On Just Teaching

December 6, 2014


Since going part-time there are now some days in the week where I have discovered the pleasure of afternoons. One thing that is fairly pointless in the afternoon is education twittering as most teachers won’t be looking at Twitter until the evening. As a result I was a bit surprised to get dozens of retweets and favourites for this tweet last Friday afternoon:

Clearly, it hit a chord with some teachers. Interestingly though, some people just didn’t get it, so I thought I’d spell it out here.

To get it you have to know what “teach” means. There is a belief that “teaching” means nothing more than what a teacher does, even if that might be activities such as writing reports, supervising the lunch queue or managing other teachers, that are in themselves not the act of teaching. There’s another misconception, this one very common where people are lukewarm about teaching for ideological reasons, that anything which causes a student to learning, even (for the sake of example) locking them in a cupboard with an encyclopedia, is teaching. However, there is more to teaching. In the early 70s, the educational philosopher Paul H. Hirst wrote a wonderful essay exploring this entitled “What is teaching?”, which can be found in The Philosophy of Education (Readings in Philosophy) or Knowledge and the Curriculum: A Collection of Philosophical Papers (International Library of Philosophy of Education). He argued that teaching could only be identified as such when it was intentional; where there was some object, X, to be learnt, and where the specific teaching activity must be “indicative” of X. He explained:

By this I mean that the activity must, either implicitly or explicitly, express or embody the X to be learnt, so that this X is clearly indicated to the pupil as what he is to learn. In this way the teacher makes plain in his activity what he intends to be learnt. It is not I think at all the case that what is to be learnt must necessarily be explicitly discernible in the activity, yet it must be so available in some the sense that the pupil’s learning activity can be directed to this as its object. It is because activities like demonstrating, telling and proving can provide such excellent means for indicating an X that it is intended the pupil will learn, that they play such a central part in teaching… specific teaching activities must be indicative of what is to be learnt and it is for this reason that the opening of windows and the sharpening of pencils could never be themselves the teaching of historical facts or of Pythagoras’ Theorem.

Hirst was not attempting to condemn progressive education in this essay, although he acknowledged that this “indicative” quality of teaching was more strongly emphasised in traditional teaching, and argued that it should be considered carefully be all teachers. However, I would argue that the dominance of progressive education in recent decades has led to a certain lack of clarity about the nature of teaching. For instance, where educational aims are replaced by vaguer, non-educational aims, such as building self-esteem, ensuring well-being or encouraging self-expression it can be hard to determine what the precise purpose of a “teaching” activity is. Where our objectives have ceased to be about the learning of clearly defined skills or knowledge, but are instead about the development of more generic facilities such as “creativity” or “independence” actual learning can be hard to pin down. Where discovery learning, or open-ended activities are used, the indicative property of teaching can be undermined.

So when I suggest “just teaching” as a method, I am implicitly making a stand for the use (but not necessarily the sole use) of the methods of the traditional teacher. I am valuing teacher talk and explanations. I am recommending that there is nothing wrong with telling kids exactly what they need to know and making it clear that they need to know it. That we have been through a prolonged period where this was unfashionable is often denied by today’s progressives, (who presumably are completely unrelated to the progressives of a few years ago who acquiesced in and often enforced Ofsted’s demands for less teacher talk and more development of “independence”). That is why “just teach” is advice that means something to many teachers, and one we are happy to hear.

As for practice, this has perhaps not been condemned quite so explicitly in recent years as the other tools of the traditional teacher, except when described as “drill” or where it refers explicitly to practising the recall of knowledge. In fact, in some cases it has seemed like extensive practice in exam techniques was mandatory. But prolonged practice. particularly in the most basic and essential parts of a discipline, has been squeezed out by a couple of trends. Firstly, the ever present calls for learning to be engaging or entertaining has made prolonged, effortful practice unwelcome. Requiring kids to do the same thing for an entire lesson of fifty or sixty minutes has been seen as a form of torture, and a reason to excuse student non-compliance, particularly if what is being practised is the use of a mathematical procedure or some dry type of written work. Secondly, the (thankfully now dying) idea that in a good lesson students will be showing progress in twenty minutes, had made it hard to argue for the kind of practice in which improvement, no matter how necessary, may be shown only after hours of effort. A superficial engagement with something new is far easier to show in twenty minutes, than a gradual improvement towards mastery in something students could already do to some extent at the start of the lesson. Again, this has been a significant enough part of the culture in recent years that many teachers will welcome the encouragement to get their students practising.

As ever, no doubt many will deny this picture of the education climate of the last few years. They, unlike myself, have never been condemned by an inspector for getting students to work on their own, or told by a senior manager that requiring a student to practising their times tables for fifteen minutes a week was a cause of poor behaviour. They have never been told that any part of mathematics can be learnt by doing five questions, or that students will learn better if they are not told directly what it is they need to know. But for a lot of us, we want to hear that it is okay to just teach and that it is okay to get students to practice, and that everything else is not nearly so important.

And , of course, there are still those putting forward the opposing view as if there was no need to provide evidence for the effectiveness of not actually teaching. Just this week I have read a blogpost (on the website of the SHP, a group that has been very influential in history teaching) where a history teacher advocated the following plan:

I’m going to lay the room out in groups of tables, and upon each table I’m going to provide knowledge in different forms. So one group might have a set of laptops and different films of the topic playing for the children to watch. Another table will have chapters or extracts from historical novels. Another will have contemporary sources, and another historians’ works or text books. I’m not even going to ask them to answer questions, instead I’m going to ask them to work in the way I have been for my novel. That means I just want them to explore the story, and in so doing begin to formulate their own questions about the topic.

Also, the Teacher Support Network, a charity I was very sympathetic to until recently, published the following advice on their blog:

While the basics of science can be taught through a coaching method, it is certainly one of those subjects where you can’t find the answer at the back of a textbook. Experiential learning – taking a hands-on approach – encourages creativity and helps to build a greater understanding.

Children could be encouraged to act as a scientist during a field trip to the local park, during a trip out into the playground, or as an after school activity. Armed with pen and paper, they could be challenged to write down different animals they see, including descriptions and notes relating to perceived movement and behaviours. This type of innovative thinking encourages focus and develops observational skills – something that can’t be taught through management learning – while also being fun and a healthy alternative to desk-based activities.

For so many of those who work in education, the idea that such activities are not the best form of teaching, let alone the idea that they are likely to be less effective than traditional methods, is unthinkable. So those of us who believe in “just teaching” should take every opportunity to endorse it.


  1. Excellent post, Andrew!
    When we wrote our programme for teaching young children to read and spell, we asked that teachers trained in our programme teach a phonics lesson for half an hour a day, every day of the school week. If this was done with the rigour we have always advocated, almost all children in KS1 will learn to read and spell to a very high level of proficiency.
    Each lesson is filled with several mini-‘lessons’, which we were encouraged to call ‘activities’. We refused! They are not ‘activities’; they are lessons. This precisely for the reasons you, following Hirst, outline. In every one of our lessons, it is ‘indicated’ clearly what the teacher is teaching, which is a combination of code knowledge, conceptual understanding of how the writing system works in relation to the sounds of the language, and vital skills practice. The meticulousness of this approach is necessary because learning to read and write in English (in comparison with, say, Spanish) is complex and because virtually everything else being taught in the curriculum depends heavily on these interrelated skills. And, it takes time to teach.
    We were also guided by the wealth of research contained in K. Anders Ericsson’s (ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. This collection of research papers makes no bones about the importance of practice. In fact, one of the main contentions of the authors borders on declaring that virtually the only thing that separates distinguished individuals in any field is the amount of time devoted to practice within a domain and the quality of the teaching.
    In regard to the teaching of arithmetic as a basis for future mathematics teaching, or the teaching of reading and spelling as the basis for giving children the competence to become fully literate, our watch phrase should be ‘Just teach!’

  2. It’s good to hear your tweet received a lot of approval because it suggests there are still a lot of genuinely skilled, professional teachers out there.

    Something I stressed at the Sunday Times Festival in July was the way virtually all the educationally influential organisations have completely misaligned the profession to think, like them, that a teacher is primarily an agent of social change.

    Asking schools to repair the damage, neglect or just plain disinterest of parents isn’t just wrong headed it’s offensive to real, professional teachers because they know their job isn’t to change the world just because weak, vacillating politicians have neither the courage nor the values necessary.

    As part of a good and successful school, a teacher might well ultimately have some beneficial social impact but primarily, in their classrooms, day after day, lesson after lesson…their job is to teach the children sitting in front of them something they didn’t know before they entered that room. And teachers who don’t do that day after day, lesson after lesson, have completely lost their way.

  3. Andrew. At a staff meeting this week we were handed a document. It was from a meeting the HT had been to with LA advisors.The usual What Ofsted Wants stuff. In it was a section about teaching and learning. It stated that learning is now about “the acquisition of knowledge”. In a bubble pointing to this was written THIS IS NEW. I kid you not.

    • Hair-raising, Mike.

      And, may I say again, what a great post! I’ve been away from this blog for a few months, and it’s wonderful to be back and read the posts I’ve missed.

  4. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  5. Reblogged this on Phonic Books.

  6. This is really the crux of things Andrew. Enjoyed the post and the comments. A recent team meeting in my primary school threw up the same issues with not having enough time to teach as much spelling and handwriting as the children clearly need in upper key stage 2. Same applies for those children who do not know thier times tables. After hearing the same old arguments, a young colleague commentented: ‘You always need to be somewhere or contributing to a whole event or a celebration or work for an award (RRSA, Eco schools, Science mark or whatever).These enrichment activities though can be what makes a school what is also means that children are forever between different projects. A former head teacher once told me that they did not want the children to ‘miss out on ANYTHING’. My point that while it is great for them to be making clay rabbits for a Chinese New Year installation at the University, they will be ‘missing out’ on some brilliant reading, writing and maths for the two days this new project takes. And so it goes on. The chance to just teach and for children to be allowed to just practice means a change to a culture whereby its okay to do bit less stuff and teach things long enough for them to be learned. Sorry for the rant. Thank you for the post.
    Gareth Denman (preparing for not one, but two(!)Carol concerts during teaching time tomorrow, ba humbug)

  7. […] “just teaching” and in praise of explanations explain my teaching […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: