In reflecting on this and years past, I’ve come to the certain conclusion that the worst thing that ever happens in schools is the mistaking of symbols of action with the actions themselves. Relying on shaky inferences rather than simple actualities mean impacts are often not impacts at all, but merely comforting rituals that are ‘what’s always been done, therefore must be right.’ This seems to be one of the most common problems in schools and one that runs good ones down, or prevents bad ones rising up. Once a leader comes along who knows this, and really cuts through all these ‘impact motifs’ and starts to look for authentic effects on learning, things really start to change.
I’m lucky that the leaders I’ve worked with have always had this understanding. It’s been a complete joy working with people who know this because it’s meant that time is used well and learning is like a furnace at the centre that everyone is intent on keeping alight, no matter what. People ask, ‘what does that do?’ and ‘why are we doing this?’ all the time; it means people dissect the things they do and know why things matter for children’s learning; they know precisely why they do what they do. And because of this there is a lot of trust and when people feel trusted they behave very differently from when they aren’t. This is why accountability only really works when there is trust and confidence in people. I wonder if the DfE bods will ever realize that the greatest holding to account usually goes on in the minds of teachers every day as they go off home, thinking about how they might have done this or that better, or how to repeat something that worked well somewhere else.
What bothers me is that this kind of trust and drive isn’t the same in every school I know. Take lesson planning. It makes my heart sink when I hear about schools where lesson plans have to be handed in each week to leaders and evidence of annotations MUST be shown. This is a classic example of the misguided use of inference, or an symbol of impact being mistaken for real impact. And why do they require this corporate submission of planning anyway? Leaders might say, ‘because we need to ensure teachers are adapting lessons to meet the needs of their children.’ A commendable wish, after all, teachers who try to teach from a set plan usually ensure a bad experience for everyone.Really teaching is all about reacting to learners isn’t it; if teachers could just deliver lessons and pupils learned all that was ‘delivered,’ we would probably only need to teach two days a week and then go home!
So really, is a plan with a teacher’s annotations all over it then evidence that they are adapting lessons to suit their pupils? Moreover, is this evidence that they are responding to pupils’ learning? Is this evidence of ‘responsive teaching’ at all? Well, in one way, it is some kind of evidence of thinking about being responsive, and thinking about ‘planned for lessons,’ but it is certainly not evidence of actually being a responsive teacher who adapts teaching to the needs of the pupils, which is really what leaders are trying to ensure, isn’t it? Also, is a full week’s planning even a healthy thing anyway? And here’s a secret, I’ve never looked back at an annotated plan in my whole teaching career – nor had to prove I changed course in lessons to anyone; like I said, I’ve done well because people believed in me and trusted me.
In reality, handing in annotated plans every week is more likely evidence that teachers are good at keeping SLT off their backs than anything concrete about effective teaching. So what is evidence of responsive teaching? Well, talk to pupils, how about talking to the teachers! Look at pupils’ books; look at their achievement – pupils just don’t learn that much if teachers are not reactive and receptive to their learning. Imagine that, just looking for evidence of learning! Apologies, now I’m getting sarcastic, it’s just with so many amazing thinkers out there, like the Hatties and Wiliams showing us what counts in education, why don’t some people still not get it and cut to what really works? This is why the twitter community in education is so important – it’s not just obsessive teachers who can’t stop working, it’s actually sharing what really matters and having our principles confirmed, or at times turned on their head, but nevertheless, sharing what matters to schools. Some of the best ideas and CPD I’ve had is from following up a twitter post and investigating it.
Anyway… even now, I still hear talk (not on twitter mind) of the ‘outstanding’ lesson and the ‘outstanding’ teacher. Well, thank goodness we threw that big performance out a long time ago, along with the circus tent. Thankfully the whole labelling thing is starting to fall apart in education and being seen for what it is: limiting, even when it’s a highly prized label, like ‘outstanding’ or even ‘gifted and talented.’ (I’m still so surprised to meet head teachers who talk about their ‘G & T’ kids – ‘gifted’ – what on earth does that really mean? Touched by a supreme being maybe? Honestly.)
As we should all know by now, a teacher is as good as the learning that goes on over time in the classroom, the daily diet of learning and importantly the fostering of learning behaviour in their pupils. At least, this is what everyone says now, especially with the new Ofsted framework out, but then why do we still hear talk about those ‘outstanding’ lessons and teachers then? Is Dweck just another PSHE gimmick for some people? Or did they simply miss the profundity of just how important it is how pupils view themselves, how teachers view pupils and yes, how teachers view teachers too. Words matter because learning has deep social and emotional dimensions which constantly effect how children learn, and what are humans without words and the meaning of words? We used to call kids ‘stupid’ or ‘idiot’ once didn’t we? Who would now? Words matter.
An ‘outstanding’ lesson is meaningless really; it’s the steady power of learning running through the classroom that counts, almost like a religion or a new faith that everyone is gradually being converted to. In essence, are we not trying to create fundamentalist learners bent on being learners forever? I hope so. When you’re a learner, don’t we all know you’re going to be happier in life? Isn’t that what really matters, that whatever happens, you can grow and change? Thank goodness at least lesson observation practices are going that way –with less focus on style and teacher performance and who the teacher is, but actual learning and learning behaviour. I’d far rather be an ‘effective’ teacher than an ‘outstanding’ one; it is only a word, but like I said, it matters because humans live by meaning and ‘outstanding’ doesn’t mean being of any use to anyone really, so let’s not use it any more.
The smothering of human responsibility by corporate accountability in education has been so very irritating, not because it’s a chore, but because it’s so often an empty, purposeless chore, when time is so precious for a teacher. This is why we really need these debates on marking and planning etc. because teaching hasn’t changed for hundreds of years so why should the workload keep going up and up? Mostly, it’s because teachers are having to show evidence of teaching rather using that time to teach, which by its nature produces evidence of learning, which is all anyone needs in order to know that a teacher is doing their job. I’m proud to say that where I work it feels like workload is balanced as the focus is on what matters, rather than evidence of what matters. People have said to me before, ‘your school must be quite strict then, to be that good?’ I laugh, ‘it’s not at all!’ I say and they look surprised, ‘but people are strict with themselves,’ I add. Where does real diligence ever come from anyway, but in mindful, self-regulation, and what is a learning culture built on but just this?
One of the best teachers I know writes a weekly plan in about ten minutes from the curriculum map. Where she spends her time is planning the next day’s lessons in detail. She literally ‘designs’ the necessary learning opportunities she thinks will cause thinking and cause learning along the progression of that initial weekly jot. Her lessons are based on what they call ‘flow,’ so that children are hooked and learning, right in the moment. She intervenes if she needs too, but backs off and leaves learning alone when it’s clear she’s not needed, maybe even marks a few books or tends to a few displays at these times (shock horror!) Can we also accept then that sometimes moments of learning don’t involve the teacher at all in class? Does it mean a teacher isn’t teaching because they aren’t sitting or talking to a child? These are the questions that pull apart what teaching really is. There is no teaching without learning.
In truth, this teacher wouldn’t be half as good, never tailor her teaching to the children’s needs like that, if she had to write it all down on a plan. However, this is the kind of teacher who ensures effective learning for children in her class, yet she is also almost invisible with it. She doesn’t ware herself out trying to prove to everyone else she’s a great teacher; she’s not always in a panic about the next best career move. This person is a natural, authentic teacher. She’s the kind of teacher who is invaluable; the kind of teacher the system should fall over backwards to produce, support and keep, but rarely does because it doesn’t reward this kind of teacher. In fact, our education system encourages this kind of teacher to leave the classroom as quickly as possible, or to take on ‘other responsibilities’ in order to account for moving up the pay spine which can mean she has less and less time to devote to what she does best: teaching.
So, my New Year’s wish is that we can all really get down to learning rather than proving learning. I hope the good people I know keep sending this message out there and that 2016 keeps moving in the direction I think it is going.
And to dear Amanda, a great colleague we lost this year – I think she might have wished some of these things too.
Happy New Year!