Beyond Good vs. Bad

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Most education debates reduce the question of teaching methods to a good/bad argument. Are lectures good or bad? Technology? Homework? While a common rhetorical tool when attempting to win an argument, overemphasis of a simplified position undermines productive discourse and program development. Educators must move into the space between extremes, into nuances and complexity, in order to have constructive conversations that advance teaching practice. A constructive perspective eschews good/bad arguments and embraces relativism.

Of course, a good lecture can provide students with a terrific cognitive experience. However, the vast majority of direct instruction is not high quality lecture but rather a comparatively low-level summary of facts and conclusions. Emphasizing active learning opportunities for students creates more chances for students to engage in productive modes of thinking during class time. Most schools do not call for a ban on teacher talk but rather include high quality teacher presentation as one teaching method among a handful that should be used in classes. As always, effective teacher coaching depends on individual circumstances, which is why teacher observation and feedback is associated with improvement in teaching practice. With one teacher, we encourage less teacher talk and more student leadership in class. With another teacher, we endorse teacher talk, because it’s high quality and just one part of the learning environment.

The same can be said for other polarizing topics such as technology use, homework, class seating arrangements, and curriculum standards. For each, the practice is neither pariah nor panacea. Visit many schools, and one will see both good and bad educational practice along the spectrum of each topic. It is easy to find both effective and disastrous implementations of educational technology, productive and counterproductive homework practices, and thoughtful and thoughtless implementation of state content standards.

Several factors determine the effectiveness of a particular instructional practice in a particular context. The teacher should understand the key qualities of the instructional technique, what makes it effective in the best circumstances, and how it might exist within and interact with the existing learning environment. The school’s mission and values are critically important. The teacher should know how the instructional technique relates to institutional values or could be shaped to better complement them. Teachers should always be attentive to the student experience with teaching practice, through subtle methods such as accurately reading student engagement and depth of thinking during the activity, as well as more formal methods such as soliciting student feedback and examining student class work and assessments.

Ongoing professional conversations about teaching practices, institutional values, and student experience lead to the development of a recognizable culture of instruction in a school. Collaboration, professional development, and examination of qualitative and quantitative data bolster school identity and practice.

While good/bad arguments make for good headlines, nuanced, complex work leads to better instruction.

(Image by Natesh Ramasamy on Flickr)

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