What Impacts How Teachers Teach?

As I’ve mentioned in a couple of blog posts, I’m no longer in the classroom. I’ve been working in the Department for Education leading out a professional learning program for Senior Years maths teachers for nearly two months now. The change of pace and scene has given me time and space to reflect on my own practice and experience, and really consolidate my thinking. As well as this, I’ve been reading more, and become one of those people who listens to podcasts. Since my main focus is now supporting teachers to develop their own practice, I feel like I’m becoming more aware of the different things that influence what teachers do in the classroom. How I teach and how my students learn is dependent on my own beliefs. I am coming to the opinion that there are three big beliefs that impact how teachers teach:

  • How people learn best
  • How people use knowledge
  • Expectations

I’m going to try to not go over-the-top talking about each point, as I have a knack of going far down a rabbit hole and end up typing 2000 words on one point which results in a post that remains as a perpetual draft. I also believe that me writing about my thoughts actually helps me understand my thinking better, while also getting input from others – so, by no means am I cemented in this way of thinking and I am open to differing thoughts of others.

How people learn best

I believe this is one of the biggest influences on the choice of instructional approach made by a teacher. Currently, there are big debates about this, with the gradual increase in teacher exposure to educational research and other research that holds implications for education, playing a key role. In maths, I see two big camps at the moment; inquiry based learning and explicit instruction. I personally feel like I fall between both camps, seeing my practice as flexible to the needs of my context, cohort and curriculum (as I’ve reflected in a previous post). I admit that, similar to Craig Barton (author of How I Wish I’d Taught Maths), I was entirely in one camp – Inquiry Based Learning. Through deliberately surrounding myself with those who think differently and have a different belief set to me, I have been challenged to reflect on what I believe works best for my students – not as far as Craig though, as I’m definitely somewhere in between. I have read blogs and listened to the voices of those I strongly disagree with to try and learn their way of seeing things, to put myself in a place of discomfort, and to stretch my thinking to put my potential prejudice aside to hear them out. What I’ve found is that, through doing so, I have become more grounded in my own beliefs and also highlighted key aspects of my own practice that could be strengthened by employing strategies that are prevalent in an Explicit Instruction approach. For those in the Inquiry Based Learning camp, look into Cognitive Load Theory – I feel that there are dangers in ignoring it just because those who employ a primarily direct instruction approach cite findings related to it, as there are a lot of very important aspects that can still be addressed through an inquiry based approach.

How people use knowledge

This relates to what teachers see as a useful application of the skills students are developing and the knowledge they are acquiring. Why I believe this is important is that, through thinking about how you want students to use what they learn, you teach things in a way that fosters that belief. Let’s take two examples. If you strongly believe that the main aim for students is to be able to do well on an exam (e.g. an entry exam into a university or an externally assessed exam), then the way you teach will align to meet that aim. Subsequently, how students consolidate and apply the knowledge and skills may be focused on retention and strategies to support learning to be stored in long term memory. Examples include (and are by no means limited by) frequent low-stakes quizzes, interleaving and retrieval strategies, and a strong focus on the automation of domain specific knowledge before problem solving. If, however, you believe that knowledge should be used primarily to solve problems and puzzles, communicate thinking to others, and to foster a culture of curiosity, then perhaps the way you teach will be quite different. It may be driven by visual cues for students to notice and wonder or perplexing problems and puzzles for students to think and talk about. Additionally, your instruction may be highly dependent on the culture you have built in your class for students sharing their thinking. Again, I personally think it needs to be an attempt to do both really well.

Expectations

This is a huge one as it can be something that we as teachers don’t believe we show to students. There are a couple levels here though. One is at the macro level – the expectations that the structures in the school implicitly and explicitly give to students. Streaming (and setting) is a big one here, and through this it can also impact the teacher’s expectations on students – despite their best intentions (listen to Ollie Lovell’s interview on the Mr Barton Maths Podcast for more on this). The other is at the micro level – this is through every single thing we do and don’t do in the classroom to show students the expectations we have of their ability, engagement, and value. I’m not going to go deep here in the fear that this blog post will go too far down another rabbit hole, but perhaps leave you with a question to ponder: “Who ultimately decides the level of maths students study at your school?

There is crossover with the three points I’ve mentioned, I know, but I think that they’re distinct enough for me to convey the key points to respond to my original question – What impacts how teachers teach?

I rarely do this, but if you are reading this post, which if you’re reading this sentence you technically are, what do you believe impacts how teachers teach? If you’d be so kind to add your thoughts to the comment section below, however short or long that might be, I’d be genuinely interested to read about it.

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2 thoughts on “What Impacts How Teachers Teach?

  1. Very interesting thoughts there. I promised on Twitter that I would write a comment on the blog so here it is…
    What do I believe influences the way teachers teach?

    1. The way everyone else is teaching

    Seriously this is a huge factor. No matter if you want to teach another way, if the people around you teach a particular way it’s really hard to teach differently. Part of it is just resourcing — if you do what everyone else does you can use their resources. Part of it is communication — if you do something different sometimes the others don’t even have words to understand your approach with. It’s hard to even talk to them about it. Part of it is structural — for example if your school does common testing across multiple classes, then you feel the pressure to keep up with other classes, and you will bend to the will of the other teachers. Most of this happens almost unconsciously for many teachers, I feel.

    2. Beliefs about what maths is

    If you believe maths is something that people do when they figure out and discuss ideas, then you will include this in your teaching, since you won’t believe maths is being done otherwise. If you believe maths is a set of procedures to deal with common situations, then you will train students to recognise those situations and get them to practise the procedures. Importantly, when it comes to make a choice between options, these will guide your choice.

    3. Mental health

    I think anxiety, depression and mental exhaustion are big factors in what teachers choose to do. A mentally ill teacher (and there are many of us) will be much less likely to try out new things or to release control. They may give up entirely and just go through motions. Or they may throw caution to the wind and do anything they find with no regard for consequences. Essentially some sort of disengagement from the task of being thoughtful about what to do. The results may be unpredictable for the students, but unchecked will be disasterous for the teacher.

    Honestly I didn’t mean this to be so very dark. But they are three possible influences on how teachers teach.

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    • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, David. I think each of your points are very relatable for a huge number of teachers, sadly – your third point in particular, not that we shouldn’t be able to talk honestly about it, but that it’s so prominent in our profession. I don’t mean to start a thread on your comment, but I’d also like to draw attention to your first point. It got me thinking about how influential a style of teaching can be depending on WHO is endorsing it…

      Like

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