It was a breath of fresh air spending my Saturday last weekend at the #LearningFirst conference in Sheffield. It would have had to be something special for me to give up half my weekend and it certainly was that. One of the strongest impressions I came away with was the need for pupils, teachers and leaders to have an increasingly better understanding of each other. Ultimately, we want the child to become their own teacher and their own leader, don’t we?
Most teachers are led to believe that Ofsted is a ferocious monster waiting to pop out and grab us, yet in my experience the real enemy is the way leaders react to imminent inspection rather than the inspection itself. It is the pressure leaders create when they operate under a performance culture rather than cultivating a community of learning where everyone considers themselves a learner trying to improve. It might sound overly liberal and even wet to those traditionalists who still see the teacher as the font of all knowledge, with the empty vessel of a pupil at their feet, but any decent educationalist knows that this image is just that, and not a reality. Victorian schooling was positive in that it gave many children access to education, but its austere approach to learning, its addiction to facts, facts, facts and its obsession with hierarchy meant that education’s course was set on a path of transmission teaching and military style school leadership. No doubt things have changed for the better, but there remain flavours of this today that are hard to wash away.
So it was inspiring to hear Sean Harford (National Director of Education for Ofsted) remind school leaders to remember what it was like being a teacher. ‘If you were a teacher how would you feel?’ he posed, reminding us that all too often school leaders forget what classroom teaching is like and when they do, this is where the problems begin.Certainly, I believe that no matter how wonderful and well researched a leader’s vision might be, if they don’t understand what it might be like implanting that vision on a daily basis in a classroom, it’s likely the vision won’t become a reality.
In the same vein, Shirley Clarke talked about the growth mind set. While the work of Carol Dweck has been ground breaking and probably one of the most profound things to hit education for a long while, so many schools have corrupted its message, implementing it incorrectly by over emphasising effort, but forgetting all about input. Maximum effort without any know-how in the end is just exhausting. Shirley also reminded school leaders that the growth mind set doesn’t stop at the classroom door, but must pervade every part of the school, including the head teacher’s office. How right she was. How often do we still hear head teachers talk about teaching staff in a completely fixed way, that they are like this or like that, pigeon holing them into being ‘good’ or even ‘requires improvement’ while simultaneously telling teachers not to label their pupils and ensure they have high expectations for them all. As Shirley observed, how often do we hear a head teacher use the word ‘yet’ about their staff? ‘She’s not very good at questioning’ is very different from ‘she’s not very good at questioning, yet?’ The implications are different aren’t they? Just that one word says a lot about the expectations a leader has for their teachers and the culture they preside over.
One person at the conference also reminded me that inspiring as it all was being there, it was likely to be a case of preaching the converted. The very fact you were at #LearningFirst, or if you weren’t there, but you’re interested in its ideas, means that you’re probably going to be at a school where teachers are treated well and learning is at the heart of everything, including observations, moderations and all that stuff. The chances are that at your school, because learning is at the centre, accountability takes care of itself. But what about all the schools out there where this is not the case? This is the real issue; these are the school leaders who need help in seeing a better way forward that will make everyone happier.
I speak to lots of teachers from different schools through some of the other work I do and things are really quite different in many schools. Take the instance of the head teacher who marches into classrooms with a clip board once a week, circling the room, grimacing at this and that, frowning at the modeling the teacher has on the board, scribbling on his clip board then spinning on his heel and leaving. How does that make the teacher feel? Is that ever going to create change in a positive way? What kind of culture is that head teacher creating? Even worse, the teacher is never told what he was scribbling on his board or what he was frowning about. Or take the head teacher who appears at the classroom door every now and then, frowning with her arms folded watching the teacher work. Something has annoyed her, but nobody knows why. What message is that head sending and what does she expect she will achieve? Would she be happy with her teachers treating pupils that way? And this is not a scenario I’ve created to make a point either; these things happened and continues to happen in schools.These leaders are stuck in that old Victorianism; they are building a performance culture where if you screw up then you are a screw up and that’s that. This is the fixed mind set; it only serves to create fear and is anti-learning and anti-challenge. Schools begin to cease up quickly when they are like this. Fear kills learning.
And as James Pembroke said of those leaders who attach data threasholds to teacher’s pay: ‘stop it, stop it, stop it!’ Yes, this made us laugh, but it was the kind of laughter that was heavy with sentiment because we know this is common practice in many schools and we understand its awful consequences for learning. Only last month I spoke to a teacher in Bexley whose performance management pay related target was to get 95% expected in Reading, Writing and Maths, despite no one knowing what expected in the end might be and regardless of where her pupils started. Teachers are still being held to account in this short sighted way. Head teachers want authentic data that talks to them about their pupils, but they are creating a structure that compromises that authenticity completely. And let’s not mention the wealth of research Dylan Wiliam has documented showing that increases in pupils’ scores can’t always be related to a single teacher’s effectiveness anyway.
Michael Tidd also stole the show with his bashing of the recent obsession with coloured pens and pupils’ responding to marking. Quite rightly, he cited Wiliam’s ‘responsive teaching’ as being a thousand times more effective than heaps of coloured next steps. I can’t agree more with Michael that if feedback is one of the most important tools a teacher has, then the feedback they get from pupils on how they are doing should be prized the most highly. Responding to feedback from pupils by watching how they behave and listening to what they are telling us about their learning right there and then in the lesson is what really counts and is what ‘responsive teaching’ really refers to. It is this immediacy that makes teachers effective and benefits learners. Those teachers who don’t react to the looks of confusion across the faces of their pupils after they’ve modeled something new and don’t change course, are no better than those who never mark their books, in fact they’re worse.
Indeed, the current imbalance in the ration of time spent marking and planning is something that all schools really need to address. Yes, all pupils should know their teacher looks at their learning and acknowledges it, but what is the real benefit to learning from, as Michael observed, asking a pupil to ‘change this adjective to a different one?’ What does this kind of next step really do for the child? As we know from copious amounts of research the most powerful learning comes when a child is supported in doing something that is just that little bit too hard for them, not when they have responded to a question from the teacher in their book that they can answer by themselves anyway. What we really need to ask ourselves is whether all that time spent writing in all these different colours is the best use of time. Perhaps designing activities to really stretch and challenge pupils in just the right way would have been time better spent. And Michael’s latest blog on marking and feedback is a must read on this.
To end, I return to a recurrent theme that pervaded #LearningFirst and that was the need for pupils, teachers and leaders to know a lot more about each other and come closer together on being clear where they are, where they are going and how to get there (the three fundamentals of AfL). Certainly, leaders need to have clear principles for what they are doing and the culture they want to create. As Sean Harford said, ‘they need to be clear on why they got into teaching for in the first place?’ In my words, was it to wear a suit and walk about feeling important? Or was it to serve a data crunching giant in the sky who pats you on the head when you get high scores? What was it that made you love teaching? I know why I love teaching, because to watch a child understand where they are and what they need to do then grab it with both hands and do it, to watch them frown and scratch their head for a while, maybe more than a while, but then for them to eventually look up and smile, knowing they’ve been successful, knowing what learning feels like and loving that feeling, that’s why I love teaching. As Mary Myatt reminded us, assessment means ‘to sit alongside’ and just as teachers need to sit alongside pupils rather than lean over them waiting for correct answers or high scores, so too leaders need to sit alongside their teachers rather than stand in front waving a data sheet, sit behind them wagging their fingers or leave them sitting by themselves wondering what to do next.
Thank you #LearningFirst.