On the shoulders of giants
“If I have seen further it is only because I stand on the shoulders of giants” — Sir Isaac Newton.
We know absolutely, that all of our successes and nearly everything we know about teaching stems from the shared knowledge of a great many teachers, academics, and researchers who have laid the foundations for evidence-based teaching or what is coming to be known as the Science of Learning.
It still stings a little to admit that in the early days, we really had no idea how to teach. On the surface level, there were obvious things like managing student behaviour, and engaging students with whatever content we were mandated to teach. But it’s safe to say that if anyone had paid close enough attention to what we were doing, they would’ve noticed within minutes that we were total imposters in the classroom. Much to our surprise, as far as this feeling of inferiority went, we weren’t alone… in fact, the more teachers we met, the more we realised that this feeling was common. The educational juggernaut Prof. Barak Rosenshine said, “No matter how brilliant someone is… there is no getting around background knowledge…” And the background knowledge we were lacking was how to teach.
It still stings a little to admit that in the early days, we really had no idea how to teach.
Of all the teachers we knew, we each had various chunks of content knowledge from our years of schooling and life experience, but what we all lacked was effective pedagogical knowledge — that is understanding how to teach in a way that allows all students in a classroom to succeed. This is what we so desperately needed to learn during our Initial Teacher Education (ITE), but were instead, in many cases, led away from the evidence on effective teaching practices in favour of what amounted to sweet nothings that were alluring to novice teachers, but that had no place in a real classroom. Depending on the institution you trained at, and what day of the week it was, you were exposed to a splattering of teaching ideology and asked to choose what… felt right. This has over the years been difficult to make peace with. Why is teaching the only profession that not only tolerates, but in fact encourages such variance in knowledge and approach? There has never been any evidence to support such a loose perspective, and when you apply it to other domains of knowledge like Medicine or Engineering… it seems outrageous to leave it to chance when all that needs to be asked is — what does the evidence say?
Increasingly, teachers are talking about the science of learning and evidence-based strategies because they want to what’s right for their students. Every teacher we talk to agrees that they want to be connected to practices that have been proven in both the research and in the classrooms of everyday teachers. If it doesn’t fit these criteria, then don’t waste teachers’ time. As the great Siegfried Engelmann said, “…the main goal of instruction is to treat time with desperate efficiency… everything that is done, should be done in the most effective way possible…”
Prof. John Sweller (of Cognitive Load Theory fame) argues that there are ultimately two types of knowledge — that which is ‘biologically primary’ like walking and talking, and that which is ‘biologically secondary’ like reading and writing (and most of what is taught in schools). We learn to walk and talk naturally, but the other stuff we learn in one of two ways — and that is via problem solving OR being shown explicitly by an expert. Sweller highlights that it is always more effective and efficient to be taught by an expert. This is backed by a significant body of research that dates back decades (Cognitive Science), which was confusing to us… because we hadn’t heard much about explicit teaching at university. Well, there were some solitary voices crying out for this at the university level, dynamos like Dr Lorraine Hammond from ECU and Emer. Prof. Bill Louden from UWA — but they were well and truly in a minority within academia where the dominant views leaned heavily toward things like pure inquiry and balanced-literacy/whole-language approaches.
Luckily, we had spent years at university learning how to teach explicitly… wait, no we hadn’t, dammit!
The Shaping Minds story in many regards is an example of good luck. When we were struggling away in South Hedland and had these two world-leaders in education enter our classrooms to support us, it wasn’t lost on us how fortunate we were. The first was Dr Lorraine Hammond from Edith Cowan University, who could seamlessly cross worlds between academia and politics, to suddenly demonstrating the effective teaching practices she promoted at the drop of a hat, and in a myriad of challenging and unknown scenarios. The second was John Fleming who was an instructional leader like no other, and whose Bellfield success story and the way he replicated his achievements at the elite Haileybury College were inspiring testaments to the power of school improvement initiatives that center on instruction.
These two powerhouses of education had many things in common, not least of which was their unwavering focus on the need for explicit teaching. It turned out that this explicit teaching idea was abound with well-researched strategies that had been proven to be effective across a plethora of studies, including some of the largest and most rigorous studies in history (Project Follow Through) Luckily, we had spent years at university learning how to teach explicitly… wait, no we hadn’t, dammit!
It is hard to distil into words how good mentors impact your practice, but Doc taught us to look past the romantic anecdotes that are so alluring in teaching and to find the evidence — if they don’t lead with their evidence, it is likely that they have none. Hence her ‘evidence over anecdote’ battle cry. This is rule number one for us, show us the evidence.
Serendipitously, at the same time as we were being supported by Lorraine, we also had the privilege of John visiting our classrooms every term for instructional coaching in the country and in the city (for almost a decade). He has a variety of trademarked strategies that draw deeply from the evidence-base, and that he has used for years to create astonishing improvements in student achievement at the schools he works closely with. Above all else, John delivered a message to us that we needed to hear — that all students can achieve when we get the teaching right.
One of the worst things that can happen as a teacher, is when you come to believe that your students can’t do any better… that they can’t succeed. We all shake our heads at the thought, but the risk is always there, and it’s important that we acknowledge it, lest it sneaks up on us. Dr Louisa Moats makes a confronting point that, “Given the right conditions almost all children can learn to read.” Louisa emphasises the fact that most deficits in learning are instructional and can consequently be solved via expert teaching. The power and importance of effective teaching becomes increasingly clear.
Every time we saw John and Lorraine, they always had a new piece of research or an interesting idea that they were eager to share. They motivated us through the dark times of school change, and they shined a light at every opportunity to remind us that what we were doing mattered. One of the greatest gifts that we get to pay forward at Shaping Minds is to acknowledge the effort and dedication of so many of the teachers we get to work with. People outside of teaching often fail to recognise and to value the commitment that most teachers have to their students. Spending the day in a room of children young or old is hard enough — consistently striving to be a better teacher is its own kind of madness, but what motivates those that do it, is a pure desire to do the best they can for their students. It might sound corny, but it is something special that lies at the heart of what we do.
…consistently striving to be a better teacher is its own kind of madness…
When we first volunteered to be coached, we had no idea it would turn into more than a decade of mentorship and support. This opened up a world of teacher knowledge because we now knew what to look for… evidence. We found well-researched leaders in Education and began to build our own pedagogical knowledge. We came upon the Golden Gods of Cognitive Science and explicit instruction — Legends like Archer & Hughes, Hollingsworth & Ybarra, Rosenshine, Wiliam, Kilpatrick, Beck, McKewan & Kucan, Sweller, Willingham, Lemov, Sherrington, Wolf. Jones, Hochman & Wexler, and Engelmann. Everything we do now is influenced by these great minds, and the list continues to grow. We have to stop this twisted ‘in with the new and out with the old’ approach to teaching, and focus instead on thoughtfully building and refining our evidence-base. Here are just some of our favourites from the Shaping Minds Library.
To become effective teachers, we needed years of intensive coaching from world-class mentors, hundreds of hours of professional reading, and the support of a collaborative team of like-minded teachers to innovate, implement, and to practise together. So much had gone into our development before we were able to find success. Our mission is to pay that forward to other educators so they can experience the joy that comes with teaching effectively.
So far, we have coached and supported thousands of individual teachers and hundreds of schools, and we are just getting started. We love supporting the teachers and leaders who are doing the hard yards in schools. The impact that we can have as teachers ripples out across the system and beyond. Teaching really does matter.
– Jared and Jordan