My educational 101

This Easter holiday, I’m celebrating a little anniversary. It was two years ago that I got offered my first job in a school. In January I had made the decision to get into teaching and then managed to do some volunteering in a local school as well as with the charity IntoUniversity. Now I was about to actively re-enter the workforce after five years as a stay-at-home mum (this last bit is something of a misnomer though).

I remember feeling excited, nervous and enormously motivated by a sense that I had something of value to offer the children under my care. Two years on that enthusiasm has been dimmed somewhat. Yes, I’m sure the cynics out there are already mouthing the words ‘I told you so’. At the time, I had my fair share of people questioning my sanity for wanting get into teaching. The big exodus of teachers from the profession was happening for a reason. Why should it be any different for me? Yet amidst the pessimism I was also buoyed by the people I was encountering through blogs and Twitter, who showed me there was a committed, reflective and informed community out there.

In today’s blog, I thought I would spend some time reflecting on the experiences of the past two years. I’ve learned so much during this whirlwind time. I’ve worked at four schools (two primaries, two secondaries) and short stints at three other schools. I’ve worked in independent, academies and council-run schools. I started training as a history teacher but then got off that particular bandwagon. I’ve written dozens of blogs documenting my experiences (some of which are sadly no longer with us) and garnered a respectable number of followers to my Twitter account.

My stream of consciousness ramblings seem to have connected with other people in the teaching community, though the flip side is they have also made me a few enemies. I didn’t set out to be controversial though. At all times, what I’ve wanted to do is record my thoughts and observations as honestly as possible, but of course that has tended to include criticisms of some of the practices I see. Sitting at my computer, I find myself emboldened to speak out where ordinarily I would just keep quiet. I must confess to having become a bit of an armchair warrior.

I think what also gives my writing an element of interest is the perspective I have to offer. I went to school at a time when education was vastly different to what it is today. I have not been steeped and inculcated in the many practices that so many others take for granted but which seem more than a little mad to me. When I went to school, didactic teaching from the front was not controversial. Discipline was rigorously maintained. I sat at my desk in quiet classrooms, listened to the teacher and wrote neatly in my book. That’s not to mean we sat there like passive sponges. I recall a lot of questioning, discussing and debating. There were no videos, no interactive whiteboards, no ipads, no worksheets – though in the latter part of my schooling we had the cutting edge language laboratory, with headphones at each individual terminal where we could practise listening to and repeating foreign phrases. There was a lot of reading and writing. Some lessons were boring, others more interesting. Teachers were not afraid to properly critique my work. I had to earn praise; it was not readily given.

If I sound more than a little nostalgic, that’s because I probably am. I’m saddened that so much of what I experienced at school has been thrown by the wayside. However, I’m not such an old fogey as to think everything was perfect then and we should just set the clock back. I just wish there were more elements of continuity than are present today. Quite frankly, the school environment I entered two years ago bore very little resemblance to what I knew and understood. It was a whole new world. Of course I know I’m not the only person of mature years working in schools, but it must be said that people like me, who are entering the profession in our twilight working years, are a relative rarity (though much less so now with programmes such as Now Teach). The teaching profession is overwhelmingly a young one.

Much of my writing has been about me trying to grapple with the modern world of school education, and trying to rationalise practices which others might just take for granted as normal. For example, I’m still fairly bemused by the need to state learning objectives on the board at the start of each lesson, and still more so by the three learning objectives that have to show a progression up Bloom’s Taxonomy. If I haven’t got my pupils to analyse something by the end of the lesson, has my lesson failed? Surely not. And don’t get me started on the whole AFL bandwagon, with the overwhelming need to evidence learning at every stage. So much of what is natural about teaching gets destroyed by these well meaning but futile measures.

So on this two year anniversary let me try to list all the practices that I would put in my educational room 101 – inspired by Andrew Warner’s own 101 top ten (much of which struck a chord with me).

1. Ditch the audit culture

The obsession with measuring and evidencing learning progress is to my mind the most toxic thing in state schools today. It has not improved outcomes for pupils but it has made working life near to intolerable for many teachers (though a small minority bask in this type of environment). This Twitter thread involving Ofsted’s Sean Harford in a discussion about tracking progress has some heartening common sense contributions, particularly by Clare Sealy, one of the most forward thinking primary head teachers in the country.

2. Ditch the ipads

The introduction of ipads into the classroom has been extremely expensive, with very little to show for the level of investment. I have observed many a use of ipads in lessons, and at no point have I seen it enhance the learning. On the contrary, they are often a disruptive influence. During wet play or choosing time, they are fought over by the children, eager to play Minecraft or Roblox. When used for Kahoot quizzes, there is a tendency for pupils to get over-excited and sometimes downright rowdy. Fundamentally though, a teacher doesn’t need a tablet computer to administer a multiple choice quiz. When pupils are asked to research a topic independently and then to produce some PowerPoint presentation about it, the ensuing frenetic activity rarely results in a deeper understanding of the topic being explored. Yes of course the children love them and have fun with them, but oh the opportunity cost to their learning. Let’s not forget also the wasted time while each pupil collects an ipad and plugs it back in at the end of the lesson. There just is a tendency for pupils to get more excitable the minute those dratted machines are put in their hands. Out they should go!

3. Ditch the ‘lessons should be fast paced and fun’ mantra

This, I think, is one of the most pernicious myths in education today. I’ve lost count of the number of school websites that state – without any evidence to back it up – that children learn better when they are having fun. What utter bollocks. I’m not advocating we act like grinches and make lessons unpleasant, but please stop fixating on entertaining children and start prioritising their education. Everything these days seems to be designed for the short attention span. Thus a plethora of fast paced activities prevail in our lessons so that the pupils are given no opportunity to get bored. Worse still, is the accusation levelled at teachers (particularly inexperienced ones) that behaviour is poor due to lack of fun (or ‘engagement’). The downsides of the fast paced, fun lessons are many:

  • By catering to pupils’ short attention spans, we never help them to develop the critical ability to sit still and focus for extended lengths of time.
  • Depth is inevitably sacrificed in favour of the short, sharp and punchy. Those fun lessons are frequently also dumbed down lessons.
  • Pupils often are not given enough time to reflect on an issue, do some hard thinking about it, before it’s time to move on to the next activity. In this context, speed is the enemy of deep thought.
  • I also have some deep reservations about the so called ‘turn and talk’ technique. Asking pupils to turn to their neighbour and discuss a topic for a minute or two, before they are all brought to order with a series of claps by the teacher, is a great piece of showmanship but I have real doubts as to its effectiveness for learning. Firstly, you have a class of thirty children pairing up to discuss something. That’s fifteen separate conversations inside one classroom and it makes a lot of noise (even when they make an effort to keep their voices down). Try having a productive discussion when your ears are being distracted by what is being said behind you, in front of you and beside you. By the time some children will have gathered their thoughts together enough to try to discuss the issue, the teacher will have signalled time out. Again here, speed is the enemy of deep thought. I would much rather a teacher posed a question and asked pupils to think about it in silence for a minute or two, before cold calling and engaging the class in a discussion of the topic.

4. Stop derailing efforts to improve behaviour by claiming it harms SEN children

There has been plenty of school shaming lately, as documented by Andrew Old here, where leaders trying to sort out poor behaviour through the poorly named ‘no excuses’ type of approach are vilified for their efforts. Apparently, it’s alright for children to feel unsafe, to be bullied, to have their lessons disrupted, but the minute a head tries to do something about it, a cabal of likely suspects kick up a massive fuss, all under the pretext that it harms SEN children. Ofsted inspectors saw no evidence of this supposed harm. Let’s get this straight. Behaviour in the classroom is a massive social justice issue. Every child should be entitled to learn in calm and orderly classrooms, not just the wealthy ones in their ivory towers.

5. Teachers don’t need deep subject knowledge

You won’t find many in the teaching profession openly saying this but actions speak louder than words. The trend towards genericism is a dangerous one and it needs to be stopped in its tracks. Here’s an effective critique of it by Christine Counsell in this blog. That is why I was heartened by this particular Tweet I saw on my timeline this week. We need much more of this kind of CPD.

6. The prog/trad divide doesn’t really exist

And finally, let me say something about the Edu-Twitter bubble. It’s so easy to forget that the vast majority of teachers are not actively debating the hot education topics of the day. That’s why only 25% of teachers are aware that Learning Styles are a myth. Yes of course, debates can get a little heated, but to react by denying that a prog/trad divide exists is a little disrespectful of the dedicated teachers who care enough to discuss and debate these issues. There are very clear differences in outlooks between the two camps, although that’s not to say that a trad teacher won’t ever do group work or a progressive one teach knowledge. More worrying than this is the fact that many teachers are still totally unaware that a debate even exists. Rather than shutting down the debate, let’s spread the word and get more teachers to think about what it is they are trying to achieve in their daily work and why.

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