The ‘artificiality’ of teaching

In my last post, I argued that the universality and the spontaneous development of teaching leads to the conclusion that teaching is a natural ability. The post generated some really interesting responses, but one from @informed_edu made a direct attempt to answer the question I posed to ITE providers: What is the ‘technical’ or ‘professional’ body of knowledge or set of skills required of an effective teacher, which can actually be taught?

Whilst teaching may have evolved as a natural cognition (based on a functioning theory of mind) there are many aspects of modern teaching which are artificial. I use the term ‘artificial’ not in a pejorative sense but in the same sense as Herbert Simon in ‘The Sciences of the Artificial’.

“Natural science is knowledge about natural objects and phenomena. We ask whether there cannot also be “artificial” science knowledge about artificial objects and phenomena.” page 3

The modern context of teaching and more widely education are cultural phenomena, created by human beings rather than emerging directly from evolution through natural selection. Whilst, at its core, teaching may be a ‘natural ability’, it operates through artificial, culturally derived, systems. David Geary in ‘Educating the Evolved Mind’ suggests that these systems have emerged to meet a specific cultural demand.

He suggests that secondary cultural knowledge (e.g. science, literature, art) emerged from cognitive and motivational systems evolved to support what he calls primary or ‘folk knowledge’: Things like folk psychology (interest in people), folk biology (interest in living things) and folk physics (interest in inanimate objects) which directly aided survival and reproduction in our evolutionary past. As humans developed ways to retain these cultural artefacts across generations, he proposes that there was created an ever-growing gap between ‘folk knowledge’ (which people rapidly and easily acquire) and the theories and knowledge base of secondary knowledge (which people need explicitly to be taught).

Geary argues that where this gap between ‘folk knowledge’ and secondary cultural knowledge becomes large enough, schools emerge as cultural institutions. The function of schools, he suggests, is to close the gap between the biologically primary knowledge children rapidly learn for themselves and the secondary knowledge needed for living in society.

“The need for explicit instruction will be a direct function of the degree to which the secondary competency differs from the supporting primary systems.” Page 35

Teaching, I argued in the last post, largely involves ‘folk psychology’ – a rapidly acquired ability to pass-on cultural knowledge across generations. Beyond knowledge of secondary culture itself (subject knowledge), the question is whether there is a body of secondary knowledge required for teaching. What are the ‘technical’ or ‘professional’ elements of knowledge or sets of skills required of an effective teacher?

David’s response to ‘Is teaching a natural ability?’

You can read @informed_edu ‘s response in the comments to my last post here. He argued that:

“some form of teaching comes naturally to most people, but that doesn’t mean that the version that comes most naturally is always most effective”

To summarise (I hope fairly), David suggested a range of secondary knowledge required of a teacher which benefit from formalised instruction:

  1. Planning lessons
  2. Teaching strategies
  3. Curriculum design
  4. Assessment design
  5. How children learn
  6. Differences between students: e.g. special educational needs
  7. Behaviour management
  8. Drawing upon and evaluating research evidence
  9. Mentoring, coaching and leading teachers

Lastly he says:

“In most professions, the acquisition of this is significantly more formalised and then you achieve recognition for having learned it. You also get the options to delve into more specialist areas and receive well-planned learning and the opportunity to be recognised for that. This helps professions both build, recognise and then use the knowledge – easier to identify who to turn to for advice if there is a better system for recognising expertise.”

A body of knowledge for teaching

I agree with some of David’s points, others I think are a function of subject knowledge (which I readily conceded is learnt), and others I don’t think can be argued to form part of a professional body of knowledge or a technical competence.


How useful is lesson planning? It seems to me an empirical question – what sort of planning actually improves student outcomes? Over my career, I’ve been asked to use a wide variety of formats to record what I intended to teach. I must confess I’ve often found it easier to write the lesson plan after I’d taught the lesson!

That’s somewhat flippant, but there are a couple of reasons I’m skeptical about the value of lesson planning. Firstly, the ‘impossible task of mind reading’ means I cannot always anticipate where students will have difficulty or achieve understanding easily. I concede that that very early on in my PGCE year I needed to sketch thoughts on paper before trying things out in the classroom. However, great teaching, in my opinion, requires responsive flexibility rather than explicit planning. Such flexibility undoubtedly comes from practice rather than any formal instruction – thus I reject the notion that planning forms a technical competence. I strongly suspect that teachers are using their subject knowledge and theory of mind to actually teach and that a great deal of ‘planning’ is being done merely for the appearance or accountability

Secondly, I’m far from certain that planning a lesson is even the right level of focus. Two great blogs exploring this:

A lesson is the wrong unit of time via @BodilUK

The problem with lesson planning via @LearningSpy

Teaching strategies

This, for me, is the most problematic area in CPD. Throughout my career, I’ve been told that one strategy or another was effective or necessary: I’ve been told I need to differentiate for kinaesthetic learners; told to limit the amount of talking I’m allowed to use; told to use lollipop sticks as a way of randomly sampling the class for questioning; told to make children write lesson objectives; told to divide lessons into starters, mains and plenaries, etc. The problem is that, beyond what evolved natural ability a teacher possesses, many teaching strategies passed on through CPD are little more than gimmicks.

Even much more plausible, research-based strategies – e.g. Assessment for Learning – tend to have devolved to the level of bureaucratic box-ticking rather than any useful strategy. For example, requiring teachers to report ‘progress’ through (non-existent) sub-levels and generating targets by which a student will reach the next (non-existent) sub-level. Beyond the observation that great teachers formatively assess learning as they teach (which I argue is natural ability) how useful were any of the ‘strategies’ that arose from AfL? This argument is explored in more depth by David Didau:

AfL: Cargo cult teaching? via @LearningSpy

5-year olds ask questions to check understanding whilst teaching, and great teachers do this too. I have no doubt that AfL provides a description of great teaching – my question is, does explicit teaching of AfL strategies (or any other teaching strategy) actually improve teaching?

Curriculum design

I don’t doubt that curriculum design involves a strong understanding of a subject – thus, I concede this involves secondary knowledge, but I’d argue that teachers do not receive any explicit training in curriculum design and therefore it’s hard to argue that this forms a pillar of professional status.

I think there are some useful things teachers can learn about curriculum design. Two that were most useful for me were these:

Trivium 21st Century via @Trivium21c

One scientific insight for curriculum design via @joe_kirby

The first of these provided an interesting model for thinking about curriculum design. Martin’s many examples of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric across different subject areas was based firmly within tradition, but I think it works because it reflects the inheritance, selection and variation which drives cultural evolution (but this is opinion). Joe’s ideas, based upon our profession’s nascent understanding of how children learn, are an excellent example of perhaps where a body of professional knowledge might exist to be exploited.

Assessment design

There’s certainly a body of technical knowledge required for effective assessment design. I guess my major issue is that teachers aren’t taught it! A great starting point, in my opinion, is the work of Daisy Christodoulou.

Guide to my posts about assessment via @daisychristo

How children learn

This is another area where I’m in complete agreement with David. Education appears to have recently discovered that scientific ideas about how humans learn didn’t stop in the 1920-30s with Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky.

There really is a body of knowledge here that teachers might benefit from. For an accessible starting point, teachers could do far worse than the Deans for Impact – The Science of Learning:

The Science of Learning

Obviously, I’m greatly biased in this regard – having a background in psychology and also writing a blog principally about trying to apply psychological research to the classroom! However, the sheer number of myths circulating in education regarding how children learn makes it something of a justifiable priority in my opinion.

Differences between students

There’s certainly a body of technical knowledge related to SEND. Merely understanding the overwhelming number of labels applied to children requires some explicit explanation.

Personally, I’m cautious of many of the labels that underlie differentiation strategies in lessons. There’s some evidence that such labels may not always benefit the children involved – for example:

Does the dyslexia label disable teachers?

There are certainly children who struggle within the large classes and the (inevitably) limited personal attention in mainstream education, but differentiation strategies have suffered from the same myths and unevaluated claims as other teaching strategies. There are some areas of SEND where some technical knowledge about how children learn might be very applicable, for example from Susan Gathercole and Tracey Alloway:

Understanding Working Memory: A Classroom Guide

However, the best starting point for understanding individual differences in learning is probably understanding how children learn in the first place (see above). Otherwise, I’d argue the majority of day-to-day classroom differentiation is running off the same ‘subject-knowledge-mediated-through-theory-of-mind’ as the rest of teaching.

Behaviour management

This is an interesting area of current debate. Many schools run behaviour management systems entirely upon operant conditioning lines (a branch of behaviourism – which includes using rewards and/or punishments). These behaviourist approaches have some fundamental limitations however, for example older children typically see through attempts to manipulate their behaviour through rewards and praise can undermine effort if used carelessly:

Praise and rewards – use thoughtfully!

For the most part, dealing with children is employing a teacher’s theory of mind more than applying an explicit body of technical knowledge, in my opinion. There are certainly helpful starting points for new teachers – mainly that children respond to clear and consistent expectations:

Tom Bennett’s top ten tips for maintaining classroom discipline via @tombennett71

Some of the behaviour challenges faced by teachers are often due to merely being a new face. Contrary to the saying ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ – there’s evidence that repeated interaction with the same person tends to bring about more positive attributions about that person (in psychology this is called the ‘mere-exposure’ effect). I’ve often wondered how much of behaviour issues in schools stem from staff turnover and timetable instability.

On balance, most of this involves ‘folk psychology’ and I remain to be convinced that there is an explicit ‘body of knowledge’ which underlies a positive classroom climate which teachers need to learn in order to be effective. Much more important, in my view, is the identification of effective school-wide systems for supporting teachers in developing the relationships and routines in classrooms.

Drawing upon and evaluating research evidence

There’s certainly a great deal of secondary cultural knowledge within research methods (including things David mentioned like statistics and how to assess things like validity and reliability).

Whilst organisations like the EEF were founded to provide teachers with better information about effective intervention and teaching strategies, it’s not clear how effectively this information is being used in schools. Pilot projects like ‘Evidence for the Frontline’ seek to overcome the gap between research and teaching through brokering partnerships – and perhaps this will help teachers access and implement more effective interventions. Finally, a fantastic grassroots organisation is achieving this dialogue between researchers and teachers at an international level, and I’d encourage any teacher to get involved with researchED.

At the very least, we might hope that greater professional understanding of research would help teaching avoid the gimmicks and myths which bedevil education. Therefore, perhaps some level of understanding of research methods – and most certainly statistics – would be useful for teachers. A big question is the degree to which we might expect all teachers to be ‘research literate’ and whether/what sort of teacher ‘research’ has demonstrable practical value in developing effective teaching.

Mentoring, coaching and leading teachers

David mentioned a range of things related to developing teaching – from ITT to school leadership. I’m going to be very sceptical and suggest a null hypothesis: None of the systems for developing teachers is more or less effective, it is merely that some teacher trainers, coaches and school leaders have a well-functioning theory of mind which makes them effective (regardless of the system they use). In essence, like an argument put forward regarding counselling, I think the ‘Dodo bird verdict’ applies to different models of mentoring, coaching and leadership.

In conclusion

I’ve argued that beyond knowledge and understanding of the subject to be taught – and some experience at teaching it – that teaching is essentially a natural ability arising from a well-functioning Theory of Mind. David mounted an interesting challenge to this, relating a list of essential knowledge and skills required for effective teaching which required explicit teaching and practice.

I disagree with some of his suggestions. As a profession I think we have a whole swathe of questionable teaching strategies and interventions, debateable behaviour management guidance and uncertain differentiation advice – much of which probably involves a natural ability to teach (plus a bit of practice) rather than the effectiveness of the strategies. I remain to be convinced that these require or benefit from formalised, explicit instruction.

However, for some of the areas he raised, I agree: How children learn, curriculum and assessment design, some level of statistics and research methods would appear especially fertile ground for developing a formalised body of professional knowledge and skills. What’s remarkable perhaps is the relative absence of these features from teacher training and professional development.

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4 Responses to The ‘artificiality’ of teaching

  1. I’ve really enjoyed reading this. I’m just about to take my nephews out, so I’ll post a quick response now and a more detailed one later.

    Firstly, I’m glad there are some areas we agree! I’d be quite interested to see if someone can challenge us both on these areas: assessment, how students learn.

    Then there are areas you’ve challenged me. My immediate reaction is that you’ve made me realise that I must be careful with language. Your assumptions about my meaning rest on current orthodoxy – that my meaning of ‘techniques’ means fashionable (and often superficial) tips currently bandied about, that my meaning of the technical aspects of lesson planning means the bureaucratic art of producing a lesson plan for someone else’s benefit, for example.

    You’ve rightly questioned the extent of research literacy – the amount that is useful or practical to most teachers is debatable, aside from general consensus that we need more of it.

    I’d like to challenge your discussion about behaviour. It feels like you’re saying that if I know how to understand what a child is thinking and I can set expectations then my behaviour management will be fine (if I’m in a school with good systems). I may have misunderstood – please correct me, of course. Behaviour management requires routines that the teacher has practiced, along with an understanding of how and why to use them. It requires learning what great practice looks like and refining one’s own practice. It requires a strong sense of self-awareness of one’s own mental state. There is a lot of scripting and learning and self-control, not to mention skill in using language, body and expression.

    I think your assertions that nothing is inferior/superior in teacher development is directly in contrast to the research base – e.g. I may have also misunderstood your meaning, or else I’ll leave you to clarify why you believe this to be the case.

    I’ve found this fascinating … and this answer is already longer than intended and I have wriggling nephews, so that’s all for now – I’m curious to see where this leads and what we find out from it. Thanks Nick, and anyone else who contributes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is fascinating stuff (as David writes). I find myself thinking back to writing by Michael Eraut (Developing Professional Knowledge And Competence 1994) and Peter D. Tomlinson (Understanding Mentoring 1995) – writers who elegantly combined research literacy, scholarship and professional practice in work that “made sense” to someone who had struggled to reconcile the contradictions and shortcomings of so much teacher education practice. While tutoring on an OU module on Mentoring I met teachers who had found the Tomlinson book (and some of the related work on understanding teaching) to be a revelation. It didn’t tell them what to do, or how to do it, but it did offer a useful picture of the complexity of what faced them and helped them focus on aspects of novice-teacher difficulties with pertinent questions and relevant advice.

    As with so many things, when one has failed to acquire the expected (or desired) level of “natural” competence through fortunate experience and disposition, well-informed wisdom and guided practice can support real improvement. Handy hints from half day courses might provide short cuts or rescues, but there really is nothing like an acceptance that all “knowing” (knowing that, knowing how or knowing why) are always tentative and that current success (or failure) in teaching can be situationally determined rather than personally achieved. Trying to copy Nelly (or a celebrity teacher) runs the risks of copying the wrong things or failing to notice the contextual variation that give Teacher 1 and Nelly such different problems.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The ‘artificial science’ of teaching: System vs Individual competence | Evidence into Practice

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