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!


6 thoughts on “Teaching is complex – and that’s okay.

  1. […] 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'.…  […]

  2. mmiweb 12 February 2017 at 2:24 pm Reply

    Micheal, yes I think this complexity are missed in the naive simplicity of the check-list. The comparison is made by some between the teacher prepping the lesson and the pilot prepping their plane but one is dealing with complex, but inanimate equipment, and the other with the bundle of complexity that is a child. Pollard talks about the combination of the science, art and craft of pedagogy where the login, the research, the skills and the intuition are all in complex interplay. All of these can be improved via study, observation, reflection, discussion and experience but none can be simply delineated.

    One my favourite phrases is from Marilyn Cochran-Smith who talks about the “unforgiving complexity of teaching”

    “Teaching is unforgivingly complex. It is not simply good or bad, right or wrong, working or failing. Although absolutes and dichotomies such as these are popular in the headlines and in campaign slogans, they are limited in their usefulness. They tacitly assume there is consensus across our diverse society about the purposes of schooling and what it means to be engaged in the process of becoming an educated person as well as consensus about whose knowledge and values are of most worth and what counts as evidence of the effectiveness of teaching and learning. They ignore almost completely the nuances of “good” (or “bad”) teaching of real students collected in actual classrooms in the context of particular times and places. They mistake reductionism for clarity, myopia for insight.”

    Cochran-Smith, M (2003) The Unforgiving Complexity of Teaching: JTE 54:3

  3. inthenhs 12 February 2017 at 3:19 pm Reply

    This is a great blog post. Teaching is complex and it’s so hard to explain to others that a new set of text books, a commercial scheme or the latest gimmick will only achieve a certain amount in the classroom. Good teaching comes from understanding children, acting on the evidence you continually gather and taking nothing for granted.

    For years I’ve held up plastic shapes, named them, compared features, related them to real life objects, let children sort rectangles and hexagons etc as the National Curriculum has instructed. Only this year did I realise that a significant number of the KS1 pupils think that a ‘shape’ has to be a cut-out piece of plastic. When I draw a square on the board, they think I’m drawing a picture of a ‘real shape’ ie a plastic one. It was an easy misconception to put right once I realised.

    However discredited or not Piaget may now be, I’ve always enjoyed doing his conservation of water experiment with a year 2/3 class when we’re learning about capacity. One would think that all the early years education and the strive for higher standards might have affected children’s knowledge and ability to predict correctly about pouring water. It hasn’t.

    Primary school prescribed tick lists and targets focus the learning and at the same time downgrade general knowledge, practical skill and wider understanding. My year 2 class showed last week that they understood and could generate expanded noun phrases, but no-one knew what a butcher’s shop sold.

  4. markoblique 12 February 2017 at 5:11 pm Reply

    What a thoughtful and well-written post. I have been retired for 18 months, so I’m not aware of recent lists and baselines of expectations, but I can imagine what they are like. It all reminds me of the notorious “15-15-20-10” model for literacy. There is of course always a case for models of good practice- for discussion and debate, and for helping those needing guidance- but insisting on one prescribed approach stifles individual development and those teachers whose individuality is so inspiring. Wish I’d been one. Thank you for this.

  5. teachingbattleground 14 February 2017 at 8:52 am Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  6. Sarahh 15 February 2017 at 8:09 pm Reply

    Look at the Quality Teaching Model from NSW Australia. I think it is a good model for teaching.

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