How divided is our profession in our approaches to pedagogy? Some argue that there is a gulf between teachers preferring more ‘progressive’ and more ‘traditional’ approaches. Others say that these apparent divides are based on false dichotomies and that – on the whole – there is a broad consensus within teaching. Another view, for example of researchers like Tuovinen, suggest that there neither a dichotomy or consensus, but a continuum of practice.
To explore some of these ideas, I recently ran a short survey for UK teachers using Twitter and this blog to recruit participants. (Many, many thanks to all the generous Twitter-teachers who re-Tweeted the survey to their followers!)
The sample was collected over 24 hours (from 5.45pm (GMT) Mon 26th Oct 2015 to 5.45pm on Tues 27th Oct). 509 people accessed the survey, though a sizeable number (89) did not complete any of the closed questions on pedagogy. A few of these individuals did leave comments – which will be analysed at a later date. 420 participants were included in the analysis which follows.
Please note – this was intended as an informal survey. This is a blog, not an academic journal, so the analysis which follows is equally informal!
What was the sample like?
Twitter-teachers are unlikely to be entirely representative of teachers as a population. Additionally, whilst the survey site does collect IP addresses, I haven’t checked whether all responses actually came from the UK. Finally, there’s no way of knowing how honest people were about actually being a teacher when answering the questions. Therefore, I can make no reasonable claim that this sample is representative of the wider population of teachers in the UK.
There was a fairly even gender balance in the survey, with slightly more women than men in the sample. However, given that women make up a sizeable majority of teachers in the UK, women are somewhat under-represented in the sample. 3 individuals skipped this question.
The majority of respondents worked in either primary or secondary schools (or equivalents). Given the complexity of school structures, there were a significant number of clarifying comments. There were marginally more respondents from primary compared to secondary – however, the larger primary sector is under-represented in this sample.
School roles have also become more complex in recent years. The largest group (~1/3rd) of responses came from teachers holding some additional responsibility within schools (TLR). Teachers on the Main Pay Scale (MPS) and teachers with senior leadership responsibilities (SLT) each made up just over 1/5th of the sample. Teachers on the Upper Pay Scale (UPS) and Head Teachers (HT) also took part in the survey – as did a small number of teachers with responsibilities for special needs (SEND) and some consultants. A very small number of responses came from individuals who did not identify themselves as teachers. 11 respondents skipped this question.
What did I expect the survey to show?
If there is a genuine dichotomy in opinion regarding ‘progressive’ versus ‘traditional’ teaching practices, then I’d expect the pattern of responses to be different to where there is either a broad consensus or a continuum of opinion.
Where there is a broad consensus, I might expect the pattern of responses to vary about a single maxima. Something like this:
Of course, whilst I tried to pitch the ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ options available as equally as I could – it is possible that I misjudged ‘the centre’ and a broad consensus might centre towards one or other end. Perhaps like this:
If there isn’t a consensus, but a genuine continuum of opinion. I might expect the graph to look something like this (perhaps slightly sloped one way or another):
However, if the range of views collected in the sample represent polarised opinions regarding progressive and traditional ideas, then I might expect to see more than one maxima emerging in the pattern of responses. Perhaps something like this:
So … come on … what did the survey say?
Question 1 asked respondents to consider potentially competing ideas about how children learn best.
(A) Some teachers may argue that learning principally involves knowledge discovery and that this helps to develop the learning skills and commitment needed to become autonomous or life-long learners. Some may argue that students learn best when they discover or co-create knowledge for themselves.
(B) Other teachers may argue that the supposed benefits of learning by discovery transfer poorly between dissimilar contexts, the heuristic skills developed are too narrow for general application, and that important key discipline concepts are required before meaningful discovery can occur. Some may tend to argue that students learn best through explicit instruction.
Here is the pattern of responses.
To me, this looks like there is a fairly strong division in opinion. Despite several respondents leaving comments claiming this was a false dichotomy, within this sample, I suggest, there’s evidence to support the view that there is a sizeable divide between teachers beliefs.
Question 2 asked about frequently competing ideas around the curriculum in schools
(A) Some teachers may argue that learning is best achieved when students are able to exercise choice about the curriculum content, as this provides an education that is more relevant and authentic to their personal background and interests. Some might argue that students should have a significant role in deciding the content of the curriculum.
(B) Other teachers may argue that learning is best achieved when teachers select the curriculum content that students follow, as this exposes them to the ‘best that has been thought and said’. Some might argue that students should have curriculum content entirely selected for them.
Here is the pattern of responses:
Again, whilst a few comments suggested that both positions were perfectly compatible, it seems the opinions expressed in this sample suggest a fairly strong division in beliefs.
Question 3 asked about the importance of teachers working within a subject specialism and holding subject specialist knowledge.
(A) Some teachers may argue that learning is best achieved when students learn within discrete subject areas (such as English, Maths, Art or Geography). Some might argue that specialised subject knowledge is one of most important competencies of an effective teacher.
(B) Other teachers may argue that learning is best achieved when students engage in learning based around cross-curricular projects rather than traditional subjects (e.g. Life in Roman times). Some might argue that specialised subject knowledge is a relatively unimportant competence for an effective teacher.
1 respondent skipped this question. Here’s what the survey responses look like:
Again there appears to be a split in the opinions expressed, but with a majority opting for the more ‘traditional’ position (A).
Question 4 asked whether students working in groups or principally focused on the teacher was better for learning.
(A) Some teachers may argue that learning is best achieved when students are mainly focused on the teacher rather than engaging with their peers. Some might argue that seating children in rows facing the front facilitates this and leads to more effective learning.
(B) Other teachers may argue that learning is best achieved when students are able to socially learn from each other in groups rather than mainly focused on the teacher. Some might argue that seating students around tables where not all students are facing the front facilitates this and leads to more effective learning.
Here’s what the survey looks like:
Here, it’s harder to argue that there’s a strong dichotomy in opinion. To me this looks more or less like a continuum of views – with a slight learning towards the more ‘progressive’ option. On the other hand, the number of respondents ‘Strongly inclined towards (A)’ (HT on the graph) might imply there’s a division in opinion, but my question set up skewed the distribution towards the ‘traditional’ end of the scale.
Question 5 asked about student motivation – contrasting ‘engagement’ strategies with ideas about ‘mastery’ of content.
(A) Some teachers may argue that learning is best achieved when lessons are creative, pacey and varied, drawing often on practical or social activities. Some might argue that engagement strategies are key to students’ motivation to learn.
(B) Other teachers may argue that learning is best achieved when lessons are focused on consolidating the recall of key knowledge, understanding and skills. Some might argue that mastery of content is key to students’ motivation to learn.
2 respondents skipped this question. Here’s what the remaining sample said in the survey:
This looks like a continuum of opinion to me – slightly skewed towards the more ‘progressive’ option (A).
Question 6 asked about differentiation strategies and whether this implied simply more practice or planning for specific individual needs.
(A) Some teachers may argue that learning is best achieved when lessons are focused primarily on developing the key knowledge, understanding and skills required of the content. Some might argue that effective differentiation means recognising that some children will need more modelling or practice than others.
(B) Other teachers may argue that learning is best achieved when lessons are focused primarily on the individual learning needs of students. Some might argue that effective differentiation means recognising that students have individual learning needs and require personalised planning to meet those needs.
2 respondents skipped this question. Here’s how others responded:
Out of all 6 questions, this looks like the only one close to a ‘broad consensus’.
Some tentative conclusions (so far)
Certainly within this sample of Twitter-teachers, there appears to exist quite polar views on a number of pedagogical positions that frequently come up for debate. Whilst some teachers argue that ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ positions are a ‘false dichotomy’ – the evidence from this survey suggests that there do exist quite divided opinions about pedagogy. This has some potentially important implications if a similar pattern were true for the wider profession.
For example, some of the stated ambitions of the College of Teachers are things like:
◾accredit members against “respected sector-led standards”
◾give teachers a career pathway and access to “high-quality professional development”
◾draw on academic research to build a “quality assured and diverse professional knowledge base”
◾develop a code of practice for teachers
All of these ambitions might be difficult to reconcile across a profession with fiercely divided opinion. For instance, would these standards reflect more ‘traditional’ or more ‘progressive’ opinions about teaching. Even where opinions are not sharply polarised and exist as a continuum of approach, it may still be difficult for a body representing the profession to write standards which adequately reflect such diversity, for example. It’s possible that some of these differences might resolve as teachers start to have greater access to an evidence-informed knowledge base. However, people are remarkably immune to having their minds changed when presented with evidence which contradicts their deeply held beliefs.
On the other hand, there do appear to be some areas of frequent debate on Twitter where there might not be such sharply divided opinion. For example, whilst there is certainly a range of ideas about what constitutes effective differentiation, this survey might suggest there’s something of a broader consensus on this issue at least.
Where do some of these sharper divisions expressed in the survey lie? In future posts I’ll examine some of the differences in opinion between male and female respondents; between primary and secondary sector respondents; and between classroom teachers, middle leaders and senior leaders.
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The problem related to the College of Teachers is real. Although they state their aim to be ‘evidence-based’ they do not say how they will arrive at that position.
If the approach is based on survey and opinion, then the conclusion will simply reflect the range of opinions in the profession.
I fear that it will depend on the people who make up the team and the strength of their views. This is what we see in unions, for instance.
No other profession tries to ‘be professional’ without a shared ‘theory’ of what they do. Engineers, lawyers, archeologists all agree what constitutes evidence in their field. No agreement yet exists in education.
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“I fear that it will depend on the people who make up the team and the strength of their views.” – I entirely agree with this concern!