On not losing the ‘what’ in the ‘how’

I followed an interesting discussion on Twitter this week where David Didau lampooned a resource given to @MissNQT at a NQT training event. The resource advocated a variety of ‘activities’ that could be tailored for particular pupils. I would agree with all of the criticisms made by David, but I want to add a little more on what I see as the central problem here: this is yet another example of how in teaching we tend to prioritise ‘how’ we teach over ‘what’ we teach.

When I was a new teacher, I used to think that the key to good teaching was getting the activity right. If only I had a good activity, the lesson would go well. I would spend hours trying to devise ever more complicated tasks replete with clever analogies that I thought would make it easier for pupils to learn what it was that I wanted them to learn. In some lessons pupils ripped my lovingly designed activity to shreds (a bad lesson) and in others they enthusiastically went through every step in the task (a good lesson). This was a belief embedded by a performance management system that emphasised ‘set pieces’ in one-off lessons: the quality of the lesson was closely related to the quality of the activities.

Over a couple of years, however, I came to realise that a good lesson was not necessarily one in which I had a fancy activity that pupils completed successfully. I eventually realised that what mattered was not so much how I taught, but what I taught. This message had been stressed to me in my training, but it took me a while to realise the full meaning of this in my own teaching. I needed to spend less time worrying about what precise clever activity I was going to use with pupils, and more about how the knowledge I was teaching in one particular lesson drew on and extended the knowledge pupils had gained in previous lessons. Sequencing of knowledge matters and, even in a fairly prescriptive curriculum, it is still one of the hardest things a teacher has to do as he or she reacts to unpredictable variations in terms of what precisely has stuck in pupils’ prior education.

Just by way of example, in a history lesson this week I read a chapter of Gombrich’s Little History of the World (on the causes of the French Revolution) with my Year 8 class. On reading it through before the lesson, I realised that the key bit of prior knowledge they needed in order to make sense of this chapter was an understanding of the term ‘the Enlightenment’. So, I made sure in the first part of the lesson that that was what I taught them: I made sure that every pupil in the class could give me a basic definition of what the Enlightenment was and what some of its central ideas were.

In many cases, I have found that new teachers often do not think through the prior knowledge requirements of what they are asking pupils to learn, and this results in pupils not grasping what it was the teacher wanted. I have had the pleasure of working with some exceptional trainee teachers and, as a mentor, I very commonly faced trainees who came with the same initial assumption I had had: a funky activity was what was needed to create a successful lesson. I would, inevitably, spend large parts of mentor meetings moving the discussion away from the ‘how’ and in the direction of the ‘what’. What exactly is it that you want pupils to know about the causes of the second Jacobite Rebellion? Write me a list of ideas that pupils need to know before they can make sense of this. What are the key chronological markers they need to have?

And I found, time and again, that these were the questions that made all the difference. Trainees (and experienced teachers, including me) who have not spent enough time thinking through the ‘what’ tend to lack clarity in their explanations and a sense of overriding purpose in their teaching. It does not matter how good the activity is: if the ‘what’ is not clear, no amount of emphasis on the ‘how’ is going to help. Creating dazzling activities requires a great deal of effort for not much gain: in contrast, I have found that thinking through the precise logic of the sequence of lessons and how this fits into a long-term plan makes a far bigger difference to the quality of the lessons.

What concerns me therefore is that designing fun activities is being used as the focus of a NQT training session. I do not know the context in this particular case and it may well be that this discussion of types of activity flowed on from a good amount of time thinking about tsunamis and the Olympics, the kinds of prior knowledge needed to make sense of these things and where studying tsunamis or the Olympics might fit into a long-term plan. But I suspect not. The prioritisation of the ‘how’ over the ‘what’ is endemic in education and it is the kind of problem that no amount of central government reform is going to change: it requires a shift in our very professional culture.

6 Comments on On not losing the ‘what’ in the ‘how’

  1. Michael Fordham // 27 June 2015 at 19:05 // Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Another excellent post Michael. I can remember a similar situation where I taught a “brilliant” “sources” lesson on Russia before the revolution, reaching the end only to realise that students had completely missed the notion of autocratic rule and the concept of serfdom. My following lesson on the 1905 Revolution therefore fell flat on its face. My number one concern now in planning is to combine the development of second order concepts with the requisite knowledge. In particular I now carefully plan through what knowledge will allow students to really access the units. This is one of the reasons I now find teaching the Reformation a joy, rather than the pain it used to be – I focus on developing their key knowledge and context so the whole thing makes sense, even to weaker Year 7s (blog coming on this). In a similar way it has been my starting point for planning new A Levels. I have blogged on this here: http://www.andallthat.co.uk/blog/planning-a-level-how-do-i-know-what-i-want-them-to-know

    It is also the first lesson I do with ITT students – consider what you want to teach and where you want to end up. Then plan how to get there!

  3. A post that sums up so much that is really important in teaching. You may have missed this – it was one of my very early blog posts: https://heatherfblog.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/your-shepherds-pie-requires-improvement/

  4. Dan Willingham never more relevant here: ‘The most general and useful idea that cognitive psychology can offer teachers’ is to ‘review each lesson plan in terms of what the student is likely to think about.’ Simple principle, gets rid of most of these activities.

    Also I love Gombrich’s Little History!

  5. theintrospectionprocess // 29 June 2015 at 06:03 // Reply

    Simon Sinek’s book/TED Talk on ‘Don’t forget the Why?’ Has a similar message. It comes from a leadership perspective but is still valid in that he says we need to start with why we are doing something then how we want to achieve it before we get to what we actually do. Teaching is like those advertisements that have the tag line ‘Not actual game footage’ it’s eye candy and not actual learning if it doesn’t hit the mark of why students need to know/learn this.

  6. You’re right of course. But the ‘how’ matters too. Our plans might involve the most wonderfully planned, logical, academic string, taking students from one key idea to the next in a perfect sequence of steps, but if it doesn’t grab their attention, make them take notice, and invest their time and energy, it counts for naught.

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