“Only a Sith deals in absolutes”


Like a multitude of others, I find the end of one year and the start of another an opportune time to reflect upon a myriad of different things: new year resolutions made (or not made), highlights and low-points of the elapsing year, books that I need to read, texts that I need to teach, films I need to watch, and strategies I need to forge to rid myself of the excess Christmas-weight gained. The start of this particular year has seen me reflect upon three, relatively major, events that occurred in my life last year. Firstly, I got married. That is an entirely separate blog, but in short, I’m enjoying its rewards and challenges. Secondly, I completed my Teach First MA in Leadership, focusing upon literacy across the curriculum, which will undoubtedly form the focus of future blogs with literacy in schools one of my passions. Thirdly and finally, I moved school. Although I moved from one academy to another within the same chain, my new school has challenged my teaching practice more than anticipated. Coupled alongside the changes in the curriculum and my growing love for blogs as further insights into pedagogy, I’ve been wrestling with the dichotomy and the chasm between knowledge-led teaching vs skills-led teaching, or what has been termed ‘Traditional Teaching’ vs ‘Progressive Teaching’. This blog, which is my first, details my musings on the matter. I’m all for the debate; it’s healthy for teacher practice development. And as a disclaimer, I’m not on either side yet. I’m exploring the ideas expressed in ideologies and this blog is one such medium of exploration.

One of the aspects of this debate that I’ve found particularly engaging is the way that such discussions have led to polarised views. Twitter (which I’ve recently started to engage with, as opposed to what I previously did, which was to just watch others engage with it), and by extension  numerous of blogs, has become a battleground for these two different teaching ideologies: knowledge versus skills, traditional teaching versus progressive teaching, the ‘old school’ versus the ‘new school’. Forgive the cliché, but does the discussion need to be so black and white while the world is an array of colours? Perhaps knowledge and skills are too inextricably linked, and cannot be split into two separate camps? Are the philosophies that competing that they cannot be married together? Perhaps those questions are showing my naivety, but they highlight the subtlety between the two ideas.

James Theobald, who has written some brilliant reflective blogs, explored his own pedagogical swinging pendulum between these two schools of thought, describing his thought process moving from a progressive-style of teaching to a more traditional one, and in doing so, highlighted the fact that it is ok to change your mind. In his blog, the ideological bias implicitly prevalent in his teaching training unknowingly gave him his teaching ideology, and this really struck a chord with me. This same realisation of teacher training prejudices has also recently been explored in Phil Stock’s excellent blog. Similarly to James’ experience, and undoubtedly numerous others, in my teacher training I was taught a number of different strategies that, like James, I believed was just teaching: group work, student-led activities, engaging students with a gripping hook or starter, ensuring that there are a range of activities to engage all learning styles to name a few. I was also told to steer clear of other teacher strategies with too much teacher-talk the big ‘no-no’. Since then, I’ve read many teaching books which have corroborated with this thinking, with one even giving specific time allocations that teachers should talk for in lessons with the aim being 10% of the lesson time for ‘Outstanding’ lessons, or 5% of the lesson time for a ‘special Outstanding’ lesson.

Whether you agree with the progressive ideas listed or not is beside the point, but what has become a truth for many now is that they were trained in a way that is biased towards progressive teaching. In my own experience, knowledge-led instruction did not get too much of a look in besides the refrain that “subject expertise is crucial”, especially as an English teacher: skills ruled. That was the default message during teacher training as an English specialist. I’m OK with that though. I like the way that I was trained; I feel that it’s been valuable to my development as a teacher now. However, with new research, evidence or insights come new ways of thinking, and as such, pedagogy should constantly be evolving. Only with pedagogy challenged and explored will we come out with the best way forward with the best strategies that work best for our students. So is that knowledge-led instruction, or skills-led instruction? Or can we take Obi Wan Kenobi’s thoughts, “that only a Sith deals in absolutes”? Despite the irony of a statement originating from a universe where there is only the ‘Light Side’ or ‘Dark Side’ of the Force (I love Star Wars by the way), the sentiment accepts that there is ambiguity and ‘greyness’ in regards to certain areas. Do specific subjects, or topics, or exam papers lend themselves to specific teaching ideologies? At this stage, I’m not sure. My limited experience of teaching would suggest so, but this is an area that will continue to evolve.

I’m currently not on either side of the debate because I haven’t explored them both in enough detail to hold strong enough convictions for either one. What I am aware of however, whether it’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is that in my current teaching practice I have aspects of my pedagogy that seem to suggest a ‘progressive’ ideology, whereas I have aspects that are very much ‘knowledge’ based in ideology. I’m currently mixed up, or maybe messed up, regarding my pedagogy. Either way, I’m slowly navigating my way until I find a philosophy that sits well with all my beliefs about education. I’ll explore that when, if, it happens too.