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Do students and teachers disagree on what makes effective classroom practice?

Written By: Mike Jerstice
6 min read
Certain learning strategies rated highly by staff and researchers, have been dismissed by students

A great deal of work is going into ensuring that teachers are not only aware of, but are also applying techniques in education to ensure the progress of students. Evidence-based practice and research in the classroom are informing what happens in schools, with many teachers buying into new and innovative ideas. There is, however, one issue apparent in my experience: whilst we have a definite idea of what pedagogy looks like, it does not match the students’ ideas about what makes effective classroom practice.

How pupils think we learn best is a construct they put together over time through experience, but what if that experience, or at least the attribution of causality, is flawed? Jerome Bruner (1999) coined the term ‘folk pedagogy’ when expanding on the idea that all children are epistemologists in their own right; they are interpreting how, and why, they progress in academic spheres and beyond. This informs a model of how knowledge and intelligence are developed by learners.

Pupils seem to have a predisposition to seek out learning models that fit what they have already experienced through home or school, and stick with them, regardless of advice.

Social influence versus educational theory

Many educationalists aspire to the self-regulated student with the intrapersonal intelligence to recognise how they learn, what effects their motivation, and what progress feels like. The issue can, however, can appear when social influence outstrips the efforts of the educators who have invested heavily in the social psychology underpinning educational theory. Family, friends and media all have an influence and impact which has the potential to be both constructive and destructive in equal measure.

I am sure most teachers have heard parents defend a child’s poor performance in maths as genetic – ‘I couldn’t do maths, so it’s ok’ – contradicting the carefully-worded poster promoting a theory of mind where it’s merely a case of ‘can’t do it YET’. The experience of cramming at GCSE level and achieving top marks, only to fall short at A-level by following the same principles, has been something that I have observed with depressing regularity. Even the long discredited ‘learning styles’ remain thoroughly seated in some students who cling to the belief that they can learn only through a kinaesthetic medium.

Pupils seem to have a predisposition to seek out learning models that fit what they have already experienced through home or school, and stick with them, regardless of advice. A student arrives at school with a view on what their own achievement of skills or knowledge will look like; they have their own, often crude, epistemology. This may be in line with, or contradict, what the teacher is trying to achieve, as it is specific to the prior experience of the student.

Collecting teacher and pupil views

I wanted to gain insight into how student and teacher ideas on effective practice may be misaligned, and how folk pedagogies could affect what I am trying to achieve in the classroom, so I surveyed the views of teachers and pupils. A simple Likert Scale gave students across the school the opportunity to reflect upon what they considered good classroom practice.

With more than 50% responding in each section, I felt that a representative sample had been met. A quarter (25% ) of the staff body provided responses as to what they felt constituted good practice, which, though not ideal, gave a sample. Following data collection, I compared the views expressed by students and teachers with some of the literature associated with what makes ‘good practice’, notably the meta analyses of research conducted by Hattie (2012) and Coe et al. on behalf of the Sutton Trust (2014).

I collated the 1-6 responses, looking specifically at the numbers of ‘1 or 2’ responses (indicating a teaching practice was ‘not at all effective of ineffective’) and ‘5 or 6’ (‘effective’ or ‘very effective’) to give an impression of how this largely qualitative data represented the views of the cohort on learning.

The survey was followed up by a focus group, through which I gained insight into the trends emerging. There was a small degree of variation across year groups in some aspects, most notably on the use of ICT and devices in lesson time which was perceived as fantastic by younger pupils, but gimmicky and less useful by older students; this said, by and large, the results were fairly consistent across the whole age and ability range, within the context of a selective, boys’ independent school with a co-educational sixth form.

Results

The major agreements and disagreements between students, teachers and literature are outlined below. In the interest of a good return of the survey, 14 areas were included as informed by literature. Below, I have outlined instances where perceived effectiveness deviated from literature, or teacher and student ideas did not coincide.

Learning styles

Pupils felt that lessons should be differentiated to provide them with visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learning opportunities to suit their preferred style. This contradicted the teachers’ view which corresponds with the literature, that teaching a student according to their preferred ‘learning style’ has no positive impact.

Peer- and self-assessment

Awareness of marking criteria and ownership of progress is lauded by Black & Wiliam (2003), and perhaps the promise of a slight reduction in workload adds gloss to this Assessment for Learning (AfL) strategy in the view of staff; however, the student body unanimously agreed that this was of no benefit to them in their experience.

Grading work

Once again, a method lauded by advocates of AfL in the common room and academic circles was contrary to the views of our student body who almost unanimously agreed that receiving grades was of more benefit than formative written advice, though this was also highly rated in itself.

Other interesting trends were the lack of pupil belief in some strategies highly rated by staff and researchers, such as questioning strategies and metacognitive approaches.

Students have their own folk pedagogies, which can be contradictory and undermine messages from teachers.

Conclusion

From the survey, and corroboration from a focus group selected from a cross-section of the school body, it was clear that there is divergence between teacher and student opinion on what makes good classroom practice.

Whilst teacher ideas, reassuringly, coincided with good practice as stated by Hattie (2012), the Sutton Trust (2014) and other prominent theorists, students had their own ideas, grounded in their experience and anecdotal evidence from the social milieu. This confirmed the notion that students have their own folk pedagogies, which can be contradictory and undermine messages from teachers relating to how best to approach learning.

Future work

By accepting that a learner is an epistemologist who is constructing an understanding, not only of their classroom studies, but how they acquire skills and knowledge, we can as teachers help them to appreciate different ways to progress.

Delivering skills and knowledge is, therefore, not enough: metacognition – thinking about thinking – is key to learning. This involves an interchange and exchange between student and teacher, involving a real focus on joint objectives, together with an appreciation of each other’s starting theories of mind. Bruner (1999) proposes that, through collaborative processes, we can encourage pupils to make their own folk psychology the object of study, without simply imposing a scientific principle on a learner.

Reflections

A movement towards evidence-based practice is certainly welcome within teaching, with many practitioners looking at critically evaluated data to update their notion of how learning occurs, resulting in better practice. This is a model that I believe needs to be instilled in students. To learn through cognitive conflict based on disequilibrium, and reconcile a changed paradigm of how the world works, is accepted by constructivist educational theorists. The same model should be used to enhance understanding of what learning is and is not.

The reappraisal of ideas surrounding intelligence is, perhaps, one of the most significant social-psychological arguments for improving metacognition. A focus on grades and outcomes, extrinsic reward, can inhibit progress and mastery of skills and knowledge. Metacognition can be thought of as student ownership of goal setting and measurement of progress, but it has to inform reappraisal of strategy use and what is effective, and therefore results in metacognitive thinking. Dweck’s (2012) research shows the value of viewing intelligence as malleable and something that can be developed, as opposed to a fixed entity.

Whilst I am sure that folk pedagogies will continue to impact students learning, I am reassured by the increasing research base available that demonstrates how I can help my students to be reflective about how they really learn best.

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