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On getting it right

Some time ago, in an earlier version of my "Apologia", I said that my feeling on retirement would be that if I could just have one more go at teaching my courses, I could really get them right. Well, I have retired, in some sense. I still feel that way. But whatever the aspiration, I got it wrong.

It just does not work that way. Indeed, to assume that it does betrays a degree of arrogance. Every student is different. Every class is different. Every subject is different. Every teacher is different.

Teacher training courses—of which I have some experience—presume to teach as if there were a "correct" way to teach. I suppose there is, at a certain minimal level, but that level is more about avoiding getting things wrong, rather than specifying what is "right". There is often an element of:

  • Received wisdom: educational theory is not precise or absolute. It is subject to the vagaries of fashion and culture. Teacher education programmes pass that on from generation to generation, as demonstrated by debates about the teaching of reading, or the importance of grammar, or the potential of e-learning.
  • Defensive practice: go through these motions, and QAA, Ofsted, ALI et al. won't be able to criticise me.
    • Recite the lesson objectives at the start of the lesson. Even better, show a slide with them on and give them out as a handout. It will make no sense to the students, but what the heck?
    • Show differentiation: everyone is going to get a different lesson according to their needs, particularly according to their learning styles. That's hard enough to do in a session plan, never mind in practice: and (see "Received wisdom" above) most of the learning styles stuff is rubbish anyway.

What is “right” anyway?

Despite the language of aims and objectives, few people acknowledge that they might be contradictory:

  1. Blow the technicalities—if I can get them to understand that without double-entry book-keeping modern business just wouldn't work, so it is a revolutionary and exciting innovation, then everything else will follow.
  2. On completion of this session, students will be able to use double-entry principles to assign a simple transaction to its proper account.
  3. We won't get any complaints, and the achievement statistics will be as predicted or better.
  4. I left the classroom in one piece.

The second is easier to achieve than the first (which may be well-nigh impossible) but which are you going to take as the baseline of achievement? (See the section on evaluation.) The discourses of what constitutes a successful session are myriad and inconsistent, depending on your philosophy. The discourse of the current hegemony (in plain language—the way the bosses see it, up to the political level) may not be yours.

As for the third: if that is the one you are working to, you are burnt out (or a manager, which may be the same thing) and have lost touch with learning and teaching.

And the fourth: oh dear!

This is a slightly (?) cynical take on the situation. But the message may be—if you are consistently meeting your criterion, raise the bar! (As in high-jump, rather than pub.)

Nobody gets it right all the time

Even so; even with a consensus on what is "right"/"good practice"/"success" we get close to it and we drift off it. Why? Because learning and teaching are complex phenomena. 30 years ago, people like Gagné thought they had the recipe for "successful instruction". We are no longer so sure.

Analogously (I know no way to establish that this is more than an analogy) successful "learning-and-teaching" is like a "strange attractor": in other words (or just in words) it is a phenomenon which swings around its target but never quite settles there. And never will.

We have no record of occasions when people walked away from Socrates shaking their heads and wondering what on earth (or beyond) he was on about. Quintillius, Comenius, Thomas Arnold, A S Neill (and especially yours truly) did not get it "right" all the time. History is written by the victors.

  • On the whole, only success finds its way into the textbooks and articles; we keep disasters to ourselves or share them only with friends and trusted colleagues.
  • But accepting and learning from failure is the only way forward.
    • Most of the stuff on "learning styles" was misguided, it appears. But the people who researched it didn't know that (apart from a few who were simply "on the make"). Their ideas just didn't work in the end. There is no shame in that. They were misled by their enthusiasm: long may such mistakes contribute to the advance of our understanding.

It is both practically and even theoretically impossible to get it right all the time.

All you can control is your contribution to the overall system.

So learn from experience (not just from mistakes) and by the time you retire you too might have the fantasy that you have learned enough to get it right next time!

And I'm partly retiring from being retired, so who knows...?

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This is an archived copy of Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching [On-line: UK] Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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