Don’t Sell Students Short: On Teaching Challenging Content

I was motivated to write this piece by a series of conversations I had viewed on Twitter. The initial conversation had been sparked by a poll run by the TES Twitter account, on the subject of emojis and their place in the English classroom. The question the poll raised is an interesting and oft-contested one in teaching circles: can (and should) emojis be used as a legitimate form of communication in the classroom? An interesting debate ensued. Those who supported their use argued that emojis are a legitimate form of communication. Emojis, they argued, were simply the evolution of the way in which people communicated to each other, and classrooms should reflect this change. Another argument raised in favour of emojis in the classroom was their effectiveness as tools of engagement. As a familiar form of communication, their use could accommodate students who struggled with regular written and verbal communication. This argument was argued particularly strongly for students who had conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder. On the other hand, those who argued against using them raised concerns about their effectiveness as a teaching tool, particularly in mainstream classrooms. Another concern raised about their use was whether this would come at the expense of developing skills in traditional written and verbal communication.

One of the most consistent arguments raised was that the use of emoji was a useful tool as a ‘hook’ or as a means of engaging students. Engaged students, the argument goes, are more likely to be motivated to learn and subsequently achieve better learning outcomes. On this basis, emojis seem like a reasonable tool for teaching within the classroom. The argument supporting such approaches on the grounds of ‘engagement’ falls short in light of research into educational psychology, however. While motivation and engagement are important, these factors alone do not inherently lead into quality, worthwhile learning. Correlation, in this case, does not equal causation. Research has shown that students tend to be most motivated by what is familiar to them. Using the above example, it is not surprising that students would be more motivated to learn language via emoji than through engaging with a challenging, unfamiliar text, such as one of Shakespeare’s plays.

I have previously written on a similar topic to this on my blog, when I argued the merits of teaching the literary canon. Central to this argument was the challenging nature of these texts, which would push students outside of their comfort zone. These texts are also outside of what they would normally read. Teaching students concepts and ideas which are out of their everyday experience and beyond common knowledge, sometimes referred to as powerful knowledge, is an important part of a comprehensive teaching experience.

Further to this point, the teaching of powerful knowledge involves a belief that all students are entitled to a quality, robust and challenging education, regardless of background. Though well-intentioned, utilising emojis or other gimmicks in lieu of providing students with challenging content can also be a sign of the soft bigotry of low expectations. Rather than assisting struggling students through effective instruction, scaffolding and guidance to achieve higher standards, course content is lowered in difficulty and complexity to accommodate a student’s current level of achievement. This approach does not allow for the growth of the student in terms of achievement and learning and, worse, denies this as even being possible.

With all this in mind, I am sceptical about utilising emojis and other trendy teaching tools, such as fidget spinners, on the grounds of engagement and motivation. With the occasional exception for non-mainstream classrooms and for students with clearly identified communication difficulties, such as students on the Autism spectrum, I believe students are ultimately better served without these tools being used, or being used sparingly and in clear, specific contexts. Though engagement and motivation are of course important factors to consider in lesson planning, meaningful, rigorous and challenging lesson content which give students substantive knowledge and skills are of greater importance.

The Inquiry Approach, Direct Instruction and Teaching the Humanities

The idea of inquiry, or a student-driven approach to learning, is a fundamental one in modern Humanities education. As the predominant method of teaching the Humanities, it is important to closely scrutinise its effectiveness of the inquiry method of teaching. The inquiry method has a few key characteristics. Firstly, it is a student-directed form of learning, involving minimal guidance from the teacher. Secondly, students solve ‘authentic’ or real-world problems through investigation This method, particularly among University educators of Humanities teachers is taught also exclusively, at the expense of more teacher-directed approaches. Inquiry-based teaching has something of a ‘sacred-cow’ status within the education of Humanities teachers. It is taught virtually uncritically in university teaching courses. Inquiry-based learning is also embedded within the Australian Curriculum for History, effectively mandating its use in the classroom by teachers. Despite this, educational research casts doubt on claims on the superiority of inquiry-based learning.

There is mounting evidence that the inquiry approach may not be the most effective way for students to learn. This evidence applies across all subjects, but is a particularly relevant finding for the Humanities, where inquiry-based models of learning are particularly prominent. As is the case in any subject area, content knowledge and understanding is essential to any in-depth understanding of Humanities concepts. In the case of History, this means learning about key dates, persons, events and more. The simplest way to do this is typically to have the teacher simply tell the students this, or have students work through a textbook to familiarise themselves with key historical concepts and knowledge. This direct-instruction based approach is often dismissed as being boring or not engaging for students, and as a result is not always seen as an effective or worthwhile way of instructing students.

The insistence on lessons always being exciting and fun from a students’ perspective, as David Didau argues in a recent post on education website Learning Spy, is potentially misguided. The conventional wisdom is that if students are engaged through ‘entertaining’ lessons, learning will inevitably be enhanced. However, recent research suggests that this may not be the case. Indeed, it is more likely that improved performance and success is what enhances a student’s motivation and enjoyment of a subject, not the other way around as assumed. For teachers, the implication of this is simple. The focus should be on the subject content and teaching it effectively, even if that involves approaches other than ‘inquiry’ based learning.

One of the arguments against inquiry-based learning is that novice learners of a subject are not equipped to both learn new information and apply it to complex scenarios simultaneously, as is what occurs in inquiry-based learning. Cognitive science has shown that children, particularly in the initial stages of learning, learn much more effectively through extensive guided instruction. Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006) argue that the inquiry method places an excess pressure on working memory in children, which becomes detrimental to meaningful learning in the long term. The most efficient learning, studies show, occurs when students are given examples, in-depth explanation followed by activities which closely replicate the information given. In the case of history, this means answering specific questions, guided by a teacher. Only when a significant amount of knowledge has been built up can students be expected to effectively utilise inquiry approaches to learning in History. Research by Professor John Hattie has also shown a much stronger correlation between direct instruction and student achievement than inquiry or problem-based learning approaches and achievement. In this research, factors such as teacher feedback, direct instruction and formative evaluation has shown the strongest correlation to student achievement across all subjects. By contrast, inquiry-based learning has relatively little positive correlation to student achievement.

To be clear, engaging lessons are an important part of teaching. The inquiry approach, by extension, clearly has some place in the Humanities classroom. In order for it to be effective, however, students must first have a strong foundation of knowledge. Without this, students have a severely diminished capacity to learn effectively through inquiry.

The State of ‘Flow’ and Combat Sports

The state of ‘flow’, often referred to as being in ‘the zone’, is an important concept in psychology, especially in sports psychology. The flow state, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a state where a person is completely absorbed in a task or activity, particularly one which involves creativity. It occurs when a task is being performed that is difficult and requires concentration, yet is performed in a manner which feels effortless, natural and without deliberate thought. Flow state, therefore, is the state of mind conducive to the greatest level of growth and achievement in relation to a skill, task or action. There are several steps necessary to achieve a flow state, per Csikszentmihaly. These are, briefly, as follows:

  • There are clear goals every step of the way.
  • There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
  • There is a balance between challenges and skills.
  • Action and awareness are merged.
  • Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
  • There is no worry of failure.
  • Self-consciousness disappears.
  • The sense of time becomes distorted.
  • The activity becomes an end in itself.

A flow state can occur during any activity, even a task as mundane as eating food or cleaning dishes. However, it is usually associated with activities such as art and especially sport. Indeed, many elite athletes in professional sports have described the flow state, or ‘being in the zone’ as a critical element of their success. Scientific research backs up these claims, showing that the flow state directly correlates to improved athletic performance. According to several studies, achieving the flow state is associated with a measurable reduction in the amount of errors made in a sporting situation, as well as a heightened state of overall awareness, leading to enhanced performance.

Control over the mind and thoughts is especially important in combat sports. These sports are often characterised by the casual observer and non-practitioner as being only concerned with physical strength and ability. The mental and psychological aspects of these sports is often overlooked or dismissed outright. From personal experience as a practitioner of Muay Thai kickboxing, I argue that this could not be further from the truth. The ability to perform in any sport, especially a combat sport such as Muay Thai, requires complete control of one’s mental state, thoughts and emotions. The ability to control your mindset and thoughts in relation to executing a task in a state of flow is essential for a combat sports practitioner, particularly the latter stages relating to distraction, fear of failure and self-consciousness is critical. All the physical conditioning and preparation counts for naught if training occurs under during a state of mental anxiety, unease and self-consciousness. A routine training task, such as hitting pads or shadowboxing can one day be relatively simple and the next day exhausting if emotions are not kept in check. This disparity in exertion for the same task becomes even greater if emotions are not kept under control in a more complex situation such as live sparring. Coming to terms with this fact and mentally training to attain a state of flow has become the primary ongoing obstacle for me to overcome in my Muay Thai training. As difficult as the physical fitness aspect of training in this sport has been thus far, training the mind to be calm under duress has been far more difficult an obstacle to overcome.

Though I have used the example of Muay Thai to illustrate the concept of the flow state and the importance of controlling the thought process in mastering skills and executing them in an effective manner, flow state can occur in any instance. The process of outlining clear goals, deconstructing the goal into manageable yet challenging steps and then practicing these with a positive mindset that focuses on practice as an opportunity to learn and develop, rather than as something to feel apprehensive or self-conscious about is a process and mindset that can be applied to anything in life. An awareness of how the flow state occurs and how to work towards it can improve performance in all manner of tasks.

Mindfulness and Meditation – A Primer

 

The concept of mindfulness is one which has been talked about much in the media and popular culture in recent times. This concept is often described as an antidote for the various stresses, anxieties and problems faced by large portions of the population. In the last decade mindfulness-based cognitive therapy has gained much mainstream traction in psychological therapeutic practice. Mindfulness is, simply put, a state of open and active attention to the present moment that is free of judgement. In this context, a judgement-free state of attention to the present moment means simply acknowledging the current moment as it is, whether it be a good or bad situation, without further emotional judgment. Rather than being preoccupied with thoughts about the past or the future, mindfulness, when practiced correctly, allows for calmer, clearer and more rational decision-making and thought. Mindfulness and concentrating on the task at hand, practiced over an extensive period, leads to a variety of quantifiable benefits, including reduced stress, increased memory and reduces emotional reactions to situations.   Though it is often talked about in relation to meditation, mindfulness can occur at any moment, during or outside a period of meditation.

Mindfulness and meditation are often coupled with Eastern religions and spiritual practices such as Buddhism and Hinduism. Though the practice originated with these traditions, mediation and mindfulness is not inherently a spiritual or religious practice. It is quite possible and in fact beneficial to de-couple the practice of meditation from religion. As famed neuroscientist Sam Harris notes, many meditative practices derived from Buddhism and Hinduism are inhibited by the beliefs associated with these practices. Rather than focusing on the beneficial aspects of meditation, these practices often concern themselves with ritual and religious dogma, much of which detracts from the act of meditation itself. One of the forms of meditation that avoids this pitfall is vipassana, or ‘insight’ meditation. This form of meditation focuses on non-judgemental attention to the present moment and creates the conditions necessary for mindfulness.

Many scientific studies have shown the clear psychological and neurological benefits to a regular practice of meditation. Despite its reputation as being an impractical spiritual practice, meditation has quantifiable benefits in a variety of ways. For a start, it has been proven to create more grey matter in the brain, which has a positive benefit on cognitive performance, processing of information and reactions to situations. Meditation practice has also been associated with changes to the amygdala, which regulates ‘fight or flight’ responses, allowing for calmer and more rational decision making under duress.

Meditation, like most new skills and practices, is simple to understand, but difficult to truly master. The first step, sitting down, closing your eyes and breathing, is relatively easy for most people. Being able to concentrate on the act of meditation without either being consumed by or repressing thoughts, however, is significantly harder. Distractions quickly arise and can easily overwhelm the beginning meditator. When this inevitably occurs, it is important to focus on an anchor, such as the breath to ‘reset’ the mind back on the task of meditation. Though the breath is a common and ideal starting point, anything can be used as an anchor. Developing an ongoing mindfulness and meditation practice is not an easy task. It requires discipline and work the same way as developing a consistent practice in any other activity does, whether it be an exercise routine, a diet or learning an instrument. For those willing to put in the effort of a consistent practice, however, the benefits are clear and worth the time investment.