Is Effective ‘Traditional’ Teaching Possible in Low-Decile NZ Schools?

A major theme in my thinking about my teaching this term has been confronting the realities of the context in which I am teaching, and deciding which compromises I should and should not be willing to make in the face of those realities. I’ve read and thought about a wide range of teaching approaches, from the rigid approach to direct instruction advocated in Teach Like a Champion (Lemov, 2015) to the flexible and student-led approach of, as an extreme example, Never Mind the Inspectors, Here’s Punk Learning (Coles, 2014), I have developed strong ideas about which pedagogies I think are best: I favour teacher-led, highly structured approaches that emphasise knowledge acquisition over the development of general soft skills such as collaboration and creative or critical thinking.

I’m particularly skeptical of advice that takes as a starting point that students from low-income or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds should learn different things in different ways to their higher-SES peers. This includes approaches that emphasise using ‘relevant’ content or high levels of student choice, as I believe that these are likely to trap students in their current experience, rather than introducing them to new ideas and new ways of thinking (Young, 2010). Progressive and supposedly ‘contemporary’ pedagogies are closely tied, from my perspective, to low expectations for learners in disadvantaged contexts. Such approaches, because they do not emphasise helping students learn new knowledge beyond their experience, entrench inequality by denying students’ access to the tools for creating social change. Limiting students’ access to academic knowledge because of their economic situation or cultural background is as dangerous a form of deficit thinking as the more blatant examples I have heard expressed at my school this year. 

I believe, then, that students in low-decile schools would benefit the most if they learned the same content, and through the same methods, as are generally used in the schools that serve our most privileged young people. However, my experiences this year have challenged that point of view. I have struggled to get my senior students, particularly my year eleven students, to complete schoolwork and pass assessments, and I have been unable to get my year nine class to consistently behave in a way that makes this kind of direct instruction possible. The usual social realist argument is that motivating students should be a matter of pedagogy, or how we teach, and that student motivation should not be considered when choosing curriculum content. In reality, though, I have found motivating students to be such a challenge that I need to use all methods available to me, including trying to choose content that I think students are more likely to be interested in. Some (McPhail, 2017) have suggested that powerful knowledge may be able to be taught using progressive pedagogies, but there isn’t much research thus far that provides a model for how this might be done. In addition, often finding activities that are motivating for disengaged students means providing tasks with minimal reading and writing, which directly contradicts the need for intensive practice in these skills. When I’ve expressed my frustration about my students’ lack of engagement to other teachers at my school, the response was often along the lines of this:

Yeah, I used to teach like that when I was at a decile ten school. But it just doesn’t work for the kind of kids we get in a school like ours.

Frustrated as I am about the limitations these statements place on these “kinds of kids”, I feel uncomfortable pushing back on suggestions that I try other strategies, given that the teachers I hear these comments from are much more successful with their students than I am. I felt obligated to give other approaches a fair trial.

One way that I did this was to introduce a choice-based approach in one lesson each week with my year nine class. Thursday period three had always been a disaster; the class came in over-excited after lunch, and it was a constant battle to get them to listen to me explain what we were learning that day. Frequently, no work at all would be done during that period, and it was a miserable experience for me and for many of my students. Because these lessons were so consistently ineffective, I didn’t feel like I was taking too much of a risk trying something else out; any learning that happened on a Thursday was a bonus. I resolved to avoid all whole-class teaching on Thursdays. Instead, students have a choice between three or four activities. The activities are a mixture of reading and writing, and include options that are related to what we do for the rest of the week, and others that have more scope for students to follow their own interests.

This change in approach completely transformed Thursdays with my year nines. Because I wasn’t battling with them to get them to listen to me, there was considerably less tension between me and the class. I was free to sit down with small groups of students and work with them for longer periods of time, which is something Rochelle had recommended I do to build relationships. Students who were interested in what we were doing in the rest of the class could dig deeper into this, and those who weren’t still had a chance every week to do something they enjoyed in English. They started asking me on Mondays and Wednesdays whether they could keep doing their Thursday work instead. Although students were still working slowly and were often off-task, they were learning more than they had been previously. The results of this change could easily be interpreted as an endorsement of a more flexible, student-led approach to learning.

However, I still have significant misgivings about this approach. Because I only have my classes three times a week, accepting that very little learning will happen on Thursdays means that I am effectively reducing my teaching time by a third. By nature, a choice-based approach encourages students to spend time on what they are already good at, rather than pushing them to do challenging work that will help them improve. Given that almost everyone in that class entered secondary school with significant gaps in their learning, this is a huge problem. While they are spending a third of their time doing tasks that do not challenge them, their counterparts at higher-decile schools are being stretched, and the gap between them widens even further.

While it could be said that I adapted my approach to suit my students’ needs, then, I am concerned that the choice I actually made might have been to lower my expectations of my students, rather than persisting with the expectation that they will do challenging work in every lesson. The problem I was trying to solve by offering choices was essentially a behavioural one. If I were able to create a classroom environment where students could be taught from the front and do challenging reading and writing tasks every day, I think that this would result in far more learning than my current approach on Thursdays. However, because my classroom management skills have not been sufficient to make this happen, what I see as the ideal approach has been less effective than approaches that I would generally consider to be suboptimal. Much of the classroom management advice I have received, however, has involved choosing more ‘relevant’ curriculum content or using constructivist teaching methods. This advice, which has come from a range of sources including mentor teachers, Mind Lab staff, and my own reading (see, for example, Blum, 2006), is often accompanied by claims that the kind of students that attend low decile schools are simply not capable of learning and behaving in the way that I am trying to teach them.

The culture of the school plays a large role here. I have frequently noted that there are aspects of my school’s culture that staff tend to blame on students (“they only care about credits”; “students here don’t read”) but are actually perpetuated by staff. The attitude expressed by some teachers at my school seems to be that students learning nothing is the default, and so any work that students can be persuaded to do at all is good. The focus is on finding anything that students will engage with, rather than choosing curriculum content and teaching methods that will have the greatest benefit in the long run. Because this is the approach taken by so many teachers in the school, it is what students expect when they enter my classroom. This means that I am setting myself up for a very difficult battle if I try to implement a very different approach. I commented on this in a reflection about halfway through this term:

“Maybe, in an environment where the expectations are mostly so different from the expectations I want to set up in my room, I’m trying to do the impossible. Maybe my students need a more progressive approach to teaching, not because it produces the most learning, not because they’re poor or Māori or Pasifika, but because the school does not provide the structures necessary for more traditional methods to be effective. Maybe the leap I’m asking my students to make when they come into my room is simply too large.” (portfolio reflection, June 3 2019)

This is not to say that I haven’t had any success in raising expectations for my students through a more ‘direct instruction’ approach this term. By systematically working through a structured programme, many of my year nines have been able to write their first essay – something I was told they would not be able to do. With some adaptations to the structure of the workbook I created for this unit I think I will see even greater success with this unit next year. My year twelves have read and enjoyed a classic novel, Lord of the Flies, and my success with this unit has led to another teacher in my department using the same text with his year ten class. These examples show the benefits of persisting with my preferred approach, but they must be balanced with the knowledge of other situations, particularly with my year eleven classes, where I have not been able to meet me students’ needs with this approach.

Much of my reflection this term, then, has been around deciding when to make compromises to work within my current context, and when to push back against the culture found in that context. Although I can see clear ways that I would like to change that culture, I can only do that from a position of being successful within my own classroom, as my experience with Lord of the Flies shows. In addition, in some cases, taking the ‘any learning is better than no learning’ approach may be in the best interests of my students. At the same time, when I make these concessions, I am reducing my own opportunities to get better at the kind of teaching that I think will be most effective once I get good at it. Balancing the short-term needs of the students in front of me with the long-term benefits of mastering a teaching approach that is more likely to give students access to powerful knowledge is extremely difficult. I’m also constantly having to re-convince myself that my ultimate goal is possible, when I’m constantly being told – by experienced and well-meaning teachers – that it’s not. Thankfully, I have examples from my own experience of a few effective teachers when I attended a low-decile school, as well as promising contemporary examples in overseas contexts. My next steps are to work out what compromises are necessary so that I can start to meet the needs of my most disengaged year eleven students, and to decide where to keep working towards effective direct instruction methods.

References

Blum, P. (2006). Surviving and Succeeding in Difficult Classrooms. New York: Routledge. (US Link)

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (NZ Link | US Link)

Coles, T. (2014). Never Mind the Inspectors, Here’s Punk Learning. Carmarthen, UK: Independent Thinking Press. (US Link)

McPhail, G. (2017). Rethinking what it means to be a progressive teacher: Key ideas from social realism. Pacific-Asian Education, 29(1), 75-90.

Young, M. F. D. (2010). Why educators must differentiate knowledge from experience. Pacific-Asian Education, 22(1), 9-20.