10 April 2014

On the Whole Game

 (An expanded version of a piece for the student newsletter, with links and references.)

I took a workshop session at a recent Study Day on "Emotional Aspects of Learning and Teaching"—of course it had to be very selective, and I missed out one very important emotion; boredom. I was reminded of that at some of the teaching observations I have done recently, and how much of a challenge it poses to the teacher. When we express concerns about behaviour management, many of the problems follow from learners being bored.

Many years ago, David Hargreaves suggested that teachers fall into three categories; lion-tamers, entertainers, and "new romantics". Lion-tamers believe that learners do not want to learn, but they will if you crack the whip hard enough. Entertainers also believe that learners do not want to learn, but they will if you make it fun enough. New romantics are foolish enough to believe that learners do actually want to learn, and the job of the teacher is as much to get out of the way as anything else. Lion-taming is the position taken by many starting teachers—often because they are nervous. It is something of a dead end, because once students detect nerves, they close in. But there is something in both the other positions.

At least the entertainers recognise the pernicious effects of boredom—it's just that all too often overcoming it becomes the prime objective, often to the detriment of actually learning anything. The new romantics, while they may be accused of some naivety, are aware that teachers can sometimes be impediments to learning. If the prime requirement of medical personnel is "first of all, do no harm", that of teachers may well be, "first of all, don't turn students off".

And yet we do actively, if unintentionally, do that.

I'm thinking particularly of vocational courses I have sat in on over the past few years, and how boring they often are. The teachers try to liven them up with activities and an engaging manner, but they are trying to roll a rock up a hill, and the moment they relax the boredom rolls back in.

Why? There are many reasons of course, but one is the way the content has been pre-processed and pre-digested so that it can be taught in small incremental gobbets, each of which can be assessed and added to a portfolio. The learners go through the motions, and they do "achieve", but there is little connection with the real world in what they have to do, and it is indeed boring.

(And PowerPoint doesn't help, either. It defaults to bullet-points and there is nothing more calculated to fragment content and lose any sense of context and connection than a bulleted list. See, of course, Edward Tufte on this.)
“M... was teaching a group of nursery nurses coming to the end of their [...] course, and she was, as she said, tidying up loose ends. Their syllabus required them to have studied team-working [... ]

At a technical level, M. is a good teacher: she tried to draw information and ideas out of the students but since they had little experience to draw on, she could not get the “right” answers from them. […] At last, she put up on the whiteboard the three essential components of good team-working ... I thought at first, that was interesting. Then I put myself in the position of the students, who were dutifully making notes, and thought, they have to remember these points for their exam: there is a lot more to studying in this area than I thought. Perhaps I ought to make a note of these points for my own future reference?

Then I “woke up”. [...] I have been involved in team-working for the past twenty years, working in and leading teams myself, and conducting training and consultancy on it. There was nothing “wrong” with the three points on the board, but I had never conceptualised the issue to myself in that way, and I saw no particular advantage in doing so.[...] They seemed to represent the outcome of the text-book author’s search for three simple headings under which to organise his required thousand words on team-working. But for these students, this was now the definitive knowledge on the subject, to which their experience had to be subordinated ... As M. said afterwards, it was what they were expected to “know”... (1999)
On another of many occasions:
This class was part of an "access" course. (Access courses provide an alternative route to "A" levels for mature students wanting to go on to train for—chiefly—occupations such as nursing, social work, and teaching. Many access students are women whose youngest child has started school.) It was on Human Growth and Development, and concerned language acquisition, exploring the competing accounts from Skinner and Chomsky. It proceeded in a rather pedestrian but informative session for the first half, and then there was a brief comfort break. When the students came back, they were much more animated, swapping stories about their children and when they had started talking, and the mistakes they made. The teacher could barely get a word in edgeways...

Afterwards, she was very apologetic. "I'm sorry about the second half—I really let it get away from me, didn't I?" It took her a while to realise that those animated conversations in the second half would have provided a solid experiential base for the ideas of the first half, had she been able to swap the lesson round—and with a little more practice she could have drawn the formal "teaching points" out of what the students already knew at one level, but had not yet conceptualised.
    (And with one of my own classes);
    We were discussing the importance of making content relevant to learners' experience, and I referred to a session I had observed a few days ago, in which the teacher (also teaching about motivation, and stuck in a bind about having to "deliver" prescribed schemes of work, but doing her best) had taught well on the basis of "this is stuff out there which you need to know in order to pass the assessment".

    She could have connected and taught much better by drawing on the learners' shared interest in sport. This wasn't accidental. It was a course about "Sport Leadership" [...]

    But hey! Motivation and sport are topics made for each other.

    I know nothing about sport. [...] But even I could see this connection and use it to get the class discussing forms of motivation and the tactics coaches use to hype it up...
    (More on the observations behind these reflections here and here, and an interesting post about what professors can learn from coaches [in the US context], here. The Access example nicely suits Kolb's learning cycle, too)

    Attempting to reduce material to simple concrete items which can be made a note of or memorised sucks all the life out of it. It strips away the context, and it is context which brings it alive. Without that, the knowledge is in David Perkins' (and A N Whitehead's) term, "inert". It's not used—"it just sits in the mind's attic, unpacked only when specifically called for by a quiz or a direct prompt but otherwise gathering dust." (More here, from Perkins 1995:22)

    Put it into context and a sequence—draw on your experience, or better still get the learners to draw on their own experience if possible—and it becomes a story. Much more memorable and engaging.
    I sat in on a class last week which included why certain finishes might be used for partitions in a building. Sadly, the students were bored much of the time; they weren't concentrating, and they drifted off the task at the merest opportunity. The teacher agreed later that she had had to act like a sheep-dog, trying to keep them together and going in the right direction...

    But then—it might have been a slight digression—but the teacher was talking about how fast-food restaurants use bright colours, especially red, to get customers energised and more inclined to eat and move on, rather than to relax over a leisurely meal. I remember that and it will probably come back to me next time I have a hamburger, but I still can't think what the three types of building plaster are...

    And then during groupwork a student told a spontaneous—and relevant—story about how his firm had modified an original design in order to improve the customer's requirement for better soundproofing; the body language of the rest of the group clearly showed how the material was making sense and coming alive.

    David Ausubel (1968) famously (well, relatively, if you move in the right circles) said that the most important determinant of learning is what the learner already knows. From this he developed the principle (already known to good teachers for centuries, of course) of the Advance Organizer. It's an introductory strategy to put the lesson into the context of what the students already know, but in practice it can be used at any time, as the teacher mentioned above did, without being aware of it. Hattie rates them as just below average effect-size (0.38), but on the other hand they are so easy to use, what's not to like?

    And back with sport as a context, and with David Perkins; he explores these matters in what he calls the "whole game" approach to teaching:
    'Perkins sees two unfortunate tendencies in education: One is what he calls “elementitis”—learning the components of a subject without ever putting them together. The other is the tendency to foster “learning about” something at the expense of actually learning it. “You don't learn to play baseball by a year of batting practice,” he noted, but in learning math[s], for instance, students are all too often presented with prescribed problems with only one right solution and no clear indication how they connect with the real world.
    'The way to let young learners play the whole game is to find or construct a junior version of it. ...
    It is in many respects the obsession with enabling learners to "achieve" their qualifications, rather than actually to become better builders, hairdressers, nursery nurses or travel agents which leads to this denaturing of the course content and the stultifying boredom which besets many classes—and which learners compensate for by messing about.

    As ever, read Becker (again).

    Hargreaves D (1972) Interpersonal Relations and Education London; Routledge and Kegan Paul

    Perkins D N (2009) Making Learning Whole; how seven principles of teaching can transform education San Francisco; Jossey-Bass (Also discussed on the blog here.)

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