Mutual Misunderstandings- the hidden lives of tweeters.

I love Twitter, and I’ve learnt so much since I joined it a mere 4 year ago. Yet recently, I’m getting tired of having the same old arguments going round and round the same territory, with people seeing to talk past each other, using the same word to mean different things.  For example, take the word ‘engagement.’ To one person, this is obviously a great thing – who wouldn’t want their pupils absorbed in their learning? For this person, the opposite of engagement is disengagement, and surely nobody wants their pupils disengaged.  Yet for another person ‘engagement’ means something completely different. For them, it is shorthand for an approach to education that they reject; one that thinks the content of what we teach is inherently boring to many pupils, so therefore needs to be dressed up in ‘fun’, thereby tricking pupils into learning. For this person, anyone advocating ‘engagement’ has woefully low expectations of children and is short-changing them with fun ‘edutainment’ instead of substance. For such people, the opposite of ‘engagement’ is learning. So if these two people, with their different definitions of engagement have an exchange of views on Twitter, it will appear to each other that the person they are arguing with is advocating either disengagement or baby-sitting.

I had my own experience of this recently. I, in all innocence, used the word ‘delivery’ in the context of teaching. To my mind this is a perfectly harmless word. If pushed, I’d maybe link it to how Santa delivers eagerly awaited presents to excited children. (Yeah, all my lessons were that great…) But apparently ‘delivery’ is some sort of evil trigger word, with connotations of ramming pipes into the throats of geese and pumping them over full of grain in order to make fois gras.  It signalled my moral depravity. Yet I was just using it as a synonym for ‘teach.’

Each brings their own prior learning to the table. One person remembers their own terrible school experience of dull, dreary, soul crushing lessons that all but extinguished any desire to learn and is motivated by their resultant burning conviction to ensure their lessons breathe light, life and passionate interest into those who experience them.  The other cringes as they remember their earlier exhausting attempts to dupe pupils by disguising the learning with some complicated, ‘fun’ activity and subsequent relief when later on, they just started teaching directly and found that a much better way of arousing a passionate interest. No wonder they don’t agree. Both are fighting an enemy the other cannot see.[1]

This morning, I read this very interesting interview with Dylan Wiliam.  One of the bits that really got me thinking was this.

‘any teaching should start from what the learner already knows…teachers should ascertain this, and teach accordingly. The problem is that even with a new and unfamiliar topic, after 20 minutes teaching, students will have different understandings of the material, which the teacher needs to know about. What you call the curse of knowledge is part of that—we assume something is easier if we know it.’

Which resonated with something I’d read earlier this week by Harry Fletcher Webb about how when we teach adults, we often forget that they too, just like children, build on what they already know and sometimes form misunderstandings because connect the new stuff we are teaching to their prior knowledge in a faulty way. [2]

It seems rather pompous to say that when we tweet, we are seeking to ‘teach.’ Yet I certainly engage with Twitter in order to learn and indeed I have learnt an awful lot. And yes, sometimes I hope what I say will help other people learn. I am sure there are many reasons to go on twitter, to be entertained, for banter, for company, to show off, for that self-righteous thrill of point scoring, but also to be inspired, to learn things and to share what you have learnt with others, hoping that some may find it useful;  it’s that last reason that motivates me to write blogs.

As a teaching medium, Twitter has its drawbacks! A strict character limit, the torrent of ‘interruptions’ to one’s line of argument when all and sundry can comment, the conversation lurching off in bizarre directions, massive disputes about who actually, if anyone, is the teacher, who is worth listening too, the distraction of other threads, for you as well as anyone else…actually when I think about it, it’s amazing I’ve learnt anything from Twitter yet it has been incredibly powerful in my own learning.  Mainly because Twitter points me to blogs which have fewer of the shortcomings listed above and where I can learn from people I have chosen, by my act of clicking, to learn from. [3]Yet many of the people I engage with don’t have blogs and obviously not everybody who I interact with reads my blogs (the fools!)

All of which is a long prelude to what comes next. The more I argue over the same ground again and again, the more I am aware that I am being misunderstood. I am saying words which to me have a clear and obvious meaning yet they’re being taken to mean something quite different. I also know this works the other way around too and I completely misunderstand what other people are saying. For example, someone says ‘child-centred’ and, building on my prior experience, I imagine the crazy excesses of having to teach via an integrated day and how much more everybody learnt when I stopped doing that and actually taught children stuff. When they might mean something quite different. (Or they might not, that’s the problem, it’s hard to tell). It’s so easy when arguing with someone to imagine the worst possible version of what they are espousing, and the best possible version of what you are arguing for. If they do the same, that’s a recipe for more heat than light. The hidden lives of our prior experiences make mutual misunderstandings inevitable.  Human nature exacerbates the problem, with people falling into ‘in-crowds’ and ‘out-crowds’, retweeting and sub tweeting and eye rolling and argument by GIF. I believe some people even DM catty messages to each other about third parties.

However, today the better side of my nature is on the bridge and what follows is simply an attempt to genuinely help people understand what those of us who are advocating ‘traditional’ teaching mean. Or possible clear up what we don’t mean. Probably, the social media bubble being what it is, I am preaching to the choir but hey ho.

First of all, that word ‘traditional.’ The scope for misunderstanding this word, (and its rival ‘progressive’) is immense. There was a great blog this week about just this problem. If people had a bad experience of very formal education, the ‘traditional’ tag is like a red rag to a bull. But take heed, the word does not imply that everything back in the olden days was rosy and we should bring back the cane, sit four year olds in rows and bore children into a stupor. It’s used in contrast with the term ‘progressive.’  Progressive sounds so lovely, who doesn’t want to be progressive? But here, ‘progressive’ does not mean ‘the opposite of regressive’ but is rather a description of a philosophical tradition in which the writings of such people as Rousseau, John Dewey and Jean Piaget are foundational. For a fuller description, see Greg Ashman here.  Summarising self-proclaimed progressive Alfie Kohn, Greg Ashman describes progressive education as one where students help to direct the curriculum, students seek and find their own answers, a focus on intrinsic motivation that eschews coercion and the drawing of a distinction between knowledge and understanding in order to focus on the latter. Traditional education, by way of contrast believes that teachers are experts in their subject and therefore they should design the curriculum and teach it explicitly. Traditional teaching believes that there is a ‘tradition’ of knowledge that students are entitled to.[4]

The second misunderstanding is that when we speak of knowledge, we only mean acquiring facts.  That’s not the case at all. Knowledge can be divided into declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge. Declarative knowledge includes concepts and rules as well as facts and will allow us ‘to recognize things, make judgments, classify things, discriminate differences and identify similarities.’[5] Procedural knowledge is knowledge that produces action, that enables us to do stuff. It is goal directed, whereas declarative knowledge (the kind of knowledge that includes, but is not limited to facts) just sits there waiting to be of service. It doesn’t of itself result in any action.  Procedural knowledge actually enables us to do things. Most obviously, it involves motor behaviour; learning to play the guitar or catch a ball are both forms of procedural knowledge.  To throw a ball, you don’t need to also know the physics behind it, you don’t need factual knowledge of how it all works. You need to build motor memory and that is a form of knowledge learnt through paying attention and repeated practice. But procedural knowledge isn’t only about muscle movement, it also lies behind enabling us to use declarative knowledge.  Solving an equation or balancing a chemical reaction, both involve turning declarative understanding into procedural knowledge. There is so much more to knowledge than just facts (as useful as they are).

People sometimes refer to the ability to do such things as acquiring skills rather than procedural knowledge. The word ‘skills’ however, is particularly problematic as it is used to mean several different things. For example, it is used to describe dispositions such as resilience and behaviours such as collaboration, it is also used to describe things such as inference and problem solving, which traditionalists are more likely to see as different kinds of disciplinary knowledge[6], and then again it is used for procedural knowledge.

The third misunderstanding is to think that traditionalist teachers are only interested in knowledge rather than understanding. Again this is quite wrong. What traditionalist teachers assert is that it is impossible to understand something unless you know something about it. This is because understanding, properly understood, is simply having lots of well organised knowledge that is connected together. I wrote about this recently in my previous blog so I won’t repeat that again here.  Understanding is literally made out of knowledge. So it is possible to know something without understanding it but it is not possible to understand something without knowing it. This diagram by Efrat Furst explains it well.

understanding model efrat Furst

The fourth common misunderstanding is to think that therefore, traditionalists think that lessons should be formal lectures where the lecturer does 99% of the talking, the learners role in the process inherently passive. This is not the case. The kind of explicit instruction most traditionalists favour – and like anything it is a broad church, so there will be differences in emphasis – is highly interactive.  It will involve questioning not just of the few eager clever clogs but of everybody present, through strategies such as ‘cold calling’, using mini whiteboards, individual exercises interspersing the teacher explanation. It might involve discussing things in pairs or even doing a short bit of drama. In a maths lesson, it might well involve children using manipulatives. What is more, it does not preclude the use of other ways of sharing the information other than a teacher talking (though this will be the most common way). A video clip might be used if it is a more effective way of explaining something – for example, an animation of the heart beating might well be a better way of explaining the role of the heart and lungs in the circulatory system than just a verbal description. Who wouldn’t show the clip of Commander David Scott  dropping a feather and a hammer at the same time on the moon to show that without air resistance, objects fall at the same rate.

Traditionalist teachers also follow up the explicit teaching phase with ‘shed loads of practice’ – gloriously shortened to SLOP. If learning is to stick, long term, it needs to be practised over and over, to the point where it becomes automatic and can be recalled without conscious effort. Some of this practice might even involve tightly planned opportunities to ‘discover’ aspects of what is being taught, for example, variation theory can be used to devise the kind of deliberate practice that helps learners notice patterns, similarities and differences. However, there would always be some sort of teacher commentary at some point to draw attention to things that might not have been noticed.

The final misunderstanding I am going to cover is the erroneous belief that traditionalist teachers adhere to a crude ‘transmission’ model and don’t realise that learners build – or construct – their learning on what they already know. Of course traditionalist teachers do believe they have a tradition worth sharing (or transmitting, though the word lacks nuance).  Whereas while traditionalist teacher eschew constructivist teaching, they are well aware of constructivist learning theories. Learners build on what they already know and construct meaning out of the connections formed between their established and new learning. See the point about understanding above. Efrat Furst explains this in more detail here.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that traditionalist teachers are more concerned about prior learning than progressive teachers because of the pivotal role prior learning plays in whether we understand or misunderstand something. Misunderstanding occurs when we connect bits of knowledge together in the wrong way. For example, if we know that addition can be done in any order so 2+3=5 and 3+2=5, when we learn about subtraction, we think that this also can be done in any order so think that 5-2=3 and 2-5=3. We’ve made a false connection between our new knowledge and our existing knowledge.

This is why questioning and other forms of formative assessment are so important to try and ascertain that the right connections are being made and to address misconceptions as soon as possible, before they become too established.  It is also why traditionalist teachers use explicit teaching that breaks knowledge down into very small sub steps to minimise the risk that wrong connections will be made. Traditionalist teachers are really aware of the ‘curse of knowledge’, the difficulty ‘experts’ have in realising how complicated something really is and therefore overwhelming students working memories by trying to teach too much at once. Indeed, in what is probably the ‘purist’ form of traditionalist teaching, the Direct Instruction method designed by Engelmann, concepts are meticulously broken down into minute sub steps, carefully explained and regularly practised so that the new learning has the best possible opportunity to connect to prior knowledge in the right way.

Aren’t labels funny. My husband swears he is a social constructivist, yet he does all this stuff. Maybe when we label ourselves or others, that is more about the group of people we want to belong to (or not belong to), more about the kind of people we believe ourselves to be.

[1] I’m not saying that there are not also honest to goodness, downright disagreements where people understand perfectly well what the other is saying. Such disagreements are (I think) often disagreements about what each other values. Possibly.

[2] Well that’s not quite what Harry said, but it’s how I connected it to what I already knew!

[3] Though I also click on people I am pretty sure I will disagree with too. Sometimes even with an open(ish) mind!

[4] Thanks to Andrew Old for this way of explaining it

[5] From The Unified Learning Model, Shell , D et al  chapter 4

[6] With each discipline determining what is meant by the term, so terms mean different things in different subjects. ‘Explanation’ in history has a different meaning than ‘explanation; in science for example. Even something apparently straightforward like ‘observation’ means something different depending on whether you are doing something in an art lesson or a science lesson. What is worthy of observing will differ.

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Mutual Misunderstandings- the hidden lives of tweeters.

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