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.

The lie of “putting the children first”

It’s one of those arguments that trumps all others.
You can be in the middle of an educational debate about some issue or other when the person you’re trying to convince says: “but you’re not putting the children first.” All your other arguments are suddenly sunk, dead in the water, and you slink off knowing that you were wrong. There are barely any other arguments that are as powerful as that one; that are as strong in your hand; that beat all others. Perhaps the ultimate is the line “but, Health and Safety…” in that it might possibly outdo “but you’re not putting the children first.”

But it’s a lie.

As teachers, we shouldn’t put the children first. I’m not speaking to parents in this, nor social workers, doctors or anyone else who might have a good reason to put children first. I am speaking to teachers, and I’m including myself.

Here’s the reason: children’s learning.

If we put children first, then they will not learn as effectively as they should. Putting children first devalues our own knowledge. It would be like me saying: the child is more important than the knowledge I am going to impart to them. It says that the child is more important than the culture of which they are a part. It raises the child to the top of a pyramid that shouldn’t even exist.

So, I’m not saying that we should put the child second. The phrase “putting the child first” sounds that education is some kind of race. Nor am I saying that children aren’t important. They are. A school without children would be a conference centre. But likewise a school without teachers would be a playground. Both are important places, but not places where learning is maximised and standards are raised.

It’s ironic then that putting the child first will actually disadvantage the child. Teachers who do so will become ‘facilitators’ – desperately trying to allow the children to independently learn the outcomes they themselves have devised.

That’s not what Vygotsky intended when he talked about scaffolding – the appropriate assistance that will give the student the knowledge and confidence to move into their zone of proximal development. No, this assistance is part of the interaction between teacher and child – part of that positive relationship that has teacher as guardian of knowledge within their given socio-cultural context and child as learner of norms, rules, facts, knowledge and attitudes.

This relationship is damaged when children are put first. It is the relationship that should be put first – the nature of the the interaction between teacher and child. Some people call this teaching. Please don’t call it facilitation.



How Learning Platforms could become the new ‘worksheet’


I was adding some maths games to my school’s Google Apps domain the other day when suddenly a warning bell went off in my mind. What if I was filling up the learning platform with so much stuff, it would detract from the relationships between the adult and the child?


Let me explain myself a little.


I’ve been doing some research on the use of social media in maths learning and what I’ve found is that social media can be used to promote ‘negotiated scaffolding’. Some people call this co-construction. It’s a pedagogy that fits within the realm of ‘social constructivism’. What I also found is that most primary (elementary) children are exposed to mainly ‘rigid scaffolding‘. Now I have to admit at this point that I’m not completely clued up as to where a pedagogy starts and a teaching strategy starts, but suffice it to say that in my own teaching I’m a social constructivist who’s good at making connections between ideas. I use two main strategies: negotiated and rigid scaffolding to take children into their zone of proximal development and onto ‘the edge of learning’ (Vygotsky).


Is that enough jargon yet? I’ll put it another way – essentially my lessons take 2 forms:


  • Lessons where I start from a point the children have specified, negotiate the learning goals and guide them to achieve them. (You can see why co-construction is a useful term for this, as the children work together with the adult to ‘constuct’ the scaffold).
  • Lessons where I define the learning goal, set the specified success criteria (or steps to success, learning ladder – whatever you want to call it) and teach the various stages until the children achieve the learning goal.
Or going back to the terminology, I use 2 types of scaffolding – negotiated and rigid.


So in my research I did a half-term of negotiated scaffolding, using blogging, Twitter, video sharing and Google Docs for the children to collaborate with each other and beyond to the wider world. One of the particular highlights was when a student, writing the date asked the question: “I wonder if there’s a birthday on every day of the year?” She posted the question to the blog, I put it out on Twitter and there were some great responses from maths teachers in different parts of the world by the next day. Excited, motivated, inspired – the children went on to solve the problem the next day.


I then did a half-term of ‘rigid scaffolding’. I mainly taught skills like written methods and simplification of fractions. Sounds pretty tedious.


What was interesting was that the children made progress in both periods, during both the rigid and the negotiated scaffolding. And not only that they made double the expected progress. There may be many different explanations for this, but I suspect that the ownership that the children were able to take from the negotiated scaffolding part carried over into the rigid scaffolding part – the children knew that they were in a learning relationship with myself, each other and also people beyond the classroom and it motivated them to really excel.


Sadly, much teaching in the UK primary sector (especially in maths), is dominated by the rigid scaffold. Alexander (2004) calls it ‘pedagogical prescription’ and Thompson (2008) says:
“at the deeper level of classroom discourse, pupil– teacher interaction was still dominated by closed questions, emphasizing recall rather than speculation and problem-solving”

And with the ‘rigid scaffold’ the worksheet is king. It enables a teacher to give a ‘learning ladder’; to leave the children to get on with it; to ask mainly closed questions


The fact is that social media had enabled me and the children to recapture the dialogue. It forced us to think ‘socially’; to talk about what we were doing; to ask questions that were more open-ended.


So why the warning bell?


Well it suddenly struck me that the learning platform – if I filled it up with stuff – would become just like a worksheet. I had talking the ‘blank sheet’ approach of Google Docs and was busy writing over the lovely blank spaces with content. I could continue fill it up with an activity for every piece of learning needed, forgetting that each child may have different starting points and forgetting that negotiating the way through the learning is an extra-ordinarily powerful method.


The lesson for me is that I need to be prepared to continue the dialogue with the children, finding ways in the learning platform to do it. I need to avoid the temptation of ‘closing off’ the learning platform, making everything rigid and I need to enable children to negotiate their own learning on the learning platform with me – to become creators of content themselves. A helpful progression for developing learning platforms can be found on this #edjournal article: ‘Implementing New Technological Tools in Schools.’




There’s still a place for the rigid scaffold, but it needs to be blended with the negotiated one. In the same way there’s still a place for the worksheet and the highly structured online course, but they need to be blended with negotiation and dialogue, both face-to-face and social media.

Vygotsky Diary 3

Some general comments about the last couple of days and some links to Vygotsky and Piaget…

Friday – Drayton Manor

I’m not sure that sitting on a bench with a load of lunch bags whilst the class of children run around a theme park counts. I certainly don’t know how to compare what I’ve done today with what I know of Vygotsky and Piaget.

Go on. I suppose there is one thing I was thinking of. The children have gone round the park today in unsupervised groups of 2-6, checking back in with the teachers at hourly intervals. When I first proposed this system, my colleagues were horrified that I was suggesting letting the children go off unsupervised – but it has worked really well for the last four years. The children have not only to demonstrate independence and teamwork, but also the ability to tell the time… There is something Piagetian in this. The children are ready for this level of independence, whereas a couple of years ago they wouldn’t have been. There are some children who struggle, but they’re helped by their peers. There are also some children who, either by familiarity with the park (i.e. they have been there many times before) or by their own internal confidence, seem to demonstrate too much independence – they didn’t check back in when we were expecting them, but were still fine.

Monday – SRE (Sex and Relationships Education) Theatre.

Every year we have a marvellous theatre company coming in to help us with our SRE for Year 6. They’re called Loudmouth and what’s brilliant about them is that they use actors to teach all the tricky bits of SRE. They develop empathy for the opposite gender, so that boys see what girls have to go through and girls see what boys have to go through, and they encourage children to think about what emotions they are causing in others by their words and their actions. Also it means that in any further discussions in class I can refer to Daniel or Claire (the characters in the play) rather than either talking generically or inappropriately talking from personal experience.

In terms of ‘readiness’ the children are in exactly the right place to receive this – they’re all curious about the changes they are about to go through in puberty (or for some ‘are already going through’) and they will have heard much rubbish either from friends or from the media that has confused them.

It’s interesting watching the play as they use a lot of humour to teach the tricky bits and also to say some of the tricky words to do with SRE. I reckon humour increases the size of the ZPL. The children (and staff) were put at ease by the humour and learned loads more as a consequence. Ah, constructivism – you’re winning out today…

Vygotsky Diary 2

Here’s my second day of reflection in diary format. Remember ‘ZPL’ stands for Zone of Proximal Learning.

Thursday 10:10am. Shouted at a girl for not listening at a crucial point. More behaviourism. She took a while to even get a ZPL back again. I wasted learning time for her. In rest of lesson I had to do lots of mini-one-to-ones to scaffold the activity, even for the more able. Children a bit less engaged today, but then it’s very warm, in the classroom and seems like a good day for being outside. I wonder if it’s been proved that the weather affects the size of the ZPL in a child?

Thursday 3:10pm. Managed to achieve some social motivation this afternoon – children worked well in groups on group display for their adopt-a-country topics. Have talked much about good working and promised a reward of freetime outside if they could all pull their wait. More behaviourism. I wonder what a ZPL looks like when it’s about learning social skills?

Thursday 7:30pm. Heavy going in meeting after school. Air thick with pollen and humidity making it difficult for me to concentrate. Was challenged a couple of times beyond what I felt I could cope with, although on a normal day I might have managed. Had an hour or so back in my comfort zone now (home) – a place I need to reflect on the times when I’ve moved beyond my ZPL into ‘danger’ territory. This is bringing back memories of what I learnt studying ALPS in terms of engaging children in the kind of cycle that is conducive to learning. I wonder if I don’t return children often enough to the comfort zone so they can reflect on their learning. Need to think on, although I doubt I’ll be doing much reflecting at the theme park tomorrow…

Vygotsky Diary

For today and the following four days I’m going to reflect on my teaching according to what I understand of constructivism and behaviourism. I’ve called it Vygotsky Diary because I would like to think that I am heavily influenced by the whole Zone of Proximal Learning thing. I’ve called it ‘ZPL’ for short below. Here’s todays entries, each made within minutes of a lesson either finishing or starting…

Wednesday 8:10 am – SEN teacher said she was using laptops for rest of children so that she could do tests 1:1 with the other children with the appropriate support – made me think that Vygotsky’s theory about scaffolding within the ZPL shouldn’t be applied to tests, but actually we do because we don’t give children enough independence to do tests.

Wed 12:15 pm– Tried a very tricky lesson teaching decimal grid references (the kind Google Maps uses) to mixed ability Year 6 maths group. 5 key areas of prior learning needed – time, angles, co-ordinates, decimals and negative numbers – children find it very hard to connect multiple areas of prior learning (i.e. to add it to their scheme). Especially when prior to this week their grid reference scheme was pretty much blank. Very long into required, but by end over half children could accurately locate (52.45, -3.45) on a map (it’s a place in Wales called Llanidloes). It made me realise that sometimes I expect children’s ZPL to be very large – then I have to do LOADS of scaffolding for the less able children. More able children usually have a larger ZPL (and indeed find small step learning frustrating) whereas less able children need smaller steps.

Wed 3:15pm – Children were doing free choice projects this afternoon. I was working with individuals and groups on their 6 weeks plans to encourage children to think about how they can achieve a substantial piece of work by planning well. It’s been more about encouraging good social behaviour than direct teaching. I worry that the outcomes will require too much teacher support when this is a chance for the children to delve into self-directed study and develop their own intrinsic motivation. Behaviourist theory would suggest that I should offer rewards, but not all the time and with some degree of randomness. This should encourage intrinsic motivation. The problem is that if the intrinsic motivation hasn’t developed enough over the next six weeks, the projects will look awful and I’ll look like a bad teacher. Hence sometimes there is a pressure to over-scaffold children. I’ve also noticed a lot of behaviourism in how I speak to children – I expect them to automatically apologise if they’ve made a mistake and I spend a lot of time emphasising this. Oh, the Pavlov in me is coming out at last…

Vygotsky and Pavlov

Being one of the few people to have the Karelian National Anthem on my computer does not, unfortunately, qualify me to discuss at length the two Russian psychologists in the title.

Neither of them probably even went to Karelia.

However it is refreshing in my latest piece of work from MAST to be reminded of their work in relation to what is currently going on in my school. Refreshing because it was a long time ago that was introduced to them and their theories. It is good to go back sometimes. It is also disappointing that in many schools we do not talk about the nature of education enough. We get on and do it, quite often without thinking it through. It is also ironic that it was only yesterday that I wrote the word Vygostky for the first time in ten years, on my previous blog entry.

Vygotsky is the chap who, at teacher training college, you get introduced to right after Piaget. Without them there could be no education. Between the two of them they have fathered something called constructivism or cognitive learning. Piaget seemed to have developed the idea that you can’t learn some things until you’re ready for them – he had 4 stages going up to about 11 years old which is about when a child has developed the ability to hypothesise and think logically. For him a child was a lone explorer in a world of learning. I think.

Vygotsky had this idea of a zone of proximal learning, which is where a child can best learn something when it’s near enough to the current understanding to be challenging, but not so far that the child is scared to take the risk. His approach was much more about appropriate scaffolding and relationships.

Pavlov, on the other hand, was the bad behaviorist man who made dogs salivate.

Of the three, I like to think that my approach is more of the Vygostky. I came across the zone of proximal learning when I studied the ALPS (accelerated learning in primary schools) approach a few years ago – the one thing that has most affected the way I teach. I like the way it merges with so much other good stuff, like the multiple intelligences from Howard Gardner and the 12 aspects of learning from the Excellence and Enjoyment document. I do however resort to behaviourism to manage behaviour. I guess that’s an obvious connection. I do use a lot of rewards and sanctions in training the children to be motivated learners as doing so provides a framework for everyone within the group to learn safely.

Sitting at home right now I can theorise and postulate, but it will be interesting over the next week to see how I think each lesson has been – more constructivist or more behaviourist. My prediction is that it will vary from day to day, but on Friday when we take the kids to a theme park there will be an awful lot of behaviourism going on…

Page 8

Page 8 wonders what I think or know about each of the following:

  • Discovery Learning
  • Investigation
  • Barriers to Learning
  • Interviewing
  • Spiral Curriculum
  • Readiness
  • Differentiation

Here goes:

Discovery learning is that vague stuff that was around in the 70s that meant I never learned to hold a pen properly. I read some stuff in an Ian Thompson edited book about maths that didn’t have anything positive to see about child initiated discovery learning in relationship to maths, saying instead that discovery learning had to be adult initiated and often adult guided in the early years in maths for it to have any impact. Interesting.

Investigation in maths is when you give children an maths problem and then guide them into solving it. You often have to give a lot of guidance as children who are used to a ‘skills based curriculum’ have often only learnt maths methods and not problem solving skills. One of my favourites is the one about what is the most common outcome of rolling 2 dice, because you can combine experimentation (actually rolling the dice) with theory (when you use a table to solve the problem precisely).

Barriers to learning means stuff that stops you learning. It could be attendance or your mum telling you that she was no good at maths so you won’t be either. It could also be your 11+ tutor teaching you bus stop when you don’t really get the difference between sharing and grouping.

Interviewing. I’m not really sure what this is in a maths context. I did some interviewing on my fractions video (see below) but I’m not sure if that is what this means.

Spiral curriculum is where you have a curriculum that keeps coming back to the same area on a regular basis so that the children can build on previous knowledge. It’s a nice idea but the timings we use in the UK are all wrong. The spiral should be 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 1 year. Not every term.

Readiness is the idea that you can’t learn some things until your ready for them. It works on the short term (I can’t learn this because my mind is buzzing with the way that girl insulted me at playtime) and on the longer term (I can’t learn that concept about adding on 2, because I don’t really understand what 2 is). Making children ready to learn is about connecting their learning with the real world and with previous learning, providing motivation and engaging them. It’s a mark of creativity.

Differentiation is when you making the learning suit the learner. This can be by varying the way they access the learning, changing the level of the learning and providing greater scaffolding. I have a dim memory from college that either Piaget or Vigotsky indicated that a single teacher could only differentiate three ways. (I mean for three different groups of children , not with different methods of differentiation.) But I might be making that up.

Differention is also something I did at university on my engineering degree. Second Order Differential Equations. They were very hard. I’m glad I’m a primary school teacher.