In Praise of ExplanationsDecember 3, 2014
It’s an argument that there are good reasons why technology has repeatedly failed to transform education and seems likely to fail again. A similar message can also be found in much of Larry Cuban’s writings (and I can recommend his blog and Teachers and Machines: Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920) and initially I thought it might make a good postscript to my recently completed series of posts about the future.
However, while I agree with so much of this video I think there is a real problem with the explanation of what it is about teaching that technology has been unable to change and, in particular, the reason why Youtube videos will not replace teachers. The explanation given is:
Well, if you think that the fundamental job of a teacher is to transmit information from their head to their students, then you’re right, they are obsolete. I mean you probably imagine a classroom where this teacher is spewing out facts at a pace which is appropriate for one student, too fast for half and too slow for the rest. Luckily the fundamental role of a teacher is not to deliver information, it is to guide the social process of learning. The job of a teacher is to inspire; to challenge, to excite their students to want to learn. Yes, they also do explain and demonstrate and show things, but fundamentally that is beside the point. The most important thing a teacher does is make every student feel like they are important; to make them feel accountable for doing the work of learning.
Part of this is correct. Teachers can guide a class and hold students accountable for their work in a way that a Youtube video can’t. Teachers do more than teach and even if we were to delegate explanations to videos (which is something even I do occasionally) then they are still needed to select the videos and compel the students to watch them and to do any work resulting from them. However, too much of this restates an old caricature of the process of imparting knowledge.
According to many progressive educators (countless examples can be found in the comments here) there is something deficient about giving children information to learn. Knowledge is mere “facts”. The process of transmitting it is one way; here it is described as “spewing”, which fits well with the cliché of students “regurgitating facts”. Such transmission can be replaced by technology. It is also less important than how students feel about the learning, i.e. whether they are inspired or feel important.
What this fails to appreciate is the art of explanation. This is what makes a good teacher: the ability to explain something so that the entire class can learn it. This ability can be exercised remotely, educational videos may involve well-crafted explanations. However, a teacher in the classroom who knows the students can craft those explanations so much better. They have an idea of their prior knowledge and their levels of concentration. They can relate what is being taught to what they have taught previously, what students have been assessed to know and their general knowledge. They can adjust for the vocabulary and the attention span of the students. They can anticipate precisely where students will go wrong and, often, even which students will go wrong. They can even begin explanations with guidance as to how to get the most out of them (e.g. saying things like “you will be stuck if you don’t realise this point”, or “if you try to figure it out from what’s been written down without listening, you will make this mistake”) based on their knowledge of the class. They can decide whether a particular “hook” will work for these particular students.
Perhaps though, a teacher who knew the students, could design their own video to deliver the explanation, or pick the correct video for the class? Even that wouldn’t be as good as what they can do by explaining live. A teacher can interact with their students while they are explaining something to them. They can make eye contact and correct those not paying attention. They can ask students what they already know; what they understand, and what they find confusing. This, not provoking “higher levels of thought”, is what questioning is all about. A teacher can monitor the effect their explanation has on the students. They can identify which bits they might have to repeat three times, or which parts are so important that they will not move on unless every child in the room has acknowledged that they have heard it and will remember it. This is why it is so important to get students in the habit of listening and responding to teacher talk. Perhaps most importantly of all, particularly for helping the most able students, teachers can anticipate and answer students’ questions. I am not a fan of arbitrary divisions of knowledge into “facts” and “understanding” but it is this sort of dialogue that is the quickest way to ensure students do have more than a superficial grasp of what has been explained.
With regard to the section on the “affective” side of teaching, I’d observe that, few things are the cause of more rubbish to be talked in education than student motivation and so we should tread carefully. Every bad idea is sold as being engaging or being something the kids will love. It is right to be dismissive of the entertainment value of teaching resources or even teaching. No matter how good the kids are, and how entertaining the teaching is, they would still (as one experienced teacher told me) “like it even more if you just showed them cartoons”. I do object to being told that our job is to inspire students as if nobody ever learned as a result of anything but the most passionate enthusiasm. As for the idea we have to make students “feel important”, this is not a teacher’s job. Despite the claims of the cult of self-esteem in education, the right attitude to learning is as often about humility as it is about confidence. It is about appreciating what you don’t know and that you will need to work hard in order to know it. There is still a motivational side to teaching. It’s just less about inspiration and building self-esteem and more about authority, trust and expectations. Teachers can, of course, provide these things better than a video could, but it won’t look like Dead Poet’s Society. It will simply look like a teacher in charge of the classroom with students expecting to learn and that’s perfectly compatible with a teacher planning to impart knowledge directly.
The video is exactly right to identify why teachers cannot be replaced and are unlikely to be replaced in any upcoming revolution. It’s just unfortunate that the image given of what is indispensable about teachers is such a romantic one, appealing to inspiration and children’s feelings, rather than the more practical aspects of running a classroom in a way that ensures learning takes place.