What should we try to achieve in a lesson? The value of teaching maths, English or French is rarely questioned, but teachers often hope to teach confidence, character and creativity as well. This post sets out my understanding of the evidence on doing so.
Teaching transferable skills
Teachers may hope to help their students become creative, collaborative, critical thinkers. Teaching students to cooperate in history may help them cooperate better in science, but almost anything else we might want for students, such as creativity, communication and critical thinking, cannot be taught in one context and then transferred to another. Teaching problem solving in science does not seem to make students any better at solving problems in other subjects: skills transfer between contexts and disciplines in the most limited and reluctant ways, if at all. Critical thinking, for example, depends on an individual’s depth of knowledge, understanding and experience within the field of study (Bailin et al., 1999). Expertise depends on the depth and structure of an individual’s knowledge in a field: the idea that there are generalised reasoning skills which can be taught had been undermined sufficiently that a review almost three decades ago could report seeing almost “the last nail in the coffin of general cognitive skills (Perkins and Salomon, 1989).”*
The key to creativity and critical thinking seems to be to teach the subject well. If we want students to think critically in maths, that must be part of maths teaching. If we want students to be creative in English, it must be part of English teaching. First, students need sufficient knowledge: trying to make them better problem solvers while also teaching the structure of the atom is likely to achieve no more than one of these goals – or neither. With sufficient knowledge, we can challenge students to apply what they have learned critically and creatively. Sixth Formers can solve problems effectively and collaboratively because several years’ learning the subject has shown them what success looks like and they can therefore divide and manage tasks appropriately. An effective lesson plan will therefore focus on goals in the subject – including applying what has been learned critically and creatively – aiming to teach generic, transferable skills is unachievable and a distraction.
Teachers may hope to build students’ confidence, motivation and self-efficacy. Planning lessons to build confidence and motivation may put the cart before the horse however: student confidence seems to rely on learning the subject too:
“Teachers who are confronted with the poor motivation and confidence of low attaining students may interpret this as the cause of their low attainment and assume that it is both necessary and possible to address their motivation before attempting to teach them new material. In fact, the evidence shows that attempts to enhance motivation in this way are unlikely to achieve that end. Even if they do, the impact on subsequent learning is close to zero (Gorard, See & Davies, 2012). In fact the poor motivation of low attainers is a logical response to repeated failure (Coe et al., 2014).”
Moreover, just like skills, self-efficacy – confidence in one’s own abilities – is domain-specific (a student may believe themselves brilliant in geography and hopeless in German).
Coe et al., (2014) offer a simple suggestion: “Start getting them to succeed and their motivation and confidence should increase.” The most important contributor to self-efficacy is experience of mastery (the second-greatest is seeing others succeed (Bandura, 1982)). We can develop students’ self-efficacy by supporting them to achieve genuine academic achievement and then helping them recognise and reflect on their growth. This is more worthwhile (and more honest) than trying to give students false confidence: engendering false confidence is hard anyway – students are not easily fooled. Teachers do need to instill enough confidence to ensure students put pen to paper: but once students have started, it is the concrete work of showing them what success looks like, helping them to improve and ensuring they notice what they have achieved which will build confidence and motivation.
Teachers may hope to develop students’ wisdom and maturity by providing opportunities for students to gain flashes of insight about themselves, one another and the world. It is hard to conceive of activities which provide opportunities to do this and also teach quadratic equations however: lessons usually end up focusing either on social goals, squeezing out academic learning, or add cosmetic features which distract from the lesson; mixing purposes diminishes both.
Character, creativity and cognitive flexibility seem to develop from experiencing disorienting experiences and reflection upon them. Violations of norms and physical laws seem to broaden our perspectives and make us more creative; (Ritter et al., 2012). Foreign travel increases creativity and trustingness for others, while also loosening our moral standards (Lu et al., 2017). The National Trust’s list of fifty things to do before you’re 11¾ is an example of what we might wish for students: go stargazing, roll down a hill, find your way with a map and compass (National Trust, n.d.). These are experiences for co-curricular activities and days off timetable however, not lessons: it’s hard to replicate the experience of climbing a mountain between 10.30 and 11.30 on Tuesdays while also teaching the past tense. Teachers can help students mature, but it makes sense to focus on academic learning during lessons, and broader education goals as a tutor and through leading extra-curricular activities.
If we hope to develop students’ wisdom and maturity, it may be best to create opportunities outside lesson time. Whatever we’re trying to achieve for our students during a lesson, it seems the first step is to teach the subject well: so that students develop deep, structured knowledge. The more students know about the subject, the more structured this knowledge, the more we can build on it by:
- Asking students to apply their knowledge critically
- Helping students reflect on what they have learned to develop self-efficacy
- Asking students to solve problems creatively
Doing any of these well however, relies on us teaching the subject well: if we do not do so, we build students’ confidence, creativity and critical thinking on foundations of sand.
* This article proceeded to claim that there might still be some circumstances and contexts in which skills do transfer. The examples given operated under very limited circumstances however, and the bold conclusions seemed to go beyond the evidence provided.
Lu, J., Quoidbach, J., Gino, F., Chakroff, A., Maddux, W. and Galinsky, A. (2017). The dark side of going abroad: How broad foreign experiences increase immoral behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(1), pp.1-16.
Ritter, S., Damian, R., Simonton, D., van Baaren, R., Strick, M., Derks, J. and Dijksterhuis, A. (2012). Diversifying experiences enhance cognitive flexibility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4), pp.961-964.