I’ve been thinking a lot about trust in recent months – particularly because it seems a commodity in such short supply. If, my optimistic thinking went, teachers were trusted to do a good job, then they probably would. But, of course, there’s always that nagging concern that some wouldn’t. This got me thinking about why people – and specifically teachers – are trustworthy or not. Is it down to an inherent goodness? Are some people just naturally more dedicated and professional, or could it be that we’re good because of the consequences of not being good?
The conclusion I’ve arrived at is that people are only as good as we expect them to be. Trust may be vital in getting the best out of teachers, but so, it turns out, is accountability.
Superficially, it might look as if accountability processes are contrary to trust.
Trusting teachers allows them to invent, adapt and excel, whereas accountability constrains and confines our tendency to experiment, and encourages us to play it safe and conceal our mistakes. But where there is no accountability, it’s all too easy to sink to the lowest common denominator.
The trick is, I think, to bend this continuum back on itself so that these pressures are pulling towards rather than against each other.
Easy to say, but what might this actually look like in practice? The biggest mistake we make when holding teachers (or anyone else) to account is telling them what ‘right’ looks like before the process begins. We’re usually at pains to say, this is the best way to mark books, teach lessons, manage behaviour or whatever else we want teachers to do; let me show you how. Then, when we go through a process of quality assurance what we’re actually doing is checking whether the teacher has marked their books, taught their lessons or managed their classes in the way we told them to. This has the advantage of being relatively easy to check:
- Teachers were told to use ‘two stars and wish’ to mark their books.
- There is/isn’t evidence of ‘two stars and wish’ in this teacher’s books, therefore I am/am not happy.
We rarely stop to think whether there might have been a better way or if the way we have operationalised is actually having the effect we want.
In my last post I suggested 3 conditions needed for an accountability process to create conditions for teachers to do what’s actually right instead of what merely looks right:
- We will be accountable to an audience for our actions.
- The audience’s views must be unknown.
- The belief that the audience is well-informed and interested in accuracy.
In schools, we’ve become pretty good at meeting condition 1, but lamentable at 2 and 3. To take our previous example of book monitoring, a better accountability process might proceed like this:
- Teachers were told to mark students’ books in the way they believed would make the most impact.
- There is/isn’t evidence of marking therefore I am/am not happy.
- There is/isn’t evidence that the marking has had an impact therefore I need/do not need to ask the teacher some follow-up questions.
This process trusts that teachers will use their professional judgement to mark their students’ books in the way they deem most efficient and effective. It acknowledges that the teach might know better than the person holding them to account. It does however still assume that teachers must mark books in order to be a good teacher. Is this actually the case? How do we know? There are certainly some parts of the world where this isn’t an expectation in the same way it is in the UK. An even better kind of accountability process for book monitoring might look like this:
- Teachers are expected to cover the curriculum and ensure to the best of their ability that students are prepared for some kind of assessment.
- There is/isn’t evidence of marking therefore I need/do not need to ask the teacher some follow-up questions.
This process trusts teachers to meet step 1 in the way they deem best. That may or may not include that books are marked, but the teacher who chooses not to mark will be expected to justify the decision they made. If they give a reasoned, intuitively plausible answer then we should wait to see what happens. If they say, Well, I just couldn’t be bothered, then we might need to remove some of the assumption of trust from the process.*
The more I think about this, the more certain I become that it would be a better way to run schools. Teachers would not be tyrannised into operationalising stuff in which they can’t see the point; school leaders would be allowed to act more humanely, and maybe, just maybe, it would result in a surplus model of school improvement in which happier, more autonomous professionals who were genuinely allowed to have a growth mindset approach to teaching.
*There are, of course, clear parallels to the ways in which Ofsted currently holds (and should hold) schools to account. It seems pretty obvious that someone needs to watch the watchmen.
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