The Basics for Effective Teaching


It’s a provocative title. Or it should be. It should be provocative to teachers because there are no simple paths to effective teaching. I agree with that. It’s true and anyone who claims to have a formula is a fraud.


Here are 3 short statements that I was told at uni and that have proven to be genuinely insightful. I offer them here as a doctrine, a charter.


They may work for you, or you may have your own. If you do have your own ‘principles of practice’, ‘universal truths of teaching’ please share, not because we’re all after easy teaching tricks, but because the discussion might help some thoughtful reflection on practice. And just because sharing can help alleviate some of the stress.


So with that exhaustive qualifier, here it goes:


Never draw a line for students, warning them not to cross it.


If you find yourself talking to a student on terms that are anywhere near that, then two things are probably happening: one is that you have already lost a lot of patience. The other is that the student is the type that is more likely to take up the challenge, that’s why you’re in this unseemly discussion in the first place.


The risk that the student will call your bluff is therefore high. The consequences are also significant. In any plan that’s got to be a high risk/low return situation.


Now I’m not saying I haven’t done it, or at least got close to a ‘don’t cross this line’, tone. But I’ve also been grateful for having just avoided the negative consequences of doing so, or have had to put in a disproportionate amount of work to get out of the problem I created for myself.


Preparation is the work


What? That’s too obvious you say? Well interestingly enough every teacher I know forgets occasionally at least. Turning up to class underprepared is a result of all sorts of time pressures. It is also a result of over confidence. Sometimes, you’ve backed up enough ideas to get you through for a while. But inevitably things go awry and then it’s back to the ‘be prepared’ motto. It’s the only fair thing for students in any case.


But the warning here is don’t get used to under preparation. Your life as a teacher will be a lot less interesting and a lot more stressful if you slowly drift in the direction of under-preparation.


Don’t believe the ‘all the research says’ claims.


Follow the research. Value the research. Use the research.


But teaching is complex and therefore contingent. It is made up of qualified truths, sometimes competing truths. Very few things are true all the time. When they are, you don’t need research to tell you they are.


Too often academics, bureaucrats, consultants, colleagues, salespeople reach for the big claim that their position is backed by all the research. It might be true. But it’s more likely they want you to adopt ‘a position’. And nothing is less useful for teaching than a strict unqualified position.


So, take what you can, and make the research work for you, in your place at your time, to the helps rather than hinders you.


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