My default assumption is that everyone working in education has good intentions. We all want children to be happier, healthier, safer, more creative and better problem solvers. But, good intentions are never enough.
Over the past eight years I have used this blog to campaign against the nonsense that used to pervade the system. In the bad old days, Ofsted was the ‘child-centred inquisition’ burning teachers who talked for too long at the stake. Group work, ‘active’ and ‘self-directed’ learning were held up as unquestioned good things and all dissent was crushed with inadequate judgements. We can look back with a shudder and say that obviously this was a silly thing to have done. Not only did it result in lots of pointless group activities and progress checks, it ended the careers of some excellent teacher raconteurs. But maybe, just maybe, Christine Gilbert and her advisors thought they had the right of it? Maybe they didn’t know they were the baddies?
You see, we all think we’re on side of the angels. We all believe we’re in the right. We all have good intentions. But then, we all also know what the road to hell is paved with.
Happily, the campaign against enquiry based bobbins has, largely, been successful. The research supporting teacher-led instruction, and against enquiry approaches is increasingly well-known and, whether you agree or not, you’ll no doubt be aware that there’s a growing consensus that some pedagogical approaches more likely to be effective than others. This being the case, it’s probably a good idea to train teachers in using something like Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction as the basis for planning teaching sequences. So far so good. But with it comes the temptation to design an observation pro-forma to enforce the use of such principles. Even though I wholeheartedly agree with Rosenshine’s principles, such an idea fills me with horror.
Even if the research really did show that enquiry learning was unequivocally bad all the time (it doesn’t) forcing teachers to step into line and follow instructions stops them from thinking. If we really want teachers to be their best we must hold them to account intelligently. The three sacred principles of any well-run accountability process are as follows:
- Teachers must know they will be accountable to an audience
- The audience’s views must be unknown
- The audience is well-informed and interested in accuracy. (See here for an explanation of these points.)
When we decide we know better than a classroom teacher how they ought to teach their classes, no matter how pure our intentions might be, we inevitably end up doing something foolish. Instead, we should always ask teachers to talk about the reasons for the decisions they’ve made, and then listen. Teachers should be asked what they think needs to be done and what support they need to make these things happen. Then they should be held to account for doing whatever they’ve said they should do.
Unless we believe those holding us to account are interested in accuracy rather than simply having their preferences met, we tend to become fearful, dishonest and risk averse. If those in authority – whether it’s school leaders or Ofsted – pre-define what good looks like and hold us to account for meeting a set of standards, we will give the appearance of meeting those standards. This results in two equally undesirable outcomes:
- Compliance – some people will just do whatever they are told to do. Some will do it well, others will struggle. They will assume managers know best and try hard to please them.
- Pretence – some people will feel they know better and assume managers are foolish or corrupt. They will sometimes give the appearance of playing the game, but will, as far as possible, ignore the accountability process.
Some of those who are successfully compliant will feel pretty good about being able to meet observers’ demands but everyone else will experience a combination of guilt, fear and anger. None of these emotions are particularly useful for improving teaching. The bitterest irony though is that even when these accountability systems appear to be successful they promote a lack of curiosity and blind adherence to a set of partially understood principles. We lose the ability to make considered professional judgments and embark on Cargo Cult teaching – following the forms and structures of instruction but without understanding the underpinning theory or science.
Consider this no doubt well intentioned policy:
I’m a big fan of low stakes quizzing and often suggest that this is a good way to start lessons, but that’s a long way from mandating that all lessons should start with 10 minutes of retrieval practice. Not only does this demonstrate a poor understanding of the limits of lessons as desirable units for planning and assessment (see here for an explanation) it prevents teachers from making the professional decision that it might not be the best way to begin this lesson. But there are other problems with this checklist. Some of it may even be wrong; for instance, I often suggest that the worst time to have a plenary is at the end of a lesson. Checking wither children can still remember something you told them a few minutes ago is more likely to lead to an illusion of knowledge than the sort of flexible, durable learning that ought to be our aim.
And this is precisely the problem with spelling out what you want too precisely: how do you know you’re right? And, more to the point, how can you be sure you’re right in every single circumstance? In a well led school, teachers will be encouraged to be professionally sceptical and to ask “Why?” If school leaders want lesson observation to help them calibrate the effectiveness of their school they must resist the temptation to think they know best and to instead ask teachers why they are doing what they’re doing. And then listen.
Obviously – obviously! – this doesn’t’ mean all teachers should be allowed to do whatever the hell they fancy. If students are being systematically failed then school leaders must have a plan for intervening. Training, discussion and persuasion are all important tools in educating teachers in practices that are most likely to be effective for the most disadvantaged kids (and as I argued here, what works best for the most disadvantaged works best for all.) New teachers, and teachers about whom school leaders have concerns, will need more structure to ensure that they meet minimum standards. But this should never result in all teachers having to comply with a pre-determined checklist because of concerns about some teachers. Teachers should have earned autonomy. If you trust them to do a good job, don’t make them jump through hoops; if you don’t trust them, explain what will be need for them to earn their autonomy. And then, once trust has been earned, do away with rigid constraints as quickly as possible.
If you want to avoid charging headlong down the road to hell, think carefully about the best ways to get what you really want. As Ben Newmark argues in this excellent post, “the aim of senior leadership should be to free their teachers to solve the specific problems they are facing every day, not to quixotically try to solve all these problems for them.”