In two previous posts (here and here), I outlined some concerns I have with the notion of Tiger Teaching as promoted by the teachers of Michaela School. The first post was concerned with the extreme approach to behaviour management, while the second argued that while knowledge may be necessary for critical thinking skills, “just telling them” is by no means sufficient.
Building on from my second post, here’s an example of what I think teaching core knowledge alongside critical thinking skills can look like. A biologist by training, I am appalled by how little evolution there is in the GCSE specification. To my mind, evolution is everything; as the philosopher Daniel Dennett once said, evolution is “the single greatest idea anybody ever had”.
However, evolution is a complex beast. And when most students’ starting point is “we came from monkeys?”, teaching it well requires huge flexibility and diversity of teaching methods. It also requires a significant time investment. When it comes to evolution, I tend to go off piste for a few weeks – usually in Year 8 or 9 – working through these steps in sequence.
Step 1: Context
We begin with knowledge. Timelines. Definitions. Facts. Context. Understanding evolution to a high level is like doing a big intellectual jigsaw. Unless you know each piece of the jigsaw really well, you can’t know how they all fit together, and you’ll never see the big picture or be able to internalise the principles and apply them in new contexts.
I start with a timeline, to set the context and establish the concept of geological time. Students often confuse the origin of the earth with the big bang, and so we start with a diagram like this one:
Step 2: Learn the key concepts
Then we look at core knowledge, in the form of key words and phrases: inheritance, genetic variation, environmental variation, habitat, competition for resources, genetic mutation, adaptation, survival advantage, survival of the fittest, fecundity, artificial selection vs natural selection. This we drill – didactically at first, but then students take ownership over how they learn the material. I provide them with cue cards with the word on one side and the definition on the other. Some like to copy them out, others test themselves orally with a partner, others just read them over and over, quietly repeating the words to themselves. (Once, I taught a girl who was predicted a D and got an A*. I asked her how she did it – she said she makes little songs to herself to make it stick. Dual coding: the simple memory trick that can take you from a D to an A*!) We set it for homework and consolidate the knowledge – self-test, oral test, written test, quickfire questioning – until the key concepts are secure.
Step 3: Modelling
Once this knowledge is in place, we look at a model essay (that I wrote) that explains how all these ideas fit together to explain the theory of evolution. This is 2 sides of A4, typed. At this point the students glaze over – “there’s no way I’d be able to write this!” I tell them they can, and they will.
Step 4: Deconstruction
Together we deconstruct the text, highlighting all the bits that match up with the definitions on their cue cards. “That’s most of it sir!” Then we study the language that joins the ideas together into an argument, or theory.
Step 5: Joint construction
Then the students work in pairs to have a go at replicating the arguments made in the essay – one writing, both making suggestions – the joint construction phase (the language is borrowed from Lee Donaghy’s excellent 2013 series of 5 blog posts on language-based pedagogy). Here, students can use their cue cards if they wish – some do, others don’t. Then we mark the paired essay against a detailed set of assessment criteria – peer, self and teacher assessment.
Step 6: Independent construction
Then they have a go at writing the essay independently. Again this is peer, self and teacher assessed; if necessary, a redraft may be set for homework.
Once students are secure in their understanding of evolution and are able to explain it, we practice explaining it verbally. Once this is secure, we look at examples of evolutionary thinking. Look at a clip; why might this animal behave in this way? How might this trait have evolved? Why do humans dance around each other in nightclubs? Could it be some kind of mating ritual? We also look at examples of altruism in nature, and ask how this could be. We then touch upon ideas like kin selection and the Selfish Gene theory – the notion of genes as the immortal travellers through time, demoting the role of humans (and other organisms) to the role of “giant, lumbering robots” who secure their passage.
Only when students are able to think in such evolutionary terms do we consider Darwin, and the story of how he came to arrive at this most incredible of scientific theories.
We look at the fossil record, the geographical distributions of animals, and the genetic record that wasn’t available to Darwin. We take the time to imagine what it would have been like, to be alive when Darwin published the Origin of Species. We take the time to digest the notion that we are all related – not just all humans, but all life forms (I am your cousin! I am related to Teacher X. Aargh! You are related to a mushroom etc. Oh my god, when you eat meat does that make you a cannibal? And so on.
We consider controversies around evolution – the reasons some people don’t buy into it. We look at the theory of intelligent design – the apparently logical argument that some things are so complex, they have to have been designed. We debate whether a designer is a plausible explanation for life on earth. We look at some clips of hum-dinging debates between evolutionary biologists and creationists. At this point things get really interesting because students’ views tend to become quite polarised.
Once the body of knowledge is in place, we practice writing evolution as a logical argument. Once this is in place, we apply this knowledge in a range of ways. We debate, argue, synthesise. And we correct misconceptions all along the way. We draw upon the debating techniques taught in the Learning to Learn course – how to use a counter-argument to shoot down your opponent before they have even uttered a word, for example.
I am very much a glass half full person. It seems to me that amid all the noise about core knowledge, a consensus is emerging that knowledge is not the only fruit. For example in a recent blog, Greg Ashman wrote:
“Expeditionary Learning certainly sounds like a full-fat 1920s progressive approach to pedagogy…But if you look at their curriculum, something funny happens: It looks a bit like a core knowledge one… The project work for which Expeditionary Learning is famous seems to take place after the students have learnt a lot of this stuff.”
It feels like, slowly but surely, a consensus is forming around core knowledge – what Aristotle referred to as the doctrine of the mean: the path to wisdom lies on the middle road between excess and deficiency.
Of course we need to teach knowledge. You can do that badly, and you can do it well. We should do it well. However we also need to teach critical thinking skills. Again you can do this badly, and you can do it well. Ideally, this should be done in such a way that is relevant to the domain-specific knowledge that preceded it. If and when Michaela grasp this nettle, again I’m sure they will do it really well and be amazed at what their students are capable of. The pendulum will swing back and forth, but it will settle in the end.
Knowledge is the foundation, but it is only that. We also need to scaffold the building of the pyramid. As teachers, we need to use every tool at our disposal. This includes the “trad” tools of explicit instruction, subject knowledge, enthusiasm, clear instructions, deliberate practice, rich feedback and tight classroom management. However all of this makes the children very dependent on the drill sergeant. What happens when the drill sergeant isn’t there any more?
The best teachers write themselves out of a job. If we do it well, there is no need for a drill sergeant. If we want young people to become effective independent learners, we also need to recognise the value of metacognition, self-regulation, oracy (public speaking, structured debates, thinking together); project-based learning; organisational skills and study skills. In a post-truth age, we need to educate children to question and challenge authority, as well as to respect it. Repeatedly shouting “JUST TELL THEM” is not going to cut it.