No teacher is so good – or so bad – that he or she cannot improve.
The English education system is obsessed with ascertaining the quality of teachers. And what with the great and the good telling us that teacher quality is the most important ingredient in pupils’ success then maybe it’s small wonder. As Michael Barber says, “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” And taken in the round, assessing teacher quality and then working to develop teachers is an entirely laudable aim. Bizarrely though, many schools seem incapable of seeing beyond the lesson observation as a means of achieving this goal.
I’ve been rereading Graham Nuthall’s seminal The Hidden Lives of Learners. In it he identifies the problem as stemming from the belief that a busy, active classroom where everyone is happily engaged in some kind of project which requires them to think about thorny issues and solve intractable problems looks great. If you preside over a classroom like this, you’re more than likely going to get a thumbs up. But this is based on the mistaken belief that you can recognise great teaching and learning just from looking.
So, what are the problems with this model? Well, needless to say, observers are often unduly influenced by fashions and fads. If you’re convinced that every lesson should be crammed with ‘independent learning’, group work or higher order questioning then you will tend to prefer those lessons which confirm your particular bias. If you’re one of the legions who believe that teachers shouldn’t talk then you’ll be impressed when you see this happening. This is human nature. But, it’s a virulently scarlet herring; teaching methods just don’t matter. In fact, they could be considered dangerous.
But also, we need to be aware that the teaching that seems to produce good learning will vary from day-to-day and lesson to lesson. Sometimes certain approaches work and sometimes they don’t. Friday period 5 will have a very different atmosphere to Tuesday period 2. The same kids approach learning differently depending on what they’ve already know, where they are in the teaching sequence, meteorological conditions, how recently they’ve eaten, what they’ve eaten, the phase of the moon and a whole host of other imponderables. Any half way decent teacher will adapt their teaching in an attempt to meet these ever-changing needs. What you might do with one class on one day will be entirely different to what you might do at another time with a different group of kids. But if we’re basing our observation on some checklist of what constitutes good teaching, how will we know if we’ve seen it? We can’t tell just from looking.
OK, of course anyone can spot a car crash, and usually we’ll appreciate seeing a master practitioner at the height of their powers, but what we see in an observation is just the background of teaching. Judging a professional on a snap shot is foolhardy and unfair. The belief that there are good and bad teachers is almost universal. Many people believe that good teachers are born, not made; they have the kind of personality that students love; teaching seems to come naturally. At the other end of the scale are those who rapidly lose control of what is going on in their class; they seem like they’d be happier doing something else and their students are unlikely to learn very much.
But what if the same teachers, working in different circumstances could perform quite differently? If I was asked to teach a PE lesson to a bunch of truculent 16 year olds I’d never met, I’m certain I’d be rubbish. And I’d probably be equally out of my depth if I was expected to teach a phonics lesson to an Early Years class. These are extreme examples perhaps, but we’ve all had classes that we’ve been ashamed to be observed teaching. Does being seen strutting my stuff in front of a class I know well and have an excellent relationship with make me outstanding?
Maybe I’m just bricking it because I’ve been told I’ll be teaching a model lesson to a group of kids I’ve never met before in front of the whole staff on my first day at my new school!
Will I be dreadful? The truth is we can’t know just by looking.