Understanding the complex teaching and learning process

The firehose approach to teaching

It’s a week before the start of the new school year. A teacher is standing in front of the photocopier in the school’s resource room. The teacher is a new graduate. They have been there most of the morning preparing teaching resources. The school principal walks into the resource room, greets the new teacher then looks at the teacher’s tall pile of photocopying.

“That’s impressive,” the principal says. “You are getting yourself organized for the year ahead. Well done!”
“Well, actually,” the new teacher replies, sheepishly. “This is for the first week.”

That’s an old but true story. And a story that is probably still being replicated in schools throughout the country. And probably not just by beginning teachers.

I was reminded of this story while I was participating recently in a training course for teachers. The speaker said, “teachers, please avoid being just a human vending machine in the classroom”. I laughed out loud at this comment. I think this imagery of the teacher as vending machine, could be effective at explaining the reason for the learning failure that exists in New Zealand schools. The point being that simply providing content to students upon their request will not generate effective learning.

Although, I would also like to suggest that a teacher as a vending machine model has potential to be a step up from the more prevalent teaching model being utilised in schools. I call this other model, the “teacher as firehose”. The firehose model is even less targeted or strategic. At least in the vending machine model, the students have to request the content to get access to it.

Yes, of course students need content to learn. I think that, in a drive to generate student agency (the holy grail of effective learning), some schools have invited teachers to abdicate their role of being leaders of learning. “Here’s a digital device and a bean bag. Go teach yourself.” That is not the pathway out of the failure we are trying to address. Getting the balance right is the challenge. We need teachers who can design teaching that achieves effective learning.

Providing content is just one part of the complex teaching and learning process. Teachers need to know their students well. Each and every one of them. They need to understand what makes their students tick, their current level of knowledge and skills, their attitude to learning, their social and emotional competency, their motivations. With that information the teacher then formulates a plan to support the students to develop their learning. It takes a competent teacher to be able to achieve this.

Please note that the documented slide of New Zealand students on the PISA result tables is a different matter. It’s a red herring that we should not be distracted by. Instead, we should be focused on developing teachers who can master the complex process of teaching and learning. I describe this current reality as the teaching/learning disconnect. It is this disconnect that needs to be addressed if we are going to improve learning outcomes for all students.

We need teachers who are asking questions of themselves like, “how can I get my students engaged and thinking about what I am teaching them?” Academic Daniel Willingham puts it succinctly in his book, “Why Don’t Students Like School?”. He says, “memory is the residue of thinking”.

But there’s more. In order to improve the learning outcomes for all students, we need to turn to science. The science of behaviour. “Avoiding demand” is one of the primary drivers of human behaviour. The firehose teaching model simply reinforces students to not be effective learners. “Great”, they say to themselves. “All I have to do is appear to be drinking from the firehose and everything will be sweet”. No thinking is required. And no thinking means, no learning.

As I have already suggested, perhaps we shouldn’t write off the vending machine model of teaching so quickly. With some tweaks, this model could actually be a catalyst to bridging the teaching/learning disconnect. At least with a vending machine, the students are required to go physically to the machine and put in a token or push a button to get access to the knowledge. This could be the gateway to generating learning conversations. It even has potential to work remotely. That would be a real bonus in these Covid times.

The problem to be solved then, becomes one of working out how to get students to want to come to the machine. Or in other words, how to get them to be curious, inquisitive and open to learning. And remember, this is what they used to be like before the schooling system invited them not to be. It’s on this pathway that the “sweet spot” of teaching and learning will be found. The teacher and the students are working in partnership. And believe me, this is a problem that can be solved.

On top of that, think of the savings schools would make on photocopying.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

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