Much of our 6 week Teach First training consisted of so much love for “discovery learning”. A typical session might consist of creating a box that could hold 3 ping pong balls:

ImageIf you scroll far enough back through my twitter you can see how keen and excited I was by all this.

Constant refrains were “this isn’t like the maths you did at school”, being a “guide on the side, not a sage on the stage” and “the power of collaborative learning”. Readings were all based on constructivism; without twitter, I honestly wouldn’t know about the alternatives.


The result of all this is that you go into school believing discovery learning to be the right way. Diverging from that norm feels wrong, and can make you feel so guilty.

I care so much about the kids. I know all about educational disadvantage. I want to give them a top education. Yet what we had been told was a top education wasn’t giving me the results I’d been promised. Over the first term, I think most of us have found it blimmin’ effective to just tell the kids how to do something, and make them do it. The least successful lessons have definitely been the ones where I’d given the pupils a problem and somehow expected them to fathom a solution out for themselves, just because they were in a group. Having the latter kind of lesson can give you a double whammy feeling of guilt. Not only have the pupils not made the progress, but you feel like you’re not a “proper teacher” because you can’t pull off a lesson like that.


Many “discovery learning” proponents would probably tell me I was doing constructivism all wrong anyway. I wasn’t scaffolding it enough or whatever. But the fact that constructivism can be so readily done badly is just another one of its flaws, in my opinion.


Over Christmas I read DT Willingham’s book on cognitivism. Not only did it make me a better teacher, it really freed me. It freed me to instruct without feeling guilty. It freed me from the confusion of my reality not matching what I’d been told over and over by tutors.


At this point, I’m honestly just baffled by why cognitivism is so sidelined. Is there something I’m missing? I don’t want to lose all my impartiality and just become a Willingham cheerleader, but the alternative just isn’t working for me. 


10 thoughts on “Guilt

  1. teachingbattleground

    When you’ve been teaching for a while, you get to see what goes on in the classrooms of the “knit your own yoghurt” style teachers, and you discover it doesn’t actually doesn’t work for them either. Often they spend three years teaching nothing, then for 18 months before the exam they teach traditionally in order to catch up, all the time complaining how exam pressure is undermining their teaching.

  2. krisboulton

    I suspect it’s poorly understood, if at all heard of. No teacher I’ve met yet (including some of the very best I know) have even heard of the man, or Hirsch, or Engelmann. I asked one tutor if they’d heard of Engelmann and Direct Instruction, and her response was that she had, but didn’t know much about it and didn’t research it at all because it was just about teaching reading, as far as she’d heard.

    Remember, these people are the gatekeepers; if they aren’t even aware themselves, how are the rest of us meant to be?

    That’s the best case scenario. Worst case, I’ve read many misinterpretations of the ideas. So other people hear about ‘direct instruction’, and imagine cold Dickensian classrooms, with relentless ‘chalk and talk’, ‘drill and kill’, and the slow steady inexorable decline of 30 human souls within those classrooms.

    Very, badly, misunderstood.

  3. P T

    Surely the point is that variety is the spice of life. There is no perfect way of teaching but that we should always be changing the way we teach and trying out new methods and techniques. Today a discovery lesson, tomorrow a chalk and talk lesson, the day after a well scaffolded semi-discovery, semi-instructional lesson and so on.

    Different people learn in different ways. For some, the discovery lesson is perfect. For others (often because they don’t know how to “discover”) instructional is a far better approach.

  4. Rob Spence (@spencro)

    I share your frustration. Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, when I did my PGCE, we spent quite a lot of time discussing and writing essays on subjects such as “what’s the point of school?”, “why teach?” and so on. I don’t know if it did us much good, but it did mean that we had thought deeply about what education was and could or should be. Fast forward to about eight years ago, when I gave up teaching trainee teachers – no time for that kind of discussion, or indeed much discussion at all, with three-quarters of the course school-based. It was all about “competences” and making sure they complied with that week’s version of the National Curriculum. It hasn’t got any better since, so there’s a generation of teachers whose idea of educational thought is “Getting the Buggers to Behave”. In my recent experience, teachers are shockingly ill-informed about the theory of eduction, which means they are ripe for exploitation by any charlatan with a whizzy new system that promises to be the panacea for all educational ills. You can always spot them – there are trademarks all over the place, and trite slogans like the ones you mention.

  5. GW

    I do kind of agree with you about the over-emphasis on one style of pedagogy, of which TF is particularly guilty I think. However, I do think construcivism is worth defending! Not sure of the extent to which you’ve tried it, but in my experience it certainly won’t work without some serious time devoted beforehand to some form of ‘metacognition.’ My basic point would be that you have to teach them to learn in a certain way, if the way in which you want them to learn is not the way they’ve experienced predominantly elsewhere/previously.

    I also think it lends itself to certain age-groups and abilities better than others, though I guess that’s not very PC. Younger groups won’t be as entrenched in their style of learning, and higher ability groups will be better positioned to access the metacognitve discussion that need to precede the collaborative learning.

  6. Joe Kirby

    Kris is right: the research evidence in cognitive science is almost unheard of amongst most teachers and teacher trainers in the UK. Because of this, misconceptions persist about how students learn, and lots of the constructivist theory taught to new teachers in training clashes with reality in the classroom, resulting in exactly the kind of frustration you describe.

    Just one example is the idea from P.T. above that ‘different people learn in different ways’. The empirical evidence from cognitive science has shown that different learning styles do not exist, and that children are more alike than they are different in terms of learning, and that there are not categorically different types of learner.

    My blog posts on cognitive science explain further:

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