In this piece Mark K Smith explores the nature of teaching – those moments or sessions where we make specific interventions to help people learn particular things. He sets this within a discussion of pedagogy and didactics and demonstrates that we need to unhook consideration of the process of teaching from the role of ‘teacher’ in schools.
contents: introduction • what is teaching? • a definition of teaching • teaching, pedagogy and didactics • approaching teaching as a process • structuring interventions and making use of different methods • what does good teaching look like? • conclusion • further reading and references • acknowledgements • how to cite this piece
Linked piece: the key activities of teaching
A definition for starters: Teaching is the process of attending to people’s needs, experiences and feelings, and intervening so that they learn particular things, and go beyond the given.
In teacher education programmes – and in continuing professional development – a lot of time is devoted to the ‘what’ of teaching – what areas we should we cover, what resources do we need and so on. The ‘how’ of teaching also gets a great deal of space – how to structure a lesson, manage classes, assess for learning for learning and so on. Sometimes, as Parker J. Palmer (1998: 4) comments, we may even ask the “why” question – ‘for what purposes and to what ends do we teach? ‘But seldom, if ever’, he continues: ‘do we ask the “who” question – who is the self that teaches?’
The thing about this is that the who, what, why and how of teaching cannot be answered seriously without exploring the nature of teaching itself.
In much modern usage, the words ‘teaching’ and ‘teacher’ are wrapped up with schooling and schools. One way of approaching the question ‘What is teaching?’ is to look at what those called ‘teachers’ do – and then to draw out key qualities or activities that set them apart from others. The problem is that all sorts of things are bundled together in job descriptions or roles that may have little to do with what we can sensibly call teaching.
Another way is to head for dictionaries and search for both the historical meanings of the term, and how it is used in everyday language. This brings us to definitions like:
Impart knowledge to or instruct (someone) as to how to do something; or
Cause (someone) to learn or understand something by example or experience.
As can be seen from these definitions we can say that we are all teachers in some way at some time.
Further insight is offered by looking at the ancestries of the words. For example, the origin of the word ‘teach’ lies in the Old English tæcan meaning ‘show, present, point out’, which is of Germanic origin; and related to ‘token’, from an Indo-European root shared by Greek deiknunai ‘show’, deigma ‘sample (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/teach).
To make sense of all this it is worth turning to what philosophers of education say. Interestingly, the question, ‘What is teaching?’ hasn’t been a hotbed of activity in recent years in the UK and USA. However, as Paul Hirst (1975) concluded, ‘being clear about what teaching is matters vitally because how teachers understand teaching very much affects what they actually do in the classroom’.
Hirst (1975) makes two very important points. For him teaching should involve:
- Setting out with the intention of someone learning something.
- Considering people’s feelings, experiences and needs. Teaching is only teaching if people can take on what is taught.
To this we can add Jerome Bruner’s insights around the nature of education, and the process of learning and problem solving.
To instruct someone… is not a matter of getting him to commit results to mind. Rather, it is to teach him to participate in the process that makes possible the establishment of knowledge. We teach a subject not to produce little living libraries on that subject, but rather to get a student to think mathematically for himself, to consider matters as an historian does, to take part in the process of knowledge-getting. Knowing is a process not a product. (1966: 72)
We can begin to weave these into a definition – and highlight some forms it takes.
Interventions commonly take the form of questioning, listening, giving information, explaining some phenomenon, demonstrating a skill or process, testing understanding and capacity, and facilitating learning activities (such as note taking, discussion, assignment writing, simulations and practice).
Let us look at the key elements.
Attending to people’s feelings, experiences and needs
Considering what those we are supposed to be teaching need, and what might be going on for them, is one of the main things that makes ‘education’ different to indoctrination. Indoctrination involves knowingly encouraging people to believe something regardless of the evidence (see Snook 1972; Peterson 2007). It also entails a lack of respect for their human rights. Education can be described as the ‘wise, hopeful and respectful cultivation of learning undertaken in the belief that all should have the chance to share in life’ (Smith 2015). The process of education flows from a basic orientation of respect – respect for truth, others and themselves, and the world (op. cit.). For teachers to be educators they must, therefore:
- Consider people’s needs and wishes now and in the future.
- Reflect on what might be good for all (and the world in which we live).
- Plan their interventions accordingly.
There are a couple of issues that immediately arise from this.
First, how do we balance individual needs and wishes against what might be good for others? For most of us this is probably something that we should answer on a case-by-case basis – and it is also something that is likely to be a focus for conversation and reflection in our work with people.
Second, what do we do when people do not see the point of learning things – for example, around grammar or safety requirements? The obvious response to this question is that we must ask and listen – they may have point. However, we also must weigh this against what we know about the significance of these things in life, and any curriculum or health and safety or other requirements we have a duty to meet. In this case we have a responsibility to try to introduce them to people when the time is right, to explore their relevance and to encourage participation.
Failing to attend to people’s feelings and experiences is problematic – and not just because it reveals a basic lack of respect for them. It is also pointless and counter-productive to try to explore things when people are not ready to look at them. We need to consider their feelings and look to their experiences – both of our classroom or learning environment, and around the issues or areas we want to explore. Recent developments in brain science has underlined the significance of learning from experience from the time in the womb on (see, for example Lieberman 2013). Bringing people’s experiences around the subjects or areas we are looking to teach about into the classroom or learning situation is, thus, fundamental to the learning process.
Learning particular things
Teaching involves creating an environment and engaging with others, so that they learn particular things. This can be anything from tying a shoe lace to appreciating the structure of a three act play. I want highlight three key elements here – focus, knowledge and the ability to engage people in learning.
This may be a bit obvious – but it is probably worth saying – teaching has to have a focus. We should be clear about we are trying to do. One of the findings that shines through research on teaching is that clear learning intentions help learners to see the point of a session or intervention, keep the process on track, and, when challenging, make a difference in what people learn (Hattie 2009: location 4478).
As teachers and pedagogues there are a lot of times when we are seeking to foster learning but there may not be great clarity about the specific goals of that learning (see Jeffs and Smith 2018 Chapter 1). This is especially the case for informal educators and pedagogues. We journey with people, trying to build environments for learning and change, and, from time-to-time, creating teaching moments. It is in the teaching moments that we usually need an explicit focus.
Equally obvious, we need expertise, we need to have content. As coaches we should know about our sport; as religious educators about belief, practice and teachings; and, as pedagogues, ethics, human growth and development and social life. Good teachers ‘have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning’ (Coe et. al. 2014: 2).
That said, there are times when we develop our understandings and capacities as we go. In the process of preparing for a session or lesson or group, we may read, listen to and watch YouTube items, look at other resources and learn. We build content and expertise as we teach. Luckily, we can draw on a range of things to support us in our efforts – video clips, web resources, textbooks, activities. Yes, it might be nice to be experts in all the areas we have to teach – but we can’t be. It is inevitable that we will be called to teach in areas where we have limited knowledge. One of the fascinating and comforting things research shows is that what appears to count most for learning is our ability as educators and pedagogues. A good understanding of, and passion for, a subject area; good resources to draw upon; and the capacity to engage people in learning yields good results. It is difficult to find evidence that great expertise in the subject matter makes a significant difference within a lot of schooling (Hattie 2009: location 2963).
Sometimes subject expertise can get in the way – it can serve to emphasize the gap between people’s knowledge and capacities and that of the teacher. On the other hand, it can be used to generate enthusiasm and interest; to make links; and inform decisions about what to teach and when. Having a concern for learning – and, in particular, seeking to create environments where people develop as and, can be, self-directed learners – is one of the key features here.
Engaging people in learning
At the centre of teaching lies enthusiasm and a commitment to, and expertise in, the process of engaging people in learning. This is how John Hattie (2009: location 2939) put it:
… it is teachers using particular teaching methods, teachers with high expectations for all students, and teachers who have created positive student-teacher relationships that are more likely to have the above average effects on student achievement.
Going beyond the given
The idea of “going beyond the information given” was central to Jerome Bruner’s explorations of cognition and education. He was part of the shift in psychology in the 1950s and early 1960s towards the study of people as active processors of knowledge, as discoverers of new understandings and possibilities. Bruner wanted people to develop their ability to ‘go beyond the data to new and possibly fruitful predictions’ (Bruner 1973: 234); to experience and know possibility. He hoped people would become as ‘autonomous and self-propelled’ thinkers as possible’ (Bruner 1961: 23). To do this, teachers and pedagogues had to, as Hirst (1975) put it, appreciate learner’s feelings, experiences and needs; to engage with their processes and view of the world.
Two key ideas became central to this process for Jerome Bruner – the ‘spiral’ and scaffolding.
The spiral. People, as they develop, must take on and build representations of their experiences and the world around them. (Representations being the way in which information and knowledge are held and encoded in our memories). An idea, or concept is generally encountered several times. At first it is likely to be in a concrete and simple way. As understanding develops, it is likely to encountered and in greater depth and complexity. To succeed, teaching, educating, and working with others must look to where in the spiral people are, and how ‘ready’ they are to explore something. Crudely, it means simplifying complex information where necessary, and then revisiting it to build understanding (David Kolb talked in a similar way about experiential learning).
Scaffolding. The idea of scaffolding (which we will come back to later) is close to what Vygotsky talked about as the zone of proximal development. Basically, it entails creating a framework, and offering structured support, that encourages and allows learners to develop particular understandings, skills and attitudes.
The final element – making specific interventions – concerns the process of taking defined and targeted action in a situation. In other words, as well as having a clear focus, we try to work in ways that facilitate that focus.
Thinking about teaching as a process of making specific interventions is helpful, I think, because it:
Focuses on the different actions we take. As we saw in the definition, interventions commonly take the form of questioning, listening, giving information, explaining some phenomenon, demonstrating a skill or process, testing understanding and capacity, and facilitating learning activities (such as note taking, discussion, assignment writing, simulations and practice).
Makes us look at how we move from one way of working or communicating to another. Interventions often involve shifting a conversation or discussion onto a different track or changing the process or activity. It may well be accompanied by a change in mood and pace (e.g. moving from something that is quite relaxed into a period of more intense activity). The process of moving from one way of working – or way of communicating – to another is far from straightforward. It calls upon us to develop and deepen our practice.
Highlights the more formal character of teaching. Interventions are planned, focused and tied to objectives or intentions. Teaching also often entails using quizzes and tests to see whether planned outcomes have been met. The feel and character of teaching moments are different to many other processes that informal educators, pedagogues and specialist educators use. Those processes, like conversation, playing a game and walking with people are usually more free-flowing and unpredictable.
Teaching, however, is not a simple step-by-step process e.g. of attending, getting information and intervening. We may well start with an intervention which then provides us with data. In addition, things rarely go as planned – at least not if we attend to people’s feelings, experiences and needs. In addition, learners might not always get the points straightaway or see what we are trying to help them learn. They may be able to take on what is being taught – but it might take time. As a result, how well we have done is often unlikely to show up in the results of any tests or in assessments made in the session or lesson.
Earlier, we saw that relatively little attention had been given to defining the essential nature of teaching in recent years in the UK and North America. This has contributed to confusion around the term and a major undervaluing of other forms of facilitating learning. The same cannot be said in a number of continental European countries where there is a much stronger appreciation of the different forms education takes. Reflecting on these traditions helps us to better understand teaching as a particular process – and to recognize that it is fundamentally concerned with didactics rather than pedagogy.
Perhaps the most helpful starting point for this discussion is the strong distinction made in ancient Greek society between the activities of pedagogues (paidagögus) and subject teachers (didáskalos or diadacts). The first pedagogues were slaves – often foreigners and the ‘spoils of war’ (Young 1987). They were trusted and sometimes learned members of rich households who accompanied the sons of their ‘masters’ in the street, oversaw their meals etc., and sat beside them when being schooled. These pedagogues were generally seen as representatives of their wards’ fathers and literally ‘tenders’ of children (pais plus agögos, a ‘child-tender’). Children were often put in their charge at around 7 years and remained with them until late adolescence. As such pedagogues played a major part in their lives – helping them to recognize what was wrong and right, learn how to behave in different situations, and to appreciate how they and those around them might flourish.
Moral supervision by the pedagogue (paidagogos) was also significant in terms of status.
He was more important than the schoolmaster, because the latter only taught a boy his letters, but the paidagogos taught him how to behave, a much more important matter in the eyes of his parents. He was, moreover, even if a slave, a member of the household, in touch with its ways and with the father’s authority and views. The schoolmaster had no such close contact with his pupils. (Castle 1961: 63-4)
The distinction between teachers and pedagogues, instruction and guidance, and education for school or life was a feature of discussions around education for many centuries. It was still around when Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) explored education. In On Pedagogy (Über Pädagogik) first published in 1803, he talked as follows:
Education includes the nurture of the child and, as it grows, its culture. The latter is firstly negative, consisting of discipline; that is, merely the correcting of faults. Secondly, culture is positive, consisting of instruction and guidance (and thus forming part of education). Guidance means directing the pupil in putting into practice what he has been taught. Hence the difference between a private teacher who merely instructs, and a tutor or governor who guides and directs his pupil. The one trains for school only, the other for life. (Kant 1900: 23-4)
It was later – and particularly associated with the work of Herbart (see, for example, Allgemeine pädagogik – General Pedagogics, 1806 and Umriss Pädagogischer Vorlesungen, 1835 – Plan of Lectures on Pedagogy and included in Herbart 1908) – that teaching came to be seen, wrongly, as the central activity of education (see Hamilton 1999).
Didactics – certainly within German traditions – can be approached as Allgemeine Didaktik (general didactics) or as Fachdidaktik (subject didactics). Probably, the most helpful ways of translating didaktik is as the study of the teaching-learning process. It involves researching and theorizing the process and developing practice (see Kansanen 1999). The overwhelming focus within the didaktik tradition is upon the teaching-learning process in schools, colleges and university.
To approach education and learning in other settings it is necessary to turn to the pädagogik tradition. Within this tradition fields like informal education, youth work, community development, art therapy, playwork and child care are approached as forms of pedagogy. Indeed, in countries like Germany and Denmark, a relatively large number of people are employed as pedagogues or social pedagogues. While these pedagogues teach, much of their activity is conversationally, rather than curriculum, -based. Within this what comes to the fore is a focus on flourishing and of the significance of the person of the pedagogue (Smith and Smith 2008). In addition, three elements stand out about the processes of the current generation of specialist pedagogues. First, they are heirs to the ancient Greek process of accompanying and fostering learning. Second, their pedagogy involves a significant amount of helping and caring for. Indeed, for many of those concerned with social pedagogy it is a place where care and education meet – one is not somehow less than the other (Cameron and Moss 2011). Third, they are engaged in what we can call ‘bringing situations to life’ or ‘sparking’ change (animation). In other words, they animate, care and educate (ACE). Woven into those processes are theories and beliefs that we also need to attend to (see Alexander 2000: 541).
We can see from this discussion that when English language commentators talk of pedagogy as the art and science of teaching they are mistaken. As Hamilton (1999) has pointed out teaching in schools is properly approached in the main as didactics – the study of teaching-learning processes. Pedagogy is something very different. It may include didactic elements but for the most part it is concerned with animation, caring and education (see what is education?). It’s focus is upon flourishing and well-being. Within schools there may be specialist educators and practitioners that do this but they are usually not qualified school teachers. Instead they hold other professional qualifications, for example in pedagogy, social work, youth work and community education. To really understand teaching as a process we need to unhook it from school teaching and recognize that it is an activity that is both part of daily life and is an element of other practitioner’s repertoires. Pedagogues teach, for example, but from within a worldview or haltung that is often radically different to school teachers.
Some of the teaching we do can be planned in advance because the people involved know that they will be attending a session, event or lesson where learning particular skills, topics or feelings is the focus. Some teaching arises as a response to a question, issue or situation. However, both are dependent on us:
Recognizing and cultivating teachable moments.
Cultivating relationships for learning.
Scaffolding learning – providing people with temporary support so that they deepen and develop their understanding and skills and grow as independent learners.
Differentiating learning – adjusting the way we teach and approach subjects so that we can meet the needs of diverse learners.
Accessing resources for learning.
Adopting a growth mindset.
We are going to look briefly at each of these in turn.
Recognizing and cultivating teachable moments
Teachers – certainly those in most formal settings like schools – have to follow a curriculum. They have to teach specified areas in a particular sequence. As a result, there are always going to be individuals who are not ready for that learning. As teachers in these situations we need to look out for moments when students may be open to learning about different things; where we can, in the language of Quakers, ‘speak to their condition’. Having a sense of their needs and capacities we can respond with the right things at the right time.
Informal educators, animators and pedagogues work differently for a lot of the time. The direction they take is often not set by a syllabus or curriculum. Instead, they listen for, and observe what might be going on for the people they are working with. They have an idea of what might make for well-being and development and can apply it to the experiences and situations that are being revealed. They look out for moments when they can intervene to highlight an issue, give information, and encourage reflection and learning.
In other words, all teaching involves recognizing and cultivating ‘learning moments’ or ‘teaching moments’.
It was Robert J Havinghurst who coined the term ‘teachable moment’. One of his interests as an educationalist was the way in which certain things have to be learned in order for people to develop.
When the timing is right, the ability to learn a particular task will be possible. This is referred to as a ‘teachable moment’. It is important to keep in mind that unless the time is right, learning will not occur. Hence, it is important to repeat important points whenever possible so that when a student’s teachable moment occurs, s/he can benefit from the knowledge. (Havinghurst 1953)
There are times of special sensitivity when learning is possible. We have to look out for them, to help create environments that can create or stimulate such moments, be ready to respond, and draw on the right resources.
Cultivating collaborative relationships for learning
The main thing here is that teaching, like other parts of our work, is about relationship. We have to think about our relationships with those we are supposed to be teaching and about the relationships they have with each other. Creating an environment where people can work with each other, cooperate and learning is essential. One of the things that has been confirmed by recent research in neuroscience is that ‘our brains are wired to connect’, we are wired to be social (Lieberman 2013). It is not surprising then, that on the whole cooperative learning is more effective that either competitive learning (where students compete to meet a goal) or individualistic learning (Hattie 2011: 4733).
As teachers, we need to be appreciated as someone who can draw out learning; cares about what people are feeling, experiencing and need; and breathe life to situations. This entails what Carl Rogers (in Kirschenbaum and Henderson 1990: 304-311) talked about as the core conditions or personal qualities that allow us to facilitate learning in others:
Realness or genuineness. Rogers argued that when we are experienced as real people -entering into relationships with learners ‘without presenting a front or a façade’, we more likely to be effective.
Prizing, acceptance, trust. This involves caring for learners, but in a non-possessive way and recognizing they have worth in their own right. It entails trusting in capacity of others to learn, make judgements and change.
Empathic understanding. ‘When the teacher has the ability to understand the student’s reactions from the inside, has a sensitive awareness of the way the process of education and learning seems to the student, then again the likelihood of significant learning is increased’.
In practical terms this means we talk to people, not at them. We listen. We seek to connect and understand. We trust in their capacity to learn and change. We know that how we say things is often more important than what we say.
Scaffolding entails providing people with temporary support so that they deepen and develop their understanding and skills – and develop as independent learners.
Like physical scaffolding, the supportive strategies are incrementally removed when they are no longer needed, and the teacher gradually shifts more responsibility over the learning process to the student. (Great Schools Partnership 2015)
To do this well, educators and workers need to be doing what we have explored above – cultivating collaborative relationships for learning, and building on what people know and do and then working just beyond it. The term used for latter of these is taken from the work of Lev Vygotsky – is working in the learner’s zone of proximal development.
A third key aspect of scaffolding is that the support around the particular subject or skill is gradually removed as people develop their expertise and commitment to learning.
Scaffolding can take different forms. It might simply involve ‘showing learners what to do while talking them through the activity and linking new learning to old through questions, resources, activities and language’ (Zwozdiak-Myers and Capel, S. 2013 location 4568). (For a quick overview of some different scaffolding strategies see Alber 2014).
The educational use of the term ‘scaffolding’ is linked to the work of Jerome Bruner –who believed that children (and adults) were active learners. They constructed their own knowledge. Scaffolding was originally used to describe how pedagogues interacted with pre-school children in a nursery (Woods et. al. 1976). Bruner defined scaffolding as ‘the steps taken to reduce the degrees of freedom in carrying out some task so that the child can concentrate on the difficult skill she is in the process of acquiring’ (Bruner 1978: 19).
Differentiation involves adjusting the way we teach and approach subjects so that we can meet the needs of diverse learners. It entails changing content, processes and products so that people can better understand what is being taught and develop appropriate skills and the capacity to act.
The basic idea is that the primary educational objectives—making sure all students master essential knowledge, concepts, and skills—remain the same for every student, but teachers may use different instructional methods to help students meet those expectations. (Great Schools Partnership 2013)
It is often used when working with groups that have within them people with different needs and starting knowledge and skills. (For a quick guide to differentiation see BBC Active).
Accessing resources for learning
One of the key elements we require is the ability to access and make available resources for learning. The two obvious and central resources we have are our own knowledge, feelings and skills; and those of the people we are working with. Harnessing the experience, knowledge and feelings of learners is usually a good starting point. It focuses attention on the issue or subject; shares material; and can encourage joint working. When it is an area that we need to respond to immediately, it can also give us a little space gather our thoughts and access the material we need.
The third key resource is the internet – which we can either make a whole group activity by using search via a whiteboard or screen, or an individual or small group activity via phones and other devices. One of the good things about this is that it also gives us an opportunity not just to reflect on the subject of the search but also on the process. We can examine, for example, the validity of the source or the terms we are using to search for something.
The fourth great resource is activities. Teachers need to build up a repertoire of different activities that can be used to explore issues and areas (see the section below).
Last, and certainly not least, there are the standard classroom resources – textbooks, handouts and study materials.
As teachers we need to have a range of resources at our fingertips. This can be as simple as carrying around a file of activities, leaflets and handouts or having materials, relevant sites and ebooks on our phones and devices.
Adopting a growth mindset
Last, we need to encourage people to adopt what Carol Dweck (2012) calls a growth mindset. Through researching the characteristics of children who succeed in education (and more generally flourish in life), Dweck found that some people have a fixed mindset and some a growth mindset.
Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics….
There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience. (Dweck 2012: 6-7)
The fixed mindset is concerned with outcomes and performance; the growth mindset with getting better at the task.
In her research she found, for example, that students with a fixed mindset when making the transition from elementary school to junior high in the United States, declined – their grades immediately dropped and over the next two years continued to decline. Students with a growth mindset showed an increase in their grades (op. cit.: 57). The significance of this for teaching is profound. Praising and valuing achievement tends to strengthen the fixed mindset; praising and valuing effort helps to strengthen a growth mindset.
While it is possible to question elements of Dweck’s research and the either/or way in which prescriptions are presented (see Didau 2015), there is particular merit when teaching of adopting a growth mindset (and encouraging it in others). It looks to change and development rather than proving outselves.
One of the key things that research into the processes of teaching and educating tells us is that learners tend to like structure; they want to know the shape of a session or intervention and what it is about. They also seem to like variety, and changes in the pace of the work (e.g. moving from something quite intense to something free flowing).
It is also worth going back to the dictionary definitions – and the origins of the word ‘teach’. What we find here are some hints of what Geoff Petty (2009) has talked about as ‘teacher-centred’ methods (as against active methods and student-centred methods).
|Teacher-centred methods||Active methods||Student-centred methods|
|Talking||Supervised student practice||Reading for learning|
|Explaining||Discussion||Private study and homework|
|Showing||Group work||Assignments and essays|
|Questioning||Games||Projects and reports|
|Note-making||Role play, drama and simulations||Independent learning|
If we ask learners about their experiences and judgements, one of things that comes strongly through the research in this area is that students overwhelming prefer group discussion, games and simulations and activities like drama, artwork and experiments. At the bottom of this list come analysis, theories, essays and lectures (see Petty 2009: 139-141). However, there is not necessarily a connection between what people enjoy doing and what produces learning.
Schoolteachers may use all of these methods – but so might sports workers and instructors, youth ministers, community development workers and social pedagogues. Unlike schoolteachers, informal educators like these are not having to follow a curriculum for much of their time, nor teach content to pass exams. As such they are able to think more holistically and to think of themselves as facilitators of learning. This means:
Focusing on the active methods in the central column;
Caring about people’s needs, experiences and feeling;
Looking for teachable moments when then can make inputs often along the lines of the first column (teacher-centred methods); and
Encouraging people to learn for themselves i.e. take on projects, to read and study, and to learn independently and be self-directed (student-centred methods).
In an appendix to this piece we look at some key activities of teaching and provide practical guidance. [See key teaching activities]
What one person sees as good teaching can easily be seen as bad by another. Here we are going to look at what the Ofsted (2015) framework for inspection says. However, before we go there it is worth going back to what Paul Hirst argued back in 1975 and how we are defining teaching here. Our definition was:
Teaching is the process of attending to people’s needs, experiences and feelings, and making specific interventions to help them learn particular things.
We are looking at teaching as a specific process – part of what we do as educators, animators and pedagogues. Ofsted is looking at something rather different. They are grouping together teaching, learning and assessment – and adding in some other things around the sort of outcomes they want to see. That said, it is well worth looking at this list as the thinking behind it does impact on a lot of the work we do.
Inspectors will make a judgement on the effectiveness of teaching, learning and assessment by evaluating the extent to which:
teachers, practitioners and other staff have consistently high expectations of what each child or learner can achieve, including the most able and the most disadvantaged
teachers, practitioners and other staff have a secure understanding of the age group they are working with and have relevant subject knowledge that is detailed and communicated well to children and learners
assessment information is gathered from looking at what children and learners already know, understand and can do and is informed by their parents/previous providers as appropriate
assessment information is used to plan appropriate teaching and learning strategies, including to identify children and learners who are falling behind in their learning or who need additional support, enabling children and learners to make good progress and achieve well
except in the case of the very young, children and learners understand how to improve as a result of useful feedback from staff and, where relevant, parents, carers and employers understand how learners should improve and how they can contribute to this
engagement with parents, carers and employers helps them to understand how children and learners are doing in relation to the standards expected and what they need to do to improve
equality of opportunity and recognition of diversity are promoted through teaching and learning
where relevant, English, mathematics and other skills necessary to function as an economically active member of British society and globally are promoted through teaching and learning.
We see some things that many will not disagree with like having high expectations of learners, knowing what the needs of the group may be, having expertise in the area being taught; recogniting diversity and having a concern for equality of opportunity; and so on. We may also see the role that assessment plays in reinforcing learning and helping to shape future learning. However, there are things we may disagree with. Perhaps more importantly there are all sorts of things missing here. For example, why is there an emphasis on economic activity as against social, religious and political participation? Another issue, for many of you reading this, is possibly the way in which little account is made of the extent to which learners take responsibility for their own learning. They are encouraged to contribute to learning but not own it.
Good teaching is rather more than technique according to Parker J. Palmer. Good teaching, he says, ‘comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher’ (Palmer 1998: 11). It is the way we are experienced, our enthusiasm, our care, our knowledge, our interest in, and concern for, people that is the key to whether we are felt to be good teachers. As Jackie Beere (2012) and others have argued we need to be present as people in the classroom or learning environment.
This is not to say that technique isn’t important. It is. We need to be skilled at scaffolding learning; creating relationships and environments for learning; and catching teaching moments. It is just that these skills need to be employed by someone who can be respected, is experienced as real and is wise.
In this piece we have made a plea to explore teaching as a process rather than something that is usually approached as the thinking and activity associated with a particular role – the school teacher. As has been argued elsewhere a significant amount of what those called school teachers do is difficult to classify as education (see What is education?). Even the most informal of educators will find themselves teaching. They may well work hard at building and facilitating environments where people can explore, relate and learn. However, extending or deepening that exploration often leads to short, or not so short bursts of teaching or instructing. For example, as sports coaches or outdoor educators we may be both trying to develop teamwork and build particular skills or capacities. As a specialist or religious educators we might be seeking to give information, or introduce ideas that need some explanation. These involve moments of teaching or instructing. Once we accept this then we can hopefully begin to recognize that school teachers have a lot to learn from other teachers – and vice versa.
We also need to unhook ‘pedagogy’ from school teaching within English language discussions – and to connect it with the tradition of didactics. One of the problems with the false link of school teaching to pedagogy is that it is impairing a proper discussion of pedagogy. However, that may change a little in the UK at least with the development of professional standards for social pedagogy and the emergence of graduate and post-graduate study in the area.
Check out the Teaching and Learning Toolkit. The Educational Endowment Foundation has produced a very accessible review of the evidence concerning different things that schools do. Many of the things that schools do have little or no evidence to support them e.g. streaming and setting, insisting on school uniform, using performance related pay. Some things are very productive like giving feedback; teaching specific strategies to set goals, and monitor and evaluate academic development; peer tutoring; and early years’ intervention.
Key teaching activities. This infed page outlines 9 key activities and why they are central to the process of teaching.
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The section ‘teaching, pedagogy and didactics’ draws heavily on another piece written by Mark K Smith for infed.org (see Smith 2012).
The ACE diagram is taken from Smith, M. K. (forthcoming). Working with young people in difficult times (Chapter 1). https://infed.org/mobi/working-with-young-people-in-difficult-times/
Picture: Group project by Brande Jackson. Flickr | ccbyncnd2 licence
The ACE diagram is taken from Smith, M. K. (forthcoming). Working with young people in difficult times (Chapter 1). https://infed.org/mobi/working-with-young-people-in-difficult-times/
How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (2018). ‘What is teaching?’ in The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/what-is-teaching/. Retrieved: insert date].
© Mark K Smith 2016, 2018.
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