I’ve lost track of how many trainings I’ve sat through to learn the latest pedagogical innovation. Over the years I’ve heard that this particular strategy, that lesson plan format or this other writing program is it. Whatever we used to do is the teaching equivalent of a lime-green leisure suit. If we really do hope to save our kids from imminent non-achievement, we must adopt this new idea. I remember being trained in reciprocal reading, cooperative learning, History Alive!, and Foldables to name a few. Most recently I’ve learned the crucial place of the Think Aloud in modern education. And I’ve been made aware that peace in the Middle-East is attainable if only we would all implement the use of sentence frames. Indeed, my district and site administrators are convinced that these are the two most important pedagogical devices ever conceived – use of them in my classroom is crucial to achievement. After doing this for thirteen years, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that teaching strategies and learning activities, pedagogical devices, if you will, are so many MacGuffins.
If you’re not familiar with it, The MacGuffin is a film term popularized by the great Alfred Hitchcock. It’s basically a plot device that makes the characters act the way they are supposed to. The Miriam Webster definition is, “an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.” Hitchcock himself explained that in a spy movie, the MacGuffin might be a set of secret documents or a code. Chasing the secret papers makes the characters in the story act like spies, but what the MacGuffin is, is really irrelevant – interchangeable. Perhaps the most famous MacGuffin of all is the Maltese Falcon. It could just as easily be the Cypriot Emu. As long as it got Bogey and Peter Lorrie to act like Bogey and Peter Lorrie, it worked.
I do not believe that there is an instructional strategy, learning activity, or lesson plan format that is, in and of itself, anything more than a MacGuffin. I don’t think it matters which one you use as long as it gets the students to do what you want them to do, which I believe most of us would agree, is to interact in a meaningful way with the content being covered at some desired level of Bloom’s taxonomy. From the lowly reading handout to the most elaborate research based project they can all work depending on what I call the RAF. To my knowledge, neither Dagget nor Marzano have ever mentioned this term, despite its vital role in the educational process. The RAF is the Rat’s Ass Factor – as in, do you give a …
For my money, the variables to be considered when choosing how to present a particular lesson are; what will get the students to do what you want them to do – learn stuff, analyze, discuss, evaluate, classify, practice a procedure, etc.; and what will produce the highest combined RAF between you and the students? After all, we, the teachers, have personalities and teaching styles – the MacGuffin has to work on us too. So, use the Maltese Falcon or the Arc of the Covenant. Doesn’t really matter; as long as it works well with the thirty five individuals sitting in your classroom at the time. It just depends; are your students Sam Spades or Indiana Joneses? Students (and even, at times, whole classes) have personalities and learning styles – play to those. I truly believe that most any learning activity that is engaged honestly by teacher and students can produce positive results.
And that is down to my, or any teacher’s, ability to establish rapport. Getting the kids on my side; getting them to buy in to the value of whatever we’re doing, is more important that the activity itself.
Let me make clear that I’m not disparaging professional development or the study of pedagogy in general. I enjoy going to some seminars and trainings. Sharing best practices with colleagues is a process I find particularly useful. For me, though, the purpose of being exposed to new teaching strategies should not be the wholesale adoption of a given strategy by everyone at my site, but rather a chance to increase the number of effective MacGuffins at our disposal. What I am pooh-poohing is the presentation of instructional ideas as panaceas that, if adopted wholesale, will solve our problems. It’s more complicated than that.