In our quest for a deeper understanding of our work as educators, across all the debates, conferences and blogs, I sometimes think that we lose perspective on the relative scale of different aspects of raising achievement in schools.
There are hundreds of variables and we’re rarely able to make like-for-like comparisons that help to identify the relative importance of different factors. A lot of the time we are guessing. A teacher could spend hours working on a new feedback strategy gleaned from an INSET day, blog or research journal. However, it could be the case that she would have had a much bigger impact by setting more difficult questions or by insisting on more silent individual work in class. A Headteacher could be absorbed by the intellectual exploration of the knowledge-skills/traditional-progressive debate when, in fact, this barely has any relevance to the challenges on the ground in her school given the skills and dispositions of her staff.
I’ve used The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ‘fleet swallowed by dog’ scenario to make this point before: sometimes we get the scale wrong.
In one of my early blog posts, I wrote about Great Teachers. It was based on a lengthy mental scan of the many excellent teachers I’ve known. I could distil it down to these key elements, quoting from the post:
- they are relentless in pursuit of excellence and their language with students is infused with this sense of urgency and drive:
- there is no argument about expected standards of behaviour. They achieve this in different ways – sometimes through the gravitas of maturity and experience; sometimes through amazing warm, interpersonal interactions with every child
- they have the ability to explain complex concepts in ways that make sense; they ask good questions and give really good feedback; however it is done, students feel that they are learning; they know where they stand and feel confident about the process
Those characteristics link well with my experience of supporting in situations where teachers are struggling. What are the most common features of weak teaching? It’s usually one or both of the following:
behaviour is a constant issue. The teacher isn’t able to sustain a learning-focused environment and usually lacks assertiveness, confidence or the ability to communicate effectively with the class.
expectations are low. The work is too easy and mediocre responses are accepted passively. There is a mechanical task-completion focus rather than an emphasis on challenge and conceptual understanding.
There are obviously lots of other factors that apply in specific instances but those two capture a high proportion of the cases I know. There is also a third general case which can apply even if behaviour is good and expectations are high:
basic pedagogy is weak. The teacher can’t structure lessons to secure good learning outcomes, may lack subject knowledge or the skills to assess students’ understanding; they may struggle to communicate their expectations or be able to explain the concepts well, creating confusion rather than clarity.
Very often, all three of these factors can overlap and reinforce each other at some level. I’d argue that where schools are regarded as failing or when standards appear to be very low, it is the aggregation of these basic factors that are the cause. In my experience, a teacher’s disposition in relation to the traditional-progressive axis, their use of technology, their fondness for group work or chalk and talk – are all absolutely irrelevant relative to their competence in these three basic areas.
So – in seeking to improve standards across schools I’d suggest that we need to be very sure that all of these factors are addressed fully before we start looking for more subtle areas for development. For each teacher, we need to get the scale right and spend our CPD ‘time budget’ accordingly. For some teachers, helping them so sort out behaviour could have an impact 10 times greater than helping them to develop a new feedback strategy or encouraging them to apply contemporary cognitive science to the design of their assessment regime. For another teacher, tackling the issue of general low expectations could be the key to radical improvement – whilst their enthusiasm for exploring the possibilities of cloud-based workflow solutions could be a total red herring in their personal development.
Of course, we need to recognise the limits to the rate at which we can improve in each area. There are only so many fronts you can fight on at any given time and it makes sense to allow someone to focus on specific issues relevant to them at the expense of other areas that might apply to others. It’s a bit like the concept of limiting variables in plant growth. You need a number of components for photosynthesis and healthy growth:water, CO2, light and a range of other elements in small quantities. You need a good supply but beyond a certain level, it doesn’t help to have even more light or even more CO2. At the same time, however much water and light you provide, the absence of a key ingredient like phosphate can prevent growth happening at all. Different plant species need different combinations of these things to produce the optimum conditions. The task, then, is to identity the optimum inputs to address each teacher’s CPD needs. They’ll all be subtly different. (Another one for the organic analogy file.)
A common factor is the need to build confidence. Assertive behaviour management demands personal confidence and effective pedagogy demands intellectual confidence. We may do well to try to build confidence explicitly through processes like coaching and mentoring. This will matter more to certain people – regardless of their career stage. Confidence-building could do far more for some people than the processes that flow from a research-engaged CPD culture. All the edu-blogs and edu-books in the world wouldn’t help some people whereas a strongly supportive and dynamic Head of Department with the power to motivate and counsel might do wonders. Reading ‘Positive Behaviour Management’ by Bill Rogers or even ‘The Power of Now’ might have more impact than ‘Teach Like A Champion’. For some people it could be that reading their A Level text-book could really help them with their GCSE teaching more than any number of CPD sessions on AfL – because they’d simply feel more confident with the material.
The conclusion for me is to make sure that CPD is fully tailored to individuals and, for each person, to be certain we’ve saturated our work on developing the basics before we layer up the complexity. I also think we need to take a huge pinch of salt with any analysis that tries to characterise the fundamental problems with the quality of our education system as ‘teaching is infused with myths about knowledge’ or ‘things are getting worse because of general progressive dispositions’. In reality, even if they were true, those characteristics are the fleet; the basics are the dog.