What teaching philosophy teaches me: Reductionism

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Friday break time is staff briefing time. Yesterday we had a briefing regarding what to do if OFSTED come in this year, which is a big possibility, considering it will be close to 5 years since our last inspection. Everything we should be doing was broken down into minute details, explained to us with clarity and as staff we were asked to concentrate on solely on this. As a a Head of Department we all got ‘OFSTED Ready?’ checklists to go away and ensure our colleagues are doing everything as they should. Now whilst I love a good list as much as the next teacher, I begin to worry that we may be missing the bigger picture?

I then went off to teach Year 9 boys badminton. We were looking at the low backhand service in doubles as a way of gaining an attacking advantage. We spent time breaking the skill down into its composite parts; the preparation, execution and follow through stages. Reducing things to the smallest details, in some form of a checklist, can be hugely useful. Especially if it’s a closed skill that can be practiced over and over again so it becomes autonomous. Closed motor skills are usually performed in a constant unchanging environment and have the movement form as the goal of the skill.

However teaching isn’t a closed skill. A closed skill is something you can accurately replicate all the time. If there was a ‘one size fits all’ style of teaching that could be reproduced and get results in any environment do you not think we would have discovered it by now? Open motor skills are performed in a constantly changing environment and have a particular environmental outcome as the goal of the skill.
The movement is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Surely this is the same in teaching?

Anytime there is a successful idea within education, it’s broken down into a simplistic and rigid process that is so far removed from the original idea, that actually it could have a negative consequence on trying to improve things. What I feel reductionism does is take away context. Within education can you boil great teaching down to its component parts without taking into account the moral values of the school, the importance of education to the family groups, the culture of the teachers and the background of the students? Sometimes we need to start with the bigger picture and work our way backwards, before we take a blinkered approach and make a 10 point list of great teaching and effective learning.

People spend times looking for success without defining what success is. Excellence is communicated to the school community without making it clear what the outcome of success looks like. Whilst breaking things up in their component parts is an excellent way of finding strengths and identifying areas, by passing the looking at the whole picture may result in us losing our way. Take my badminton lesson as an example. Breaking the service down into its technical parts allowed the students to identify and rectify key mistakes, but possibly it did not improve their success of the shot.For some students the shot was successful before they starting breaking it down. If the outcome was a successful low service that put their opponent under pressure, and they could do that consistently and accurately, does it require someone to breakdown and improve their technique? My ultimate goal is to get students enjoying physical activity and sport, get them trying to engage in an active and healthy lifestyle. Has breaking down the shot necessarily facilitated that?

Is teaching being reduce to a reductionist philosophy?

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