How do teachers learn to teach? You might say by attending college, going on teaching practice, and from teaching experience. But according to Stigler and Hiebert, who wrote the book The Teaching Gap, teaching is a cultural activity. It is an activity that is absorbed from the culture through family conversations over meals, through watching television and listening to radio, and of course from spending 13 years as a student in various classrooms observing teachers teach. Learning about teaching in this way seems to be stronger than teacher education or continuing professional development. As a result, teaching in any country looks very similar from one classroom or school to another. After looking at videos of maths teaching in Germany, Japan and the United States, Stigler and Hiebert found that lessons varied far less within any one country than they varied from country to country. In other words, there is little difference between the best and the worst lesson in Germany whereas there is quite a difference between any given lesson in Germany and a given lesson in Japan. If teaching, is a cultural activity, it is difficult to change through teacher education or professional development for teachers.
Think of it like this. A colleague of mine is just back from Malaysia. While there, she attended the celebration of Hari Merdeka, a national day to commemorate independence. She observed celebrations where people were blowing horns and whistles; wearing the national flag, wigs and masks with two faces; taking photos; and standing around chatting and eating ice-cream. But crucially, she noticed that no-one was drinking alcohol. Consequently, people on the streets were friendly, sober, polite and generally in the whole of their senses. Drink was just not part of the celebration. Now think of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland and elsewhere; a different image comes to mind, like this or this perhaps.
So, how do Irish citizens grow up seeing alcohol as being integral to any celebration? Like learning to teach, it’s cultural. From a young age, talk about drinking is common. If a child stumbles, we jokingly ask if they’re “drunk.” Youngsters frequently hear adults and older teenagers around them referring to having a few beers while watching a match, to drowning the shamrock, to underage drinking, to going to the pub, to getting “locked” and so on. The references come from family, friends, media, advertising, and society in general and they seep effortlessly and mostly unquestioned into our consciousness. But once the connection between alcohol and celebration is there, it’s difficult to change, or to see it as abnormal. That’s just the way with a cultural activity – it becomes part of you.
So, that’s why changing how maths, reading or any subject is taught is about changing a cultural activity. In terms of difficulty, changing teaching across the system is on a par with getting everyone in Ireland to celebrate next St. Patrick’s Day without alcohol. Yes, it could happen – but not easily.
Perhaps the way to go is to make small changes. When talking about the uselessness of crash diets, Seth Godin says that they don’t work because they don’t change our habits. To become fit, he suggests that all you need to do is go to the gym every day for a month, have a shower there and change your clothes. By the end of the month the habit of going to the gym will be established and you’ll just start exercising while there. To change how we teach, teachers need to change a habit and do it every day for a month and eventually it’ll become part of how we do our work.
So if you want to change your teaching of say, maths, try to develop a new habit in your maths lessons: you could start asking children to explain how they got their answers; or replace textbook problems with open-ended problems from a sites such as NRICH; or start referring to children as “low achieving” at maths rather than “weak” and “high achieving” rather than “strong.” Without changing our habits, we won’t change a cultural activity such as teaching.