Catchy title, isn’t it? I haven’t written a blog in nearly a year, but I’ve pent up enough exasperation over the last 10 months to warrant a Top 10 of Daft Things That Really Should Have Disappeared from Teaching By Now. I’m constantly banging on to my colleagues to “do what works” and cut out the things that have no impact, and so it’s in this spirit that I’ve had to quietly seethe about some of the daft things that many still hold dear in education. Here’s my list for an Educational Room 101.
1) Marking = feedback, and the more of it you do the better your teaching will be.
There is lots of great marking practice out there now. Many colleagues are using codes, whole class feedback sheets and peer assessment to cut down the onerousness and anguish of extensive written teacher comments. The important thing is that as teachers we read the work and plan to address misconceptions next time, not cover the work in lots of empty, meaningless praise designed to make students feel better about themselves.
2) The more hours you work, the better teacher you’ll be.
Teachers need to work relatively long hours, and I don’t think a 40-50 hour week is unacceptable. But most evenings and weekends should be sacred personal time. There are occasions in the school year when this impossible, for example during mock exams, but regular longer working weeks are unsustainable. It’s great that this is now reflected in the latest Ofsted framework where inspectors are holding leaders to account on staff work-life balance (about time too). It’s obvious that a well-rested, happy teacher is going to have more impact whilst they’re at work than a burnt out, bitter teacher who has written all over every student book each week and produced 22 detailed lesson plans every Sunday afternoon.
3) Teachers don’t need to be subject specialists.
Yes, they do. Otherwise how can they hope to help students kindle a love and fascination for the nuances and ambiguities of that subject? An AHT I once knew declared to a staff meeting that he was “a teacher of children, not of a subject”, suggesting that we should all be prepared to teach whatever the timetable required us to teach. This probably comes from the idea that inquiry-based learning is effective: “never mind that you’re a Maths teacher. Just give them a copy of Macbeth and a couple of plastic daggers and a crown and they’ll have it worked out in no time. You just need to guide from the side!” FFS.
4) Differentiation should be by task
No, it shouldn’t. To my mind it beggars belief that anyone in education expects to see this in a classroom. The other week I spoke to a colleague working in a school where they are expected to plan every lesson with at least three differentiated outcomes dependent on ability. This is insane. How do you decide where the line is drawn and divide the kids into separate groups where one will write the essay and another will create the poster? Surely this is just a race to the bottom for the poster makers? I was further incensed on this topic when I went to a T+L workshop recently that advocated this very approach, along with the frankly laughable and outdated idea of differentiated objectives (of the ludicrous must/should/could variety!). This colleague further told me that in September the expectation that teachers plan for three outcomes at this school will be doubling to six! Imagine that! Such expectations are ludicrous, arbitrary and worst of all damaging to staff morale because they make a positive work-life balance difficult. I want everyone in my class to do their best to produce the best piece of writing of which they’re capable in response to the task set, and this is what I expect to see in my colleagues’ classrooms too. Great differentiation is about knowing the students, fine-tuning instruction and questioning, and knowing when to intervene and what support to provide, not providing some silly Nando’s style menu of tasks.
5) Student talk = learning/Teacher-talk -= not learning.
I don’t need to spell this one out – students learn best through quality explicit instruction, not through being put in groups to fumble their way to some half-baked answer that then has to be corrected through 10 minutes of explicit instruction provided at the end of the lesson by the teacher in an effort to try and salvage some shred of learning from a wasted hour. (Number 5 could have also been called “Group work works!” No, it doesn’t).
6) Fun = engagement = learning.
Why do some of us still cling to the idea that the only way to get kids to learn is to dress up what happens in the classroom as something completely different? Learning is rewarding in itself and the subjects we teach are endlessly fascinating. Let’s not turn it into a murder mystery with lots daft props sourced from Poundland at the weekend out of the teacher’s own pocket.
7) Grading is an effective way to bring about improvements.
It was a welcome relief several years ago that Ofsted stopped grading lessons and consequently sensible schools did too (I hear many schools do still do this and even using fine-grading – this is inexcusable). At my school we focus on formative feedback, and that’s all we need. What went well in the lesson and what might have been improved? It’s also acknowledged that what is seen is only a snapshot of practice and I always urge colleagues never to change what they were going to do just because somebody is coming to watch, regardless of who it is. This culture of low-stakes observation also leads to much more confidence amongst staff: more doors are left open, staff are happy for colleagues to come and have a look at what they’re doing, and people don’t feel as though people are trying to catch them out. I look forward to the day when Ofsted also behave in this way in practice – they are making the right noises at the top, but many inspectors still seem to cultivate an aura of the mediaeval witch-finder, rather than the benign advice-giver which schools would benefit more from.
8) Bad behaviour = bad planning.
I remember the aforementioned AHT imparting this nugget of non-wisdom to me as an NQT or RQT. It sounded wrong at the time but I didn’t have the experience or confidence to challenge it. Bad behaviour = bad behaviour. Full stop. There’s also a suggestion here that if there is bad behaviour then the teacher hasn’t planned the lesson, which in some schools leads to an expectation that lengthy detailed lesson plans will be produced for every lesson. What a waste of time. Great teachers think lessons through, know what students will learn and decide how best to impart and assess whether this has worked. Filling in a 3-sided A4 document doesn’t help them achieve this or lead to better behaviour.
9) Bad behaviour = communicating a need.
It seems that every individual is encouraged to have a need that should be given a label and that can only be channelled through some form of anti-social behaviour. This is an inherently flawed aspect of the way society now thinks. The fact that nearly all students who exhibit anti-social behaviour in lessons can behave perfectly well in other lessons clearly demonstrates that most poor behaviour is a choice. We have to stop pandering to this silliness. And this leads nicely into Number 10.
10) All children are inherently good.
This is a sacred belief and to question it is, for many, quite simply taboo. Suggesting otherwise opens you up to attacks and accusations from all sides. But the generality of the statement in itself exposes its weaknesses, and the strongest defenders of such a doctrine are often those who push for a much more personalised and individualised approach to education. The truth is, nobody is inherently good or bad, but we are judged as such by the things we do and say. Children are learning to be good citizens and schools are a key part in helping them to do this. Anti-social behaviour that jeopardies the safety and security of others needs to be dealt with promptly and seriously before reintegration can occur, not written off as something else. All children have the potential to be good, but this is not inherent.
There are many more things I could consign to an educational Room 101, but we’ll leave it there and get back to the enjoyable stuff of being on holiday with the family whilst occasionally thinking about how best to bring about improvements for the staff and students in our school (in that order I might add: if the staff are happy it follows that the students will be happy too). Enjoy the Easter break.