Knowledge, facts, rote learning or group work, projects and self-direction?

Down my Twitter feed recently there’s been a lot of time spent on educators debating – and sometimes just insulting each other – around this topic.

Surely the answer is -we need both.

Many people who meet me assume that I am firmly in the progressive camp of pedagogy – I don’t know, maybe it’s how I dress, my politics, my sexuality, my age – who knows?!

However, that is not where my allegiances lie. I know from my own life, as well as my teaching, that different aspects of our world require different types of skills – and as does the types of learning that will facilitate that.

I used to be an opera singer. I learnt operas two, three (four) hours long in languages I don’t speak. I did this through rote learning. How else could you do it?! When I speak at conferences, I share facts – that I have learnt, striving to perfect those facts so that I don’t mis-quote someone or make up a government statistic…

On the other hand, one of my top skills is group facilitation. In my line of work with teenagers with behavioural problems sometimes those group dynamics can be very challenging. I can only achieve this because I have practised and have honed my skills in collaborating with others.

Look at the planet – we have a climate change disaster. We need to work this out, we need to explore, we don’t have previous knowledge that we have learnt to solve this one. We need to work with others, we need to work with others who are different to us – maybe even people who we disagree with. How do we accept other people who are different from us so that we can work together for something so important to the human race?

I was lucky. When I trained to be a teacher my PGCE tutor was Dr Steve Roberts – he taught us that we need many different types of teachers because there are many types of students, and different ways that those students need to learn. This was such a permission slip! I am passionate about enabling students to communicate through their language, to give them a voice in order to be a positive part of our society – that’s my thing and I don’t have to be everything to everyone! 

You may have followed me at the start of this year on my research trip to Finland (three part blogs here). I found it fascinating that most foreign teachers believe that Finland’s teaching is progressive. Their society’s approach to the infrastructure and support of education is progressive, but actually in the classroom? – It’s as much a mix as over in the UK –long term self-investigation projects that result in high quality writing pieces, alongside some more traditional talk and chalk lessons using their excellent textbooks. For more about this Finnish myth see my recently published vlog – Finnish Education – progressive? A Myth Buster.

The real question:

If we are going to be useful to our students (and not just entertain each other with our twitter feeds), the real question we need to be asking is:

How do we know when to use which approach?

The answer, of course, is it depends – is your school prepping for exams? Some traditional rote learning revision will most likely come in handy. Are your students organising Refugee Week at your school? They will need to learn how to work together harmoniously for a wider goal.

We know when to use which approach by how well we know our students.

As leaders in education it is then vital that we build in the space and time for our teachers to do just this – get to know their students. That way they have chance to adapt learning, and truly differentiate for the young people in front of them.

In September look out for my blog on getting to know our new school year cherubs.

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