I think it’s good if children are taught by a variety of teachers. This exposes them to different view points, teaching styles, and personalities. It increases the chances that a teacher will come along and connect with the child, and it minimizes any long term negative effects caused by some teachers. Much ado has been made about the significant positive impact that a child can expect from several years of effective teaching in a row. This is especially important for students with weaker support systems outside the school.
One practice I want to focus on in this blog post is something I call over-teaching. It’s something all teachers engage in at times, and it likely characterizes the practice of those who like to make sure all t’s are crossed and i’s dotted.
Over-teaching is the opposite of inquiry based learning. At its best it attempts to scaffold the learning by providing a way to understand a problem through using a pre-approved approach. Over-teaching supports students so that they can occupy a simplistic future filled with certainty.
At its worst, over-teaching gives little to no freedom to students and it fails to acknowledge either the complexity of the world or the messiness of learning.
But for the purposes of this post I want to clarify that over-teaching is none of the following:
- providing examples for students to follow
- introducing a strategy students should use before going on to adopt their own, such as scaffolding and gradual release of responsibility
- telling the students the facts about something up front, such as pre-teaching vocabulary
What I wish to do instead is point out some specific areas where over-teaching can be detrimental to the well-being of both teachers and students. As I provide the examples, I hope an understanding of this approach to teaching emerges, one that is fleshed out better from the meaning suggested by its terms.
Over-teaching is inefficient
The first main problem with over-teaching is that it is very inefficient. It does not discriminate between concepts that can be simply taught and concepts that need to be broken down even further. Instead, it treats all concepts as being equally important and requiring equal amounts of time to explain. A colleague of mine provided the example of trying to help an English Learner understand the word salt. Over-teaching this concept would be to explain using miming, description, and even diagrams to get the student to understand. A more pragmatic approach would be to use a translator for a quick explanation because the student is likely to understand that word in their first language.
Over-teaching assumes material is learned after it has been taught
I’m sure almost every teacher has at times moaned about how even after teaching something to their students, they still didn’t get it. This is indeed frustrating. When we fall into the trap of over-teaching, we may subconsciously feel that this is our only chance to deliver the content. So we better explain thoroughly, otherwise, we might tell ourselves, we’re a bad teacher because only good teachers are successful the first time around.
I think that over-teaching is partly caused by an erroneous belief in the efficacy of the lesson plan, this idea that a well-prepared lesson will be sufficient for quality learning. And when the lesson doesn’t go according to plan, we’re liable to blame ourselves. If there is a lot of external pressure for teachers to be held accountable for their teaching plans, the problem is only further exasperated. Teaching is an act. It is not documentation, even if documentation holds value for many purposes.
All teachers have experienced what they thought was going to be a wonderful learning experience turn into something that wasn’t. And no amount of good teaching is going to remove a personal problem that is preventing the student from engaging fully. If teachers aren’t constantly probing and checking in on their students’ learning, they’re likely to miss out on other obstacles to that learning. Here are some examples that come to mind. Not all students are aware that English writing is read from left to right, or even possess foundational understandings such as object permanence*. Phonetic awareness doesn’t come automatically especially for students whose languages are not phonetic, such as Chinese.
Then there are issues with the background knowledge of the students, or lack of familiarity moving between metric and imperial measurement systems. There’s the pedagogy, school climate, peer relationships, and home situations to factor in. It’s never straightforward and it’s a miracle that so many students do learn something in spite of all that might be in the way.
Over-teaching doesn’t usually lead to deep understanding
I think it would be a good policy for every school to require their teachers to be actively learning something at all times. It could be a new language, a musical instrument, a sport, dance, anything that requires some cognitive effort and chance of failure.
When I was in teacher’s college I had the chance to join the Grade 6 students at my practicum school at the start of a unit where they were learning how to play the violin. I accompanied them a couple of times each week over the course of a few weeks. I ended up learning how to play Mary had a little lamb. I was okay, but far from the best in the class! And I was the adult! Was I focused. Yes. Motivated. Yes. Successful, well, more or less. Could I play it again today? Not a chance. Does that mean the learning was a failure? Depends on how we define it.
While preparing for exams and standardized testing is a necessary evil in many parts of the world, not all curricula require these sorts of abstracted proofs of learning. With more and more urban public schools and international schools made up of English language learners, it becomes essential for teachers to differentiate between a specific product as proof of learning and the language skills of the student demonstrating that learning. And of all skills, language is the single most important one that takes time to develop and is particularly resistant to over-teaching methods.
Over-teaching neglects the purposes of education
Teachers have been moaning about their students for thousands of years. On the one hand we want them to do as we say. On the other, we want them to think independently. At least we say that. Often, what we mean is for them to think as we do. To learn as we do. To process reality in our way. The ideal pedagogical concept is gradual release of responsibility where teachers support students until they are able to manage their learning on their own. Unfortunately, over-teaching never fully releases this responsibility. Provided the world to be occupied by the student resembles the world the curriculum and teacher has in mind, this is not a significant problem. But if there ever was a time when the specific societal needs for our students is uncertain, it’s now.
The response is not to teach critical thinking, which is over-teaching in another guise. Instead, teachers should allow students to practice opportunities where they can exercise critical thinking. As uncertain as the future is, the one certainty is that there will be problems that need to be tackled and solutions sought. Of course there are no complete solutions either, just improvements on what has come from before.
Over-teaching can be student-led learning in disguise
I came across a meme recently that went something like this: “Great, I spend 50,000 dollars for college just to end up teaching myself.” While universities are infamous for sticking to centuries old approaches to teaching, the point made here, applies to classrooms as well.
Students appreciate a good teacher, someone who matches their expectations to their needs, learning or otherwise. Teachers also appreciate good students, too. Over-teaching, however, often masks where the real learning is taking place. Private tutors? Cram schools? Parents? Brains with good memories? High personal expectations for learning on the part of the students? The diligence of students who are persistent enough to keep studying something until they understand the answers?
Over-teaching can ignore all this. I may find that my students who get what I’m teaching in class are actually doing the heavy lifting themselves. And chances are they would do that heavy lifting in terms of learning in spite of me.
Over-teaching can be boring
I’m the first to admit that I often talk too much. (Well, maybe second. My wife would be the first!) My dad once remarked sarcastically that good teachers know how to talk. On those terms, then, I must be a genius teacher. Except for diligent, conscientious students, most students benefit from more doing and less explaining. Language learning is an important illustration of this. It’s students who use new language in context and understand its relationship to communication and the world who are successful. If students are going to do a lot of the heavy lifting anyway (or their parents), why not allow them to do it in class through experiencing the material.
Over-teaching’s alternatives can lead to other risks as well
Finally, as with so many things in life, too much of anything is often bad. The polar opposite to over-teaching is a sink or swim approach. Students need to hang new knowledge and skills on something. They will sink without any supports. Whereas over-teaching builds elaborate models outside the student’s mind, laissez-faire approaches risk witholding supports that are useful.
Language learning is a very good example that can show the deficits of over-teaching as well as pure laissez-faire approaches. Getting thrown into a foreign language environment without support may lead to some language learning, but it’s not guaranteed, much to the dismay of many expats living overseas. On the other hand, many students have studied a foreign language for years, only to struggle to use that language when in another country.
Over-teaching and thinking big
Lest you think I’ve created a straw-person in my characterization of over-teaching, and that no teacher in fact acts like this, let me challenge us all with the following. The language of international education is English. The language of higher education is also for the most part English. And yet, this is not the language the majority of the world speaks as its first language. Nor is it the language that is used by the majority to process and articulate reality. But it is the language that so much of importance is determined. Just as we wouldn’t want to constrain our students and prevent them from exercising critical thinking, nor should we be content with the current reality in International Education where English is still highly prioritized. Education characterized by English, monoglossic assumptions is perhaps the ultimate example of over-teaching.