The Real Dichotomy: Part 1

“I am mad but north-northwest; when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.”

Discrimination can be a good thing. In terms of learning, it is arguable that ultimately all learning is based upon the recognition of elements of sameness or difference. For example, despite the enormous differences between some breeds of dogs, we still recognise that they have some doggy features in common. We discriminate between quantities by measurement or counting. We discriminate between fashions, styles of music, genres of films. Inevitably, as we move further from the concrete to matters of taste or opinion, the discriminations become more subjective.

Some discriminations are more important to get right than others. As anyone who has made the mistake will know, choosing the diesel pump for a diesel car is a discrimination one must get right 100% of the time.  When we are blurred in our discriminations, sometimes unexpected consequences can result. For example, it is arguable that many people confused Hitler with someone who was essentially looking for peace. Or perhaps a doctor confuses the symptoms of a brain tumour with stress, with tragic results (less tragic for the doctor than the patient).

A lack of accurate discrimination in our thinking can make us less effective as practitioners. When we use our language inaccurately, we create grey zones in our thinking. And in these grey zones our thoughts move as in a mist, uncertain amongst the shifting shapes generated by the language of politics, ambition, peer approval, fear, or the desperation of a wet Thursday afternoon in a room full of damp, gently steaming children. These shifting shapes are the myths that cloud our thinking, the unthinking assumptions that limit our development as practitioners.

The most critical and damaging myth in education today? The competition is fierce. Daisy Christodolou wrote about seven, and they were all worth it. The notion that research isn’t much use in the classroom, because it’s steeped in theory? A contender, although it might qualify more as an excuse than a myth. That the problem is with the systems, and if we can make the systems fairer everything will improve? Expensive to test, but not much chance of that nowadays. Paying “better” teachers more will improve outcomes? Well, no, only a politician would believe that.

The most important confusion, the point of discrimination which vast numbers of us blur to our own cost, and that of our students, is this: most teachers, much of the time, use behavioural techniques to help students learn. In the name of all kinds of theories, fashions, schools of thought, movements, innovations and fads, teachers will conceal this from themselves through their use of language. For many of us, the last thing we would ever want to be called is behaviourist. But in the daily pressure of the classroom, the rapid-fire to and fro of human interaction in the school community that forms and dissolves daily like waves on the shore,  it is behavioural principles that teachers employ to navigate their way and steer their students towards doing the Right Thing – Learning.

I am not arguing against using behavioural methods. I am arguing that it is our unwillingness to admit it that stops us employing behavioural principles more effectively.

I don’t torture rats. I would never treat my students like pigeons pecking for crumbs of bread. I’m not into punishments. Rewards? Not true motivation – wouldn’t dream of them! I’m into building intrinsic motivation, instilling a love of learning, encouraging my students to read for pleasure, creating lifelong learners!

If you reacted with the sentiments of the first sentence in that paragraph, you were pummelling a straw man. If you made any of the claims in its last sentence, you were endorsing behavioural principles which have been established and articulated through decades of scientific research. They are also principles that many of us learn intuitively, and that is where most teachers pick them up – “it’s just what I’ve found works in my classroom.”

It works because it’s how people work. And the more deeply we understand how people work, the more use we are as teachers.

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