I have a great deal of respect for those currently pushing ‘grass-root’ teacher movements, such as ResearchEd and the College of Teaching. I’m very excited to have signed up to a ResearchEd event in Cambridge, and the profession is advancing quickly at the moment in part as a consequence of these movements. My hunch, however, is that such organisations are working from a false premise, which is that teaching can in some sense be understood to be a generic form of activity. I want to use this post to explain why I think this premise is false.
In a nutshell, it comes down to the fact that I see teaching (like ‘writing’ or ‘researching’) as being domain-specific. I do not think there is much a historian can teach a physicist about how to do research (or vice versa), and, if a budding crime writer wants to be taught how to write novels, I would not suggest (at least in the majority of cases) working with someone who writes cookery books. Practices such as ‘teaching’, ‘writing’ and ‘researching’ are domain-specific: the form they take in different domains is dependent on the nature of that domain. Let’s take this a bit further.
Consider, for the moment, one of the world’s leading mathematicians who has made a major breakthrough in number theory. In order for this mathematician to share her new discovery (or invention – I’m staying out of that one) she has to teach other mathematicians about it. She might do this by writing a paper for a scholarly journal in which she aims to bring readers to an understanding of her discovery. She most probably will stand up at a conference and explain to her audience about her work. It is quite likely that she might have to answer a question from a member of the audience. In all of these cases, this expert mathematician is making judgements about her audience. What do they know? What possible misconceptions might they have? Where might I need to use an analogy to explain something? At the same time she probably has to think about the forms of explanation that might best convey what she wants her audience to understand – she has a whole range of appropriate methods available to her, such as giving a structured explanation of a proof. As an expert, she is working to bring about an understanding of something she knows about and they do not: she is teaching her fellow mathematicians.
Let’s move to a different world. A cricket coach is teaching boys in a village junior team how to play the forward defensive. The cricket coach is confident that he knows how to do it: he has played the shot a thousand times on and off the pitch, but the boys do not have much idea about it at all. The coach decides to teach this through a session in the nets. He gets the boys to look at a diagram first, then he demonstrates how to play the shot himself, and then he gets each boy to have a go, repeating time and again the correct footwork and movement of the arms and bat. He might use a bowling machine and get the boys to practise time and again the shot until they do not get it wrong. In the match on Sunday he watches the team bat, and then tells each of the players how well they were playing that shot. Again, it is worth considering what this coach is doing. He is working out what his players need to know. He knows where they most commonly go wrong, and he knows which techniques are particularly useful for getting the boys to play the shot correctly. He is acting in such a way as to bring about the boys’ ability to play a forward defensive: he is teaching them.
These two examples are deliberately not taken from secondary schools: I want to demonstrate that teaching as a practice is intricately tied up with the thing that I am teaching. It is highly unlikely that the cricket coach could help the mathematician teach others about her research any more than the mathematician could advise the cricket coach on how to be a better teacher. Yet it is a common assumption in secondary schools today that a teacher of one thing is well placed to give advice to teachers of another. I would strongly recommend reading Heather F’s blog on this as an example of the importance of subject expertise in giving feedback to another teacher.
So how does all of this pan out in the current drive for a research-based profession? I would begin with a large dose of scepticism about the notion of ‘what works’. This is not to say that we cannot have better or worse teaching methods: it is self evident we can. This is also not to say that it is not possible to do research in order to discover what those method are: I am convinced we can. Whether or not those methods are good or not, however, is completely dependent on the nature of the thing being taught. Being facetious, if you want to teach someone how to ‘do Brain Gym’, then getting them to rub their temples and what not is actually quite effective!
This is why ‘what works’ research bothers me. It is not that I disagree with the principle that we can find out better and worse teaching techniques. This research, however, has to take the form ‘what works for teaching x’.
The implications of this might well be unsettling for those who are fans of intra-school research communities. Running a whole-school training day on teaching methods is (if teaching is domain-specific) a waste of time, as a strategy that works very well in one subject may well not work very well in another. Insights from cognitive psychology might well sound generic as they handle things like ‘memory’ which have to be employed when learning all things, but the moment one prods the surface of this it again becomes apparent that things have to be subject-specific. We know that regular knowledge recall is important – but which knowledge? What knowledge structures? What concepts? These immediately become domain-specific questions.
I am not a sceptic when it comes to teaching being a research-based profession: I am writing this post in part to avoid having to finish off a PhD thesis on the kinds of curriculum research that history teachers have done over the last decade. I am quite sceptical, however, about anything which situates research outside of subject domains.
For my posts on doing research as a teacher, see:
For my posts on using insights from cognitive psychology in a particular domain, see: