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The Myth of Maximal Efficiency

The ambitions of what might (very) loosely be referred to as ‘traditionalism’ in education have certainly changed over recent years. What was once a principled defence of an educational philosophy against those who would refuse it legitimacy, seems often now to refuse legitimacy to anything else. It is in this context that the argument for maximal efficiency is often to be found – why waste time, we hear, doing those things which are least effective? The poorest, we are told, have no such time to lose. Who could deny them, it is demanded, the very best possible education?

In other words, do what works best, according to the desired outcome of immediate knowledge transfer, and don’t waste time doing anything else.

Of course, one might find it hard to argue against such an instinct. It is certainly compelling. And in its intellectual tidiness does its immediate power lie.

But one might yet quibble. After all, the idea that every moment in the classroom has to be maximally efficient can exclude from the educational encounter those things which are not so readily expendable.  It might well be hard to argue with pious appeals to helping those who struggle, but this need not lead to an embrace of the language and logic of manufacture, as if this alone were sufficient explanation for what happens in the classroom, an educational aetiological fallacy that negates competing claims for educational flourishing.

It is in this narrowing that one might take issue. Because at heart, education is about relationships – a blindspot of the educational revolution which I have previously criticised – which means that it is not always efficient. Indeed, it is sometimes messy. And it is in this messiness – the complex interconnected web which confound the calculations of technocrat and bureaucrat alike – that one can, and indeed must, find learning. And of which those philosophies which direct everything we do in the classroom must take account. In other words, our education must be human.

Education, then, can be as much a group walk as a singular sprint. One might roam through a curriculum, not to idle, but because to frenziedly press one’s nose firmly to the grindstone might mean the beauty of the wider world struggles to enter into sight. Sometimes this means learning things in different ways, not because research suggests it has greatest technical efficiency, but because it offers an alternative angle from which to approach and absorb what might otherwise be obscure. Every second in the classroom does indeed count – but it is an unwarranted logical jump to so firmly wed this to isolated task efficiency.

This is not to say that the lesson must always to bend to the will and whim of the student – the teacher is the principal agent. But neither must it require one to reject a holistic account of what it means for humans to learn, together. In other words, sometimes the teacher might choose an activity not because it is the single best strategy for knowledge transfer at a particular point in time, but because it is an effective wider strategy for creating the environment in which that knowledge transfer can effectively happen. No particular strategy should be judged from within a vacuum, but from within the wider scope of the learning milieu. The cultivation of a group, of an individual, of learning, can legitimate an approach because the whole really is greater than the sum of its isolated parts. Think of the sports team trying to address poor form with a team-bonding session at a local paintball centre, and we’re getting toward the point I am trying to make.

As for what this means in the classroom, this could be something a teacher has found to quickly settle a class into learning, or something which allows learning to proceed when her kids are tired at the end of a day, or just something which she happens to be able to deliver very successfully, through her skill and experience, irrespective of how others might struggle to do the same. It could be something which the teacher thinks will raise the mood, to improve the learning enthusiasm of the students, or because the teacher judges that this complex social organism that sits before her might just need to let off a bit off steam by trying something different.

And we could go further: it might even be something which she herself enjoys doing, to occasionally break up the monotony, and to give her the necessary boost to crack on during those bleak times of the year when teaching really is very difficult and those little boosts really aren’t luxuries. And that’s ok too, because as much as some would like pedagogy to be entirely child-centred, the well-being of the teacher is not irrelevant to the discussion either –the desire for fulfilment and the need for free-agency, within reasonable limits, are not optional extras but the very heart and soul of being human – and an effective teacher.

Perhaps, then, discussion of pedagogy, which for most teachers is a fringe issue, might begin to take account of wider realities. To say group work should never be used because it is not as effective as direct instruction is a little like saying that since fruit and vegetables are best for a healthy diet, therefore we should never eat chocolate – it is replicate in the realm of pedagogy that puritanism so triumphant elsewhere.

In other words, it is narrowing, and excludes from view the richness of life, the depth of what it means to be human, and the complex milieu in which a teacher must exist. So that, perhaps ironically, it is in the quest for maximal efficiency that one loses sight of what, in the final analysis, might be the most effective approach to teaching and learning.


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  3. teachwell says:

    Aren’t you simply making a load of assumptions here?

    First of all, the idea that group work should never be used is not one that I have encountered – simply that it is not useful for the reasons we have been given. It is wasting children’s time to be made to do something that has no benefit to them during a lesson.

    We are subjecting ourselves to a higher standard which involves using evidence and being bound to it. It is not the fault of the traditionalists that the progressive methods don’t stack up – see the recent evidence on the impact of phonics. Neither am I about to ignore the evidence relating to zero tolerance policies that John Tomsett has put forward simply because it affects a model of behaviour management I prefer. Critical thinking means knowing the strengths and weaknesses of one’s approach.

    Relationships are important in teaching as they are in other spheres of life. This is a strawman argument as the breakdown in the relationship between teachers and pupils is something that the traditionalists have been pointing out. All relationships are not healthy however and to reify relationships in that way is not healthy either. Healthy relationships require boundaries and boundaries are not boundaries unless enforced. This is healthy for self and the other. There are also a range of healthy relationships one can have with a teacher – we are not advocating for a one size fits all here and Jonathan Porter’s argument made that clear.

    As for the cultivation of a group – again I think you underestimate the extent to which traditionalists value and reinforce this. Also this involves a sense of personal responsibility and an understanding of ones moral duties to others.

    Your argument about the ‘children are tired at the end of the day’ makes precisely the kind of pre-assumption that leads to the kind of bad practice, low expectations and frivolous teaching that has plagued education for the best part of 4 decades. If the children are tired, then it may be appropriate to change the activity. But this has it’s limits too because if in secondary your one lesson each week falls as the last lesson of the day, is the teacher expected to compromise their subject on an assumption? Also, this assumption then gets into, the children can’t be expected to…. and there is no end to that.

    You also don’t seem to wish to acknowledge that the less we have to battle with behaviour or misconceptions/misunderstandings due to poor methods and having to reteach ideas/concepts repeatedly due to failed methods, the more time we do have as teachers to do precisely the kind ‘little’ boosts that you talk of. We don’t waste teacher time on the ineffective which is confidence boosting because why should we ask teachers to use a square wheel when a round one exists? Funnily enough I did have time to do ‘wake up/shake up’ after assembly, I did have time at the end of the day to read a book, show some horrible histories or introduce children to the wonders of the world around them be it music, art, history, etc.

    Maximum efficiency frees up time in the day to do other things for primary (I can’t talk for secondary). This is why I have called for fewer genres in literacy, more time on speaking and listening in KS1, an end to the idea of all lessons must be 60 minutes long to name a few. I also, in a recent blog asked questions about traditional methods including the threshold of novice and expert.

    Side with the progressives if you want the popularity by all means – you can see if they can meet my challenge of coming up with a list of questions about the their ideas and methods to match my own. Which also, by the way, included the falsifiability of no excuses.

    Your crusade against traditionalists is no doubt welcome in some quarters but this debate is happening and needs to happen.


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