BREAK-time in a British secondary school staff room. Some of the teachers are debating whether teaching has improved since their own school days. The younger ones insist that it has. The older ones argue that it hasn't so much improved as changed. Earlier methods may have been different but in their own way they could be at least as effective. The 'Young Turks' counter that greater understanding of how students learn means that today's pupils get a much better deal than their parents or grandparents. The 'oldies' retort with complaints of dull uniformity, a suppression of teacher individuality that is excluding spontaneity, creativity and destroying any chance of a truly memorable lesson. Who is right and does it matter?
Like computer software, to which it owes so much, one might say that the typical modern lesson generally applauded by OFSTED inspectors and favoured by all but the most traditional schools follows a 'format'. The existence of outside inspectors ensuring standards in schools goes back to the 1830s but in the last decade this function has been given to the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (OFSTED). There is a progression through several distinct phases, beginning with the setting out of lesson objectives, teacher exposition of a new topic, student exploration and demonstration of their understanding. The latest fashion is to break this up with several 'mini-plenaries' testing understanding. Technology is central to the lesson's 'delivery': most probably power-points, interactive touch-screen technology and lap-top computers. Textbooks are rarely used. Activities are 'facilitated', not led, by the teacher. There is a good deal of pupil-to-pupil interaction, often more than teacher-pupil interaction. Assessment, conducted by the students themselves, following model answers and guidance, is germane to every lesson. Numbers abound. The first thing the pupils may see is the number of the lesson, the next numbered objectives (a minimum of three is recommended). Activities are allocated a certain number of minutes. There is little if any time allowed for discussion to follow up an interesting question or tangential line of thought. Targets with specific grades or marks linked are often attached to the objectives. The lesson, usually created by a group of teachers, is designed to be taught by any should the need arise through absence of the specialist. This is to teaching what 'painting by numbers' is to art.
Teachers have been so immersed in the increasingly frantic business of coping day-to-day with pressure to meet ever-rising targets that many have barely noticed the transformation. For once this truly deserves the title 'revolution'. Technology has been a principal driver of change, but target pressure and quasi-scientific research into how the brain learns have also been important in producing the kind of lesson just described.
Recent research has shown how important it is for the learner to make sense of new information. It follows that the teacher's role is to facilitate deeper understanding through challenging, varied activities. The preferred learning styles of individual pupils will be engaged if the teacher succeeds in providing activities that stimulate specific learning sites in the brain. (1) In truth though, another motive for the new approach is purely pragmatic: fear of boring pupils with lengthier tasks that require intense concentration. Thus far a phenomenon of British and American education this revolution is now spreading to other parts of the world. Instead of the emphasis being on the didactic role of the teacher the new approach puts the learner centre-stage, a Pyrrhic victory for the progressive movement in education since exams and testing provide the yardstick by which pupil success is measured in the early twenty-first century. (2) Indeed, this contradiction between means and ends poses problems for today's educators which cannot easily be resolved, as fast exam success usually involves content cramming. …