. This may not go down well…
Teaching, when it goes well, looks effortless; but like a swan gliding serenely on the surface of a lake, we can’t see the legs peddling away furiously in the water. The desire to demonstrate we are teaching well distorts this good practice and leads to us spending time and energy making our work visible. Not only is this less efficient it may also be less effective.
It may even go further than that and feed into a culture where we over emphasise the value of what is visible in the learning process as well as the teaching process. We put our energy into what is done rather than what is learnt.
The only answer is for individual teachers to seize control of their professional practice and teach like nobody’s watching and for school leaders to create conditions where this is valued instead.
The book Teach Like Nobody’s Watching is available for pre-order now.