On a (Flawed) Grand Unified Theory of Teaching

I work at an IB World School that also offers BTEC and AP qualifications. In addition, we have several courses designed in-house for the final two years of school. We have no governmental requirements for specific standards nor learner outcomes beyond those that come with IB Diploma and AP exams. We are essentially free to do as we wish.

While the IB promotes inquiry-based, interdisciplinary, concept-driven pedagogies, the AP qualifications are only really about outcomes (and what grade students get on their exams) and the BTEC qualification, though promoting a continuous assessment model and vocational experiences, is also more concerned with what you do rather than how (and why) you do it.

In schools like ours, what should be the daily pedagogical “how” that underpins our approaches to the various courses we offer?

Indeed, does there need to be something that unifies the variety of courses with their different profiles, outcomes and purposes?

I would argue that while there are numerous, variously fashionable pedagogical camps (e.g. direct instruction vs inquiry based learning), there do appear to be some forms of teaching and learning that are more effective than others, even if there is no clear consensus.

However, compelling, replicable research that demonstrates that strategies effective for some teachers, contexts and academic disciplines, and for students of particular ages, backgrounds and prior achievement, are significantly effective for all is thin on the ground (if you know of it, let me know!). Frankly, constructing and undertaking studies with any degree of external validity that could provide this educational holy grail – the Grand Unified Theory of teaching – seems unenviably problematic.

And yet, some form of flexible, middle-ground is certainly desirable if a school is to create a cohesive educational experience.

So, here’s my vision for three principles of a Grand Unified Theory for Better Teaching that any educator might be able to tailor and amplify in their own unique contexts:

1. Intrinsic Relevance

The relevance of their learning should be clear to students.

Now, you can tell students how learning is relevant. In fact, do this. However, more importantly, you should also show them by designing experiences that rely on students performing their learning in spaces (physical or digital) that allow them to feel the relevance of this learning as something implicit to a task. Think science fairs, art exhibitions, writing with an audience (blogs, with comments), performances, fiendish problems facing the world.

When you give the learning some performative “stakes” – not too high, not too low – with a little reflective questioning, you also allow the students to attend to the personal relevance of such performances.

2. Learning Made Visible

Learning experiences must be shaped to relentlessly generate evidence of learning for (1) teachers to provide on-going feedback, for (2) teachers to react to learning and for (3) students to reflect and take ownership of their own learning.

How?

Formative assessment strategies, Visible Thinking routines, carefully crafted whole class discussions (using hands down questioning), treating each and every moment as a potential artefact of learning.

And, with attention drawn to learning made visible, you can attend to the metacognitive aspects of the learning, either by front-loading the skills, strategies or processes necessary for success, or revealing them through systematic reflection.

3. Essential Beginnings

There are some things in any academic domain that intellectually and socially empower students. What they are is debatable and a one-size-fits all model can be tricky given variations in personal, social and cultural contexts, particularly in international schools. However, I would contend that to not make decisions about these aspects or to claim that all forms of knowledge are always equal – a kind of epistemological relativism – is worse than not making decisions, regardless of the subsequent (flawed) compromises.

And, no, you cannot just Google it.

The mental models that students create from building a cohesive understanding of at least one aspect of an academic discipline is an opportunity to develop the types of expert understanding that are most likely to promote possible (and highly desirable) interdisciplinary transfer.

Therefore, all teaching must start by thinking about what is essential – what do you want students to know, understand and be able to do? AKA, good old backward by design.

Furthermore, more often than not, I would recommend considering content knowledge first. Why? Skills and understandings are made tangible and meaningful by rich content knowledge. This is not to suggest a strict taxonomy or a sequence – content, concepts and skills are reciprocally and iteratively related – more a personal preference for a planning process that ensures that ethereal, generalisable concepts and skills don’t become forever untethered from content domains and, potentially, misapplied.

Reductionism and Complexity

Any simple list of principles in a task as complex as teaching is reductionist and flawed. However, the act of articulating teaching principles is the first in bringing greater transparency and clarity to the values that underpin and define an educational institution or individual teacher.

A GUT for Better Teaching

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