If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.
Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.
Fake Einstein quote
How many of us have worked in schools which have as one of their teaching & learning priorities differentiation, questioning, or assessment & feedback? Most of us, right?
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a school which isn’t working hard on trying to improve one or other of these aspects of teaching. But why? No one seems to have ‘the answer’, and we’re all desperately scrabbling about trying to get better at doing the same things. But what if we stopped? What if we decided not to spend any more time trying to train teachers in what to do? What if we required them to think about what they believed best for their classes? Would the sky fall on our heads?
I suspect not.
But we’re reluctant to let teachers do what they think best because we don’t trust that they think. Alex Quigley pointed to the fact that schools suffer from Ofsted Stockholm Syndrome, and maybe teachers suffer something similar. After all, if you’ve never been allowed to think, if you’ve always been told how to teach by some ‘expert’, then you may well feel a little lost if suddenly given the freedom to do whatever you want.
But here’s the thing: it doesn’t really matter all that much what you do. I don’t care if you teach standing up, sitting down, hopping on one leg, wearing flip-flops, with your top button undone or with a bag on your head. I’m not interested in how you seat your students*, whether you fetishise traffic lights and mini white boards, or produce mountains of differentiated resources for every lesson. I’m not bothered whether you mark your books, but if you do I don’t care whether you use green or red pen, pencil, invisible ink or human blood. I’m quite keen on you having high expectations for every pupil you teach, but it’s up to you what this looks like. I’m a fan of hard work and suspicious of fun for fun’s sake, but that’s just me; you should do what you think best. Because it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as the impact is there.
Hattie urges teachers to ‘Know thy impact’, but this is, perhaps, harder than it sounds. A school-wide commitment to Lesson Study might be a great leap forward in supporting teachers to investigate their own practice, but as long as your results are good and your students are safe, who am I, or anyone else to tell you you’re wrong? Problems persist when we assume that just because it works for us, it’ll work for everyone (or anyone) else. Of course we should talk about, reflect on and share our practice in order to check out our thinking with colleagues, but if ever you’re tempted to advise another teacher to do what you do, don’t.
Robert Coe says this:
The only worthwhile kind of evidence about whether something works in a particular situation comes from trying it out.…[F]or practice to be based on evidence, that evidence must come from experiments in real contexts. “Evidence” from surveys or correlational research is not a basis for action.
So God forbid you ever encourage another teacher to do what you prefer. Because often preference is all it comes down to. It’s ridiculously easy to de-skill an effective teacher by making them teach in a way they’re not used to. Why on earth do so many school leaders feel compelled to do this?
This blog is full of posts in which I share my preferences. Often I’ll give reasons (and sometimes research evidence) to support these preferences, but that’s really all they are. If you think they seem interesting, great. If they seem like a load of cobblers, fine. But if you do feel intrigued enough by something I’ve shared to give it a go, please think about why first. And if anyone ever tells you that you should do something just because I, or anyone else says so, tell them to naff off. If they’re senior to you, you maybe better advised to find some way to politely ignore them.
I don’t know everything. In fact, I don’t know all that much. As I encounter new information, I reconsider what I thought up to that point and often change my mind. This being the case, many of the preferences I’ve expressed on this blog, I now consider to be wrong (Or at least no longer useful to me.) But as long as you’re judicious, this shouldn’t matter all that much.
All the evidence that’s out there isn’t really worth a damn. It can, it seems, be easily manipulated to shore up whatever it is you currently prefer. We do what we do because we like it. If the evidence supports our preferences we embrace it; if it contradicts us, we dismiss it.
Over the past few years I’ve read a lot of academic research and, frankly, I’m not very good at working out whether it’s methodologically sound. We rely on others to mediate what we read and tell us what it proves. A case in point is Martin Robinson’s marvellous book, Trivium 21c which everyone, whatever their educational stripe seems to adore as it can be interpreted as endorsing pretty much anything. NB – I’ve discussed this with Martin and know my interpretation is the correct one 😉
My new book, The Secret of Literacy, is, perhaps, less ambiguous. Some people will like it, others won’t. But, it’s just my (extremely well researched) preferences.
Let me close with some advice from an insane Danish prince: “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Anything you do with sufficient thought and planning will probably be great. Anything you do because someone told you to will probably be crap. Of course we can all be better, but not by repeating the same mistakes.
So stop telling teachers what to do, instead look at the impact of what they do. You never know, you might learn something.
* I went through a period of believing strongly that it did mater how you seated your students. I offer this as an example of being wrong.