13 January 2006

On the teacher as a variable

Like most real-world disciplines, with the exception of best practice in medical research, it is rarely that those of us in education get to witness anything resembling a controlled experiment. In this case, all I mean by that is a situation in which just one variable changes between two teaching situations, so that we are privileged to get a clue about the significance of that variable.

I won't go into detail, partly to keep this anonymous, but partly for other reasons. However, I recently did two teaching observations, of different teachers, immediately after each other. They were teaching full-time mature students on intensive language courses (the language was one I do not understand and can't even read—which is always interesting anyway!) What I had not realised was that they were both going to teach the same group of students, in the same room, with just a 15 minute comfort break between the sessions. Both teachers were confident and fluent (but not native) speakers of the language, and indeed were graduates of a very similar course.

There was one other minor variable which changed, of course; they were not teaching exactly the same material. However they were both teaching points of grammar which followed one another according to the syllabus.

The first teacher was the more experienced, and the more confident; he had had some input to writing the course. His approach was very conventional; he introduced the topic, worked through some examples with extensive student questioning, assisting students with step-by-step prompts as they struggled with the grammatical construction, and then set a written exercise from the course book. When they had done it, he went through their answers, going round the class with targeted questions about it. Apart from the book, he used only questioning and the whiteboard (probably appropriately). Not exciting, and raising interesting questions about how to teach people to manage a complex rule primarily through individual examples, but sound stuff.

The second teacher was much newer to whole-class teaching, having previously mainly worked on individual tutorial (or "oral practice") sessions. Although familiar with the material, he was not as familiar with the prescribed text-book, and frequently had to look down at it, open on his desk, to check that he was following the recommended structure. The session followed broadly the same pattern. As far as I could gather, though, all this teacher's examples (bar one) were straight out of the book. He showed his nervousness by banging the cap back on to his marker pen after each major point he had to make. He asked questions, but not as frequently as his more experienced colleague, and he did not wait as long for the answers, or prompt students to construct their stumbling answers. Perhaps most important, he did not look at the students much. Like any beginning teacher (and in case he reads this, he'll get there, with more practice and experience) he was pre-occupied with himself and his performance, rather than the students' reaction and learning. He fitted with Dreyfus' and Dreyfus' definition of a "novice".

What did not really occur to me until I reflected on the trip back from the observation, was the significance of what I had seen of the students' behaviour. I usually have to infer this from a position at the back of the room, but on these occasions, because of the fixed layout, I had to sit at one side between the front row of students and the teacher's dais (yes, there was one). So, opportunistically, I got to see them from the front.

It would have been good to have a video record. In the first session, the students sat more upright, spent more time looking at the teacher (who in turn was looking at them; it's called "eye-contact" in the jargon, which sounds portentous, but just means "looking at each other") than at their books or notes (although some annotated their books, in neither condition did they seem to make many spontaneous notes). In the second condition, they appeared more "slumped" in their positions, and looked down at their desks for more of the time, only raising their eyes occasionally to the board as the teacher wrote up his examples, (which he actually did rather better than the first teacher, making use of different coloured pens to good effect.)

There was some difference, too, in the students' responses to questioning. With the first teacher, more hands went up to volunteer responses; the students seemed more confident, and more prepared to take risks. They fairly readily suggested their own examples of the grammatical construction, and worked their way through the translations with an apparent sense of achievement.

The second teacher more frequently (I wish I had been counting, but hey... this was real-world grounded theory non-participant observation) had to use the "pose—pause—pounce" tactic to get students to work on the example set in the book. Their tone of voice also seemed more tentative and they were more inclined to talk to their desks than to the teacher (bear in mind that I may be over-stating the case, as I reflect and reconstruct my memory).

At the end of the session, the first teacher got more questions from the students than the second (five as opposed to two, as I recall), which he fielded more confidently. The second teacher got a googly, in the form of a question about a rather obscure special case. He responded, rightly, with "I'm afraid I don't know the answer to that," but omitted to undertake to find out and report back. I speculate that part of the motivation for the googly (no relation to Google, unless it is the derivation of that brand name; it's a term from cricket where it refers to a notoriously unpredictable style of bowling) might have been "testing-out" the teacher, in a very under-stated way as might be expected in the particular situation.

Conclusions? Please comment!

On interesting new links

Thanks to an indirect recommendation from one of our librarians, I have discovered "The Irascible Professor" site: if you like my "Heterodoxy" pages, you will like this. It is US-based but its opinion pieces and polemics are not only entertaining but often thought-provoking.

More conventionally, but perhaps more solidly rewarding, those of you in adult education should be sure to bookmark Roger Hiemstra's web-site, with full on-line versions of whole books to which he has contributed, as well as a great list of links (I would say that; he has just been kind enough to add mine!)

08 January 2006

On experience versus theory

I've just had an email from a student who teaches in a rather unusual setting. S/he is just starting our PGCE course and coping with her (OK, she is female—no great breach of confidentiality, but I can't hack all this gender-neutral stuff in practice) first major assessed work. She has been trying to reconcile her experience and practice with the theory, and it hasn't been working; she realises that she has simply been parroting (how many 't's in 'parroting'? OK, the spell-chequer accepts it!) the received wisdom in the texts, but it has not touched her practice (let alone changed it).

This was my reply, in case any other readers are in the same boat. It starts from the fact that she wrote and explained the problem [necessary commentary in italics]:
You may not realise it, but your note has actually been a really good start to your submission [our course does not have "assigned" assessments, but invites students to "submit" their ideas for credit]. And it clearly shows the strategy which will pay off when you start writing.

In short, trust your experience! If it doesn't match with the theory, that's the theory's problem, not yours. You can address the outcomes by showing how conventional approaches break down in non-standard situations like yours; you demonstrate that you are trying to link the theory and the practice, as required, but we make no assumption that they will always link up seamlessly. Not only that, but PGCE encourages a critical approach; so if you read something in Reece and Walker [one of the recommended texts] and think "chance would be a fine thing", then write about it and explain the issue.

Having said that, we have had some people working in non-standard situations who used that as a standing excuse for not drawing on established good practice; I remember one guy working in the local prison who maintained that nothing on the course applied to him. However, there had been students before (and indeed after) him working there who showed the contrary; I know, because I observed their teaching. The theory is not a matter of faith, to be accepted or rejected wholesale; it's pragmatic, and you are free to test it and apply or reject as befits your practice.

You have already immersed yourself in the outcomes [the course requirements are expressed in term of 'outcomes'; "by the time you have completed this module, you should be able to..."]. So forget them. Write about what you want to say in the first place, and then go back and check off those you have already addressed (probably more than you think). Then go back and deal with those you have not mentioned; you may be able to integrate them with your own narrative, but if you can't, it's OK to settle for second best and write about them separately.

Actually, the "submission proposal" system is intended to enable you to pick up on and discuss these issues at an early stage, and get your tutor's agreement in advance to your strategy. ["Submission Proposal" is course jargon for a learning contract] So it's a good idea to be quite bold with the proposal in future; you may have to negotiate a bit, but if your tutor signs it off, he/she is agreeing that if you deliver what you have promised, it will be awarded credit; and then you will be free of the uncertainty which has been dogging you for a couple of months.

If you trust your experience (and talk about it in class—other people may well benefit from your testing of the ideas, and have their own angles to offer) I'm sure you will find the course much more stimulating and enjoyable. After all, if we are not offering what you need, that's our problem, not yours.

Hope this helps, and all the best with the submission!
Where's the reflection? Actually, it goes back to the bookshelves I have been building. Again. I designed them and worked out the dimensions. I measured twice and cut once. All by the book. But I have learned from prior experience that when it comes to actually erecting them, in a real room, you always have to leave some margin for reality. So I have put them up with a spirit-level and a tri-square, not a ruler. I just could not measure all the bumps and troughs in the real room, so when it came to actual construction I deferred to pragmatism; I pre-cut everything for the first four bays, but the fifth (up to the opposite wall)? I built that on the basis of measurement in situ. OK, this goes back to the experience of the wardrobe a few days ago, but it also relates to my correspondent's concerns; in professional practice (not that my joinery skills aspire to professional standards; even I wouldn't pay me for it) the theory takes us so far, but no further. It is always subject to the vagaries of circumstance. The mark of a professional, however, is whether you have the tools (intellectual as well as practical) to deal with that last, idiosyncratic, bit.