I’ve been reading the Bible recently, in particular the gospel according to John. One of the most striking things about it is the frequency with which Jesus says: “I am telling you the truth.” Over and over again it crops up, whether he’s arguing about reincarnation, instructing his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood, or simply telling them that they must obey his teaching.
To the modern reader, steeped in a culture of scientific scepticism, the need to endlessly assert the truth of such claims quickly arouses suspicion. I had a similar feeling when I picked up Greg Ashman’s The Truth About Teaching. Fortunately, this book wasn’t nearly as messianic as I’d expected.
Anyone who’s come across Ashman on Twitter or in his blogs will be familiar with his “robust” style of argument. He’s a scientist on a mission to debunk myths and expose snake-oil salesmen. For Ashman, evidence takes precedence: the subtitle of his book is “an evidence-informed guide for new teachers”.
The notion of evidence in teaching has become such an ideological gavel that you’d be forgiven for rolling your eyes at this point, yet in the very first paragraph of the preface Ashman admits that “teaching cannot claim to be evidence-based … Instead, we can hope to be evidence-informed”. It’s a welcome admission that cognitive models and large scale meta-analyses might not tell us everything about what goes on in the classroom, and sets the tone for the rest of this detailed and absorbing book.
Routines to reliability
There are a wide range of topics covered here, from classroom management, lesson planning and assessment, to progressivism, the phonics debate and the use of technology in the classroom. There is also a chapter called The Science of Learning, which covers some of the ideas with which Ashman made his name, in particular the applications of cognitive load theory in the classroom.
The aim of the book is to give new teachers an insight into what it takes to be successful in the classroom. I’m not sure how much sense I would have made of it as an NQT, but it’s undoubtedly a useful resource with which more experienced teachers can coach their junior colleagues.
Fortunately, this book wasn’t nearly as messianic as I’d expected
There are simple strategies and routines here that a surprising number of experienced teachers do not employ: directing questions to specific students; ensuring you stick to the shared language of the school; following through on consequences.
There is advice on how to teach explicitly, which involves breaking down complex thought processes into simpler steps; explaining ideas in detail, often with the use of models; and interacting with the students frequently, typically by asking them lots of questions.
There are relatively clear explanations of tricky concepts too: reliability and validity, and how they relate to assessment; and the working memory/long-term memory model of the brain, which has huge implications for what teachers plan to do in the classroom. For those already familiar with these ideas, I’d recommend reading Daisy Christodoulou and Daniel Willingham instead. Ashman’s book, as he makes very clear, offers a broad introduction rather than any in-depth analysis.
As a teacher, I’ve been working hard to develop my practice in the direction of explicit teaching over the past year, and have found the ideas of Rosenshine in particular (who Ashman refers to frequently) to be a game changer. This book offers a useful overview of many of these ideas; as such, I would not hesitate to recommend it.
Some readers may find Ashman’s style grating at times: the history chapters feel very one-sided, and he occasionally treats alternatives to explicit teaching as enemies to be destroyed rather than ideas to be engaged with (constructivism is given especially short shrift). Overall though, this is not the gospel according to Greg, as the title might suggest. It’s a well-researched, practically-minded book, which – for the most part – refrains from ideological ranting.