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.

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How Social Media has aided my Professional Teacher Development

For all teachers, professional development is an integral and increasingly mandatory part of the job. Attending seminars, conferences and professional development sessions are among the ways which this has traditionally occurred. The use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as online communities such as Google+ is another avenue of professional development and discussion which is rapidly gaining popularity. The ability to converse with educators the world over on any teaching-related topic is one which many teachers are finding invaluable. Through blogging, podcasting, forums and more, a wide variety of opinions, perspectives, experiences and knowledge can be easily expressed, published and shown to fellow educators.

Though not everyone may agree, I have personally found social media, particularly Twitter to be an invaluable tool in my development as a teacher, for several reasons. One of these reasons is that it is a veritable treasure trove of resources, if one knows where to look. Being able to connect to teachers, education researchers, policymakers and other stakeholders from around the world has been extremely useful in helping to develop and refine my thoughts about teaching. Being able to read, discuss and learn from experienced, accomplished and credentialed educators from around the world has helped my professional development professionally. It has not only helped me learn about teaching and to clarify my thinking, it has also helped me to consider teaching strategies, perspectives and opportunities not possible through my university course, teaching placements and local professional network alone. In particular, my learning about topics such as classroom and behaviour management, topics which receive relatively little attention in university courses, has occurred primarily through articles, research papers and discussions which I have found mainly through Twitter. These resources, which I would never have found out about had I not been an active social media user, have given me a great deal of confidence leading into placements and arguably an advantage over my fellow pre-service teachers. For the teacher with initiative and drive, social media can make a huge difference in developing as a teacher.

Among the most important of these connections I have made has been with VoicEd Canada, an online radio station based in Canada dedicated to discussing teaching in its many facets. Connecting with VoicEd Canada through live web chats and podcasting, something which would have been almost impossible only a few years ago, has opened many possibilities in terms of professional development. Being able to expand my professional network to include teachers from the other side of the world has been immensely rewarding and beneficial for my development as a pre-service teacher. Most importantly, talking to educators on VoicEd about problems which all pre-service teachers face, such as lesson planning, classroom management and managing time and the stresses of the profession has helped my development greatly.

Naturally, social media is not without its issues. Too often, debate and discussion on education-related issues can break down into tribalism and personal abuse, as is often the case on any topic.  Poor standards of behaviour and communication which would never occur or be tolerated in a classroom or school setting are often accepted online. Debates on critical issues such as curriculum, classroom management and education policy suffer as a result. For social media to remain a useful tool for professional development, it is incumbent on us as teachers to remain civil, professional and courteous online as we are offline.

Civic Discussion, Ideological Diversity and the Humanities Classroom

The issue of political polarisation and bias in classrooms is a time-honoured one, having been an issue as old as the profession itself. Students, parents and the community, at times understandably, have been weary of teachers being biased and partial in the way they approach contentious issues in the classroom. These concerns are particularly relevant in Humanities classrooms, which deals extensively with societal issues and debates. Recent political events, including elections and terrorist attacks and the resulting divisive discussions and rhetoric, have only further enhanced these issues and concerns. As Humanities teachers, it is crucial that we naviagate these issues with students in an even-handed, calm and thoughtful manner.

Such concerns around ideological diversity and debate in classrooms have been heightened for a number of reasons. One of these are widely-reported  protests on college and university campuses across Western countries, Australia included, in which speakers are de-platformed, shouted down or otherwise prevented from speaking freely. Ongoing research has shown that there is a lack of ideological diversity on campuses. A report from Heterodox Academy, an organisation led by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt which seeks to increase ideological diversity in academia, shows just how pervasive the problem is. Data shows from the report shows that at some colleges, there is a ratio of more than 10 faculty members identifying as liberal or left-of-centre for every conservative or right-of-centre member of faculty. Although less often mentioned, there is also a problem with ideological diversity in primary and secondary classrooms.

When teaching Humanities subjects at a Secondary level, it is important to remain impartial and not push an agenda onto students. As teachers, we are rightly mindful of diversity in terms of gender, race and so on. At times, however, the profession fails to promote ideological diversity. Too often, classrooms can resemble echo chambers, where only a narrow set of views and opinions are discussed and explored. There are a few reasons why this is the case. One of the main reasons for this, unsurprisingly, is that school classrooms generally reflect the ideological viewpoints of the community in which they are situated (Hess, 2009, p.6). By extension, teachers may, without realising, internalise the dominant viewpoints of the school community in which they are a part of.

In order to cultivate ideological diversity in the classroom, at a minimum, clear, effective and strong principles of classroom and behaviour management must be implemented. Students speaking and voicing an opinion must be able to talk uninterrupted, even when raising points which may go against the consensus thinking of the classroom or may be controversial in some way. It is also essential to model to students how to respond, in terms of what constitutes and appropriate and inappropriate response to challenging ideas. It must be made abundantly clear, for example, that personal insults or denigration are completely unacceptable and that clear consequences will occur for students who violate this basic classroom expectation.

In order to do this effectively, a significant level of introspection and critical reflection on our teaching practice, particularly our manner of communication is necessary. At times, this will require also reflecting on our own belief systems, political beliefs and so on. Research has found that teachers who are willing to explore confrontational and controversial issues with students implicitly encourage students to do likewise (Hess, p.6). In order to teach students the skill of civil discussion on complex and contentious issues and encourage diverse viewpoints on them we as teachers must model these behaviours ourselves. This means conducting ourselves in a professional manner, not only in the classroom but in other avenues where such topics may come up, such as social media. In the same way we must avoid our classrooms becoming merely ideological echo chambers, we must avoid falling into similar habits when discussing contentious issues online or in person outside the classroom.

Technology and the Classroom

The ever-increasing influence of ICT in all classrooms is one of the fundamental issues facing educators of all students, whether at a primary, secondary or tertiary level. As a pre-service teacher who finished my high school education a mere seven years ago, the changes in the sophistication and prominence of technology in all aspects of education has been remarkable to witness. Keeping pace with the advances in technology and its application to teaching has been one of the more complicated aspects of my development as a preservice teacher to date. Being up to date with new technology in teaching is simultaneously one of the more important aspects of the profession for a preservice teacher to come to terms with, as its importance to teaching becomes more and more pronounced.

The rapid advancement of technology and its influence in classrooms presents a wide array of opportunities for meaningful and productive learning unheard of even a few years ago. The variety of activities, assessment and learning opportunities made readily available through the increase in availability of devices such as laptops, smartphone and tablet devices has increased greatly. Collaborative opportunities in particular are much easier than in the past thanks to the Internet and programs such as Edmodo, Google Hangouts and Skype.  Technology can be particularly useful for the administrative and assessment aspects of the profession. The ability to streamline marking processes through programs such as Google Docs and Google Sheets can potentially save a significant amount of time in this regard. In order to maximise these opportunities, it is important for teachers to educate themselves on new technologies and know how to use them within their subject areas.

As exciting as employing new technology is for a preservice teacher, elaborate technologies, particularly in the hands of new teachers can result in losing sight of what is most important, which is meaningful and effective learning for students. In my early attempts at lesson and unit planning, I am having to continually remind myself to maintain a focus on what I want students to learn, as opposed to what devices or technology I might utilise to get there. Without effective, targeted use of technology which is pertinent to the topic or subject at hand, learning can actually be hampered. If computers and the Internet are not utilised in clearly expressed and deliberate ways, they can quickly become a source of distraction for students.

There are other potential drawbacks of using digital devices, particularly in subjects such as English and the Humanities, my areas of teaching, in terms of reading and note-taking on digital devices as opposed to pen and paper. Studies have shown that note-taking using paper and pen consistently results in greater retention of knowledge as opposed to note-taking on a computer. Similar studies have also shown that reading a paper book results in greater knowledge retention than reading on a screen. Since reading and note-taking on reading which occurs within the classroom are two fundamental activities which occur frequently in any English and Humanities class, these findings should make a teacher think carefully before utilising ICT in place of more low-tech teaching methods.

To finish, I pose some questions to you, the reader: How do you utilise new technology and social media within your teaching practice? How do you account for the potential pitfalls of these technologies and maximise their beneficial aspects in achieving learning outcomes within your subject areas? It would be great to get some of your thoughts and perspectives on this topic.

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.

In Defense of Teaching the Literary Canon

In a recent tutorial for my Secondary Teaching class at university, the topic of classic and canonical texts, that is, influential and foundational texts for subjects and disciplines, came up. Specifically, the issue raised was whether such texts should be taught to secondary students or not. In recent years, there has been a decided shift away from such texts towards more contemporary texts. The most recent example of this occurring in an Australian educational context was the recent announcement by the New South Wales government that Year 11 and 12 students no longer had to study a novel or poetry.  As a pre-service teacher, these questions of how I intend to teach in a classroom are important. Even in the first few weeks of classes for my teaching course, I am beginning to think about my teaching philosophy as well as form opinions on trends in contemporary teaching. This question was the first time I found myself being in clear disagreement with the consensus in teaching, so I thought it would make for an interesting topic for a post.

Doug Lemov, the author of ‘Reading Reconsidered’, posits that teaching classic texts from bygone eras, if properly scaffolded for the reading and comprehension levels of a particular class, can be immensely beneficial for students. He argues that text choice is overlooked, with an emphasis almost exclusively on engagement. More difficult texts, including many classic or classic or canon texts are dismissed despite the opportunities present to engage with complex, intriguing themes, literary techniques and cultural context (Lemov, Reading Reconsidered, p.16). I am in agreeance with Lemov on this point. Reading these texts can provide students with the higher-order critical thinking and close reading skills necessary for success in higher education. Learning about these texts themselves allows opens up the opportunity for students to enter discussions about well-known texts and to understand cultural references which otherwise elude them. In a classroom setting, reading well-known texts allows ample opportunities for communal discussion and discourse, an essential element of any effective classroom learning environment. As many modern books reference or are structured on classic texts, there is also important inter-textuality and cross-referencing of books to consider (Lemov, p.22).

Lemov’s argument was presented in the context of English education. I take this argument a step further, as I believe classic and canonical texts should also be more prominent in the education of humanities subjects such as History, Civics and Economics. In the context of a history education, teaching about the works of famed historical figures, such as Plato, Aristotle and Herodotus has clear benefits. As primary sources of the Ancient Greek era, for example, these texts give an important insight into society at the time. They provide an important snapshot into the ways people at the time thought about and engaged with their world. In the teaching of economics, citing the works of important economists and philosophers of economics, such as Keynes, Hayek, and Smith are again important for setting a good foundation of knowledge for students. By directly studying the writings of influential economic theorists, students are much more aware of the principles they espoused which influence modern economics and can add much-overlooked context and nuance. These economists are notoriously misquoted and taken out of context for various ideological and political reasons, so learning directly from the source can help alleviate this problem.

Many of these works, of course, are complex and will require a clear plan and strategy of instruction from a teacher to teach effectively. Teaching entire texts from any of these authors would likely be beyond reasonable expectations for many high school students. Targeted excerpts, or updated adaptations using more modern English, are among ways to make these texts more approachable for students unfamiliar with older texts, while still retaining quality teaching. Aside from the technical skills reading these texts provide, they provide cultural capital and allow students to engage with sections of society they would otherwise not be able to. Lemov, in Chapter One of Reading Reconsidered provides an anecdote of a teacher from Britain, who as a student read the classic works of literature such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet. As a result, he went from being in the bottom tier of achievement in grade school to being top of his class in university. Though being from a working-class background which did not emphasise reading, his continued engagement with these texts allowed him to develop skills such as critical thinking and provided cultural capital necessary to engage with complex texts continually at university. This argument particularly resonated with me, as it reflects closely my own personal experience. As a child from a working-class background myself, reading canon texts of literature, philosophy, history and science has given me a substantial knowledge of the world in which I live and enhanced my critical thinking skills. In the same vein as the anecdote above, this played a major role in me being the first in my family to go to university, graduate with a Bachelor’s degree and continue further study towards my Master’s degree. Having experienced first-hand the potential of reading and engaging with the classics in my own life, I seek to provide the same opportunity as an educator to my students as much as possible.

The Economic Case for Humanities Education

The humanities subjects (History, Geography, Civics, Economics) are often maligned and underappreciated in the context of modern education. The lack of a simple, quantifiable measurement of their importance often results in these subjects being given relatively little attention compared to other core subjects such as English, Maths and Science. This is despite the Humanities, particularly History, being a core subject in the Australian Curriculum. To address this issue and to help promote the importance of Humanities education, a pragmatic line of argument, highlighting economic benefits as well as civic and cultural benefits is required.

The most common argument made against humanities educations in schools is that it holds no relevance to the ‘real world’ or has a clear economic benefit compared to subjects such as maths and science. This argument, however, is beginning to change within the business community. As the economy transitions from a traditional, manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge economy based on technical expertise and overall knowledge of business processes, the skills demanded by employers are changing. Soft skills, such as verbal and written communication skills are more and more in demand. A recent Conversation article found that miscommunication because of a lack of soft skills such as written and verbal communication as well as adaptable thinking, skills which Humanities subjects emphasize, costs businesses hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Addressing these skill shortages is a top priority among all industries. Humanities subjects, particularly subjects such as History, Civics and Economics are crucial in this regard. Mark Cuban, the billionaire investor, is one business leader who subscribes to this argument. He believes that in the future, liberal arts college majors and the soft skills they develop will be in ever-increasing demand by employers.

The cross-cultural knowledge which humanities subjects provides is also important in this argument. As the world becomes more and more globalised, an awareness of world nations and cultures is increasingly important. To be able to effectively do business with and communicate with people from a variety of backgrounds, a detailed knowledge of history, society and civics is imperative. Without this knowledge, businesses cannot adapt as well to the unique circumstances and requirements of each country and society with which it trades and interacts with, costing sales, output and more.

The challenge for humanities educators to prosecute the case for the humanities is clear. As Humanities educators, we are all aware of the benefits of an in-depth Humanities education, in terms of enriching students’ understanding of the world around them and their overall civic knowledge. This argument alone, however, is not a sufficient defence of the Humanities. It is important to also clearly and explicitly explain the economic and business benefits of Humanities majors to policy makers as well as the wider community. Only by doing this will the respect and attention the Humanities requires in relation to the Australian curriculum requires occur.