Fewer things in great depth.

This week I met Clare Gatsby on Thursday who really impressed me with her take on asse
ssment; what a switched on, clever lady. Then on Friday I trained a bunch of Schools Direct students about primary science and they impressed me with their take on…just about everything! (Watch out old timer teachers – this new lot are top notch!)

So – a pretty impressive week!

One thing that came up all week was the Tim Oates concept of ‘fewer things in greater depth’ in relation to curriculum and assessment.  When we look back at the journey education has been on since 1988 it really had gone a bit potty with teachers trying to teach everything and assess everything with the result that potentially nothing was learnt or assessed that well, but was heartily ticked off as ‘done’. Things are better now, but there are lots of reasons why this happened; everyone had a hand in this from teachers, leaders and most definitely politicians. In the profession a kind of unconscious contract was made to define lots of teaching as being evidence of lots and lots of learning so that it was assumed that the harder teachers worked the more pupils must be learning. The profession, weakened in many ways from the backlash against the apparent sloppy pedagogies of the 70s, colluded with this fixation on teachers and teaching, while learning itself was often overlooked. Yet still this kind of unintended collusion in the classroom has the potential to spoil the latest ‘assessment and learning spring’ if we’re not careful.

What do I mean by collusion? Well, I mean those instances when pupils and teachers agree on success because it just makes everything easier. We unconsciously collude on what successful learning is. Teachers can do this by allowing pupils to feel success is only about completing tasks, making everything neat and tidy and being correct when mostly deeper learning is far messier, error ridden and all over the place. Deep learning should look nothing like we imagined ‘good learning’ would be like when we were kids. There should be crossings out, notes, drafts, dead ends and arguments, disagreements and a great scratching of heads. Have you ever seen a photo of Einstein’s office? It wasn’t pretty.  The problem is that deep learning is different from what education has been used to. It’s often slow and often messy. We might present things nicely at the end, fine, but the journey has to be messy. We weaken learning when we try to make it like a shiny text book.

Like this, a quiet collusion has sometimes gone on in classrooms, making children feel like they are climbing lots of ladders and ticking lots of boxes, and teachers feel like everyone is off their back. The point is that deep learning takes time, things need to slow down and pupils have to think more and work harder. Mostly, they’d rather not do this; we’d all rather just get a nice tick and smiley face than have to work harder wouldn’t we? So children quite like the idea that successful learning has been about finishing and everything been ticked. We’ve allowed this too because in the back of our heads there’s always that nagging feeling we need to ‘get on with it’; we need to get through this unit or that topic or else we’re incompetent. Somehow coverage has also become a sudonym for learning. In essence, teaching can be unwittingly mistaken for learning.

Anyway, this brings me full circle back to Captain Oates’ ‘fewer things in greater depth’ motto and I say, ‘bring it on!’  Let’s do less, but do it better. As Dylan Wiliam says, let’s lose some of the important things in order to focus on the more important things well. We need to bite the bullet, get the scissors out and believe that fewer things in greater depth will work, because it will. Yes indeed, less is more.

To finish – enjoy this funny clip on ytube and think of assessment and feedback while you do! Food for thought!

3 thoughts on “Fewer things in great depth.

    1. Only that experienced teachers sometimes assume newbies don’t know much.
      I’m finding the new breed of teachers from say schools direct really do and in fact
      bring a lot of new and effective evidenced based theories to the table, plus a fresh understanding
      of pedagogy.

      1. Mabelruns

        That’s good to hear. Hopefully the programme will attract more high achieving science graduates.

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