How do we teach when it’s possible our students might die?

This blog is a copy of a comment I made in response to Sue Cowley who commented on this post about having a content repertoire. She suggested that maybe learning to walk in the hills was a matter of learning through ‘group work’. The irony of this comment is that, in reality, I learnt about hillwalking in a highly structured way, not least because the risks associated with outdoor activities involve death and serious injury. Now I am not suggesting that all people learn about hillwalking and other outdoor pursuits in the way I describe here, but I suspect the model I describe (explicit instruction – observed practice – independent practice) is very common indeed.

The first point to make is that, unlike in reading, maths or history, if people go and do hillwalking without the basics in place, people can die. Mountains are dangerous places and people do die every year. It’s worth reading Mountain Rescue annual reports: sometimes experienced people get hurt, but many of the callouts they get are from people who did not know what they needed to know for the location or conditions. The risks aren’t just there in mountainous regions: I’ve watched Duke of Edinburgh’s Award groups plan a walk along a river (“I think you’ll find that’s the M11”) and to climb across a ‘fence’ (“so that’d be the East Coast Main Line”).

So, with these risks in place, how was I taught about hillwalking?

When I was about 16 I signed up for something called Ten Tors on Dartmoor. They put teams of 6 out on the moor for two days and ask you to navigate a 35-, 45- or 55-mile route. For several months I had to attend lunchtime and after-school classes where we were taught how to read a map, how to use a compass, how to dress, what we needed to carry, how to put up a tent, how to cook on a camp stove, emergency first aid and rescue procedures. We did this over the winter, and each session essentially involved a talk by our teacher, who was a qualified Mountain Leader and a member of a Mountain Rescue team. This was very much an expert giving explicit instruction to novices.

When the spring came about he took us away each weekend, initially for a day, then for the whole weekend. At first an experienced adult walked with us, reminding us of how to navigate, how to use a compass and so on. Our teacher would watch as we practised, letting us make mistakes, correcting these when we got them wrong, and gradually giving us more and more independence as we made the transition from novice to basic competence. Once that teacher was satisfied that we could be safe on our own, we were let out independently, and the teacher would arrange to meet us at various waypoints along the way. Eventually we reached a point where we were able to complete the two-day expedition with complete independence.

After this I went to university and went out walking with a walking club. Here, although in theory I was part of a group, I regularly went walking with experienced walkers who would teach me new things (e.g. scrambling) and correct me when I was making a mistake. Over a few years I went from being the competent beginner to the experienced walker, and I began teaching the new people who joined the club. Nevertheless, whenever I wanted to push myself, I would employ (now at a cost!) the services of a teacher. I wanted bang for my buck (a mountain guide can cost over £300 a day) and again explicit instruction was what I needed. I had explicit, teacher-led instruction on rock-climbing, winter-walking (wearing crampons, using an ice axe), alpine mountaineering, mountain first aid and then (when I wanted to qualify as a mountain leader) in mountain leadership. The process was the same: as a novice the most helpful thing was explicit, teacher-led instruction, which then progressed to the teacher observing me practise, before I was able to practise on my own.

Now this is a model of pedagogy I think we should be using in schools. For novices who know little, the close tuition of a teacher is essential. As time goes on pupils, once they have got some basics, can practise under the observation of a teacher, before gaining more independence. It is normally at the latter stage that ‘group work’ begins to become useful, as each member of the group is sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to correct the mistakes of other people in the group. Now, my experienced friends and I regularly challenge each other on the best course of action, and the reason we can do that is because we had so much explicit instruction early on.

In situations where death and serious injury are possible, this approach to teaching is very, very common.

Yet when it comes to learning academic subjects in school, the stakes are not as high. The unspoken, or even unrealised, assumption is that we can risk illiteracy, innumeracy and ignorance on a teaching strategy that is less likely to be effective.

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8 Comments on How do we teach when it’s possible our students might die?

  1. “As time goes on pupils, once they have got some basics, can practise under the observation of a teacher, before gaining more independence. It is normally at the latter stage that ‘group work’ begins to become useful, as each member of the group is sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to correct the mistakes of other people in the group.”

    This all seems quite coherent, but why would you suspect that “group work” is only useful as it allows mistakes to be corrected. Also there are lots of others methods of identifying mistakes than listening to a teacher. Learning about hillwalking is an interesting context but not one that is particularly generalisable I think.

    The following seems to indicate a blinkered view of education and comes across to me as incredibly pompous and arrogant. Many teachers use the “explicit instruction – observed practice – independent practice” model every day of the week.

    “The unspoken, or even unrealised, assumption is that we can risk illiteracy, innumeracy and ignorance on a teaching strategy that is less likely to be effective.”

    An interesting topic.

  2. Brian is a sock puppet account of a more well-known blogger/tweeter. I don’t think he/she adds anything to the discussion but uses the anonymity to attack people one way or another. If there was a counter argument to the usefulness of groups at different stages of learning ‘Brian’ could have spent some time on that but instead launches in ad homs. That is all that the account is about. The references to the article are simply to give an air of respectability to the insults then hurled. I hope you don’t mind Michael but it needs to be said as it’s the same format when ‘Brian’ replies.

    As for your post. Laura McInerney went though the whole notion of group work and it’s effectiveness in the her researchEd talk and backs up your ideas and experience entirely.

  3. Tom Burkard // 14 April 2016 at 09:16 // Reply

    You chose an interesting example! When I was in the TA in the 1980s I was a mapreading instructor, and with only two weekends per year and one training camp every two years (this was the Pioneers, which like other sponsored units had a minimal training requirement), we were hard pressed to deliver anything like the level of training needed. I learned my tradecraft before I joined, and after I led a patrol around a 7 mile course through the Black Isle and got them into the nearest pub long before anyone else finished, they slapped a couple of stripes on me and had me teaching 6-figure grid references the following day.

    In theory, our training was very similar to what you describe: in the Army, all skills are taught through the cycle of Explain, Demonstrate, Imitate and Practice. ‘EDIP’ is the key acronym on Methods of Instruction courses. However, we never had anything like enough time to teach the basics in classrooms or in camp before our men had to practise them in the field. So inevitably, on night exercises you’d just send each patrol out with one man who at least knew the training area, if not how to use a map and compass. This was the only way you could be sure that you wouldn’t have to call in outside help if a section didn’t return that night. This inevitably meant that each patrol had one or two chaps struggling with map and compass, and the rest following like sheep. You had directing staff dotted around at the RVs the men were supposed to pass through, so at least you knew where to start looking when a patrol got lost. Then I didn’t know anything about what passed for educational theory, but clearly this is the inevitable outcome of group work.

    I decided to earn my corporal’s pay, and set about designing an exercise that would ensure that each and every man at least knew how to use a compass. First, I did as I was trained to do: I planned a lesson which had a clear and achievable objective–in this case, how to set a Silva compass to a given course and to follow it. Next, I chose a training area with minimal distractions–in this case, our football pitch, which was at a fair distance from our NAAFI. Then I worked out on paper a course which had five RVs–in this case, simply flags stuck in the ground and were marked Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta and Echo–and calculated the bearings between each one. Then I devised a different course card for each man–they were given a series of 5 compass bearings, and to set their compasses and march off to the correct flag, and write down the letter on it. Then they reset their compass to the next bearing, and so it went.

    It took about an hour to set this up, and just prior to sending the men around the course, they had the Explanation and Demonstration, followed by a bit of Imitation. Then they got the Practice. It was rather fun watching all these guys marching around in different directions–seeming chaos disguising a well-calculated plan. The directing staff then checked each course card against my key. It worked a treat–every man got it right. This exercise was in use long after I left the TA. After all, we had used ‘group work’ before only because of the lack of a suitable alternative, not because of any ideological bias.

  4. Well I didn’t expect my comment to lead to an entire blog post in response, but thank you for taking the time to answer in detail. 😉

    I wonder, how far is learning in a group different to group work? A lot of things are learned very well (indeed, can mostly only be learned) in a group, such as team sports or drama – the ‘in a group’ is part of the whole learning experience. Is there a way in which people learn in groups, via direct instruction, but also from each other and through direct experience, all at the same time, which seems to be what you are describing here?

    Is the instructor the only person we learn from when we are in a group? What should we do if the instructor tells us to do something that we feel is not right for us to do? (As in those awful cases recently where some army trainees died of heat exhaustion during a training walk.) As you’ve experienced yourself, it kind of tends to be a sliding scale as to who is an expert in any given situation. (Although rock and mountain climbing is a fairly extreme example because of the complex technical aspects.) But say if one of your fellow trainees was a nurse, would he probably have more knowledge and expertise than the instructor to bring to the group about first aid?

    What should I do in the classroom if a child knows more about a subject than me? (as may well happen, for instance, if I am talking about dinosaurs with a child who is a dinosaur fanatic, i.e. my son). I just don’t think it’s as clear cut as novice/expert, although I’d love to hear your thoughts on the other two bits of my question (learning through interests and learning via direct experience). Would you have learned as well in a classroom, as on the mountain? Are there some subjects that we can only learn, or learn best, through experiencing them? (I’m thinking for instance of the knowledge that “nettles sting” and how our preschool children learn this fascinating fact.)

    • A lot to respond to here so apologies if I don’t hit everything. On interests, I think interests grow and become more complex over time: the more you do something, the more interested in it you become, though I reckon the best way to become interested in something is to be curious as to why someone else finds it so interesting: someone over on the ‘experienced’ end of the novice-expert scale can open up a world of wonder that probably can’t even be imagined by the novice.

      On experience, explicit instruction can happily take place in a ‘realistic’ setting. So a driving instructor will explicitly instruct a learner who is sat in the driving seat for the first time.

      On the other point, I think it’s really about bounding the thing being taught and being clear about what that is, and much will come down to the nature of the activity. Does one need to work in a group to become a brilliant mathematician? Not really. Does someone need to work in a group to become a star football player? Definitely. And yes, such groups can and are explicitly instructed, but as individuals build up expertise they can contribute to the wider growth of the team. But, and this is the crucial point, this primarily applies when the group is part of the thing itself.

      • Thanks Michael. Can ‘the thing itself’ be wider than the subject, I wonder? For instance, our Forest Club sessions are about learning in a mix of various subjects, including things like nature, geography, science and listening skills, but also how to ‘work as a team’. Does all expertise come from explicit instruction, and where does that leave the role of failure in learning – how do I get to fail and learn from that if I am always having my hand held? And if I don’t learn to fail and cope, what happens if I fail when my instructor is not there?

        I also wonder about why it might be that you became so interested in hill walking, while (despite having been taken up Scafell Pike, Snowdon, etc. as a child, and my sister being a keen climber who at one time was in the top 3 women climbers in the UK) I never got taken by that particular interest. I find the same with my own kids, that despite introducing them to very similar things, their interests and likely career paths remain stubbornly individual!

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