Do you know these five teaching crimes?

By Karen on December 8, 2016
Posted to Leadership

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23 russell ackoff quote

Just over a year ago, I caused quite an internet storm with my blog post To Worksheet or not to Worksheet, that is the Question. Some 700,000 teachers saw this post on Facebook alone. There were about 120,000 comments, not all in agreement (Gulp), massive numbers of shares and ‘Likes’ (‘not likes’, sad faces and angry scowls weren’t available then fortunately!) and huge debates in social media threads everywhere.

Ever since, this huge response has had me thinking about the amount of advice out there for us, as educators. As I engage more deeply with my doctorate research, I am amazed by the incredible range of educational research available to us all.

My inspiration this week came via the systems thinking work of Professor Russell Ackoff, author of the fabulous quote: It is better to do the right thing wrongly, than do the wrong thing better and better.

He is very clear that improving teaching is not about doing the wrong things righter! Change must address what we should stop doing, alongside our considered response to that deluge of advice.

So … I have been collecting lists of “Stop Doing” and have pages and pages of them. In this post, I will tackle 5 at the top of my Hit List of teaching crimes.


Clearly, I made my position pretty obvious in To Worksheet or not to Worksheet, that is the Question. Other than some graphic organisers and open ended scaffolds, I am not a worksheet fan - at all (Understatement!).

In fact, I am horrified by the number of photocopiable resources available on-line. I run four free Facebook groups: Let’s Talk about Pedagogy, Digital Technologies and Computational Thinking, Importance of Play and Importance of Leadership and keep tight control of posting permission. Just as well, because every day I delete requests to post ‘shoosh and colour’, mindless fill-ins and pretty photocopiables in my groups. I will not promote, or support others to promote, this low level, boring stuff!! I am interested in hosting real debate about and engagement with contemporary teaching and learning practices.

Want to know more? Please read: To Worksheet or not to Worksheet, that is the Question, and feel free to join one or all of the groups. If you’ve stuck with my blog so far, ‘Thank you!’ and you’ll love the conversations there.


Russell Ackoff also throws out a challenge by claiming that teaching gets in the way of learning.

We’ve known since Roman times, “While we teach, we learn” (Roman Philosopher: Seneca)

Ackoff asks, ‘Who in the classroom learns the most?’

His contention, and I agree whole heartedly, is that teachers using traditional, didactic methods are getting the most out of the classroom teaching and learning environment, because they ‘teach’ others. (I’d add that they are also working too hard…. But I digress.)

The traditional model of ‘teaching’ is really TELLING.

It seems to be in our DNA, to see teaching as ‘telling’. I recently watched a group of kindergarten aged children ‘playing school’. Despite the fact that their direct experience was of a play based learning environment, one of the children horrifyingly, and with great accuracy, parodied a traditional ‘telling’ teacher, and quickly had the rest of the group dutifully listening.

To quote some more eminent thinkers trying to break this ‘telling’ paradigm:

  • The best teachers are those that show you where to look but don't tell you what to see - Alexandra K. Trenfor
  • I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn - Albert Einstein

There is SO much more power in inquiry and project based learning, using computational thinking as a purposeful driver or design thinking to build empathy with real world challenges …
If we effectively relate digital technologies to students’ lives, then we can inspire a true love of thinking about things logically, along with an understanding of the power this thinking has in solving the world’s challenges.

Lots to think about!

Just one more link, before I move on to Number 3. One driver for ‘telling’ comes from believing that one is the font of knowledge. I just loved this post by Caitlin Tucker where she started an Ask 3 B4 Me (Ask 3 before me) system, to shift the responsibility for ‘knowing’, from her to other sources. She had students access:

  • Google
  • YouTube tutorials
  • Social media to make connections with experts before they ask her. Fabulous ways to shift responsibility to learners!


I really wasn’t sure what label to give this section. I am really concerned that we can forget to take the learner’s perspective and consider the implications of what we do for them.

No teacher will say that their day is complete when they have effectively rescued children, exposed them to mind numbing tasks, fed them simplified information for regurgitation, or focused on minimum standards for low achievement.

I am pretty certain that 99.9% of us got into this profession for the love of learning, to make a difference for young people and to prepare students for exciting futures.

But, I am very concerned about the practices that encourage and value students’ compliance and conformity, reinforce ‘correct answer thinking’ and spoon feed students so that they don’t need to ‘think for themselves’.

We don’t do it deliberately, I am sure! Yet there is a great deal of evidence that many of the practices we adopt (especially some of the more formal and traditional ones) are failing kids.

Inspired by videos like Eddy Zhong’s TEDx Talk: How school makes kids less intelligent …

And others, including Sir Ken Robinson and his RSA video: Changing Education Paradigms where he ‘describes the two pillars of the current system — conformity and compliance — which undermine the sincere efforts of educators and parents to equip children with the confidence to enter the world on their own terms.’

There’s much more to human intelligence than a certain sort of academic work,” Robinson said. And, “if you get preoccupied by a certain type of achievement then you don’t even look for other things people might be good at.” Robinson points out that when the system narrowly defines success, it will exclude a huge portion of students who don’t happen to be good at those few valued skills.

George Couros writes about the dangers of students learning to be ‘good at school’, rather than good innovating, free thinking, ongoing learners.

The main thing that a student needs to know is not what to think but how to think in order to face new challenges and solve new problems.

They need to be good learners having had opportunities to go deep:
Deep learning, in its most effective form, is a mucky business. It isn’t about getting notes from the teacher, learning them by rote and then passing a test. It’s about working through a state of confusion and frustration. It’s about employing the expert teachers and resources at your disposal, and persevering despite initial failures. In deep learning we have to build new neural pathways and then practise and practise and practise. In time, we emerge with a new skill, be it a language, a mathematics concept or the ability to create art.”

Spoon feeding’ students has been a dominant paradigm since schools were conceived to prepare future factory workers. Spooned learners think very little, engage just enough to get through and can create ‘learned helplessness’.

Spoon feeding’ (or ‘rescuing’) … ‘mostly applies to teacher-centric approaches to teaching. Think about it. The very term ‘teacher-centric’ implies a flow of ‘spoon fed’ information from the teacher to the student.
On the other hand, student-centric approaches to teaching lend themselves to students taking responsibility for their learning; a desired outcome of education but unlikely to be achieved where spoon feeding is common


I was listening to Professor John Hattie’s opening address of the 2016 Google on Air Conference and was struck by how far his ‘what matters’ story has moved.

Interestingly he talked about how most of the things we do (90-95%) as teachers have relative effects, some significantly positive and others pretty marginal in terms of their effectiveness on learning. He called for teachers to consider ‘a years growth in a year’ as a minimum benchmark for assessing the effectiveness of our choices of strategies and approaches. Too many ‘low improvement/low impact’ strategies, and we risk not making that progress.

Hattie is now proposing that the most impactful thing teachers can do is: “collective efficacy”. Shared high expectations (of selves and students) and shared understanding of ‘high impact’ strategies and practices will have the greatest effect on teaching and learning. There are 2 keys to this:

  • Coming to teaching with the mindset: “My job here today is to understand and evaluate my impact”. Understanding one’s impact is underpinned by collective critique and challenge.
  • Having a defensible position on how we/students learn; knowledge of the nature and science of learning. Check out our Neuro-Learning course for more information.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time in classrooms and working with teachers over recent months, as part of concerted efforts to collaboratively engage staff as learners, gather evidence and build the impact on learning.

What continually surprises me is the number of teachers who resist this collective efficacy process. Islands, non-team players, soloists … there seems to be quite a few.

Given that, collaborative effort is powerful and together we can make a greater difference, the 4th on my Hit List is teachers not wanting to participate. (I wrote about reasons for teacher resistance in another blog post that you might find interesting.)


I set out to write about just 5 things we should stop doing. Now, I am going to cheat and dot point a lot of things in the 5th! I did say I had collected a long list!

Here are some ‘stop doing’s that had to be included:

  • Rewards nearly made it into the Top 5. I wrote a little about rewards in my Help! My class is out of Control blog post. This was part 1 of a two part series on classroom behaviour.

  • Steps and consequences systems also nearly made it into my Top 5. They are also touched on in the blog post just mentioned, but I will write a post dedicated to these first 2 soon. I am very passionate about the way they demean kids, reduce agency and negatively impact on classroom learning culture.

  • Thinking that the answers of the bright, engaged, ‘know-how-to-do-school’ students are representative of the whole group. Dylan Wiliam seriously challenges traditional teacher-student-teacher classroom dialogue patterns as effective assessment (and teaching and learning) processes. As I wrote last week, learning chatter in the classroom is achievable and desirable.

In the literacy area, there are many targets. To list just a few:

  • Dictionary definitions as a spelling activity is a personal favourite to go.

  • Asking students to hand write a ‘story’/piece of writing and then to type it into a digital device - why? Surely this low level technology substitution is just paying lip service to technology integration - no wonder the researchers find little impact from digital devices! And, there are so many terrific apps for writing on devices - I’m inspired!

  • Nell Duke lists more ‘to stop’ literacy practices including: unsupported silent sustained reading, weekly spelling tests and prizes for reading. This article on reading logs ruining reading is a must read too!

  • Wanting to ban computers from classrooms - really a case of a finger in the proverbial failing dyke! There are voices arguing this case, but it is clear that technology is ubiquitous and our young people will live in fully technology integrated worlds. Our challenge is to integrate technology into our classrooms in such a way that classroom experiences and learning are beyond anything that was possible without technology. In other words - aiming for transformation in the SAMR model.

  • Banning phones and other devices, and the internet in classrooms! Read my case against banning and blocking here.

  • Superficial engagement with Grit that fails to actually respond to the research, rather than the superficial interpretations. (Another future blog post. Sign up at the bottom of this post for a notification of future blog posts.)

  • Traditional staff meetings! The focus of this blog post has been students, but the same principles apply to us as educators, and our learning! We need to be curious and committed learners, accessing Twitter, learning at our own pace and following our own interests on-line and engaging in inquiry about our practice.

Should I go on to list: Homework? Competition? Preparing students for the ‘next’ level? Raising Hands?

LOTS we can stop doing to make room for the things that will make a difference!

Final Thought

Returning to Russell Ackoff for a final thought. He said that: we only learn from mistakes. We need to make them, and so do students!

If we do something we shouldn’t have, that’s an error of commission and can be tracked and corrected and learned from. If we don’t do something we should have, that’s an error of omission and that’s more of a challenge. We really do need to find these and act on them!

We can attempt to avoid or ignore errors like those listed in this post. How? Do nothing different if any are in our repertoire? But I don’t believe any of us got into the teaching profession to deny students the opportunity to be excited about learning, engaged in our classrooms and fulfilling their potential in such exciting and uncertain futures.

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