The Answer Sheet

Scenes from the Battleground‘s Twitter feed points me to this Washington Post article: The Answer Sheet – teaching without gimmicks.

Except for the misguided notion of targeting learning styles, none of these techniques is wrong in itself. But together they raise a barrier. Instead of bringing the subject closer to the students, this heap of tools proclaims: “No entrance! The subject is too hard without spelled-out skills, too boring without adornment, and too frustrating without pep talks and cheers!”  Worse still, such techniques take precedence over the lesson’s content. A literature teacher is evaluated not for her presentation of specific poems, but for stating the objectives, keeping all students “on task,” reminding them about the relation between hard work and success, using visuals and manipulatives, and, ultimately, raising the scores. It matters little, in such a system, whether the poem is excellent or trivial, what kind of insight the teacher brings, or what the students might take into their lives.

Solid good, yet uncommon, sense here. In its questioning of the value of “objectives”, it reminds me of something by a retired British teacher-trainer, James Atherton, Against Learning Objectives:

Some people manage to talk in the same breath about being “student-centred” and the need to have clear objectives (even behavioural objectives) for their teaching. They may even be arrogant enough to want to specify the “outcomes” of their teaching.

Formulation of objectives, particularly in its extreme form as “outcomes” is naive, objectionable and patronising.

Here’s an entry on Atherton’s blog, Recent Reflections, on the same subject: On the perfect lesson

Similar considerations apply to the evaluation of teaching sessions. Yes, there are clear(ish) thresholds below which practice fails to contribute to learning and may indeed inhibit it. But beyond that we can judge only very broadly. And that is where Ofsted inspectors and QAA reviewers (now of blighted memory) get it all wrong;

  • They tend to assume that the perfect lesson is the result of following a standard recipe (they deny it, of course, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary). For Blumenthal, it may be true. The “perfect chilli” is contained in his recipe. But there is no guarantee that the diner will like it. Technically, the system is defined too tightly, according to that which lends itself to measurement/judgement.
  • They assume therefore that the process of teaching (and learning) is a series of tableaux or set pieces, which can be judged independently. Were the lesson objectives spelt out at the start of the lesson? (Yes = good; No = bad.) Thus we inculcate ritual knowledge (Perkins, 1999) with no understanding of its significance. Are the experiential targets spelt out at the start of the opera? the stand-up routine? the liturgy?

And another one On Nostalgia:

I signed up for a Cambridge University Extension course on epistemology, but I missed the first session last week, unfortunately. We are a group of about sixteen people; I may be the youngest, and the oldest is clearly well into his eighties (I hope I am as acute, when/if I reach that age). We are also, sadly, entirely white and –I suppose almost by definition– middle class.
However, I got a course outline (two sides of A4) which specified a “syllabus” with “aims” and “content” but no “objectives”, a sheet of guidance for the essay (it was already clear that submission of the assessment was primarily to ensure the continued funding of the course by the university, and had little to do with assessment of learning, although one can apparently accumulate credits towards a certificate if so inclined), and a reading list.
The session was around two hours, with a coffee-break. The tutor lectured, with occasional questions and thought experiments directed at us, and occasionally (well, quite regularly) having to field spontaneous questions from “students”. He had a white-board, on which he wrote basic propositions, about three times. There were no handouts. There were no transparencies. There was no PowerPoint.
It was brilliant.

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