On educational macros
A way to conceptualise 'what works' in education
I often find myself citing Dylan Wiliam’s aphorism, “Everything works somewhere; nothing works everywhere,” but lately I’ve worried that it’s been misappropriated. For some, this statement can be a justification of endlessly relative approaches to pedagogy. Sometimes it reveals a focus on ‘relatability’ or an emphasis on reflecting students’ existing knowledge right back at them, a mirror rather than a window.
A recent online conversation prompted me to question whether I really think this statement is true or complete. The argument was along the lines of a strategy that worked well in an independent school may not work well in juvie. But selective use of Wiliam’s statement may send the wrong message about educational probabilities. As I’ve said before, teaching is a zero sum game so our choices are important. Please allow me an awkward metaphor to explain what I mean.
I have an amateur interest in bro-science and I know a bit about macro and micro nutrients. If you want to transform your body by bulking or cutting, paying attention to macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs) is the way to go. TLDR: eat a higher percentage of protein to cut, more carbs to bulk. I have started to think about core practices in education - the ones that overwhelmingly produce strong learning outcomes - as the macros of education. So a suitable addendum might be, “Some things work in most places.”
There’s some cherry picking that happens in education sometimes. So for a broader understanding, I’m linking Robert Pondiscio’s incisive review of Wiliam’s published research and advice here. I highly recommend it. Wiliam does present a few of the macros I am about to suggest as essential, and I think it’s a shame that his words are sometimes oversimplified, with an overemphasis on diversity of context and not enough consensus about what works, especially for our most vulnerable and least able students. Here are a selection of macros that I think will work almost anywhere.
A knowledge rich curriculum - Wiliam promotes this too. Diverse perspectives and prior knowledge are important micronutrients in my view.
Appropriate levels of challenge in text selection. Not just because of the above point, but because they tend to contain vocabulary and concepts that extend and broaden.
Phonics - as opposed to balanced literacy - is a clear example of a teaching strategy that works almost everywhere. One could argue exceptions but they would be dubious.
Direct instruction and modelling. The evidence on this is clear. Contrary to beliefs about ‘engagement’ and ‘fun,’ I have seen nothing more empowering for our struggling students than telling them what to do and how to do it.
On this, classroom routines trump ‘fun’ and novelty. Tom Bennett’s Running the Room makes this clear.
Micronutrients play an incredibly important role in performance. We might consider these as the tweaks we make to our students’ pedagogical diets. These are the ingredients that show we know our students, their backgrounds, what motivates them. Micro doesn’t denote ‘unimportant’ or small, but rather the contextual essential knowledge and adjustments that feed and nourish our students. But perhaps taking a macro view of ‘what works’ could yield more reliable results. Perhaps context isn’t everything and learners are more alike than different.
I’m really interested to know what you think.