Make no apology – let’s teach!

chalk-and-talk    Child centred

Over the past few hundred years this country has lost its love for teachers. Those of us who have managed to stay in the classroom, and not left like the 40% who leave soon into their careers, do love our job; the problem is that the nation has not felt the same about teachers and teaching for many decades. Individually it will be a varied story, but our society’s collective feeling about teachers is pretty negative. (This is certainly not directed at any school, department or leader; this is all about the general spirit or zeitgeist in which we find ourselves as a profession.)

I can’t pretend to be a sociologist, or psychologist either, and those who are may indeed wince at my clumsiness here; I am simply a teacher trying to understand why it always seems like such a battle for so many teachers to succeed. The truth is, many teachers just can’t survive the rigors of the classroom without the kind of esteem teachers once felt and deserve. It is no longer considered a noble profession, like a nurse or doctor. You say you’re a teacher and people tend to change the subject, or sigh with a compassionate smile, as if to say, ‘don’t worry, maybe one day you’ll be free.’

Without doubt, nothing is straight forward in education and there is never one answer that will solve everything. The profession is constantly bombarded with new initiatives that send everyone running to one side of the deck, threatening to tip everything into the sea, only to send everyone running back the other way. This constant upheaval is destroying the profession as nothing ever seems to be good enough and teachers spend their lives having to reinvent everything over and over again, but why? Why have we been teaching children for so long, yet still seem unable to settle on the best way to teach our young?

Perhaps however, this is the nature of a profession that is so intricately entwined in both politics and economics, as well as the deeply personal, social, emotional and psychological experiences of everyone; after all, every single adult can talk about school, and usually with a fervour that ranges from antipathy and rage to romance and nostalgia, but rarely much in between. School is a passionate place. What I’d like to do here, is examine some of the fundamental ideas about teaching that underpin many everyday practices and approaches to schooling, yet are not often analysed or dissected to uncover their possible origins, or potential consequences.

Having studied Education at degree level, then post graduate teacher training and finally a Masters in Education, I was moulded into a way of thinking about teaching that became so deeply entrenched, it seemed as unconscious as blinking, even breathing. This thought was confirmed all the way thorough my career by almost everything I encountered, both in and out of school. It was the origin of nearly all sleepless nights, all stresses and worries, yet most often disguised as confusion about my role and how to be the best teacher I could.  Despite having a really successful career as a teacher, getting as high as you really can without moving into headship, and even receiving accolades like ‘primary science teacher of the year,’ I have been dogged by the idea that throughout all this, teaching is essentially an incongruous thing to do.

Initially, teaching is perpetually problematised because everyone has a view on everything a teacher does, so nearly always someone, somewhere has a better way of doing it. The pressure of being judged is relentless for teachers; it is why most leave the profession. Parents, leaders, inspectors judge us, and most of all we judge ourselves and each other in an effort to find that golden nugget of teaching that somehow eludes the profession over and over again. We are dogged by wanting to perfect the messy, unpredictable and complicated process of learning. And forever it seems to evades professional consensus.

Yet while we may never reach that realisation as a profession, it may ease our restlessness to look back in time and examine how attitudes to childhood have changed over hundreds of years, which in turn have led to a fundamental change in our collective consciousness regarding teachers.

It would be simplistic to try to isolate single moments or events that caused changes in how society thinks, but a number of changes have together had significant impact on how teachers are viewed.

Firstly, society changed its attitude to children from around the 17th century. Gradually children were thought of as less like miniature adults; we stopped dressing them like us, marrying them off to each other and, although I’m aware it is far more complex than just this, broadly speaking, the modern concept of childhood emerged.

Then over time, we recognised that if children weren’t adults then they required nurturing and schooling. Religious ideas of original sin, envisaging the child as wild and primitive and requiring taming, if not purging, dominated education. Schools were hard places where nature, the animal, was knocked out of children, and in some cases quite literally.

Steadily however, following enlightenment, we began to shrug off the idea of original sin and we began to make friends with nature. We painted and wrote about our environment as never before; we wanted to make friends with it, harness it and thus romanticism was born.

This materialised as a shift towards a romantic understanding of the child as being born pure and in tune with nature. Romantic poets like Bryon, described nature no longer as wild and angry, but as untainted and idyllic.

While previously, society chastised ‘the child’ for its affinity with the wild and uncultivated, the romantic movement instead found purity in the untouched infant.

Now, children were envisaged as being born pure, only over time corrupted by the unnatural world of adulthood.

The stage was then set for completely new ideas to emerge into the social consciousness.

No longer miniature adults, or primitive creatures who needed to be civilised, children became sacred and childhood something to be preserved for its purity and affinity with nature.

From this movement, educational philosophers like Dewey and Rousseau expounded the idea of working with the natural aptitudes of children rather than imposing the world onto them through transmission teaching. Thus, ideas like child-centredness, discovery learning and learning through play emerged. 

This movement framed teachers as facilitators whose role should be to create the stage where the child was able to develop naturally, untainted by the impositions of the educator.

The imparting of knowledge became problematic, but teachers had to do something, so the idea of teaching skills rather than knowledge emerged and the emphasis moved from transmission of knowledge to the facilitation of experiences that would hone skills.

Following this, theories of natural development by psychologists like Piaget emerged and some might even say, the unconscious idea that teachers as transmitters or agent of change in the child were unnecessary and may even obstruct, if not completely frustrate the unfurling of childhood.

The institutions of education remain standing, but teachers and teaching are problematic, obstructive and even superfluous. Teaching is left in an awkward place (not unlike a spare something or other at a wedding), a very different setting from the classical concept of the novice and the learned instructor, or the Eastern idea of the master and disciple that endures in Eastern cultures still, and is perhaps why teachers continue to have great admiration and respect in those areas of the world that bypassed Western Enlightenment and romanticism altogether.

On the one hand, Western society has asked that schools produce children who are educated, yet on the other, it quietly questions teachers’ authority to educate.

This creates a subtle confusion about the role of the teacher within the profession; it leaves us wary of it, makes us want to check up on it all the time.

Unconsciously and subtly over time, we have told ourselves that teachers are not to be trusted. The stereotyped image of a teacher is very often authoritarian and tyrannical, rather than noble and wise. Over time, teaching has lost its dignity and magnificence; being taught has been transformed into an unnatural imposition that our young must endure rather than warmly embrace. We are bricks in the wall that education erects around childhood.

This unspoken antagonism towards teaching is born out in the promotion of practices and curricula over the last hundred years that are in opposition to the transmission of knowledge from teacher to pupil. The idea of teaching, the passing of knowledge from a more knowledgeable other to a novice, filling pupils with information, is irrevocably problematised because it goes against the idea of natural development, of the child being like a flower waiting to open, of the child growing and passing through predetermined stages of development. Teaching does not fit with this. Intervention, training from a more knowledgeable other, interferes.

When examined this way, it is not hard to see the awkward position in which teaching finds itself.

Perhaps I have taken a crude and simplistic look at our history, made bold, perhaps hyperbolic assertions about what we collectively think, but to helicopter out and look down from afar might help to understand ourselves as a profession. Why have we put so much emphasis on child-led learning, problem solving and supposed ‘skills’ acquisition until now? Why have teachers been systematically told to talk as little as possible, to always strive to be the ‘guide on the side’ rather than ‘the sage on the stage,’ and why so vehemently? Surely, all approaches have their place? (Surely it’s what benefits learners most that counts?) 

Our antipathy towards the expounding and imparting of knowledge has been unhinged and left teaching an apologetic profession, not really believing in itself. It may  have also left large groups of pupils bereft of the powerful knowledge so many more affluent children take for granted, and which leads, unfairly as it may be, to success in life.

As our intolerance of our situation wears thin, we are beginning to question the essence of teaching once again. We are delving deeply into what learning is through cognitive science and on this basis, how best to teach. It seems too that we are discovering that effective teaching has never changed, only our understanding of it as we reconcile false dichotomies like skills v knowledge, transmission v enquiry and more. It is also especially relevant now when we understand more and more about the role of genetics and the types of knowledge humans learn naturally, and that which requires teaching.  No doubt some of us are afraid of returning to austere, regimented ways of teaching, wary too of the power of knowledge and its consequences, the skewing of facts in order to favour some and marginalise others. Humans are especially good at this, it seems.

Yet our understanding of the innocence and preciousness of childhood remains intact and our understanding of the potential of all children stands. We have done well to put the child at the centre of education and we should not turn our backs on that; however, we must also make no apology for being the knowledgeable instructors, the givers of knowledge to those lacking in it, the novices, the beginners, the learners, for we are teachers and teaching is not only natural, a natural result of humans retaining knowledge and understanding of the world which passes on, teaching is naturally good too.

We should also take great care at these times when polarisation often seems the default during debates and discussion.  Progressive ideas about education have revolutionised teaching, inserting great humanity into the profession, making schools places that children come to love and feel nurtured within and where they can be themselves, while ideas that reveal the benefits of instruction, practice and understanding how memory works should not run contrary to this, but enhance the strides we have made in education to put children’s well-being at the heart of everything.

And above all, let’s make no apology for being teachers who teach!



More to say on mixed ability…


Having written an article for TES on how to teach mixed ability, and now looking through the messages and tweets  responding to it, I thought I should respond myself.

It’s always hard cramming everything you need to say into 600 words, let alone a tweet. There were certainly many things I would have liked to have expanded on in the article and I hope I can here.

Firstly, we have to begin with drawing a line in the sand. What do we all agree on? I think we all agree that we want a fairer society where the avenues for social mobility are well oiled and being poor doesn’t preclude children from  the same opportunities as more affluent children. Surely in fact, no self respecting teacher doesn’t agree? And this is not the same as saying ‘everyone is a winner’ either, or that any middle class aspiration for ‘the best for my child’ is a negative thing. It isn’t.  Let’s not allow tabloid sensationalism in here. Certainly, in this era of post truth, we need truths.

I will also add that yes, for some schools this question of mixed ability teaching and choice for pupils are old hat; ‘been there, done that’. Well good! I want to hear people say they’ve arrived here and get it, but sadly this is not the case for most schools, so I will continue to bang on about it until it is, and so should the TES.

Here are some key facts on social mobility and inequality in case anyone was in doubt it is an issue:

The UK has one of the worst records for social mobility among OECD nations (OECD, 2010c; Cabinet Office, 2011; Hinds et al, 2012).

70 % of High Court Judges, and over half of senior medical consultants, FTSE chief executives and top journalists went to public schools, though only 7% of the total population do so (Sutton Trust, 2009). Those educated in private schools are disproportionately represented in the most powerful and well-remunerated jobs (BBC, 2011; Cabinet Office, 2011)

 Private school pupils are over 22 times more likely to enter a selective university than are state school pupils entitled to free school meals, and are 55 times more likely than free school meals pupils to gain a place at Oxbridge. At the 25 most selective universities in England, only 2% of the yearly student intake was made up for free school meals pupils (Sutton Trust, 2010c).

(What’s preventing social mobility? A review of the evidence, 2013:3)

 There are of course many reasons why less affluent children don’t do as well and many of these factors are outside the control of schools. We already act as social service outreach much of the time and if your pastoral care manager is anything like ours, caring for and propping up families is now a huge aspect of their daily remit. However, we cannot escape that education at present, in this country is far from enhancing social mobility:

The evidence shows that in the UK, education at best replicates, and at worst exacerbates, existing inequality. Statistics highlight that British children’s educational attainment is overwhelmingly linked to parental occupation, income, and qualifications (EPPE, 2004; Lupton et al, 2009; National Equality Panel, 2010; EPPSE, 2012). Hinds et al (2011) observe that education has the potential to ‘break the cycle’ of disadvantage, and some schools are of course demonstrating that socio-economic gaps can be narrowed (Allen, 2012). However, in the case of the English education system overall, rather than the socio-economic gap for achievement shrinking as young people progress through it, the gap widens . Lindley & Machin’s (2012) recent work shows that, as educational opportunities have grown, so has inequality.

(What’s preventing social mobility? A review of the evidence, 2013:3)

 Now, there is no doubt that educational inequalities begin before school; however, schools should be places where these inequalities are wholeheartedly and very deliberately readdressed via pedagogy, except they are so often not.

In fact, as my article outlined, for a long time, and to my utter shame as a member of the educational community, these inequalities have been enabled and enhanced by a system that has turned a blind eye to years of the same kind of children, sitting in the same kind of groups, given the same kind of second rate education. Granted, things might have moved on somewhat from a decade ago, but far from readdressing these disparate starts in life, education continues now, today in England to widen inequality.

Now, what do we then do with the over whelming evidence that streaming, setting and ability grouping benefit more affluent children and sustain the achievement gap?

Look at some of the data from 2007 regarding less affluent children in ability groupings:

FSM data

(What’s preventing social mobility? A review of the evidence, 2013:17)

I’m not sure data from today regarding FSM and ability grouping is any better; if anyone has any please share it. (Or fund my PhD and I’ll share it after that!) But have no doubt,  lower sets or groups are more often than not populated by less affluent children.

So, what do we do with this evidence then? Some people have simply chosen to shout louder in their unwavering conviction that ability grouping is best, perhaps hoping that all this evidence will disappear if they keep shouting. Well, it won’t.  Is it then OK to say that mixed ability teaching is just too impractical so let’s just keep doing what we’re doing? Should we not even try something different? How can we ignore such compelling evidence:

Boaler & Wiliam (2001) summarise, “The various studies that have been conducted in the UK provide conclusive evidence that setting and streaming create and perpetuate social class divisions among students. They have also shown that students of similar ability are frequently placed in different sets or streams according to their social class….” (p. 177).

(What’s preventing social mobility? A review of the evidence, 2013:17)

We have to face the fact that we are not dealing with this issue in education unless we begin to make change regarding selection and grouping by ability. It will not be solved overnight and it will not always run smoothly, but these are not good enough reasons not to try.

I hear all the worries and objections to mixed ability teaching, but like all things in education: some things work most the time, most things work some of the time, but not all things work all the time. Mixed ability teaching might not work all the time, but on the whole it narrows the achievement gap and works better for less affluent children and those children deserve a chance; they deserve us putting everything we’ve got into redressing the imbalance.

Here are the main benefits from mixed ability teaching that I have witnessed:

  • Raised self esteem of pupils who are no longer defined by being in a labelled group. This is highly significant as the ‘self fulfilling prophesy’ that often dogs under privileged children cannot be ignored.
  • Expectations held by teachers are modified as children, who might present as ‘low achievers’, are no longer restricted to groups with specific tasks, but instead can try anything anyone else can. Teachers certainly need shaking up here; expectation is more powerful than many of us think.
  • Huge improvements in the oracy of some less affluent children as they learn shoulder to shoulder with children often modelling better use of language and articulation. Let’s not forget, learning is highly social and when less experienced learners are in groups with more experienced learners they will often try to converge speech patterns.
  • Improvements in thinking skills of some less affluent children as they collaborate with more able children who are often more experienced in verbalising their thinking skills and thus model these to others.
  • Improvements in whole class ethos as children learn to work together and support each other rather than sit in separate groups.
  • More under privileged children catching up with the attainment of the more affluent children over time.

Now, I have no doubt that in some cases there are children who really need lots more intervention and direct instruction. Yes, it is impractical to put them on that fluency to ‘Blooms’ synthesis type journey. However, do they always need to sit in a separate group? Are they all called something like ‘the lowers,’ or the ‘blue group,’ so that they only identify as ‘that group’?  Can we lessen the ‘baggage of underachievement’ on them? How often are they able to learn alongside more experienced  children?  Small changes will have a big impact here.

Of course, there’s no denying children are well aware of who is behind and who is ahead; this is not about everyone being the same, but we are not helping to redress that imbalance by concretising identities via groups with labels. Remember, that line in the sand and what we want for children; education should not make life worse for children who need more of a helping hand.

If you want to read more from the meta-analysis referenced here you can find it here.

We don’t need no education!

A classroom?
A classroom? Most UK secondary classrooms still look like this.

Teachers are often told that we have a ‘very demanding job,’ (as if we needed to be told) but as the years go by I’m beginning to understand why  teachers have so much stacked against them, and why often it feels like an uphill struggle to feel good about the job.

The greatest of the burdens upon us though is simply history, for teachers must teach under the weight of their own, their leaders’ and pupils’ parents’ own experiences of education. In this way, we are literally set up to fail because (and this is a very sad fact) most people didn’t enjoy their education and didn’t like their teachers. Ouch!

Then what we are faced with is the task of turning all that history around and convincing a generation (or two) that education can and should be the centre of everyone’s life and above all be (wait for it)…enjoyable!

David Spendlove claimed there are only two questions needed to be asked of pupils:

1) Have you enjoyed your education so far?

2) Do you want to carry on learning when you leave school?

It saddens me (very deeply in fact) that if you stopped any child in the street today most children, and especially the 11-16 year olds, would give you an emphatic NO! to both questions. This is terrible. This is actually a national disaster for us as a country and more importantly for us as human beings. Life is pretty empty without learning. Human beings are by nature learners, the greatest learners on earth in fact.

The trouble is that many of the people who would have angrily answered no to these questions say twenty years ago, now consider these questions as being the province of wet liberals who want to let the ‘chimps take over the zoo.’ I mean, enjoy education? What are you thinking? That’s not the point is it? Enjoy? See, people view education and enjoyment as the antithesis of each other. You are not supposed to enjoy education, if you do, then it’s not really authentic. ‘You’re not here to enjoy yourself, you’re here to learn!’

Herein lies the vicious cycle: pupils will learn twice as much, twice as fast if they enjoy, and therefore are engaged in, their learning. But establishing this kind of learning, consistently and routinely, means many of the old ways of teaching that teachers, senior leaders, parents and policy makers hang on to need be hung out to dry once and for all. Silent classrooms, books and books of ticked, graded work with no hint of how to improve, children who know the answers being heard, those who don’t falling silent, children with high marks getting the stars, clever children leading, not so clever children feeling not so clever, teacher knowing everything, children waiting to be told and teacher being the one and only source of knowledge…all this needs to be made into a pyre and set light to. It’s time teachers danced around this pile of rotten wood and started over. Some are, some have been trying to, but some cling on to this antiquated pedagogy because there’s no one to show them anything else, and fear of the ogre OFSTED makes them hold tighter to the things they think teachers ‘should’ be doing rather what will actually create an effective learning environment. Ironically, OFSTED don’t want to see this dusty old style of teaching either because at last they know it doesn’t work, but the system of inspection is about catching us out isn’t it, not helping us out.

Contrary to popular belief the alternative to traditional teaching does not mean pupils running wild, hurling things around the classroom and an ‘anything goes’ anarchy enfolding before open mouthed on lookers. What it does mean is all children feeling part of something, being worth something because their teacher has cultivated a learning environment where learning and dialogue are clearly on the table, if not exuding from the walls and dripping off the ceiling. And this is nothing like the education any of us had ourselves or recognises, so it feels wrong, and it feels like it might go wrong too and that’s why so many of us hang on to the old ways that caused most of us to dislike learning, school and teachers. Sit, down, shut up, listen and learn!

Teachers and schools should be inspiring, they should inspire children to learn, to wonder, to be curious and want to talk about…everything. Classrooms should be places where it’s OK to be wrong and talk about it, it’s OK not to understand at first, but be guided towards understanding with your peers and by your peers too. Pupils are one of the greatest sources of learning for each other, but no one likes to say it, because then the spotlight might come off the teacher for a while, and we can’t have that! That’s the problem you see, we all look at the teacher, we watch every move they make and read every piece of paper they fill in, but the very best evidence of good teaching comes by watching the children and watching them learn and how they show they have learned.  Really, a classroom can no longer be a place where it’s OK for any pupil to get by being silently confused and stifled by immanent failure. Teachers and schools should be the very last people and places on earth to cause children to withdraw from learning and harbour a lifelong dislike of education. How long would we accept the same from any other profession? How long would we allow most sick people to walk away from hospitals saying ‘I don’t want to feel well and I hate doctors.’ How long before everything would start to fall to pieces?

So this is why the job is so demanding now, more than it’s ever been. We have to undo history, throw out the dark sarcasm and stop education being another brick in the wall for so many young people. Who were the teachers you remember? The ones who weren’t like all the other teachers, right? They ones who listened to you? The ones who made you feel like you had something worth saying? It takes more than a smart piece of paper to be a teacher, more than a smooth talking graduate or a city high flyer wanting ‘a change of scene.’ It takes someone who understands learning and understands that the ‘sit, down shut up,’ method of teaching never worked and still doesn’t work.  The brain isn’t an empty cup waiting to be filled, it’s a communication device and needs connecting to experiences and engage in dialogue in order to make meaning out of all those inputs.

About a quarter of pupils can bear the old, one dimensional, transmission style teaching and manage to sit down and shut up quite well, but the other three-quarters either switch off and slip into being passive observers (and then passive adults) or they find other avenues of stimulation by behaving like bored chimps at a zoo…because it is boring having to ‘sit down and shut up’…most adults still can’t or won’t do that for long either. So 25% do pretty well with the system, some get creamed off into selective education or put into the ‘top stream,’ but 75% don’t do as well as they could at all, even that top 25% would have had a better time, may have reached even greater heights if it hadn’t all been  so dull.  The truth is, we don’t need this kind of education and we innately don’t want it either. Homo sapiens is a species defined by collaboration and communication, that’s how we thrive, that’s how we reach our full potential.

It’s time for teachers to be cleverer than at any other time in the history of education. We need to rediscover the teacher, and the authentic teacher, and not the impostor who has been hiding for too long behind those lonely monologues, wretched power points and endless ticks and crosses. Ironically, the authentic teacher should by nature be hard to identify and  hard to define in any detail,  but their presence will be obvious in the sparkling eyes of the pupils they teach, in the way they own their own learning, in their thirst to know and go forward and learn.

What must be forgotten for good.