The problem with Darwin, humans and education

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

There’s a problem with Darwin – at least in terms of the evolution of humans. (Spoiler alert: non-evolution-theorist speaking here. But hear me out.)

The ‘survival of the fittest’ is the engine behind Darwin’s theory: the fittest survive and breed, while the non-fittest don’t and so don’t. But with humans, at least before Rona came along, the medical miracles of today ensure the non-fittest now ‘do’, and so ‘do’. This mucks up the evolutionary gene pool a little don’t you think, as the pond of ‘fittest’ will keep getting diluted by the constant stream of ‘non-fittest’. Okay, enough of the human metaphors; this post is really about education.

Over breakfast this morning, it suddenly occurred to me that we have exactly the same problem with pedagogy. If Darwin had his way, only the fittest teaching strategies would survive. But unlike the medical miracles that are mucking up human evolution, it’s leadership’s teams’ demand for accountability-based quality systems and the instant gratification of short-term improvement that’s the problem with education. (All fuelled by the big ‘O’, of course.)

So: ‘The evolution of pedagogy is being mucked up by poorly-designed quality systems.’ In other words, unfit teaching strategies are surviving.

But the root of this problem is not just the short-sightedness of many quality systems, it’s the fact that they simply attempt to solve ‘symptoms’, rather than the root-cause issues that are causing them. This almost always (get ready for a huge generalisation here) leads to a focus on implementing new, or trying to improve old, processes and procedures. Just stop reading for a minute and dig out your development plan – that one you’ve just signed off with your quality team. How many of the actions and visions for success talk about processes? And worse still, how many of the SMART targets use terminal data as the indicators of success? [Providers who use these data, won’t know until the game is over whether things have improved or not. The data they should be using is quite different, and significantly more powerful – so powerful, it can stop Ofsted in its tracks.]

So how does all of this wash out into the classrooms? Observation systems are developed that inadvertently, or advertently, preach what teachers should ‘do’ (the processes): aims and objectives – bored at the start (not a typo) – change activity every 20 mins (usually because they weren’t sufficiently engaging*); teacher-directed Q&A; teacher-directed assessment; plenary; Bob’s your uncle. And if you don’t do it like the observer wants, you’re meat.

But it’s so easy to change all of that, and to welcome Darwin back into our world. We simply need to put to rest – or perhaps ‘put down’ is a better phrase – the pedagogy that doesn’t work.

The whole of education can be summed up in two words:

Stuff and Difference.

Let’s all (quality systems included) simply focus on the ideal ‘difference’ we want to make, then allow, encourage, celebrate teachers for researching, exploring and trialling different ‘stuff’ until they find exactly the right pedagogy for their learners. In other words, all agree on ‘ideal difference’, then give teachers full control over the ‘stuff’.

This is what my January set of staff development sessions is all about. Assessment & the Art of Lazy Teaching explores a huge bag of learner-centred approaches to assessment. The CCQI Self-Assessment Strategy is an extremely powerful way to find (or determine if you have found) the root-cause issues behind your adverse symptoms. And as for Learning Outcomes for Independent Learning.. As one delegate put it: ‘I just changed one word in my learning outcome and I now realise that the teaching strategy I’ve been using hasn’t been getting me anywhere close’.

* (Does a young person change their PlayStation game every 20 mins?)

Hope you have a wonderful break, and that you can join me for some New Year’s Resolutions in January’s Wednesday sessions. Full details here:

Assessment & the Art of Lazy Teaching

Using assessment to develop the expert learner

Wednesday January 6th – 13:00 to 16:30

“This is the only useful and inspiring CPD I have had in my long years at this college. Thank you!” Stoke College

Click here for more details and to register for this event

The CCQI Self-Assessment Strategy

Creating and capturing the right learning conversations

Wednesday January 13th – 13:00 to 16:30

“Stunningly simple approach to self assessment.” Liverpool Adult Learning Service

Click here for more details and to register for this event.

Learning Outcomes for Independent Learning

The proactive development of independent learning skills

Wednesday January 20th – 13:00 to 16:30

“(I need to) completely change the way I address lesson plans.”  North Lindsey College

Click here for more details and to register for this event


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