Back in 2012, I attended a conference in Sydney about school improvement. Although the speakers were there to talk about a diverse range of topics, many took the chance to disparage ‘transmission teaching’, where the teacher stands at the front and talks to the class. They knew that their audience would welcome this view.
Such a scene encapsulates much of what is wrong in the strange bubble of education conferences. Educators often talk to themselves. They give a nod and a wink to each other to signal their alignment with values that are not necessarily shared by members of the general public or even other teachers. While real policy decisions are made by government ministers outside of the education establishment, this does nothing to puncture the groupthink; educationalists merely characterise such decisions as coming from know-nothing, philistine politicians who impose their views on experienced professionals.
It might make sense for educationalists to be so dismissive of policymakers if the processes of education were grounded in strong evidence, as they are in medical practice. However, a lot of what is pursued by educationalists actually flies in the face of the evidence. For instance, on the issue of using phonics to teach children to read, there are three national reports from the UK, US and Australia which all support the largely common-sense view that learning to read by sounding-out words works. Yet influential educationalists still express scepticism, and it seems that teachers are still not trained effectively in phonics.
Transmission teaching, to which the education establishment is so opposed, is basically what most people think of as ‘teaching’. A teacher will stand at the front of a class, explain some concept or new bit of terminology, and then ask the students some questions about the new concept or term to see if they have understood it. This offends the sensibilities of those who don’t like the idea of teachers being sources of authority and would prefer pupils to ‘construct’ their own knowledge.
Countless studies comparing transmission teaching with constructivist approaches find in favour of transmission teaching. Again, this is simply common sense. Instead of letting children flounder and make the same mistakes generations of children have made before them, a skilled teacher can pre-empt these problems, focus students on more fruitful avenues and explain why in the process.