A short preface to “Simply good teaching”
by Andreas and Tuyet Helmke
A SHORT PREFACE TO “SIMPLY GOOD TEACHING”
by Andreas and Tuyet Helmke
“What is a practitioner? It is a person who is fully functional but does not know why. What is a theorist? It is a person who knows how things work, although they are not functional at all” (Wahl, 2013). However, the vision of a good teacher – and successful teacher education – is a successful linking of scientifically-based, connectable and applicable knowledge and good practice. To that end, good teaching materials can play a decisive role; they can ease and facilitate the acquisition of competences or they can also render it more difficult. In our opinion, the present book, first of all, belongs to the former category. It is “simply good”. But in what way?
When reverting to the opening quotation, taken from Wahl’s book “Lernumgebungen erfolgreich gestalten” (Shaping learning environments successfully), the book characteristic subtitle, “From inert knowledge to competent action”, says it all. What can be done to avoid the possibility that a book about teaching is not just consumed in a passive-receptive manner, resulting in the creation of “inert knowledge” that is not usable and practicable? In adapting the well-known bible quotation in reverse order, “For they know not what they do” (Luke 23, 34), the situation could be described as “For they do not know what they think they know”: There is no access to knowledge, because it was acquired in a way that blocks its practical application. The three authors demonstrate in this book how to proceed didactically to avoid inert knowledge as far as possible through the inclusion of numerous intensive tasks designed for criteria-guided self-reflection and observation, coupled with requests for exchanging information. The chapters about the scenarios and methods of teaching are structured identically and retain the following permanent structure: (1) a brief introduction to the topic, (2) detailed work assignments with the objective of making a connection to one’s own prior knowledge and experiences (“These are your tasks”); (3) mediation of basic concepts and results of empirical research (“You must know this”); (4) suggestions for practical implementation (“How to apply this”); and (5) detailed and diverse exercises and examples for practicing and deeper understanding.
We deem the linking of subject matter with manifold variations of cognitive activation particularly functional in order to avoid the disastrous “inert knowledge”. It is therefore practically impossible to just “read through” this book without engaging one’s reflection and playful imagination. There are numerous publications about the topic of “Good teaching”, “The quality of instruction”, etc. – from classical textbooks to guidebooks and recipe collections, to descriptions of individual procedures and styles. The extensive reflection component and practical orientation of this book represents, in our view, a unique characteristic. The authors thus created a quasi unique genre; a combination of textbook, workbook and practice book.
It is a good idea to begin the book with a chapter about cross-curricular principles and quality characteristics of teaching, which is oriented to the current state of research, such as the study by Hattie, among others. Then follow the chapters with the “real beef”, i.e. different didactic concepts and scenarios, as well as the indispensable tools. We intended the preceding chapter about interdisciplinary subject and methodological quality characteristics as a message: None of the subsequently described approaches and teaching procedures are good and learning-effective per se. Any one of these methods can be implemented brilliantly or in a dilettante like manner, inspired or fanciless, learning-conducive or detrimental to learning. As expressed by Hattie with this in mind: “It is less the methods per se, but the principles of effective teaching and learning.” (Hattie, 2014). However, to infer from this that methods do not matter would be a grave misunderstanding. The mastery – solid knowledge and practical mastery – of a reasonable number of teaching and learning methods is an integral part of teaching professionalism – and with it a necessary but not sufficient (!) precondition for learning effectiveness. In light of the existing great variety of learning requirements within school classes, the concept of fairness alone demands offering different teaching and learning scenarios. Thus, it has been known for a long time from research about interdependencies of student characteristics and teaching methods (“Aptitude-Treatment Interaction”, ATI), that top-performing, language competent and self-assured students benefit more from open forms of instruction where the teachers recede more into the background, whereas students at risk from the opposite side of the spectrum may be overwhelmed by a great deal of freedom for self-regulation. These students require clear, teacher-directed structures (“scaffolding”), intensive small-step guidance, and task-related feedback, as well as many opportunities for practicing and learning reinforcement.
We share the opinion of those who deem it appropriate that three authors do not assess the methods presented by them in terms of quality or learning effectiveness, but rather consider them in terms of an appropriate balance of class situation and subject-didactic context, an acceptable dosage and appropriate “orchestration”, which Hilbert Meyer vividly describes as “mixed forest”. But caution: the characteristic “variety of methods” is often misunderstood in the sense of “the greater the variety, the better” (to which we do not subscribe), as it assumes an implicit linear relation between the number of methods used and learning effectiveness. However, research shows that it is not a matter of maximum but rather an optimum; the relationship between method variety and learning success is not linear, but conversely U-shaped, as borne out by our state-wide total survey called MARKUS in Rhineland-Palatinate. Too many, not thoroughly rehearsed and truly mastered teaching and learning scenarios rather cause confusion and are as detrimental to learning as a monoculture of teacher-centered frontal instruction.
The actual heart of the book is comprised of chapters 2 to 7 and includes both “classics” like the project method, as well as concepts, such as “learning through dialogs”, which are perhaps less well known in German-speaking classroom research. Unjustly, for sure, as this approach has its venerable roots in philosophy (Socrates) and is prominently present as well in Anglo-American educational research, e.g., in form of a chapter on “Theory and Research on Teaching as Dialogue” in the renowned Handbook of Research on Teaching (2001).
The book concludes with three chapters on lesson planning, learning-conducive assessment, and reflection about teaching. The demand for fair and learning-conducive performance assessment is timeless, however; it is favored and given a decidedly stronger prominence in today’s competence-oriented instruction which is practiced everywhere (not just in Switzerland’s Curriculum 21). This is particularly true for the careful observation of learning behavior and the furthering of one’s ability for realistic self-assessment. The latter is a fundamental requirement for successful student-directed individualization, where students must select assignments with appropriate difficulty levels.
It is a strategically good decision to study the topic “reflection” in the concluding chapter which, together with chapter 1 (Fundamental principles of instructional quality), constitutes the two supporting pillars. Firstly, collegial feedback (e.g. by way of classroom visits or video-based) about one’s own teaching, the comparison of divergent perspectives of the same subject matter, and the cooperative reflection based on it are an ideal opportunity to become aware of one’s own blind spots, to open rigid, subjective theories, to explain implicit theories, and to recognize subconscious automatisms as well as quirks. This self-awareness is an indispensable prerequisite for the further development of one’s own teaching, which does not just scratch the surface. Secondly, the collegial exchanges about teaching have a salubrious effect as well, as shown by research about teacher cooperation and teachers’ health. The common reflection on shared difficulties, the experience that other professionals are only human after all, can prevent exhaustion and burnout. As referenced by one of the key statements of the Potsdam teacher study: “The most important disburdening condition is experiencing social support by colleagues and through the school administration” (Schaarschmidt 2013).
Moreover, of equal importance is student feedback, because: “It does not matter so much whether teachers are excellent or rated as excellent by their peers; what matters is whether they are deemed excellent by their students. It is the learners who sit in their classes and recognize if their teachers view learning through their eyes and whether it promotes the quality of their relationship. Learning must be viewed by the teacher from the perspective of the learners, so that they better understand what learning looks like from the point of view of the learners and how they experience it” (Hattie, 2013).
In our view, it would be ideal if the practical application of what is described in the book would follow the principle of an evidence-based lesson development. This would involve four steps: (1) Initial assessment (e.g. collegial feedback, student surveys), (2) evidence-based reflection, (3) specific measures for lesson development and professionalization, e.g. lesson study, microteaching or other means of professionalization such as repeated readings of selected book chapters based on new experiences, and (4) an evaluation on the basis of a repeated survey: Have the lessons indeed changed? Who has benefitted from it? Was there a healthy relationship between expended efforts and results?
With this in mind, we wish the readers of this book an enlightening reading experience as well as a high level of effectiveness with the practical implementation in the classroom.
“Successful teaching can be
accomplished in many
different ways, but not just
in any old way.”
Franz E. Weinert (1930–2001), Andreas Helmke (1945*)
Simply good teaching? It seems indeed very simple when the lessons are taught well. However, as those with extensive experience of teaching and learning know all too well, it is precisely the kind of teaching that occurs in a pleasant and non-threatening atmosphere and in which significant ideas are imparted and learned, and presented in a clear and comprehensible manner, which is in fact an expression and synergy of manifold didactic-methodological and social competences. Although teaching well appears at first glance to be mostly a question of perspective, Andreas Helmke, in his publications, provides documented evidence of indisputable quality characteristics of teaching and justifiable characteristics of instructional expertise about which there is broad consensus in teaching research.
This publication addresses the needs of prospective instructors who wish to learn how to teach well. It is also intended for colleagues who already teach successfully and who, based on tried and tested experience, continue to explore questions of didactic-methodological nature to infuse their teaching with new methods. This publication presents these constituencies with a theory-based and practice-oriented help for simple and good teaching – as defined above – in accordance with pedagogically sound standards. It should be particularly emphasized that the well-being and satisfaction of all participants also increases through these efforts; well-being and satisfaction are of central importance both for the learners’ success and career as well as the continued professional career of the teaching practitioners.
Which teaching approach is right?
To teach well requires a personal and reflective didactic-methodological repertoire. We concur with research findings that a didactic-methodological monoculture is unable to meet the challenges which modern pedagogy places on good teaching. A single and solely didactic concept for the entire instructional aspect of a class fails to prepare the students for life in a society which demands entirely different skills and abilities. Consequently, this book describes the most important didactic-methodological approaches and argues for integrative, multi-facetted didactics.
Every teaching practitioner must find an optimal proportional mix between the various dimensions. It is a question of balance between teacher guidance and student self-determination on the one hand, and on the other, a balance between a teacher-centered and discovery-based instructional approach.
The following graph presents the didactic approaches discussed in this book as an orientation system, locating on the horizontal axis the various approaches between teacher guidance and student self-determination, and placing on the vertical axis the approaches of teacher-directed instruction and autonomous discovery (from instructional to explorative).
It is interesting to note the widespread opinion that self-directed and explorative learning forms are fundamentally better than teacher-directed and instructional learning methods. This quote by Goethe “Die Jugend will lieber angeregt als unterrichtet sein” (youth would rather be excited than taught) already refers to such common beliefs about apparent student desires; however, it is based entirely on individual, isolated factors of teaching and their resulting outcomes, considered in isolation, and it places the students front and center in terms of learning objectives and content, as well as instructional organization and work methods. Correspondingly, a social trend has dominated the educational landscape for two to three centuries and shaped, most of all, the demands of educated families: alternatively-organized instruction, oriented along elements of reform pedagogy that borrows from Montessori, Steiner or Freinet enjoy popularity, precisely because it functions exclusively in a self-determined and explorative fashion, with promises to meet the students precisely where they ostensibly are. The number of such private providers has never been so great as today and offers to some extent a rollback and a counterbalance to the standard output orientation of the public school systems in Europe.
Are self-determined and explorative forms of learning indeed so much better? We do not share this opinion and concur with the findings of the empirical education researcher Frank Lipowsky, who summarized his conclusion briefly and succinctly as follows: “Open learning situations per se are not superior nor inferior to traditional learning situations. The quality of instructions cannot be tied to its degree of openness and freedom of choice.”1
How is this book structured?
Simply good teaching provides suggestions about the most important characteristics of good teaching and presents various didactic approaches and specific teaching methods in a conceptional and practice-oriented manner – knowning that each teacher needs to develop a combination that suits the topic, the class, as well as themselves.
Following the introductory first chapter, the subsequent seven chapters are devoted to one concept or method, respectively. Considerations on assessment, planning, and reflection, which are useful for all didactic approaches and methodologies, conclude the suggestions of this handbook.
The first chapter presents the framework for the general characteristics of good teaching as they are known from common didactic and teaching research. References to the individual subsequent chapters thereby provide forward-looking textual points of reference to the various didactic concepts and teaching methods. The chapter sequence follows along the polarities of teacher-driven versus self-determined and instructional versus explorative learning and begins with direct instruction. The subsequent chapters increasingly loosen up the teacher-oriented dimension and proceed from cooperative learning in chapter three to dialog-based learning in chapter four, to various other student-oriented forms of instruction, such as working with weekly plans, workshop instruction, studio education, and main lesson blocks in chapter five. The highest form of student centeredness as well as explorative learning, learning with projects, appears in chapter six. Chapter seven, as the last pillar of the didactic concepts and teaching methods, presents learning through play, a form which may oscillate between teacher-oriented and student-oriented and between instructional and explorative, depending on the use and function of play. The framework which the introductory chapter opened is closed successively in the last chapters. Thus, chapter eight deals with the question of learning process assessment and assessment of student performance. Chapters nine and ten provide suggestions and possibilities for structured instructional planning along the presented concepts and methods, as well as a collection of possibilities for a differentiated reflection on and continued development of one’s own teaching.
How are the chapters structured?
All chapters are identically structured. As a reader, you are being prompted in the first part of every chapter captioned by “These are your tasks …” to deal with your own experiences in school and instructed to record your previous experiences and insights with learning (your subjective theories) and to discuss them with colleagues. In the subsequent prompt, “You must know this …”, you receive important information and learn about actual theoretical key points. In the prompt, “How to apply this …”, you will find out how to implement these theoretical insights into practice. The last part of every chapter provides concrete examples under the heading “practical exercises and examples”.
This procedure is similar to the didactic model of dialogic learning presented in the fourth chapter. Dialogic learning is a first step – on a singular level – a personal dialog with the material (1). The optic reads “I see it this way!”. The required activity is reflection. Subsequently, a dialog with the material is required on a regular level (3). The optic here reads: I acquire an overview and a perspective based on theoretical insights. The required activity is breakdown and structuring. Between these two phases lies a divergent phase, in which the personal viewpoint is complemented with those of others (2). This phase is related to the question “Aha, is this how you see it?” or the statement “This is how you see it!” Of importance, finally, is the connection of the regular phase with a new singular phase, a phase during which the first answers based on knowledge gain and increasing recognition are self-critically examined and questioned concerning their practical application possibilities (4).
There is an important reason for the fact that every chapter begins with a critical examination of one’s own learning and teaching experiences, which transcends our dialogical learning-inspired understanding of learning. One of the big pitfalls of teacher training is that what is taught is not applied in practice in the schools. It is assumed that one of the main reasons for this discrepancy between quality aspirations and instructional reality is the fact that teachers do not teach as they were taught to teach, but like they were taught themselves or, according to Howard Altman: “Teachers teach as they were taught, not as they were taught to teach.”2 For teachers, the acquisition of expertise in educational methods is a long process in which learning by imitation appears to play a significant role. If the variety of teaching methods is not experienced by the students but only taught as an academic subject within the framework of teacher education, rather than experienced as a didactic-methodological reality, the independent realization of this demand – especially in the first year of a teacher’s professional work experience – may fall victim to excessive demands and overload, and may lead to resignation and retreat to the already experienced examples as a student. The overwhelming dominance of actual experiences threatens to be perpetuated. To break this cycle, we deem it of greatest importance to make us aware of our own experienced classroom teaching and to analyze it critically. Only this way can the preconditions be created for the still not easy process of gradually building a varied personal repertoire of methods.
What does it mean to teach well?
What do you say to this demand: “The first and last goal of our didactics shall be to discover and explore the teaching practice whereby teachers have to teach less, the students nevertheless learn more; and whereby there is less noise in the schools in favor of more freedom, pleasure and real progress.”3
This demand was published more than 350 years ago. It was written by the Czech theologian and educator Jan Amos Komensky, who under his Latin name Johann Amos Comenius achieved worldwide fame. In his Didactica magna (Great Didactic or Great Art of Teaching) published in 1657, he promises that the world’s entire body of knowledge can be taught to all of mankind completely and comprehensively. Comenius’ pointed criticism of the prevalent conditions of the schools and his proposals for improvement still fascinate today. Comenius criticized the lesson organization of his time with a scathing judgement (“It is a torment for young people to be smothered by dictations, exercises, memorization ad nauseam, even to the point of mental confusion”), the lesson content (“What is connected by Nature is not being treated together, but separately”) and the teachers (“The fool does not teach the children as much as they can comprehend, but as much as he can possibly stuff into the children”). In contrast, Comenius demanded that pupils’ readiness to learn be awakened and maintained, namely by renouncing coercion, through pleasant methods (such as parables, fables, mysteries, discussions), and through learning by doing rather than mechanically applied rules, and with the choice of attractive learning topics. Comenius demanded the attainment of vivid and sustained learning outcomes with activation of all senses, the connection of the senses with the intellect and through a coherent, connected treatment of things that belong together. He wanted to prevent excessive demand and learning difficulties by way of a natural allocation of teaching time and a natural beginning of the school year, the reduction and structuring of the subject load, through the path from the general to the particular, and through compact, uninterrupted learning.4
In our opinion, the quote, the criticism and the demands by Comenius have some merit today. Not only in his spirit and in agreement with many historic figures in pedagogy, but also with prominent teaching researchers of the present, we plead
•for flexible and creative classroom teaching, and
•for didactics by which significant things are taught and learned,
•for a methodology that seeks to avoid boredom, and
•for a teaching atmosphere in which learning is not equated with blood, sweat and tears, but pleasure, laughter and relaxed concentration.
A book with the title Simply good teaching may also incur the risk of misunderstandings, however. The opinion that instructors should simply teach well, and that everything else is secondary, enjoys a certain popularity. It is argued that teachers should follow the curriculum, the written and unwritten rules of their profession, the mainstream educational policy. We do not share this opinion and agree with the view of Thomas Kesselring: “Those who think like this run the risk of confusing the targeted situation with the present situation, the desired with the existing as-is-situation.”5
General didactic places its focus on questions of good teaching. The tasks of teachers, however, demand an examination of broader issues which transcend teaching in a narrow sense and which, not without reason, are considered even more important by many educators: How can I, as a teacher, contribute to a class climate that promotes mutual respect, consideration and appreciation? How can I implement these principles of satisfactory interpersonal relationships also in terms of contact with colleagues and with parents? What can I contribute so that the children or adolescents who are entrusted to me can lead a fulfilling life, feel confident and up to the tasks and challenges that life imposes, and lead an enjoyable existence? All these questions are obviously related to good teaching, but their solutions require discussions which transcend the scope of the discussion in this publication. Last, but not least, they require educators who promote the further development of the school in our democratic society in a constructive, forward-looking and critical manner. Without a public education system which promotes and further develops an open, liberal-minded, democratically legitimized school, any didactic-methodologically sound teaching approach, no matter how well thought out, remains only patchwork.
Lipowsky: Zur Qualität offener Lernsituationen im Spiegel empirischer Forschung, 2002, p. 126
Altmann: Training foreign language teachers for learner-centered instruction, 1983, p. 24
Comenius: Grosse Didaktik, 2007
Berner: Didaktische Kompetenz, 1999, p. 32, 33
Kesselring: Handbuch Ethik für Pädagogen, 2012, p. 14
“To teach a child does
not mean to fill a vessel, it
means to light a fire.”
Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592)
“Ignorance is the night
of the mind, a night without
moon and stars.”
Confucius (551–479 BC)
WHAT IS GOOD TEACHING?
Key characteristics of successful teaching from a teaching research perspective
There are numerous principles which, if observed, demonstrably render teaching more successful and effective. The most important of these are briefly summarized in this chapter with reference to the findings of the renowned teaching researchers John Hattie and Andreas Helmke, as well as the teaching expert Hilbert Meyer. By bringing together in an overall appraisal the teaching principles which Hattie, Helmke, and Meyer consider learning effective, a broad pedagogical consensus is presented, which reflects not only the German-speaking debate but does justice to the international discussion as well.
The fact that the good method of teaching does not exist becomes immediately apparent if one asks a few simple questions: good for what, under what conditions, good for whom, good for when? These questions suggest that good teaching can only be described in a specific context which, in conjunction with a given situation, must constantly be defined anew by the teaching practitioners themselves – taking into consideration the perspectives of all concerned. This perspective should not lead to the misunderstanding that there are no quality characteristics for teaching. “No, there is no such thing as the right teaching method”, says Andreas Helmke, “but there certainly exist instructional quality characteristics which are absolutely and unquestionably valid, there are well-founded standards of teacher behavior, and there are important benchmarks of teacher expertise, about which there is a broad consensus.”1 These characteristics relate to the learning atmosphere on the one hand, and, on the other, to the motivation of the learners but ultimately to the didactic-methodological procedures. Although we address the latter group of characteristics more broadly than the first two, it would not be right to attribute to it a greater significance for successful teaching. Successful teaching is the result of a balanced mixture of an atmosphere conducive to learning, adequate motivation and methodological-didactic know-how.
Most of the twelve characteristics considered will be easily identifiable in the follow-up discussions of the later chapters. For those interested in a more intensive discussion, there are suggestions for further self-study. With a digression to learning objectives and competences, several terms which are important for teacher education are briefly discussed. They should also be part of a general discussion as a link to the teaching methodology.