Monthly Archives: August 2013

Transformation Tool… or Talking Shop?

Much has been said on blogs and tweets of late of the transformational power of Twitter. I share the view that it can be an invaluable tool. But we must be careful of expecting too much of it, or overplaying its importance.

There have been good movements to get more teachers on Twitter but the reality is that it’s never going to be widespread enough to have a truly transformational effect. Events like ResearchEd, valuable thought they may be, won’t make much a much of an impact on what happens in 99.9% of the classrooms across the country. We’d be foolish to think it can.

So, in effect, all the time the same few individuals argue about the same matters with increasing ire and certainty, the impact is virtually zero. Nothing is won or lost via Twitter, merely the same debates re-trodden.

What hope then for real change?

It won’t come about through re-posting blogs (even this one, although please feel free, of course), or even by small scale conferences. And it certainly won’t come from endless assaults on one another’s points of view.

The reality is that in some respects no amount of Twitter-quoted evidence will change how teachers teach, and very few will be won over by the on-going polemics and remonstrations that can be witnessed each day!

So what alternative?

Those who campaign (and I may be being generous in some cases here; some of the ‘campaigning’ comes across as little short of bullying) for greater applications of the things we “know” work, need to start working on forms of dissemination of accessible research that might actually start to have an impact more widely.

In some ways, it seems sad that Teachers’ TV and the GTCE came before their time, since the groundswell of activity on Twitter might just have been enough to achieve more in those formats.

What matters now, though, is not how many arguments can be won in endless threads, or how many blogs can be re-posted, but how the important matter of improving teaching can become a more widespread matter of debate and engagement.

Perhaps the TES has a role to play, maybe a new Teaching Council, perhaps some other form of which we are as yet unaware.

But you can be certain that Twitter is not the answer; it does little but raise a more significant question.

I’m not quite like the rest of you…

I’m a middle school teacher by training and trade, and that makes me different. It also makes me part of a rapidly decreasing breed and has always left me feeling a bit separated from other things going on in schools.

I have been a great fan of Twitter this past year or so, and have found it informative, educational and useful in many ways, but increasingly I’m also becoming aware of a further divide between the two sectors of our system: primary and secondary.

The divide manifests itself in many ways. Firstly, I try to keep up to speed with a fair few blogs. I notice that blogs from primary teachers are rarer, but also that they tend to take a different tack. There are far more blogs from primary teachers about displays, or resource ideas, role play areas and the other paraphernalia of the primary classroom. Naturally these have their place, and I am grateful for those teachers who are expert in these areas and from whom I might learn a thing or two. But they’re not the things that get me animated about my profession.

Increasingly, my awareness of secondary teacher blogs is their focus on research (with debate of varying quality), the ‘big issues’ of teacher improvement, observation, use of data and effective leadership. I think these are important issues, but often what applies for a teacher of sixth-form Sociology is less directly relevant to the teacher getting their head round how best to teach column addition.

What concerns me most is the lack of overlap between these two. Not only because as a middle school teacher I am always concerned about the lack of understanding between the two sectors, but also because of the divergence of the profession more generally.

A classic example is this tweet this morning from @johndblake:

I happen to agree. Up to a point. But there is a massive difference between, say, the secondary school RE teacher who has perhaps 400 students to teach each week at various stages of their education career, and the primary school teacher with a class of 24 8-year-olds with whom she spends over 20 hours a week. The data just cannot have the same impact for those two people. The difference between the two sectors is hugely significant in this case, and a lack of understanding between the two can lead to disagreement, argument and too often a lack of respect, without furthering the case on either side.

This is why I worry about the prevalence of secondary teachers both in twitter, blogs and more widely – or rather the dearth of primary colleagues.

I have been reading Hattie’s Visible Learning lately, and while I recognise the value of much of what he says, it is harder for me to translate that thinking into primary practice than it might be if I were considering my GCSE History class. And I don’t see widespread discussion of those ideas among primary teachers as I do our secondary colleagues.

Lastly, let me stress that this is not to argue that primary teachers are not thinking of these big issues; merely that they are not finding their way into national discussions in the way that they seem to be among secondary colleagues.

I have seen several people comment about the need to get more teachers engaged in twitter and its surrounding debate. I couldn’t agree more, and the case is especially strong for recruiting more of our primary colleagues to tackle these issues in the many different ways they affect us.

And so it begins again…

It’s undoubtedly going to be a week of ‘back to school’ posts. Teachers often talk about having two starts to their year, but actually I think there’s something deep inside of all of us, dating back to our childhoods, that we all mark the arrival of September at least subconsciously.

Of course, for millions that will be because it marks the time of returning their own children to school. For some that will be a first day at nursery, for others the transition to high school, and for thousands more a move to a new teacher.

It’s a strange moment. Most adults recognise the anxieties and doubts that accompany starting a new job. Few recognise that for their children each new academic year can bring some of that same trepidation. And to an extent, the same is true of many of us as teachers.

This year, I become a primary school teacher. I’ve always been one really, but have denied it, having spent several years teaching Year 7 in middle schools. From September I will be teaching Year 5, and I can’t remember the last time I had so many doubts about starting a new year. Something akin to imposter syndrome which raises the question of whether I’m really capable.

I suspect there are some doubts among those coming into my class, too; a reputation for strictness precedes me. It’s not a reputation I mind, but it’s also some way off reality. But, of course, reality doesn’t exist during August… only the perception exists.

The suspicion, therefore, is that my own doubts are equally unreal. But like many other teachers up and down the land, it won’t stop me thinking of them late at night, or waking up with a start with them floating in my mind. Because one reality is that it’s a job that constantly demands both attention and self-examination.

Every September starts, for me like so many others, with a long list of aims: to do some things better, to introduce new ideas, to keep on top of something else… the list can go on. But for the most part they all boil down to the same thing: to be slightly better this year than I was last year.

For me, this year, that will involve tackling new curriculum at a new level, but also considering the reading I’ve done over the summer – especially Dan Willingham’s excellent tome – and wondering how it will change my ways of working.

Maybe part of that nervous fear is not so much about being an imposter as it is the fear of not quite living up to the image of the teacher I want to be. And if that be the case, I feel certain that the fears¬†are quite real: I won’t be, not this year.

But maybe I’ll be just a bit closer than I’ve been before?

The problem with “the problem with observations”

I don’t look forward to lesson observations. I don’t know anyone who does.

I didn’t look forward to my driving test either. But I don’t think they should be scrapped.

I’ve never had a truly disastrous lesson observation, but I’m more than aware that one day it might come. I did have a truly disastrous driving test. Because of a small incident with an amber traffic light in the first few minutes of the test, I went to pot. The result of my 35 minutes of torture was a piece of paper filled with slashes, crosses and a miserable talk-through of my many failings. It was loathsome. But it was also quite correct. The examiner’s role was to judge whether I was driving at the required standard, and it was clear from her observations that I was not.

A few weeks later I retook my test and passed confidently.

No long-term damage was caused by my first experience, although it perhaps reigned in my excessive confidence. I sometimes wonder if my driving might be better if I were forced to re-prove my competence every now and then. I frequently presume that other people’s would be.

It is fair to say that few people suggest that observations should be scrapped entirely, but there are many who rail against them generally, or who argue that the system needs to be wholly re-thought. I have to disagree.

There are undoubtedly problems with our systems if the anecdotes that are seen in posts such as Joe Kirby’s Who’s afraid of lesson observations?¬†are representative of the whole system. But I don’t see that the problem is with the expectation that teachers be assessed. Rather it is with the ways in which observations are carried out, or are used by weak managers.

Teachers who complain about a “climate of fear”, or a reductive approach to judgements, or arbitrary decisions are really complaining about the way in which observation programmes are implemented in their school. That may be down to poor leadership, although in some cases it may also be down to strong leadership tackling weak teaching. We cannot know.

I would suggest that the pressure from Ofsted is often a cause of these problems. Heads who perceive a need to produce a spreadsheet of judgement scores (1-4 naturally) for Ofsted, will inevitably let this dictate their observation program. Here again, though, the problem lies not with the need for scrutiny, but in its implementation.

The Primary Head sets out clearly his rationale and processes for observing his teaching team in his blogpost which is well worth a read. Reading it should remind us that leaders have a duty and responsibility to ensure that teaching is of a suitable standard in our classrooms. We may not relish the process, but we must recognise its essential nature. And where there are flaws, let us tackle the flaws, not merely abandon the process.