We Need Better Courses, Not More Adaptive Teaching

In recent years, there has been a gradual move in the English education system away from the darkest days of individualised learning, when teachers were expected to plan different lessons for different pupils, thus ensuring curricular incoherence and chaotic classrooms.

This move is to be welcomed, but we must not be complacent. Even if the insanity of planning thirty different lessons is not being proposed, the residual ideas still haunt many classrooms, to the extent that many teachers still feel that it is somehow wrong to teach the whole class the same thing, and require every pupil to do the same tasks.

As David Didau recently pointed out, on some levels, adapting teaching to the needs of individuals seems to be just ordinary good teaching. If a pupil doesn’t​ understand, surely any teacher would adapt the lesson, in the sense of spending time with that pupil explaining a little more? Or if a significant proportion of pupils don’t understand, isn’t it time to re-teach the whole class, rather than moving on?

But as with many teaching practices that just seem to be obvious, it’s worth thinking harder about this one. If one individual is struggling, should a teacher really interrupt instruction for the remaining twenty-nine in order to give her attention? If the teacher did this regularly, instruction would be so frequently interrupted that overall, less would be learned.

And then there is the problem of confusing performance with learning. At an early stage in a course of instruction, we would expect performance to be lower, but this is an ordinary part of the gradual mastery of knowledge. A good course would already have taken this into account. It would already contain many iterations of key elements, spaced out and interleaved with other material, so that over the whole course, every pupil would have overlearned core propositional and procedural knowledge, and it would be securely stored in their long term memory. If a teacher started ‘adapting’ such a course of instruction because they thought there was too much or too little repetition, then the carefully designed sequence would quickly be undermined.

What is needed is not more adaptive teaching, but better designed courses of instruction, so that everyone can make progress. And it is not fair to expect ordinary classroom teachers to design these courses. This is why curriculum leadership is so vital to improving education.

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5 thoughts on “We Need Better Courses, Not More Adaptive Teaching

  1. I think we can take it for granted that very few teachers are capable of designing the kind course of instruction you advocate, and even those that are really don’t have the time to do so (unless perhaps they teach in the independent sector). Good textbooks are a step in the right direction, but not many of them will contain the necessary re-iterations needed for long-term retention. Engelmann is a rare exception–but then he was an advertising executive without any formal training in education, so what would he know?

    Since testing is the most effective form of revision, I’ve long argued that this should be an integral part of all teaching. Very few schools do this–Michaela comes to mind as one of the rare exceptions–and I expect the reason is pretty simple: teachers would be horrified if they found out how little of their carefully-planned lessons are retained. Once again, I refer you to our recent paper: http://parliamentstreet.org/research/2017/free-schools-free-society/

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  2. Agreed – Englemann said that course design is partiuclarly difficult. But despite this, we can make a good attempt. Textbooks and quizzing seem to be a sensible start. And also, once again, highlighting that students struggling at the start is NORMAL and doesn’t require intervention..

    Next year (when I’ve properly done it through the school) I will be able to also stress that (as Englemann points out) the great majority of our SEN pupils have been sufferring under poor teaching rather than having an SEN issue.

    I’ll put the link for the Englemann article up later on – I just can’t find it at the moment.

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