There are only two types of pedagogy

I’ve had my brain cells jangled over the last few days by some of the debate stirred by Michael Gove’s speech to the Social Market Foundation on 5th Feb. An earlier Scenes from the Battleground post gave an almost prescient insight on the subject. I’ve looked at a few tweets and one or two blogs on both sides of a divide that seems to be termed ‘traditionalist’ and ‘progressive’, including this one, which seems to indicate that not all of Gove’s evidence is as positive as it could be.

I don’t think traditional and progressive are helpful terms when thinking about pedagogy.

It would seem that ‘traditional’ means direct instruction. It means drill and practice. It means chalk and talk. It means text books. It means students as expectant yet passive learner. It means teacher as sage, mentor and guardian of knowledge.

Whereas ‘progressive’ means discussion. It means group work. It means pupil voice and co-construction. It means learning styles and putting the child firsts. It means teacher as coach, or even facilitator.

To me such division is destructive. I don’t think of pedagogy in that way.

To me there are only two types of pedagogy – fixed scaffold and negotiated scaffold.

In fixed scaffold the teacher sequences the lessons in a set way that will enable the student to master the knowledge by the end of the sequence. The teacher is entirely in charge of this sequence – they know the start points and the end points and they use their teaching skills to enable their students to succeed through the fixed scaffold they have designed.

In negotiated scaffold, the teacher may still set the end point, but the journey to achieve that end point is negotiated between student and teacher. Together they set the learning goals of the students on a short and medium term and the teacher alters their teaching to suit those short and medium term needs.

In my experience, both of these pedagogies have educational merit. The former allows the teacher to apply all their subject knowledge to a given group of students so they can succeed, while the latter allows the student to feel more ownership over their educational journey, therefore engendering motivation. I have recently blogged why motivation is so important.

In fact I have my own small scale evidence of the success of both pedagogies. Back in 2011 I taught a maths group for a year. They were low achieving, working about two years below national standards and, just as a ‘by-the-way’, they were nearly all girls.

I taught the first seven weeks using an entirely negotiated pedagogy. So much so, that I didn’t even set goals for the children – we used a Google Spreadsheet to share what area of maths the children most wanted to learn. I ran that through a word cloud gadget and the words that came up the biggest became the curriculum. Progressive or what? We blogged about the learning and used the responses from the blogs to go off at tangents and start new enquiries that we hadn’t even considered. At the end of those seven weeks the group had made twice the expected progress.

In the second seven weeks I planned the entire learning sequence myself. I analysed the weaknesses and taught a sequence of lessons that I thought would address those weaknesses. Each lesson was laid down in a strict order a week or two in advance. After those seven weeks, again the group had made twice the expected progress.

Now I fully realise that this small scale research would not stand up to the rigours of academic study, but for me it means that I have started believing that both pedagogies work. And it means that I regularly use a mix of negotiated scaffold and fixed scaffold within the sweep of my teaching each year. I tend to use the negotiated stuff to start things off with a class or a group – to get to know them and to help them feel like they own their learning. Then when I know them well enough I use the a more fixed approach, regularly using direct instruction, but still intermingling the odd bit of group work, discussion, and dare I say it (especially when I’ve blogged so negatively about it in the past), facilitation.

In percentage terms I reckon I may start a term about 50/50, but then move to 20% negotiated, 80% fixed by about mid-term. If that makes me more of a traditionalist, so be it.

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