Denying the DebateOctober 14, 2013
I recently read a couple of blogposts that, I think, both suffer from an excessive willingness to paper over genuine disagreements.
The first from Alex Quigley argues for a position “beyond constructivism vesus direct instruction” observing that:
…students who are novices require much more direct instruction, before reaching a stage of some expertise, at which point learner centred activities (such as assessment for learning strategies or constructivist methods, like co-construction) can be integrated into our teaching methods with success.
The second, from Tim Taylor, argues that “learning and having fun are not inimical” and confronts the argument about the role of fun in learning.
Learning, it seems, is a very serious business and teachers who look to make their lessons fun are committing the cardinal sin of putting their student’s enjoyment ahead of knowledge acquisition and skills development. When I first read this argument I was a little perplexed and it took me a while to unpick the different strands. In so doing, I came to the conclusion that the ‘anti-fun’ bloggers had a point, but that they were overstating their argument. This blog is an attempt to explain why.
Both posts, I think, take a similar approach in identifying a conflict and then suggesting that the arguments of one side can be accepted without actually acknowledging that this involves accepting their conclusions too and resolving the conflict in their favour. And both, I think, end up missing what is truly at issue. Alex Quigley maintains that, provided explicit instruction occurred first, in order to acquire knowledge, it is acceptable to move to “learner centred activities (such as assessment for learning strategies or constructivist methods, like co-construction)”. This would seem to be a more plausible argument than the idea that there is only ever a place for explicit instruction in classrooms. Except, is that actually an argument anyone makes? Possibly, yes. The fact that two advocates of explicit instruction like Hirsch and Engelmann can disagree over the extent to which it is required for vocabulary acquisition (in this article) would suggest that there is a spectrum of opinion that allows for differing degrees of reliance on explicit instruction, and so there may well be an extreme end. However, I don’t feel that this is where the debate is taking place in our schools.
The controversy tends not to be about what students do after they have acquired the knowledge (although occasionally it is, who can forget the Mr Men revision exercise?) but about how and whether knowledge is to be acquired. There are those who advocate discovery learning and those who suggest knowledge is no longer required. This is the heart of the debate over whether explicit instruction is required. What happens after knowledge acquisition takes place is less controversial. Formative assessment is largely uncontroversial, and it surprises me to even see it mentioned as “learner-centred”, and where there is debate over how students should apply the knowledge it tends to be over the degree of rigour involved in a particular activity, like the Mr Men activity, rather than over the principle of direct instruction. If Alex Quigley means to move beyond the debate over direct instruction and constructivism, he seems to have done it by accepting the argument for direct instruction, but without explicitly denouncing the opposing position.
This is taken to a more ridiculous extreme in the other blogpost. In the debate over fun, Tim Taylor accepts that “learning is always more important than having fun (in a classroom context)”, that “any strategy that distracts students from the genuine purpose of the lesson is a bad strategy” and that “ fun in the sense of ‘messing about’ or ‘showing off’ has no place in the classroom”. Note the following passage:
…there is no place for the ‘teacher as clown’. This is showing off of a different kind. It is not our role to entertain the students and if we adopt it we deny them opportunities to contribute and to develop effective learning strategies including dealing with difficult situations. Sometimes learning can be a hard slog and doing something worth doing takes time and effort: If we spend all our time thinking of ways to entertain our students we are doing them a disservice and misinterpreting our profession.
It leaves me wondering just who he is disagreeing with on the “anti-fun” side. Although he does at times seem to be addressing the straw man that lessons should be deliberately unenjoyable, or teachers deliberately unpleasant, he really does seem to be accepting the problems with “fun” as an aim in education. At this point he seems to have accepted completely one side of the argument while talking as if he has merely accepted some part of it, and refraining from condemning the opposing position. The debate over fun is more contentious than this. As teachers we are often encouraged to judge the quality of teaching by how enjoyable students found it, rather than how much they learnt. We are encouraged to talk of engagement as something brought about by the “engaging” (a description not clearly distinct from entertaining) properties of the teaching or activities rather than the choice of the students to learn. As teachers we are praised for promoting novelties rather than hard work, for delivery rather than content and for making activities seem as much like play as possible. We are meant to encourage the happiness of students in our lessons, and never question whether it is actually the best state for learning. At this point, Tim Taylor appears, like Alex Quigley, to have endorsed one side without actually wanting to be seen to endorse it, until we read on and see that, unlike Alex Quigley, he then seems to undermine all that he has just accepted:
This I think might be a misunderstanding of the way we think of play and work. For some people these are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but for those that become genuinely effective learners, play and work are dimensions of the same experience. They do not see them as separate, but as complimentary and equally important.
Having disowned fun for its own sake in the classroom, he now appears to be endorsing play. Yet what is play if it is not fun for its own sake? A purposeful activity is not play, no matter how much you enjoy it. Play is something which is undertaken for enjoyment – for fun – exactly what he has just accepted all the arguments against. A similar contradiction appears in the following passage:
Of course it is bad practice to make lessons vacuous or so distracting the students forget what they are learning. Just as much as it is bad practice to make lessons so tedious and boring they loose the will to live. But there is no reason at all not to try to make learning enjoyable, to make the context interesting and attractive to the learners, to offer them a way in and to give some opportunities to contribute and be heard. [my emphasis]
As I hope my highlighting makes clear, it is simultaneously accepted that learning, can be undermined by some ways of pursuing enjoyment, yet denied that there is any reason not to pursue enjoyment. Yet if pursuing enjoyment can harm learning, then that is reason to refrain from pursuing it, at least in some circumstances. Alex Quigley seemed reluctant to state where the arguments he had accepted would lead, i.e. that we would condemn discovery learning and defend the right of the teacher to act as the sole authority in their classroom. Tim Taylor seems willing to go further than just ignoring the obvious conclusion of the arguments he accepted, but seems to deny it. If you accept that learning is more important than fun, then there are definite reasons to, at times, refrain from the pursuit of fun and serious difficulties with accepting play as anything more than a marginal and unimportant activity in the classroom. Not for the first time in reading Tim Taylor’s blog, I am reminded of Mary Midgley’s description (applied to B.F. Skinner and Richard Dawkins) of “the useful art of open, manly self-contradiction, of freely admitting a point that destroys one’s whole position and then going on exactly as before”.
In both cases, we have genuine disagreements. There is no option where we hear the arguments and just move on. These are areas where teachers can effectively be told not to teach, and it is vital not only to state the case but to acknowledge quite explicitly where arguments lead us. Teachers are told not to use explicit instruction. They are told to avoid activities that might not be fun. Neither should be acceptable and we should emphasise the reasons why.