More talking in lessons is needed

rogertitcombe's picture
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This is the message of Eduardo Mortimer and Philip Scott , author of, 'Meaning Making in Secondary Science Classrooms', Open University Press, 2002

These researchers describe an interaction between teachers in an M.Ed class, where the topic of 'difficulty' (why pupils can't understand hard stuff) was being discussed. One of the teachers commented that very often 'pupils have the concept, but can't put it into words'. There was much nodding of heads from other teachers in support of this view, but the idea was challenged by another teacher, arguing that understanding something means you can articulate it. 'If you can't say it, you don't understand it'.

This leads directly to Vygotsky, who argues that all knowledge is first presented to a learner 'on the social plane', which at the most basic level could just mean listening to the teacher. For learners to acquire understanding they have to 'internalise' the knowledge. This means assimilating the new ideas into their existing subconscious personal understanding structure. This may fail because of any number of cognitive and affective dissonances. Mortimer and Scott take the view that issues like these are at the heart of effective teaching and learning. My take on it is that 'talk is the currency of understanding' and therefore effective lessons need to encourage and facilitate pupil-pupil talk. The rest of this post is made up of selected contributions to this idea from some current practitioners and academics.

During 1981 and 1982 I carried out some postgraduate educational research at Leicester University where I was heavily influenced by the work of former Leicester postgraduate students Michael Shayer and Philip Adey. These educationalists progressed to Kings College, London where they set up and developed programmes of teaching for enhancing cognitive development based on the learning theories of Piaget and Vygotsky. My M Ed dissertation was a piece of research on the cognitive demands of various science topics in contemporary science exam syllabuses and the significance of this to approaches to teaching. Their book that sets out how these ideas can be made to work in practice is a collection of essays from various practitioners called, 'Learning Intelligence - Cognitive Acceleration across the Curriculum from 5 to 15 years', Open University Press, 2002.

Like Mortimer and Scott, Shayer and Adey invoke Vygotsky who asserts that knowledge first appears in the social space that learners share. Only then can it become internalised by individuals. The key point is that all developmental learning, as opposed to skills training, involves personal cognitive conflict. In a school the resolution of cognitive conflict is a social process. It has been argued that in the internet age the real life 'social plane' can be replaced by the virtual world of the computer and Google. I doubt that this is the case and suspect that without real social interaction, computer-based learning is limited. The implication for schooling is that a certain quality in the social relationships of the classroom is needed. I was lucky enough early in my career to work in a school where such quality relationships existed, and it became a career goal to eventually achieve this in a headship school.

Pupils have to trust and not fear the teacher if they are to risk revealing the true depth of their misunderstandings! Peer relationships have to be good enough for all group members to be comfortable with revealing their own lack of understanding to each other as well as both collectively and individually to the teacher, but most importantly to recognise it themselves without fear or shame. This is a big ask not to be underestimated. A school culture of behaviourist authoritarianism is unlikely to provide sufficient personal psychological security for the teacher or the pupils for the necessary social interactions to constructively engage.

It is in respect of 'Cognitive Conflict' and 'Social Construction' that Mortimer and Scott extend the ideas of Shayer and Adey in ways that seem to me to be to be positive and illuminating. They address in great depth the nature of pupil and teacher talk, with particular reference to the language used and the style of communication.

Sue Johnston-Wilder and Clare Lee address the issue of cognitive conflict in the context of maths teaching and have developed the concept of 'learning resilience'. A resilient learner anticipates cognitive challenge, initial failure to understand and getting things wrong, as part of a normal, healthy learning process. Johnston-Wilder and Lee believe that for pupils to be taught this way needs a culture change in mathematics classrooms. See their paper, 'Developing mathematical resilience', in: BERA Annual Conference 2010, 1-4 Sep 2010, University of Warwick

The following quotes from their paper serve to highlight their current important work on maths education.

"Mathematical resilience describes that quality by which some learners approach mathematics with confidence, persistence and a willingness to discuss, reflect and research. All learning requires resilience; however, we contend that the resilience required for learning mathematics is a particular construct as a consequence of various factors including: the type of teaching often used, the nature of mathematics itself and pervasive beliefs about mathematical ability being ‘fixed’."

Their approach emphasises confidence, persistence and a willingness to directly engage pupils in genuine discussion and reflection.

"The literature, for example Sfard, (2008) and Lee (2006), indicates that pupils must articulate their mathematical ideas in order to effectively learn mathematics. It seems that placing pupils in the position of having to communicate what they are learning is at the core of increasing both the pupils’ resilience and their thinking and learning. Sfard (2008) is clear that learning and communicating are intricately intertwined. The current mathematics culture in the school (in which they were carrying out their research) was resistant to pupil articulation with a heavy emphasis on teacher exposition and little opportunity for pupils to express their emergent understanding or misunderstandings."

The Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman is a cognitive psychologist at Princeton University and Emeritus Professor of Public Affairs at Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. He appears to have no background in learning theory or pedagogy and his book, 'Thinking, Fast and Slow', Penguin, 2011, makes no direct reference to school age education or curriculum, so what is the relevance to the failures of the English education system? His work is based on his assertion that humans have two discrete modes of thinking that he refers to as System 1 and System 2. System 1 is a result of human evolution and to a major extent is written into the human genome. It is the ‘fast thinking’ that is linked to survival in evolutionary terms. It is very good at solving certain kinds of problems very rapidly but frequently fails spectacularly with complex problems associated with scientific and mathematical concepts that millions of years of evolution have not prepared us for, other than giving us large brains with a highly flexible cerebral cortex. Kahneman describes System 1 as ‘a machine for jumping to conclusions’.

Kahneman insists that the deep understanding needed for rational problem solving and decision making requires the suppression of (behaviourist) 'fast thinking' and the encouragement of conscious 'slow thinking' for which learners have to be encouraged to develop. 'Slow thinking' requires a conversation with oneself. The teaching needed for this to be accomplished also benefits from conversations with other people, hence the need for more pupil talk in classrooms.

The common thread in all the preceding and a key feature of Shayer and Adey's 'cognitive acceleration' approach is 'metacognition'. It means being aware of your own thinking. It implies that language provides the tools for thought and that learners benefit greatly by silently but consciously ‘talking to themselves’ as well as talking to peers and the teacher, so developing a metacognitive ability that enhances their learning in all subject contexts.

I see metacognition as closely connected with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), which is recognised as being very effective for those suffering the mental disorders of anxiety and depression. The approach is not to try to suppress 'bad thoughts' but to reflect on them, judge their rationality, and act on them appropriately. I am not implying that pupils' failure to understand 'hard stuff' implies mental illness, but I am arguing that deep learning is conversational in nature; with teachers, with other pupils and most importantly, with oneself. It should therefore be promoted in classrooms. I see metacognition as 'pedagogic CBT' that needs far more attention from teachers.

I had been a science teacher for 10 years before my one year full time secondment to the postgraduate course at Leicester University. I understand that this was provided in partnership with the Leicestershire LEA. All the teacher-students were experienced teachers. For me this was its great value because what we learned was in the context of significant pooled pre-existing professional experience. That fact greatly enhanced the quality of seminars and debate.

I can't help noting the increasing frequency of LSN threads dealing with failures in 'innovative' Academies and Free Schools. Like most teachers my age I had a long apprenticeship on a progressive pay scale uncorrupted by performance related pay. I learned from excellent Heads of Departments and worked under Heads/Principals that had themselves served a long apprenticeship in classrooms and believed in collegiality and that teachers as well as pupils needed to develop. I don't need to spell out where I am coming from here with regard to the emergence of schools allowed to be opened/taken over and run by ideologically driven enthusiasts lacking both depth of experience and academic understanding. The consequence is the onward march of superficially attractive behaviourism in the classrooms of English schools leading to the degradation of the entire education system from the top down with predictable consequences for the quality of learning of our pupils.
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