I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, partly because Ben Newmark has been writing some excellent stuff on didactic teaching which has got me thinking about what concise-explanation-is-king teaching looks like in the primary classroom and partly because it was mentioned on twitter that most instruction in the primary classroom is, apparently, didactic.
I think that many teachers might be confusing all teacher talk with didactic teaching, instead inadvertently employing a version of discovery learning that requires the children to construct their own knowledge/understanding/skills inside their heads and then share it with (and ‘teach’) the rest of the class. Just because they’re not at their tables working in groups, or using lots of manipulatives, sugar paper, drama or iPads doesn’t mean that discovery learning is not taking place. Conversely, just because the children are sat on the carpet in front of you, doesn’t mean that explicit teaching is happening. What I have seen and still see a lot of is various permutations of this:
I’m thinking of the thing, can you think of what it is yet?
Even I sometimes slip into this habit and it’s as if the rhetoric of modern education can so easily filter into the teacher’s head, slightly shifting and warping the words and phrases that the teacher uses (employing a dose of guilt too), ultimately allowing the child’s voice to take precedence over the teacher’s voice. This manifests in endless questions prompting the children to make the next connection themselves and then offer up these connections to the rest of the class. Underlying all this questioning is the prioritisation of engagement and interest, and underlying this is an internalisation of the following message by the teacher:
I am not worth listening to (actually it is wrong for me to ‘force’ children to learn what I want them to learn), I am not important and it is better if the children arrive at their own conclusions themselves or with each other than if I simply tell them.
They also might be thinking this:
I must AfL it to the max. All the time.
How does this pan out? In order to really understand this, we also need to put ourselves in the shoes of the various different children in our class. This is what tends to happen when, instead of just giving the children some interesting information about the key concepts of Islam (for example), the teacher asks, ‘Muslims read a special book; does anyone know what this book is called and what language it is written in?’
- There will, probably, be a [middle class] child called Derek who already knows this information and he immediately throws a hand in the air. A few other gung-ho kids with the wrong information throw their hands in the air too.
- The teacher may a) pick Derek and he then ‘teaches’ the rest of the class, but is a bit woolly with his explanation, saying the words a bit wrong, or, b) picks a gung-ho child who ‘teaches’ the rest of the class something that is completely wrong and they all have a good laugh together, maybe going off on a tangent into Judaism.
- Jerry, who has SEN and seriously struggles to understand what the hell is going on, immediately feels down when the teacher asks the class if anyone already knows what she is intending to teach them or whether they have worked out, by themselves, the next step because he can’t put his hand up. Then he either thinks a) Derek is so lucky that he naturally knows everything or b) That Judaism and Islam are pretty much the same thing.
Despite everyone in the class looking engaged, this is mostly a waste of time. All the children who struggle to concentrate would’ve switched off, all the children with SEN would’ve either learned nothing or, even worse, the wrong thing and all the advantaged children would’ve been given a leg-up to the next step and made to feel like they’re better than all the other children. Well I, for one, am not down with that.
Don’t get me wrong, questioning is good, particularly if you make children fully explain their reasoning. However, there’s a difference between using questions to check whether children understand and reinforce what has already been taught versus questions that are intended to prompt children to make connections and construct their own knowledge in their heads. The latter is inefficient, risky and leaves disadvantaged children behind. A truly traditional teacher would do the following:
- Show children a picture of a Q’uran, tell them using clear and concise language that this is a special book that Muslims read and that it is written in a language called Arabic.
- She would show children the words ‘Q’uran’ and ‘Arabic’ on the board and then ask the class to repeat the words and then use the words in a sentence 3 times. ‘While we’re at it, let’s write this down in our best handwriting.’
- She would then ask the whole class if anyone can say, in their own words, what she has just taught the class.
- Both Derek and Jerry put their hands up when asked a question about the special book that a Muslim reads.
Some of you might be thinking that I’ve picked something that is too straightforward and that of course you would take the second approach. But do you really? A slightly more complex situation would be in the teaching of column subtraction. The properly didactic route would be to get the children silent, all hands resting on the desks (not fiddling with a pencil) and 100% of eyeballs looking at the teacher. The teacher would firstly show children a ‘problem’ that needs solving and the calculation that needs to be done, then stating why column subtraction needs to be used as opposed to mental arithmetic. Then, she would clearly explain exactly how to lay out column subtraction including why it is laid out that way (but remembering to keep on task with the explanation and not leading the children astray with their thinking). She would then go through each and every step modelling his/her thinking and number bond knowledge along the way and when arriving at the answer, stating (using the correct mathematical language and including the units of measurement) how the original problem has been solved, showing children the now balanced equation.
How many primary teachers would have the confidence to go through this process, which should only take 5 minutes, without resorting to stopping every half a bloody minute to ask the following questions:
- Who has read this problem and can tell me what they think the calculation needs to be?
- Who thinks they know why I have laid it out this way?
- Who can tell me what they think the next step is?
- Who thinks they know what to do when we are faced with a subtrahend here is bigger than the minuend here?
- Who can guess what this number in this column represents?
- Who can think of a quick way of subtracting 9 if a number bond doesn’t immediately flash up in my head?
- Who thinks they already know what the answer is?
When teachers resort to discovery-through-questioning-teaching I find that it causes children to start guessing and calling out (because all little children are eager to please and have approval; something that secondary maths teachers don’t experience as much so we primary teachers should remember to be grateful!). I do find that many classes’ overall psychology is to assume that they will be constantly called upon or allowed to constantly interject with their opinions in this way and you find that hands shoot up all over the place and pretty much constantly where they even try to anticipate the question, never mind the answer! In fact, some cohorts don’t seem to understand the whole concept of a teacher actually teaching or that they are there to learn rather than have conversations and do activities. This is seriously distracting.
There are a couple of other reasons why a teacher, particularly a young and new teacher, might resort to this kind of ‘teaching’, especially in maths lessons. I think one of the reasons is that a typical SCITT course ‘Maths day’ doesn’t actually consist of ‘How to teach maths’, rather an immersion in the consultant’s version of ‘It’s great when you get all the equipment out, here are some exciting activities and let the children enjoy, discover and improve their self-esteem’ way of life. The other reason is probably lack of confidence/maths prowess among new primary teachers themselves which would lead them to inadvertently deferring the ‘teaching’ as it were to the more confident children in their class. I often wonder whether primary teachers are really checking number bond or times tables knowledge among the children when demonstrating a formal method of calculation, or whether they didn’t have that particular maths fact to hand at the time. The risk is of course is that a child says the wrong answer, and then the teacher will quite often say, ‘Well, you’re nearly there and almost correct! Well done for having a go!’ instead of ‘This is the wrong answer.’ It’s better just to model your knowledge of the maths fact and then get 100% of the children to chant it back, then maybe ask an individual child than risk mass confusion. Perhaps SCITT maths days really need to include the course tutors actually modelling how to teach converting fractions, for example, then the SCITT student would a) feel the love for fractions and understand why various aspects of the previous years’ curricula need to be learned off by heart and b) assimilate a bank of words, phrases and lesson structures that would help them teach maths. Anyway, let’s get back to those questions.
Now you might still be thinking that there clearly isn’t enough questioning if we’re simply giving children information and then getting them to practice using it in various ways be it writing, chanting, drawing or calculating. However, after the teacher has properly explained what is is going on, including actually ‘answering’ those questions listed above (‘-10+1 = -9, let me just write this maths fact at the side here, so we can just quickly subtract 10 and add 1 rather than inefficiently count back 9 ones, which I’m now going to prove to you’), including pre-empting the misconceptions (‘no, we don’t simply decide to subtract the minuend from the subtrahend’) then the questions can be allowed, but with the teacher leading the way, not the children.
- Who would like me to go through this again?
- If there was a bit of this that you found confusing, please put up your hand and tell me exactly which part didn’t make sense. Remember, your friends are probably thinking the same thing!
- Does anyone have any questions about what I have done or the words and phrases I have used?
- Right, now we are going to do one of these together, but bit-by-bit. If you are feeling confident, please don’t call out; instead, you can play a little game inside your head where you guess what I am going to say and do next.
- [Checks Jerry is smiling] Jerry, I am going to read this problem for us both. Can you tell me what the calculation is and why you know this?
Of course, many reading this are thinking that a teacher just teaching is all rather boring and old-fashioned. I would disagree. There’s a reason why traditions endure! What I find is that when the children are settled, in ‘receive’ mode and I give myself permission to just teach, taking care with the explanations, modelling of thinking and doing, using the new phrases and vocabulary, maybe even converting the instruction into a nice story, then I am more likely to hear the muffled ‘Ah! I get it now!’ Far from boring, this is incredibly liberating because when the teacher actually teaches, and this is what I, as a parent, thought all teachers were all doing before I entered the profession and experienced a rather rude awakening, then all children can learn. When all the children have learned, then the questions change to:
- Who has read this problem and can tell me what they know the calculation needs to be?
- Who knows why I have laid it out this way?
- Who can tell me what they know the next step is?
- Who knows exactly what this number in this column represents?
- Who knows what to do when this number is bigger than this number here?
- Who knows a quick way of subtracting 9 if a number bond doesn’t immediately flash up in my head?
- Who knows what the answer is?
Knowledge is power, so let’s actually teach the children everything they need to know (and then of course get them to practise lots!)
Who’s with me?