Teaching without teaching

Could you teach your subject without explicitly talking about any of your content?
Would you students know how to learn if you didn’t teach them (or weren’t there)?
Could you say your students know how to learn, and will confidently graduate knowing how to manage their own learning?
How well can your students talk about cognitive strategies, their own meta-cognition, and reflect on their meta-learning?
 

I gave myself a challenge to teach a highly content driven subject, chemistry, for 2 weeks without explicitly teaching the content.

I felt I was failing my students as they weren’t confident self learners and didn’t have the strategies to revise, learn, or productively struggle without an adult in the room.

So I taught how to learn instead.

  • We talked about how to find reliable, and accurate information about a topic.
  • We went through a couple note taking strategies (like SOAR and SQ3R)
  • We developed ways to collate, compare, summarise and organise information, including processes for solving problems.
  • We discussed the research around best strategies for revision (hint: reading the textbook is not one of them)
  • We used more class and peer discussion to create consensus and teach each other (rather than it being mostly teacher talk)
  • We developed cognitive strategies like mnemonics, and meta-cognitive reminders to regulate our learning
  • We talked about how those doing the work are those learning (hint: the teacher should not be working the hardest in the room)
  • We analysed the ways that we each learn and remember best, and which strategies we like to use (including doing practical work)
  • We practiced strategies like putting post-its in where you have questions, so you can check in later.
  • We talked about time organisation, grit, perseverance, positive attitudes, relaxation, and reducing anxiety.

The outcomes? Well, the students started taking more responsibility for their learning. For example, they would move themselves away from distraction. Students did more thinking in class. Students asked each other (or consulted other sources like a textbook or internet) more for help, rather than going first to the teacher. 

But I’m hoping the real gains will be in the next few years when they grow to be more like adults. My continuing motivation is the thought that when children are born, adults make 100% of their decisions for them. But when children turn 18, our aim should be that we are making 0% of their decisions. We need to step back, empower them, let them go and allow them a chance to have responsibility and control (well, with our guidance of course. We are older and wiser!)

How to integrate beyond primary school

Primary school. One teacher. Many subjects. 

Secondary school. Many teachers. Many subjects.

In primary school, it may be natural to integrate different subjects.  Trans-disciplinary learning is common. You find a theme, say, recycling, that students are interested in, and tie in as many subject outcomes as you can. Maybe you count items of rubbish and recycling and create graphs in maths. Maybe you explore materials and changes in material properties in science while looking at plastics and paper recycling. In art, maybe you create a piece of expressive art telling the story of sustainability from recycled pieces of rubbish like bottle caps or coffee pods. In global studies, you might explore globalism, waste, sustainability and how humans interact and use the Earth’s resources. In english you might write a persuasive piece about how we should recycle. You might even sing a song about recycling in music.

It’s interesting, relevant, allows in-depth inquiry into a topic, follows student interests, and could be different every year.

Then students get to high school.  

They move every 45 mins or so, to different subjects, with different teachers, doing different things, where there’s not enough time to dive deep, and learning is disjointed and not inter-connected. Students work in micro-ways on micro-projects within individual subjects. No wonder we see students looking stressed and disengaged.

So how can we capture in-depth inquiry over longer time spans, with solid blocks of time, connections between subject areas, in authentic, student driven ways while having many teachers scheduled on timetabled lines allocated to specialist subjects?

Integrating in the secondary school setting can seem almost impossible to logistically organise.

I’ve seen three main options in middle school to build inter-disciplinary learning.

ONE:

Mimic a primary model

TWO:

Collaborate like pros

THREE:

Revolutionise the curriculum

 

One: Mimic a primary model

One way to enable more integration in middle school, is to mimic the primary model. Using a key teacher strategy, you reduce the number of teachers that teach a class. For example, there might be one teacher that teaches a class of students for maths, science and PE. This enables that one teacher to get to know the students deeply, to form natural links between the subjects they are teaching, and to use the timetabled time more flexibly as it would block together in larger chunks of time. This often takes a multi-disciplinary style, as teachers refer to and make links between what they are covering in the separate subjects.

Two: Collaborate like pros

You may not be able to change the timetable or the staffing in your school. Or maybe you have a great key teacher model (option one) but want to integrate beyond the 2-3 subjects you teach. You need to be able to collaborate like pros. Teams of people teaching the same students different subjects work together to pick overarching themes, map curriculum outcomes, plan teaching sequences so they complement each other, and design common expo products as a culmination and display of student combined learning.

Three: Revolutionise the curriculum

Is it not enough? Do you want more? Are you looking for even greater choice, agency, relevance and student-directed learning? A third way tends to ignore the curriculum outcomes, in favour of fully student-directed projects. Is a student disengaged in traditional school but really passionate about marine biology? Then throw out traditional subjects, timetables, and classrooms and allow the student to work on their own inquiry project that they are passionate about. These rich projects sound so inspirational as you read about students following their interests, engaging with experts, doing research, collecting data, and communicating their findings in authentic ways. However, some coverage of curriculum content naturally gets lost to make space for depth and particular interests.

 

Can you have it all?

Never trust anyone who says you can have it all – something always has to slide to make way.

However, there may be a nice middle ground between traditional high school structures and the completely revolutionised school.

Taking a little of one, two and three and piecing them together gives us a model like this, for building both disciplinary and inter-disciplinary knowledge as part of a contemporary curriculum:

The mosaic model

  1. Have as few teachers as possible for a class of students in the middle school.
  2.  Allow them chunks of time, both at the start of terms and throughout the year, to collaborate and plan together. Start with all the curriculum outcomes you want to cover. It’s easy if you print them out, laminate, and use a giant wall or pinboard to map them. Pick a big overarching theme or driving question that interests the students e.g. could we live on Mars? Map what curriculum outcomes you can find to match that theme. Then think about and plan what combined product you would want to see at the end to show student achievement (backwards design). Fill in tasks, skill builders, content builders and other lesson building blocks needed to go from the theme setter at the start, to the culminating product at the end. Make sure each subject has a logical sequential order and times complementary components so they fit together.
  3. Mapping curriculum in an integrated way should save some time overall if you’re not double teaching some topics (like biomes in HASS and ecosystems in Science) or skills (e.g. practice writing procedures in english by drafting practical reports from science). Use this time to carve out a personal deep inquiry. Students pick something they are interested in, and use the time to deeply explore, research, talk to experts, experiment, collect data, create and report in what could be a capstone project over the whole year.

   

Of course, there is still the question of why we would change structures and re-organise curriculum? Shouldn’t students just get used-to the secondary model that has worked for so long? Gone are the days of one-room school houses. Why should we even bother with an integrated curriculum when students need to have a strong content knowledge in each discipline as laid out in the required curriculum standards? It’s much easier to keep the timetabling and staffing as it is in secondary.

There are a few reasons why integrating throughout high school is important.

  1. Life isn’t in silos – why should learning be? Separating knowledge and skills into components is convenient, but not necessarily reflective of real life. Even within the sciences, we separate into Biology, Chemistry, Geology, Physics, Nutrition – but there is so much overlap and cross-over that the distinctions are more for our ease than real. Integrating allows students to see the connections that exist between subject areas and create the ‘big picture’.
  2. Breakthroughs occur at the edges, between disciplines. It is where two areas meet and come together that we get really interesting solutions to world problems. Thinking outside one domain area and transferring that knowledge is an important skill. For example, a local SA company, Life Whisperer, took the knowledge from biological and medical fields around IVF and combined it with another field, AI technology to create an AI, cloud based solution to imaging and making clinical decisions around which embryos are viable.
  3. The sum is greater than the parts – there is a synergy that occurs when subjects are integrated. The best example I’ve heard was a task which involved students writing a science magazine article to explain one aspect of their course. When teamed up with an English teacher/class, the article became so well written that students scored, on average, a whole grade band higher than the year without integration. There are so many cross-over skills that one subject can greatly benefit another, especially when it means more time can be spent developing a few quality products over multiple subjects.
  4. It can lead to greater depth and understanding of multiple perspectives. Take a global issue – say world war two or global warming. Having experts from different areas to discuss the impact- scientific, historical, geographical, media and poetry and writing of the time, politics, mathematical developments, business etc allows for a broader understanding of all perspectives.

 

Getting serious about key skills

Let’s be clear – the general skills we’re talking about have been around for a long time. SACSA curriculum (a South Australian school curriculum that existed before the Australian Curriculum was implemented in 2014) had Key Competencies. The Australian Curriculum has the General Capabilities. We also have the 4 Cs or even the 7 Cs (commonly including critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration). The Foundation for Young Australians refers to Enterprise Skills, which add in digital literacy, financial literacy, and problem solving. Sometimes a similar set of skills are also known as 21st Century Skills. Other thinkers have included, for recent times, the ability to manage yourself as a brand, skepticism, advocacy and adaptability to negotiate a gig economy.

Key Skills

While these capabilities, which we will call key skills, have been embedded in our curriculum for a long time, they often got forgotten as content became the driver. It’s hard to focus on building creativity and problem solving when there’s pressure to cover content! When relying on textbooks or worksheet packages, teaching can be focused on delivering content, then providing practice to apply it in writing.

As we’ve already talked about, we made the decision to throw out our textbooks. We wanted the key skills to be the driver, with content the vehicle. 

There are three big reasons why we want to develop key skills as a priority, rather than focus on learning facts, definitions and content.

One: Knowledge is available at the click of a “Search” button on internet. Content is ubiquitous and constantly changing – anyone with access to the internet can find knowledge almost instantly. Knowing more than the person next to you (or robot next to you) is no longer an advantage – rather, it’s what you can do with that knowledge and the skills you bring. It’s not so important to remember lots of stuff – it’s important to be able to apply it, and use it to solve problems. That’s not to say that having knowledge isn’t useful – having a broad knowledge of the field you are working on is important – but it’s also important to be able to learn new things, unlearn some things, and see the connections. In some fields, like science, medicine and technology, there are such rapid innovations and refinements to what we know. What we learn at school may not be relevant or useful (or even true) after we graduate. 

Two: The wave of the fourth industrial revolution is changing the way we work. We are in transition, so there are still plenty of ‘traditional’ jobs that require manual, routine tasks. However, as technology disrupts more industries, we will see automation, robots and machine learning take over more ‘human’ jobs. For example, we have the technology to 3D print houses cheaply and quickly. Eventually, the traditional construction industry may evolve to be highly technology driven, with fewer traditional trades. As the new wave of technology-disrupted jobs comes, we will need a new set of skills and traits. The ability to be creative and solve problems with innovative thought and insight is something that (generally) sets us humans apart from machines. So, these skills will be desired – and what better place to start to develop these key skills that in the classroom.

Three: Anyone who’s spent time recently in a middle school outer suburban classroom could probably attest to the fact that it takes a bit to get kids interested. Why would they want to listen to a teacher at the front when they have entertaining videos, snapchat, facebook, games and more on their phones and laptops in front of them? Teaching in a traditional way of delivering content and practicing on a worksheet just doesn’t produce strong and lasting engagement. However, get students involved in a project where they have to build, make, design or create, and they are much more engaged. Projects are more likely to build creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration than sitting in seats doing written work. If we value these key skills for the future, then this is what we should be developing in classrooms too.

 

What could it look like?

We’ve thought about what the development of some of these key skills would look like in a classroom, and developed guiding continuums to provoke conversation and thought about how to teach, practice and assess these key skills.

Communication can go beyond the classroom – students can authentically communicate and display their work in ways that experts in the community do, and get advice and feedback from those experts and stake holders too.

Collaboration is not just group work (or pairs of people doing what one person could do alone)- it needs to be big projects where you rely on the skills and expertise of different people to complete different facets of the project to get it all done.

Problem Solving cannot be learnt from a textbook – real problems, questions and opportunities to fail and struggle are needed. We’re talking about questions of inquiry where there is more than one answer, and big problems that require multiple perspectives to consider them.

Critical and Creative thinking is another skill that is authentically practiced when making and creating.

 

Along with these key skills, there are traits or dispositions that are beneficial for students. Traits like grit and perseverance. Curiosity and innovation. Courage and compassion. Again, these are traits that are not developed in isolation or from reading a textbook. They require social interaction, conversation, community, and the opportunity to take risks and fail.

 

Deliberately and proactively combining key skills with discipline and interdisciplinary knowledge, along with traits of a learner, is what we think education should be about, and what we hope for our own children. 

Communication

We communicate everyday, but so our classrooms allow students to communicate with authentic, external audiences in ways that mimic real jobs? Can we provide students with opportunities to work with real experts to prepare them better for life and work outside school?

Here is a rubric we developed to look at some aspects of communication in the classroom. Let us know if you think it’s helpful for thinking about communication in a school setting.

communication

communication

 

Critical and Creative Thinking

Critical and creative thinking is a general capability expressed throughout the Australian Curriculum. What’s the best way of developing it? How can you assess it? Is it applicable to all subjects? Does it look the same in every subject? Is it transferable from one subject to another? We don’t have answers to all these questions but…

Here is a rubric we developed to look at some aspects of critical and creative thinking in the classroom. Let us know if you think it’s helpful for thinking about this general capability in a school setting.

CCT

Problem Solving

Problem solving is an essential work skill, and in increasing demand for the future, according to the world economic forum and the foundation for young australians. Are our classrooms giving students enough opportunities to develop their problem solving abilities?

Here is a rubric we developed to look at some aspects of problem solving in the classroom. Let us know if you think it’s helpful for thinking about collaboration in a school setting.

problemsolving.png

Keep calm and throw out your textbook!

Don’t be scared – there are benefits to throwing out the textbook when teaching!

 

There are lots of reasons for teaching without a textbook. Having a middle school science classroom driven by a textbook is neither beneficial to student learning or skill development. Seth Godin in Linchpin says schools should teach students only two things – how to solve interesting problems and how to lead. I don’t think either of those things can be taught through a textbook. The Foundation for Young Australian’s The New Basics Report talks about the essential enterprise skills that young people will need to navigate their careers (17 jobs in 5 industries is predicted for a now 15 year old in their working life). Again, I fail to see how a textbook could help teach any of the enterprise skills listed in the report: creativity, problem solving, communication skills, teamwork, digital literacy, critical thinking and presentation skills.

10 reasons to throw out your textbook

1. Be more creative in the content and presentation of it.

2.Facilitate differentiation: how many textbooks come with alternative worksheets, different levels of scaffolding, options for extension? How many textbooks can provide options according to personal interest, present according to learning profile? Moving away from a fixed textbook allows you the freedom to differentiate your instruction, your assessments, your practical tasks.

3. Be modern: You might have the most recent textbook, but can it keep up with day-to-day events, with the news? To harness student interest and ‘hook’ them, taking current news articles or modern pop culture references/parodies/memes is a great way.

4.Cheaper: there are a huge range of free, online resources. These cost nothing, and so are a much cheaper option for resourcing your classroom that buying a textbook per child.

5.Tailored to context: Being able to tailor your content to the context is so important in connecting students to their learning, and connecting them to a community for their learning. Curriculum is often divorced from students’ own lives and there is a need to personalise and involve students. Without a textbook, you can study your local area, involve local industry, adapt the content to address an issue in students’ lives…e.g. rather than looking at air quality and pollution and acid rain in Europe, why not look at your own community and the air and water quality in the local area? Dr Milton Chen talks passionately about students being connected to place as part of their learning.

6.Easily changed: Linked to the above point – it’s difficult to change a textbook, but easy to change teaching when you don’t have one. Need to change a ‘science fact’ (Pluto is no longer a planet), want to update some statistics (the world population is now 7.5 billion), want to reflect a current event (most recent local earthquake), do students no longer like Justin Bieber and are now into Ed Sheeran?

7.Fits one-to-one devices: Learning Management Systems is how a lot of schools are planning and distributing learning materials these days. You can source videos, simulations, games, lectures, reading materials, forums, polls, and other online resources and tools. Students with a device can access these resources anytime, anywhere with internet.

8.Focus on Science Inquiry: Inquiry skills of proposing problems, investigating questions, collecting data, conducting experiments, measuring variables, displaying data, communicating findings – they are hands-on skills and students need to experience science and the wonder of inquiry to authentically grow these skills. That comes from doing science, not reading about science in a textbook. I would encourage you to consider science lessons as at least 50% hands-on!

9.Allow time for in-depth study: Rather than surface learning and skimming pages of content, encourage deep learning that comes from project/problem based learning, from research into topics of interest, from science inquiry.

10.Allow for inter-disciplinary teaching: In mapping the skills and content of curriculum, you may notice overlap in several areas. Science teachers have teamed up for the past 3 years with HASS/Geography teachers in year 9 to co-teach our Ecosystems/Biomes respective units and go on a joint field trip and complete a joint authentic inter-disciplinary task. These rich connections between subject areas consolidate the content, allow students go learn deeply and broadly, and gives real world relevance to their learning.

 

Get Inspired

 

We’d love to hear from you if you explored no-textbook teaching in your class, or if you have other ideas or feedback on how to. Good luck!