‘That’s just good teaching’

Gloria Ladson-Billings spent several years in the classrooms of teachers who she argued were practising ‘culturally-relevant teaching’.  In a great article, she described how she frequently shared her findings, only to be told: ‘that’s just good teaching’.  She would first ‘affirm that, indeed, I am describing good teaching, and… [I] question why so little of it seems to be occurring in the classrooms populated by African American students.’  She would then explain why culturally relevant teaching goes beyond ‘just good teaching’ – which is a topic to return to another day.  The main argument of Part I of this blog was that Daniel Willingham argues for important, not novel things.  In response, Willingham noted that:

You’re absolutely right that what I’m saying is not new. It’s the stuff I was teaching to undergraduates in my Introduction to Cognition course for years, and I was quite surprised that this was not old stuff to every teacher. I later found that it *was* old stuff to experienced teachers–but novices often had not learned it during their training.

To adapt Ladson-Billings then, this begs the question, why are we seeing so little of it in classrooms?While I emphasised that this was not new, reading Willingham’s book forcefully reminded me of many of the core questions which should be on my mind all the time as a teacher:

  • Do my students have the prior knowledge to take on this task?
  • How well aligned is the challenge to their current level of attainment?
  • What is the key element or question of the lesson?  How can we focus on this?  What extraneous matter do we need to cut away to ensure focus on this?
  • How can students gain mastery of this concept?
  • What did students really focus on and gain from this lesson?

We know what to do  – we just need to do it

I hope no one would take issue with the importance of these questions.  The only catch is being able to answer them well, all the time.  I’ll be honest here and say that  in some lessons, perhaps many lessons, my answers are not as good as they should be.  Why?  Competing pressures, the breadth of needs in the classroom, the massive amount of work needed to answer every question well, every day.  What I really need is a mechanism to help me think about these things and strive to answer them better.Which reframes the question: not what should we be doing?  Rather, how can we make sure we’re doing this, day-in, day-out, with all our classes, on our worst days.

Which leads me back to Dylan Wiliam…

Dylan Wiliam - in the garden
Dylan Wiliam – in the garden

Dylan Wiliam is one of the few individuals I know of to have downplayed increasing teachers’ knowledge.

It is not primarily a matter of providing teachers with new knowledge, although some knowledge will be important. The crucial thing is to change habits, and traditional teaching structures do not change habits.
Wiliam (2007), p.196

He also makes the point that habits are incredibly hard to break:

For example, a teacher with 20 years of experience will have asked approximately half a million questions in her career. When one has done something a certain way half a million times, doing it another way is very difficult. But there is a deeper reason why change is difficult, even for inexperienced teachers: Teachers learn most of what they know about teaching before they are 18 years old.
Wiliam (2007), p.196

So, what’s the solution?
Willingham acknowledges exactly this problem – as he puts it, we teach at least part of the time ‘on autopilot’ (p.201).  He suggests videoing lessons, which I think is fascinating and unsustainable.  Fascinating because everything I have ever heard about it, from colleagues who have gone through the process, suggests it is a highly revelatory process about your own teaching – and one which I would like to employ myself.  Unsustainable, because, as Willingham is very honest about, it is a huge commitment in terms of time and energy – manageable for some teachers, but a hard task to maintain in the long term and an even harder solution to ‘scale up’ across schools and systems without significant support.  To be fair, Willingham says he is simply going to ‘suggest a method to get you started, but I encourage you to experiment (p.195).

‘So if it’s not videoing, it must be…
Willingham sets out a number of criteria for successful change: feedback (p.193), the support and critique of another (p.197), making changes in small steps (p.202) one at a time (p.200).  If you are familiar with teacher learning communities will note that we are halfway to their five pillars already: gradualism, flexibility, choice, accountability, and support (Wiliam, p.197).Wiliam quotes Millard Fuller, ‘it’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking (p.195)’ than vice versa and argues that, when seeking to change teachers’ ‘ingrained, routinized practice,’ they offer ‘the best hope (p.197).  The teacher learning community I am part of appears to be making some headway in effecting change – by providing new ideas, the incentive to pursue them and the opportunity to reflect upon and improve them.

And that’s not all…
At this point, Dylan Wiliam might point out that his paper, from which I have been quoting so freely, does not argue for teacher learning communities as an end in themselves.  The second half of the paper expounds the rationale for teacher learning communities, in context of the first half: which speaks in favour of implementing formative assessment properly…

Willingham’s argument furthers the case for good formative assessment.
Willingham notes that ‘It’s true that teachers get feedback from their students.  You can tell if a lesson is going well or poorly, but that sort of feedback is not sufficient, because it’s not terribly specific (p.193).’  I would contend that he is crying out for better formative assessment.  There’s nothing like a hinge question for discerning the specifics of how well a lesson is going, for example.

The question ‘Have my students understood?’ which formative assessment seeks to answers, could be reframed, if one wished, thus:

Have my students understood? = Did they have the working memory, the facts, the procedures and the environment to achieve this?

Formative assessment would diagnose success or failure.  Identifying which of Willingham’s four criteria have not been met would be a slightly more complicated task – but, once diagnosed, we are on the way to diagnosing the shortcoming we would be on the road to solving shortcomings

Further Reading:
Wiliam, D. (2007) Content then process: teacher learning communities in the service of formative assessment, in D. B. Reeves (Ed.) Ahead of the curve: the power of assessment to transform teaching and learning. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree, 183 – 204.


04/09/2013 12:44am

liked this! what the research about effective CPD would say is that recpircal vulnerabiltt between teachers trying new things is hugely inportant in a) speeding up trust building to experiment with breaking habits, b) sustaining commitment – the teachers involved don’t want to let each other down c) widening the pool of perspectives about the students involved. Video massively helpful here not least because it evens up power. Observers always have the upper hand because person being observed is focussed on the pupils. But watching video togther changes that. The key is to focus on s specific sub group of pupils and at a partiucalr point in a lesson – that way ten minutes video can suport and structure at least an hour’s sueful, deep professional leanring.


04/09/2013 12:49am

Thanks Philippa – the idea of reciprocal vulnerability is an interesting element – and I guess the video helps overcome our reluctance to show this vulnerability. This is where I think TLCs and being observed by your peers, without the need for fear of consequences, has the edge on other forms of observations. I will try experimenting with video this term and look forward to trying to make this work.