The facts about educational fads

I don’t believe quality instruction ever left the classroom. Successful teachers have always had a thorough understanding of how students learn and have adopted and adapted pedagogies informed by research, reflection and inquiry.

The essential principles of effective learning provide us with the foundations of appropriate pedagogies but they must be creatively applied in ways which maximise opportunities and respond to demands of today’s world.

However, if you read Kevin Donnelly’s latest opinion piece, traditional teaching is somehow making a comeback. Donnelly claims that the ‘tide has finally turned’ against educational fads such as open classrooms and discovery learning.

Donnelly doesn’t define traditional teaching so I’m assuming he is referring to the type of didactic teaching associated with a traditional model of schooling.

According to John Hattie, direct instruction (which isn’t traditional) is reflected in the way teachers work together ‘to plan and critique a series of lessons, sharing understanding of progression, articulating intentions and success criteria, and attending to the impact of student and teacher learning.’ (Visible Learning for Teachers)

While it’s true that the learning space is never a substitute for quality instruction, agile spaces provide opportunities for teachers to engage in the kind of planning and teacher learning that is most effective in improving student learning.  Many teachers I have spoken to have said the new spaces support collaboration and therefore the process of direct instruction.

Donnelly however cites results from a survey of noise levels in open classrooms in which 50-70% of children said they couldn’t hear their teacher very well.  What Donnelly failed to include in his piece, was that the survey was conducted in four schools only.

When you don’t understand the world in which today’s learners live, it is easy to disparage contemporary approaches to schooling.  In fact, most contemporary approaches are still largely influenced by traditional structures, curricula and mindsets.  We don’t have enough examples yet of great contemporary practice to point to – not because it doesn’t work but it doesn’t yet exist.

These so called educational fads are not designed to replace quality instruction – they are designed to support it.  Agile learning spaces support a range of learning activities. And isn’t discovery at the heart of learning anyway?

Replicating an industrial model of schooling has only led to the gap between schooling and learning growing wider in an online world.  We can’t hark back to the past if we want to change the future. We are challenged to think differently by virtue of the fact we live in age that now values critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.

The OECD recognises the importance of these skills not only for the success of economies but also for individuals participating in a knowledge age. It’s worth noting that PISA will test creativity from 2017.

We have always known that the most effective teaching is evidence-based.  It’s a pity Kevin Donnelly’s arguments still seem to be largely ideologically driven.







7 thoughts on “The facts about educational fads

  1. Greg, I am doing some teacher training in rural Kenya where ‘traditional’ teaching styles are the norm. ‘Traditional’, of course, means teacher standing at the front of the room reciting ‘lessons’ and students chanting the response as though it were in church and in fact that might be how many of our teacher colleagues learned to teach. We decided to bring art supplies (oil pastels and paper to draw on) on one of our visits and asked the children to draw pictures that we would take back to Canada to use in fund raising. The results were amazing. We hoped to see ‘creativity’ in the art work and we did. I wonder how PISA will assess creativity in 2017?

    1. Great example of how simple creativity leads to wonderful results. Keep up the art classes in Kenya and keep us posted on the work there. It will be interesting to see how creativity is assessed. I read last week there is a move to refer to STEM as STEAM (arts and media), highlighting the importance of arts/creativity in 21st century.

  2. If you are going to use Hattie as some sort of argument against what Donnelly is saying, then you really should acknowledge that Hattie’s ranking (for what its worth) has open learning spaces (yes I know, you relabelled them “agile spaces” – at our school they’re “flexible”) ranked as a disaster (his words) with an effect size of 0.01.

  3. Greg, I think Donnelly has swung and miss-hit. If teachers are trying to teach traditionally in such spaces then no wonder there are auditory problems. Such spaces force a rethink about just how a teacher should seek to talk with students. If it’s whole class teacher talk then any teacher who works in such spaces knows you have to stop all work and get attention or if the space doesn’t lend itself due to size etc. then look at alternative ways of communicating- one teacher at my school uses a lapel microphone. (A bit of forward planning with the renovation of the space saved money on expensive retro-fit later.)
    Either way whole class teacher talk is surely minimised by the different pedagogy required in such spaces.
    Hattie’s research is on past performance. It is early days. It would be interesting though to see some performance data on schools who have moved into such pedagogies v. similar schools who haven’t. People will be moved by evidence of success.

    1. Chris, thanks for the comment. You are right – it is early days in terms of collecting data and research. The feedback from many our of teachers and students is that they enjoy working/learning in these spaces. University of Melbourne were doing research at least five years’ ago on pedagogy and space. It will be interesting to see what it yields in terms of learning success.

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