Maybe it’s to do with the wintry season we’re in, but I’m increasingly pessimistic about education in this country. The optimism I felt last year on entering the teaching profession, buoyed by the interesting ideas in books and blogs I was reading, has faded away. I thought there was a wave of common sense making its way back into education, a wave that I would ride on, but I was wrong.
Of course, there are some standout schools doing amazing things. But they are too few and far between. They are an oasis in a desert of desiccated ideas.
I’ve been thinking lately about where the problem lies, and this is the conclusion I’ve reached. I think, unfortunately, there are too few people in education who actually know what good education looks like. We have paid a terrible price for the decades of progressivism in our schools. Bad ideas have set in and become the norm. So many teachers, educated themselves in this environment, cannot conceive of a different way of running their schools or classrooms.
Let me give behaviour as an example. Yes, behaviour, my bête noire. I’ve noticed a tendency, whenever behaviour is debated on my Twitter feed, for a substantial proportion of teachers to decry that there is even a problem, that they don’t experience poor behaviour in their schools. Now, I know there are some schools with excellent behaviour – but not that many. I suspect that my idea of good behaviour and that of others may differ considerably. Good behaviour to me means no low level disruption, no talking over the teacher, no need for the teacher to have to pause in the middle of teaching in order to rebuke or remind pupils about their behaviour. In a well behaved classroom, silence is silence – where you can hear a pin drop.
Far too often, even in Ofsted Outstanding schools, there is low level disruption of one sort or another. Pupils moving about the classroom without teacher permission, turning around to chat to their friends, the rumbling hum of pupils talking among themselves. Now of course, none of it is so bad that the classroom descends into chaos and the teacher is totally unable to teach. So yes, these teachers might not think there is a behaviour problem. They might think, in an ideal world, you would get absolute compliance, but in reality, children will be children. They are impetuous and unable to control their impulses sometimes. It’s just not possible to get them to be silent throughout a lesson. And in this way, they normalise the low level disruption they experience.
If that is your normal, then you can’t conceive of the good behaviour I describe, except perhaps in an evil authoritarian environment. In this context, the ‘no-excuses’ schools (and let’s face it, ‘no-excuses’ is just a label – it shouldn’t be taken literally) become targets, accused of cruelty to children, particularly the SEND pupils. I find this ironic, given it’s the SEND pupils who are most likely to benefit from a calm and orderly classroom.
Let’s leave behaviour aside for a moment, for that is not the only problem. I have been dismayed by several other pervasive and pernicious practices.
Lessons must be fun, or somehow have a hook that makes them engaging for pupils. They cannot just be a dry reading of text and answering of questions. There must be some sleuthing activity. Perhaps a bit of kinaesthetic, putting information posters on the walls of the classroom and asking pupils to walk around and collect this information. Everything is cloaked in the form of some kind of game to be played. Just the other day, I saw a resource being shared which had fake blood spatters to make it look ghoulish. Why?
There are several problems I see here. Firstly, this creates an unhealthy workload on the teacher, trying to come up with such activities. Secondly, it creates an expectation among pupils that their lessons will be presented to them in the form of some kind of game-like activity. The implicit message of that is, learning must be fun. If it’s not fun enough, well then pupils will naturally be tempted to misbehave. From there, it’s a short journey to that most insidious message given to teachers: that their pupils misbehave because they haven’t planned their lessons well enough.
I hate to be a killjoy, but let me just shatter your illusions for a minute. Learning is often hard work. Some of it can be repetitive, some of it can be a chore. It can sometimes be fun, but that is not going to be the norm. Life is just not like that. That’s not to say that it’s all cheerless misery. There is huge satisfaction in being able to solve a challenging problem or to write a good essay. The subjects themselves are interesting of themselves, without having to dress them up in fun activities. My own subject, history, is endlessly fascinating – we have such interesting stories to tell. Just reading some well written text is interesting enough. Discussing it in class. Answering questions about it. These are the bread and butter of history lessons, and yet somehow that approach has become taboo. Such madness!
AFL has rapidly become the thing I least want to hear about. To the point, sometimes, where I think Dylan Williams has a lot to answer for. Of course, what he meant by it was responsive teaching. Or just plain good and sensible teaching. Of course you need to gauge how well your pupils are understanding what you teach them. But the pressure put on teachers to break their lessons into chunks followed by an AFL activity has created a monster. Doing AFL to death to evidence the learning is one of the most destructive developments of recent years. Enough!
Interactive whiteboards, PowerPoint presentations and worksheets have all contributed to a situation where pupils read less and write less. There has been some worthwhile discussion of late about the use of textbooks, spurred by a recent speech given by Nick Gibb. There is a sad lack of high quality textbooks, something that needs to be remedied as soon as possible. Some good schools have resorted to creating their own booklets. Whichever way it’s done, there needs to be more, not less, emphasis on reading and writing. But somehow, over time, our expectation of what pupils will read and write in KS3 has dropped considerably. The insidious lowering of our expectations of what pupils can do is disheartening. Instead of giving them a worksheet, let them write out the questions from the board.
Subject knowledge, subject knowledge, subject knowledge. Not just teaching to the test. When was the last time you as a teacher, went off on a tangent because of an interesting question put to you? Would you even be able to veer ever so slightly off course from the resources you have prepared for your lesson? Or do you stick rigidly to what you have planned because you don’t know that much more about the topic you are teaching?
So here we are. Getting to the end of 2017. Teacher workload high. Teacher retention low. Job satisfaction low. What a mess we’re in. It’s not looking good.