David Geary, the cognitive developmental and evolutionary psychologist, writes in his essay Folk Knowledge and Academic Learning that ‘academic learning [is] effortful because it requires sustained attentional control and working memory resources.’ The act of reading a GCSE literary text provides a reasonable illustration of this: effortful determination is required to overcome the linguistic and cultural barriers of, say, a chapter of Jekyll and Hyde or a scene from Romeo and Juliet.
Geary argues that students have a natural disposition to favour activities that are largely social in nature. This in itself is not particularly problematic: done well, group work activities can be productive (as I’ve written about it in a previous post). However, Geary’s words – once again – are worth keeping in mind:
‘Children’s inherent motivational dispositions and activity preferences are likely to be at odds with the need to engage in the activities, such as the drill and practice […] that promote academic learning.’
There is often a significant pressure felt by teachers to overtly demonstrate that the students in their care are visibly engaged. One of the simplest ways to achieve this is by capitalising on the dispositions and preferences outlined by Geary – activities that require plenty of discussion and very little extended writing usually work well. However, the truth remains that just because students are busy and engaged, it doesn’t mean that they are learning. Ultimately, it’s far easier – for students and teachers alike – to do what’s easy. This is something that David Didau explores in a recent blog post.
I’m yet to meet a teacher who actively tries to disengage students. However, to learn and make meaningful progress, it will always be necessary for students to participate in activities that are not considered to be typically engaging or enjoyable – and there needs to be a wider recognition of this. It should be a truth well known that lessons rated favourably by students are not always the most productive and, equally, that teachers who enjoy widespread popularity are not always the most effective.
To this end, a reliable indicator of the health of a school culture is the extent to which routine lessons can be seen to differ from observation lessons. Ideally, there should be a reasonable consistency, and school leaders should work hard to create the right conditions to enable this to happen. A respectful and open scepticism should always be encouraged during discussions about the characteristics of good quality teaching and learning. And, as professionals, we should seek to challenge accepted ‘good practice’. Beyond this, we should be mindful of the vital importance of curriculum content and design – how students are taught is undoubtedly worthy of close scrutiny and debate, but so it what they are taught.
Thanks for reading –