What I’ve learned so far about teaching

August has raced along, packed with family adventures and relaxed, lazy days at home. In its wake comes September, the most bittersweet month of the year. Already the days are growing shorter and the leaves are falling off the trees. We collected our first lot of (very young) conkers today. Of course, along with a sense of ending comes renewal, nowhere better illustrated than in the start of the school year. On Monday, I will commence my Schools Direct training year at my new school. My 8-year old son too, has his first day at a new school. As you can imagine, our household is filled with nerves and anticipation.

I’ve kept myself busy with household chores, cooking industrial amounts of Bolognese sauce for the freezer, sewing on name tags on school uniform and getting all the paperwork ready for my first day. There’s not much else left for me to do in preparation except to mentally assess where I have arrived in terms of my thinking about teaching. I have been on quite a journey, reading books and blogs, writing, thinking and planning. This is a good time to bring together all these various strands and set out where I stand, what my philosophy is. It will be interesting to look back in a year’s time and see how close or how far I have travelled from my current position.

A word of thanks

Before I do this, a roll call of names of the people who have inspired me, informed me, supported me and made me think. There’s quite a few, in no particular order (some are names and others are Twitter handles):

Daisy Christodoulou, Carl Hendrick, The Grumpy Teacher, Tom Bennett, John Tomsett, Ben Newmark, Michael Fordham, Clare Sealy, Greg Ashman, Andrew Old, Steve Garnett, David Didau, Martin Robinson, Adam Boxer, Bernard Andrews, Mary Myatt, Warren Valentine, Jim Carroll, Robert Peal, Curric Team Leader, Daniel Willingham, Rosalind Walker, Dawn Cox, Anthony Radice, Quirky Teacher, Alex Ford, Lee Donaghy, Heather Fearn, Katharine Birbalsingh, Katie Ashford, Joe Kirby, Jo Facer, Tarjinder Gill, Naureen Ahmed, James Theobald, Oliver Caviglioli, Mrs Richter, Learning Scientists, Jude Hunton.

I’m sure there’s many more names I have missed out. Thank you to all the above. You have enriched my life and without you, I would not be contemplating this big move into teaching. If anyone new to teaching is reading this blog, then please do follow the above – you won’t regret it.

Teaching as a profession

I have mixed feelings about teaching as a profession. Don’t get me wrong, the actual teaching bit I love. I like children, I find them interesting. I love imparting knowledge and seeing it transform my pupils’ understanding of the world around them. I also love my subject. It never gets boring because it’s so vast. I shall probably continue being a student of history until the day I die. But the professionalisation of teaching I find personally problematic.

The minute a job becomes a profession, it becomes rife with bureaucracy and over-complication. In order to appear professional, it needs to be raised above the reach of the ordinary person off the street. Thus simple matters get de-simplified, given a bit of a twist to make them seem more complex. The accountability measures in British state schools add another unwelcome layer of bureaucracy. In order to practice as a teacher, you have to be on top of all the statutory legal requirements and make provisions for differentiation of SEN, EAL or pupil premium children that you teach. You will no doubt have to undertake a fair amount of work, not in the classroom, to demonstrate that you are doing what you should be doing, which inevitably turns into a box ticking exercise. There is a lot of well meaning mumbo-jumbo being drip fed to teachers which in reality has little or no effect on the learning outcomes of pupils. You’ll excuse me if I tell you that this part of teaching I am not looking forward to at all.

My bottom line is this. Teaching is a very natural act which involves transfer of knowledge from the teacher to the pupil. Some people are naturally good at it and others need to work at it but everyone can get better with experience if they are reflective and focused on improving their practice. Four main things are needed for successful teaching: 1) an orderly and calm classroom environment, 2) strong teacher knowledge of the subject being taught, 3) an ability to explain and deconstruct it, to communicate it and 4) an understanding of your pupils and where or why they are struggling. These are all simple straightforward things, but they need skill to be done well (and in the case of the classroom environment, the right culture and behaviour systems). When viewed from this perspective, it’s easy to see how some people are great teachers even though they don’t have QTS and others are not so particularly good at teaching, even though they have a PGCE to their name (I’ve seen a fair few of the latter).

In Barnaby Lenon’s ‘Much Promise’, he tells the story of how he started his teaching career at Eton. There was little in the way of induction or training. New teachers found a piece of paper from the Head Master in their pigeon holes. The letter is too long to quote in full, but here’s a few choice quotes:

‘Be friendly without being matey…When talking to boys about a colleague refer to him as “Mr X” or “your Tutor”, and insist that they do likewise… It is not possible to like all boys equally. But you should do your best to treat all with absolute equality… Be punctual in starting lessons and insist on boys’ punctuality and tidiness… Above all, be consistent in your attitude and demands. Boys respond to stability and consistency; they like to know where they stand, and they mistrust capriciousness and unreliability… In general, err on the side of strictness to start with; you can always ease up later… Consult your Head of Department freely, and don’t be afraid to ask advice on even small points of teaching technique… invite your Head of Department or some other colleague to come and “sit in” on you, and ask if you can do the same on him… A period of 45 minutes is surprisingly short; you need to plan the use of your time in advance carefully. In particular, leave enough but not too much time for testing the knowledge your class have acquired… Regard it as your duty to insist on legibility and clear lay-out and to correct the English of your boys’ work whether it is an English class or not, and insist on correct spelling and punctuation… Be careful not to go too fast for the average boy. When boys fail to understand, do not show irritation, still less indulge in sarcasm. Another mistake commonly made by the beginner is to lecture rather than teach… End-of-term reports mean a great deal to most parents, and while they should be candid they should be worded so as not to cause unnecessary distress.’

Sound, sensible, practical advice. I wish my induction into teaching could be like this! But of course, that’s not to be. I shall therefore endeavour to play by the rule book and do what needs to be done to gain the qualification. I’m sure some of it will be helpful and useful just as some of it will need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Already, I sense a difference between me and the other trainee teachers I’ve come into contact with. It’s taken me a while to realise that I’m a non-conformist. I used to think my background was the reason why I’ve almost always felt like the outsider, but now I’m not so sure. I think it’s something to do with my nature. Unless something makes rational sense to me, I just can’t buy into it. So no matter if everyone else is swimming in one direction, if it doesn’t make sense to me, I will swim the other way. When I first experienced modern teaching methods through volunteering, I was not sold on group work, discovery learning or triple marking. I didn’t know these were the terms used to describe these kinds of pedagogies or the rationale behind them. To my sceptical eye, they just didn’t seem to work. My impression of the first lesson I observed was that the teacher didn’t seem to be doing any teaching. Well I’m afraid I’m not going into teaching so that I can take a step back and be an enabler rather than actually teach.

My teaching philosophy

So here’s where I stand. Children are not going to work things out for themselves, particularly not the weaker ones. They need to be taught the knowledge clearly and explicitly. They need to be encouraged to think, as Willingham memorably tells us in ‘Why don’t students like school?’: ‘knowledge is the residue of thought’. I will need to think carefully about how to present the curriculum in a way that will make the students think. In this, I’m reminded of something my history teacher taught us over 30 years ago during my O-level year. I don’t recall much of my history O-level, it’s just a blurry memory of Gladstone, Disraeli and the Corn Laws. But one thing I do remember clearly is this. ‘Afghanistan is the Clapham Junction of the Middle East’, explained my teacher. I remember being rather struck by this metaphor. It made me think. And I remember it 30 years later.

The other principle I will attempt to incorporate into my teaching is that of forgetting and re-learning. Unless pupils have revisited something at least three times, preferably using spaced retrieval practice, they are unlikely to remember it. I need to be careful not to fall into the trap of teaching topics sequentially and assuming that just because the pupils seemed to understand it, that they have actually learned it. One event that sticks in my memory was last September, the year 8s were given a recap test in their first history lesson, to see how much they remembered of what had been taught the previous year. It was a very simple quiz with questions such as ‘What happened in 1066?’, ‘What were the crusades?’, ‘What was the Black Death?’ and ‘What was the Magna Carta?’ Hardly any of the pupils got more than one or two questions out of ten. I remember thinking this was rather soul destroying for the poor teacher who had arduously taught them all these things in year 7. How sad that they remembered practically nothing.

I don’t buy into the constructivist view that pupils learn best by doing – that unless they experience it themselves they will not learn it. Look at my example above, of remembering that quote about Afghanistan 30 year on. I didn’t learn it through doing an activity, but simply by listening to the teacher. It worked in several ways. First of all, as already explained, it made me think. It was also a very apt way of describing its geopolitical importance. Even now, as an adult, I can see Afghanistan as that junction point, a place that connects the Middle East with Pakistan and India on the one hand and Russia and its old satellite states on the other.

It’s not that I have anything against pupils doing stuff – I certainly expect that they will do a lot of reading, writing and debating – but I’m careful not to conflate learning with pupils being busy doing something. I think that Professor Rob Coe has said something to the effect that being busy doing stuff is a poor proxy for learning.

If they are to do any activity, it must be directly related to the learning, in other words, it must have the learning at its heart. And this is the crux of it for me. Anything that I do in class must always be able to relate directly back to what I want the pupils to learn. It’s so easy to get distracted by lots of fun and ‘engaging’ activities and to forget the bottom line – the learning. I shall always strive to remember this:

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

This is why I have been rather dismissive of some of the activities shared on my Twitter feed, such as this one. I’m also not particularly convinced by the need to spend precious days off going into school to put up fancy displays on the classroom walls. Will those displays help pupils to get cleverer? I sincerely doubt it. As such, they are probably a waste of time. I get though, that many teachers like to personalise their classrooms and make them more inviting or more cheery. Sometimes though, it feels like it gets taken too far. So much time and effort spent on something which is highly unlikely to advance the learning of pupils. Disturbingly, the more it is seen to be part and parcel of teaching, the more pressure there is on new teachers to follow suit. It becomes part of the look and mystique of the profession.

I do find it worrying though, that most of the resources that I see shared by teachers are built around some kind of game-like activity. I saw some time ago, I forget where, a snakes and ladder activity about the Black Death. Why not make it a straightforward quiz? Why does it have to be dressed up as a game? I’m not sure I like the message this sends to students, that learning is akin to a game. It’s also a lot more work for the teacher. Think of the opportunity cost.

And finally, to the issue that annoys me more than anything in education. This is the idea, cheerled by Ken Robinson, that schools kill creativity. The traditional way of teaching, sitting at desks listening to a teacher, reading and writing, is so passé. No, kids today need to use technology and be masters of their own learning.  I was recently sent this particularly charming TED talk, giving me a romantic vision of history learning of the future. Folks, if you’re still listening, let me tell you this is the biggest pile of BS. Resist all you can. When it comes to teaching history, I am quite clear that it is an academic discipline, firmly founded on an ability to read and understand source materials/historical interpretations, to form arguments and to articulate them in writing. Pupils will not learn to do this if we follow the path suggested by Thomas Ketchell and his ilk. Instead, I urge you to listen to the sound advice given by Paul Lay in History Today and I quote:

‘For all the efforts of popularisers to match the study of the past with a short attention span, history remains hard, intellectually challenging work – still best consumed in the written word… Historians, like test match cricketers and classical musicians, live in a world increasingly at odds with their profession. But they also offer a vision of a deeper, richer world, a path to a culture that counters crude banalities.’

Amen to that.

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