EDTalkNZ: Teaching – Science or Magic

Today Dr John Langley contributes a blog to EDTalkNZ.  Dr Langley is Chief Executive of Cognition and a former Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland.

Over the years there has always been debate and discussion about what teaching actually is?  Is it a craft to be viewed much as we would view something like pottery?  Is it an art to be viewed as we would view painting or poetry?  Or is it a science to be viewed in the same manner as things such as medicine and engineering?

While it is no doubt true that there are elements of all three in any effective teacher, at some point we, as a profession, must come to some agreement on what belief system forms the basis for how we understand learning occurs, what that means for teaching and, therefore, how we go about the daily job of practising our profession.

At present this is by no means clear.  For instance, there are still many teachers and principals who balk at the notion of collecting certain types of data.  Some argue that the most important things in education cannot be measured and that to do so is a slippery slope towards some kind of unacceptably clinical approach that would somehow de-humanise those we teach.

I would argue the opposite.  We know how people learn.  We know the variables that impact on learning.  We know how teachers cause learning.  We can measure both learning and behaviour accurately and reliably.  Why then would we not use the best information that we can gather, not only to determine where children are in their learning but even more importantly to inform the obvious question, “What do I do next?”. 

That is the way in which all other professions operate.  They have agreed on what data must be gathered, how it should be gathered, how to report it and how it should be interpreted and acted upon.  Unless this occurs within the teaching profession we run the very great risk of wanting to be professionally independent but not being prepared to be accountable for what that independence means.

Put another way, it is not enough to say, “Leave us alone and trust us because we know what we’re doing”.  Those days have long gone in all other walks of life and rightly so.  Other professionals are required to be open, transparent and very much accountable for what they do.  Not primarily accountable to external monitoring agencies, although they exist, but to those in whose interest they work.  In the case of teachers it is not only the Ministry of Education or ERO, but the children, young people, families and communities in which they work.

At first blush there seem to be at least two barriers to progress here.  The first is a mistaken belief in how to address social justice.  The second is a lack of clarity about what should drive educational policy and practice.

We all know that there are enormous social and economic differences within our society as there are in most societies.  Education can and must play a major part in reducing these differences.  This will not happen by engaging in a tortuous and ongoing series of sociological explanations that we all “get”, but by understanding what teachers must do to improve the achievement of all children regardless of circumstance.  All children can learn and the best service we can give those who are disadvantaged is to understand what effective teaching is and do it properly.  That simply cannot happen without the use of effective data and sound evidence of best practice to guide us.  This is not something which is anecdotal and ‘folksy’ but which is well-grounded in scientific evidence about how people learn and what we do to cause that.

The second barrier relates to what underpins education policy and practice.  All education policy and practice should be determined by consideration of four factors.  They are:

  • What is success and what does it look like?
  • What works in achieving that success?
  • How do we know?
  • What next?

If we are unable to answer these four questions then any policy development , resourcing and subsequent practice is at the very least flawed and will most likely end up as so many have – on a scrapheap somewhere or, even worse, continuing to be used even if the impact is minimal.  Our disadvantaged children and young people will not benefit if that is so.

Teaching sits on a cusp at present in New Zealand.  We, as professionals in the sector, must decide on and be clear about what paradigm should drive our knowledge and practice and use it well.  In my view that paradigm must be science so that our practice can be clear, systematic, transparent and effective.  If we do not adopt an evidence-based approach, what is left?  Majority opinion? 

Our children and young people deserve better than that.

Dr John Langley

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