Monthly Archives: February 2017

Teaching is complex – and that’s okay.

As another list of non-negotiables does the rounds, I find myself again in disagreement with those who would argue that a minimum baseline of expectations is a helpful or necessary thing. Unfortunately, like so many things in life, I don’t think we can distil what is a very complex operation down to few simple ‘must-dos’. Not least because as with all learning, teachers will be at very different stages of their expertise, and one size rarely fits all.

The problem with simple tick-list approaches is that teaching isn’t simple. It’s tempting to say that all lessons should begin with the Learning Objective being shared, but then we can all think of examples where that would ruin the wider structure of the lesson. It’s tempting to say that teacher talk should be minimised, but too often I’ve seen lessons where teachers, worried about time spent on the carpet, rush children off to a task they’re ill-equipped to tackle. It’s tempting to say that every lesson must include differentiated tasks, but then many of us have seen lessons where children are given work that is below their capability simply to show differentiation. Teaching is complex.

Some of the things that make for really excellent teaching are exactly the sort of thing you can’t tick off a list. I think that knowing your children is a key to great teaching and learning. Yes, some inspiring lectures can achieve great things without interaction of any sort, but for the most part, I know that I can teach my own class more effectively than I can an unknown group. But there would be no point in setting out a policy in my school that says you must know your children; that isn’t something you can tick off.

Equally, some of those things that seem straightforward, conceal a whole level of complexity that doesn’t feature on the tick-list. We know that feedback can be highly effective in further children’s learning, but that could come in the form of written marking, or comment in the lessons, or in the way the teacher reacts to off-the-cuff assessments from whiteboard activities. So we could add “You must give feedback” to a tick-list, but what does it mean?

The same is true of sharing Learning Objectives. Making children aware of what you intend them to learn is no bad thing. But what if you’ve picked the wrong thing at the wrong time? What if it doesn’t match the wider sequence? What if the task you’ve planned doesn’t really meet the needs of the learners, or the aims of the lesson? What if it’s something they already know? Sharing a Learning Objective is only going to be of any use if the objective is apposite and taught well.

One argument people make is that schools in difficult circumstances may require basic thresholds. Special Measures is maybe an excuse for such approaches. But in my experience, like in any class, in any school in a category you will find a wide range of ability among the teachers. For those who are teaching brilliantly against the tide, reducing their craft to a mere tick-list may only serve to stifle their brilliance. Equally, for those who are genuinely finding teaching a complex challenge and failing to serve their children well, insisting on a list of gimmicks will not improve practice.

I have seen plenty of lessons – indeed, I’ve probably taught plenty – where a Learning Objective is shared, tasks are differentiated, children are engaged with active learning, peer-evaluation takes place, mini-plenaries are dotted about life confetti… and the net effect on learning is negligible. Equally, I know that some lessons might do none of those things and  be just right for that group at that time.

If we really want to improve teaching and learning, no matter what the current standard, then we need meaty discussion about what we mean by that. For teachers who are struggling, they need to see good teaching in practice, preferably narrated by someone who can highlight its strengths; they need support to change their thinking.

For a teacher who really needs to improve their practice in the classroom, the damage a tick-list approach can cause is substantial. What if that teachers does everything that is demanded of him: his displays are beautiful, learning objectives shared, children think-pair-share, tasks are differentiated… and yet still, the lesson is poorly-taught or the progress is limited by lack of the required prior knowledge. How demoralising for that person to have spent hours refining exactly what you’ve asked, only to be told they’re still failing. Indeed, imagine the difficulty of trying to manage procedures for a teacher who is clearly ineffective, but is good at ticking the boxes you’ve set out!

Teaching is complex.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to articulate it. At my own school we have had time dedicated this year to discussing what we think ‘highly effective teaching’ looks like. We’ve discussed learning objectives, and differentiation, and feedback. But we’ve done so in a professional arena where we can unpick what we mean by those terms. We couldn’t reduce it to a simple tick-list, but we recognise some key areas we recognise are important factors.

If a school genuinely has some very weak teachers, then those teachers need specific advice, coaching and support to improve. Good teaching can no more be reduced to a simple tick-list than can good Year 6 writing… and look where that’s got us!