Greg Ashman, Head of Research at Clarendon College in Victoria, makes this pronouncement in his recent book, The Truth about Teaching: An evidence-informed guide for new teachers.
How could you possibly know among the fads and fashions of approaches, methods and tactics, which will work for you that early on in your teaching career?
Even seven years into the profession, and that’s me ducking in and out of it, I still see my strategies evolving, not cemented in.
As a casual teacher, I haven’t quite got my students where I want them to be … yet.
I found Ashman’s book grounding because he takes educational theories with a grain of salt. He describes the “occupation” (his word) as mostly “ahistorical”.
“Huge events are forgotten. Large scale experiments are ignored, doomed to be repeated by later generations,” he writes.
The buzzwords of project-based and inquiry learning aren’t new – he cites evidence showing it was bandied about in 1918. In the 1950s there was talk of ‘life adjustment’ goals, much like the focus on soft skills today. Indeed, a lot of what we call innovation has its roots in the past.
As we know one strategy doesn’t suit all students, it won’t suit all teachers. Ashman offers some solid common-sense advice: be assertive, teach students about behaviour, manage your proximity to them, catch them being good, criticize privately, frame consequences as choice, follow through, use a seating plan, ask students questions randomly and hit them with academic learning the moment they walk in the door.
I enjoy his deep dive into how learning happens, as he brings in fresh insights. He talks about both students and teachers overloading themselves cognitively. Consider ditching the lesson plan and using a PowerPoint template instead (where the reminders to you are made public), he suggests.
“Learning is a painstaking and cumulative process … [the non-expert] learns more by being told how to do something than by figuring out things ourselves,” he writes.
Projects can use too much of your working memory so the learning doesn’t hit your long-term memory and it’s tricky to transfer learning to new situations, Ashman argues.
As a teacher, sometimes I feel like I’m flitting from theory to theory.
“Teachers are swayed by prevailing theories, school culture, personal pedagogies,” he says.
One strategy you should have in your arsenal is explicit teaching – not lecturing – he says. He reframes it to make me think it’s worth a decent second look.
“Explicit teaching pays attention to the limits of working memory. By breaking tasks into their component parts, providing example and explanations, we ensure that students only have to focus on one or two elements at a time.
"These can then be processed by the working memory and organised in long-term memory. Explicit instruction aligns well with how we learn.”
Ashman also discusses the “much-maligned textbook”, which he describes as a form of “shared planning” that we should all use when it links to the curriculum. Why write all of our own resources, source or buy them online and re-invent the wheel when an expert has laid out the sequence and content in a textbook?
It comes down to balancing what we do, mixing it up and noting what the evidence says works – explicit teaching and textbooks.
Oh, and to graduates being interviewed for their first full-time role: if the school doesn’t have a behavioural management policy nor a marking policy and claims poor teaching leads to poor behaviour, then don't proceed.