By Dr. Dan Rosen, head of Biology, Wellington College.
The precocious child that constantly asks the most frustrating question of all is always pleased with the veritable Russian doll-esque continuum of answers. Teachers on the other hand often shy away from asking this question, which is slightly ironic given that we encourage our charges to do exactly that!
Whenever I ask a class to do undertake a task there is always a chance that someone will ask the question, “why?” For me, there are three possible reasons for this.
1. The pupil wasn’t listening to the instructions (or anything before hand for that matter).
2. I didn’t explain the task clearly enough.
3. The task is not worth doing, either because it does not help learning, it is too easy etc.,
Now, if only one pupil asks the question, chances are they weren’t listening, but the more pupils there are that ask “why?’ the more we drift through to reason 2 and onto reason 3. And this is where I find myself in a quandary. Can I tell the class why we are doing the task? Can I justify them spending their precious time on something that I cannot be sure will increase their learning? If the answer to the first is no, then most certainly the answer to the second also has to be no. Even if it doesn’t harm the learning process, if a task is not enhancing it, then what is the point?
The question of “why?” has happened many times over my short career, but I don’t see this as a problem; it has pushed me forward develop my approach to teaching! It isn’t confined to boring tasks, far from it in fact. Young people are very astute, and even if a task is boring, if they can see value, they’re in. And it is this value that I am interested in. How can I design tasks, lessons and units that don’t just excite or pique interest, but actually help pupils learn? How can I answer the ‘why’ question so robustly that there is no way the class will not undertake the task?
It helps if the pupils can see the inherent value of an activity, but it is not the be all and end all, so long as I can see the value. If I had to explain the reason behind every single task, that would be a huge drain on time. But if a pupil asks I would like to think I could satisfactorily explain its purpose and so it doesn’t necessarily matter if the pupils are fully aware; it is my job to ensure all tasks are appropriate and enhance learning, so the pupils don’t need to worry!
And that is where research comes in. How am I meant to know which classroom practices add value to learning? Do I guess? Do I hope? I may have prior experience of a task, or heard good things from a colleague, but can I answer that ‘why?’ question?
Well in some cases, I most certainly can. I’d like to think that in most cases I could; my background in neuroscience and psychology certainly helps here, but it is not quite sufficient. Equally, very experienced teachers will have an anecdote or memory about a technique that has always worked or an activity that has solved all a pupil’s misconceptions, but does that make their method valid? Maybe. Is it the best method of teaching out there? Probably not.
But if we really want to push our profession forward, we should definitely be asking the ‘why?’ about everything we do. If there is no reason for doing something, then why bother? Pupils might be performing well in spite of our intervention or worse still, they may be performing well because our intervention was so bad they had to solve the problem themselves!
But isn’t this going to take up lots of time? Are you getting paid for this? Why are you going through all that stress if it doesn’t directly benefit you?
These are just some of the questions faced when proposing to colleagues that they should conduct research. Fair enough, it is a lot of time and effort, I don’t get paid any extra and it can be stressful at times.
But when I ask them if they prepare their lessons, they scoff in my face as if I have insulted them. For me, research is preparation. Long term, granted, but preparation nonetheless. I am putting time and effort into planning future lessons and into understanding how I can facilitate pupil learning. I am also helping those in my department, my school and possibly (hopefully) even further afield than that. If every Biology department in the country conducted a piece of research this year, imagine how much more we would all know about how we can improve pupil learning!
We are not in competition with each other. It is not about being the best teacher or even the best school, but about being the best professionals. I can borrow a lesson plan from the best teacher in the world but that won’t make it the best lesson. Equally, a great teacher can take a poor lesson plan and make it into a fantastic lesson. There is no perfect lesson, no perfect lesson delivery. But the fundamental principles and concepts of classroom are there and if we can elucidate these principles, all teachers can improve. If all teachers improve, standards across the board will improve and that can be no bad thing…
With this in mind, my department and I are undertaking various research initiatives. It started last year with a lesson study and this year we are planning at least one research project and one lesson study. We want to investigate our classroom practice so that we can improve it. We want to know what works best for (at least) our pupils so there is no doubt that the answer to those “why?” questions is, “because it improves learning”.
How are we going to do it? Well that is discussed here. There are lots of factors to consider when conducting research. Not only about what you want to investigate, but also how you are going to collect data. Most importantly, one must consider the relevance of the research to other spheres of education. But I would suggest that even if you can only conclude about a small subset of pupils in a unique schooling environment, surely that knowledge is better than no knowledge.