Have Modern Teachers Lost Their Way? - Cranbrook School

Have Modern Teachers Lost Their Way?

30 Nov 17 by Nick Carter, Director of Teaching and Learning

Recently, I was chatting to some colleagues at a restaurant. Teachers do socialise, by the way, as much as it freaks students out when they learn we have a life beyond the classroom. If you doubt that last bit, watch how a student reacts when they see their teacher at the supermarket. It blows their mind. As a teacher, you’re continually dealing with wide-eyed kids approaching you on Monday morning, barely able to contain their excitement:

“Sir… I saw you… in Coles! You were buying milk!”

In any case, being desperately uncool teachers, we were speaking about the best classes we’ve ever had. One guy said he particularly loved working with a group of Year 12s who, in his words, didn’t really require any “teaching” at all. “They knew the syllabus as well as I did,” he said. “They worked through it together and asked me questions when they got stuck. I just wandered around the groups and checked on their progress.” 

Surely this scenario is an educational fantasy? We are, after all, in the business of moulding self-directed learners, right? A lesson where a teacher doesn’t have to say anything - where we are the “guide by the side” rather than the “sage on the stage” – sounds like the epitome of good teaching.

The MYP, one of the necessary drivers of Cranbrook’s modern educational identity, makes much of the power of collaborative, inquiry-based learning where students form their own hypotheses and experiments. The old model of a teacher in a mortar board lecturing to rows of rote-learning students feels pretty Stone Age these days. It must have been terribly boring for the teacher (not to mention the kids).

And yet…

In the McKinsey company’s analysis of the latest PISA numbers (they’re the global educational outcome figures that politicians cite when they want to show that Australia has dropped the ball on education), they found something that seems to fly in the face of this wisdom.

Here’s a quote:

“In all five regions, scores were generally higher when teachers took the lead. The more inquiry-based teaching was used… the lower the average PISA scores were.”

Hang on. What? So old-fashioned, teacher-directed classrooms work better than lessons based on student enquiry? Are we in some kind of time-warp here?

The figures get pretty scary when they involve ICT. In Latin America, for instance, they found giving technology to a teacher had 30 times the impact as giving technology to the students! 30 times!

Does this mean we need to return to the old 19th century model of education? Are students just mindless sheep that need to be herded?

Probably not. If you read more of the McKinsey analysis, they add something that makes us modern teachers feel less like idealistic hippies. The “sweet spot,” apparently, is when teacher-directed instruction is used in nearly every lesson, and inquiry-based learning is used in some lessons. So, to quote Mr Mallia, “sometimes you need to tell the boys what’s what!” and sometimes you need to let them figure it out themselves.

Beyond this, I’d be a little wary of the PISA figures. They measure success in standardised tests, and I would argue that our job as educators is to do more than prepare kids for standardised tests. PISA scores don’t measure stuff like creativity and inspiration. In fact, when a bunch of researchers placed the 2012 PISA Maths results against students’ “perceived entrepreneurial capability,” the PISA big guns like Singapore and Korea were utterly destroyed by minnows like Australia and the United States. Interesting stuff.

So maybe my friend in the restaurant was right. I guess I don’t need to worry about getting my mortar boards out of mothballs yet.

As always, please let me know what you think at ncarter@cranbrook.nsw.edu.au.