Teaching is technology

” . . . I essentially am not in madness, but mad in craft.” – Hamlet

Long ago, Michael Marland wrote his deservedly famous book, The Craft of the Classroom. True to its title, it is a systematic set of guidelines for new teachers to establish themselves quickly in their vocation. It ought to be standard reading, even now, for all teacher training programmes. (You can read Geoff Barton’s comments on the book and the author here). Defining teaching as a craft is one way of reconciling the ‘art’ and ‘science’ elements of teaching: an aesthetic experience results from the application of acquired skills, and these skills form part of a body of knowledge which is transmitted to new members of the ‘craft’ as they join its ranks.

A related way of thinking about teaching is as a technology. The Oxford Dictionary defines technology as ‘the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes’. A slightly expanded definition on Wikipedia is:

Technology (from Greek τέχνη, techne, “art, skill, cunning of hand”; and -λογία, -logia[1]) refers to the collection of tools, including machinery, modifications, arrangements and procedures used by humans.

It is a broad definition – but, ‘arrangements, modifications and procedures’ clearly encompasses a great deal of what we do in teaching. (Please note that the use of the term “technology” in this post has nothing to do with iPads, computers, IWBs, or other electronics or media. Technology is the application of what the science of learning has taught us, and by science I am referring to the findings of empirical research. More of that at a later time).

A further test of whether a procedure is technological is whether it can be described clearly enough to be replicated. If it is not replicable, it is not technological (Cooper, 2009). On a formal level, we see this in curriculum plans and schemes of work, where we seek to replicate specific arrangements of content, or sometimes teaching strategies. Other places you may see this kind of replication are in the delineation of precise procedures in order to achieve consistent behaviour management, or in the procedures for assessing coursework in a standardised way. That is why much of medicine, for example, is technological: practitioners follow a specified set of procedures to achieve specified outcomes. For the most part, it is not the science of medicine that happens in the GP’s surgery, but the technology of medicine. When it comes to really important – and obvious – outcomes, we do not shy away from ‘modifications, arrangements and procedures’ defined in a replicable way. In fact, we rely on them for critical outcomes.

Curiously, when it comes to ensuring students’ progress in the classroom, we do not tend to use the same approach. Instead, something seems to happen where the importance of self-expression (by teachers and/or students) takes over. The resistance to phonics, for example, tends not to be so much about the question of whether phonics is important for teaching reading as it is about having a programme ‘imposed’ (see the DfE Phonics Evaluation). Detailed, carefully prepared programmes such as Engelmann’s Direct Instruction meet with short shrift from many educators for the same reason. Yet, if certain ‘modifications, arrangements and procedures’ are more effective than others, shouldn’t teachers be obliged to learn what they are, and to use them when those outcomes are required? Isn’t this what we would expect from our doctors, mechanics and even lawyers?  Some will respond that such a logical, scientific approach is denying the fundamentally relational and artistic nature of teaching. I would argue that to resist the development of technology is to resist the advance of art.

To be clear: I love art. I want my students to encounter art in as many forms as possible, and to be changed by it. Seeing students discover truths about life and about themselves through art is my main pleasure in my work. But artistic achievements are built on a mastery of the relevant technology. The Renaissance art that we now admire had its origins, not in a philosophy of self-expression, but in discovering how to do things better – not only the mathematical developments that revolutionised the representation of perspective, but also in the materials and techniques of painting.

perspective

The subject matter of the Renaissance was somewhat different from the almost exclusively religious fare of the medieval period, but its artistic representation would not have been possible without mastery of the necessary technological advances. Anyone who thinks Picasso’s later paintings are crude and childlike should see the paintings he did as a younger artist. His early mastery of painting skills was so complete that there can be no doubt that his Cubist works, for example, are exactly what he wanted to represent.

early Picasso

Early Picasso

picassoicecream

Later Picasso

The term ‘mastery’ here is important to consider. Mastery requires a level of proficiency acquired through repeated application. The steps to mastery tend to be invisible to novices, who do not realise how much learning has to be acquired. Mastery requires both talent and discipline, and, for most mortals, lots of practice with feedback from people who know their field. @cazzypot’s recent blog gives two examples of mastery from the Renaissance period, where long hours of hard work accompanied great intelligence.

Are there technological advances in teaching which we need to master in order to create a legacy of excellence? It seems to me that the answer has to be ‘yes’, and this is especially so at the level of the foundational skills which students will use throughout their education, and often beyond. Currently 20% of students arriving at secondary school lack the reading skills required for their age, and this has remained so despite the imposition of the National Literacy Strategy, the Literacy Hour, and many other initiatives. There is widespread concern about weak numeracy. Although a great deal is made of ‘thinking skills’, in a senior secondary classroom it is common to find that most students have developed very few reasoning skills. Creating an environment which is democratic, lively, enthusing, vibrant or ‘creative’ is not enough. Self-expression, by teachers or students, is not enough. What we need in order to shift critical outcomes is mastery of the technology that will solve the problems we haven’t solved thus far. Does such a technology already exist? Yes, it does. (See here for examples of struggling teenage non-readers becoming successful readers in a short time).

There are some basic requirements in order to grasp a technology:

  1. Knowledge of the relevant underlying science.
  2. Knowing what’s worked elsewhere and why.
  3. Knowing what hasn’t worked elsewhere and why.
  4. Clearly defined goals to be achieved.
  5. Implementing ‘arrangements, modifications and procedures’, including the training necessary to do so with fidelity.
  6. Reviewing the outcomes, and adding to the profession’s body of knowledge by describing what has been achieved in a replicable way.

How does the teaching profession measure up? I would suggest that most teachers lack numbers 1 – 3, because they are not aware of the research literature or how to evaluate it.1  This is not a focus of teacher training programmes, certainly not with regard to empirical research. Many teachers, leaders and coaches try to encourage 5 and 6 through ‘action research’, which is essentially pointless if 1 -3 have not been grasped first. The deeper problem in education is the one that has been clear for some time (see Carnine, 2000), and that is Number 4. As a profession, we don’t agree on where we should be going.

What is it that stops us from harnessing technology to achieve our ends? First, we must believe that it is possible to develop a technology of teaching. Even though this has been done in many ways for many different purposes, much of the prevailing philosophy holds that it is neither possible nor desirable. Secondly, if we are to acquire the body of knowledge that belongs to our ‘craft’, we must have a humble and teachable attitude. Thirdly, we need to develop the critical faculties to evaluate what we are told, and to distinguish between that which is scientific evidence and that which is merely argued (or wished). Lastly, we will need to acknowledge that the path to true mastery in our profession is not learning how to please an observer in a 20-minute encounter, but the long, hard graft that leads to becoming masters, and ultimately artists, of our vocation.

St_John_the_baptist_-_Leonardo_Da_Vinci

 

References

Carnine, D. (2000) Why Educators Resist Effective Practice. Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Cooper (1982) Applied behavior analysis in education, Theory Into Practice, 21:2,114-118

Footnote:

1. It may be noted that I have focused on teaching, not learning. Learning is what students do. Teachers teach, and we should do it well. Understanding how learning works is No 1: learning the science that underlies the technology.

 

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