I don’t care how you teach, as long as students make progress.

As a school leader I’ve had the privilege to visit many, many classrooms.  I learn something during most visits, whether my stay be five minutes or longer.  As a teacher and school leader, I’ve looked at loads of outcomes and progress data over the years and used these to start and inform conversations about teaching and learning.  I’ve also been lucky enough to visit and teach in classrooms other than in the UK.  Based on this rather flimsy experience of successfully increasing attainment and progress at different scales continually over my career, I’ve come to the following conclusions:

  • The core purpose of education is to ensure that every young person makes more progress than they ever expected through developing their skills, broadening their knowledge and deepening their understanding. However, if we are to succeed in this goal, the purpose of education has to be much broader and contextualised to each individual institution’s context.  There’s no point in having a bomber, rigid mock exam system if the young people don’t turn up to school. 
  • It doesn’t matter how an individual decides to teach, as long as progress is being made and can be demonstrated over time. There isn’t a single strategy or tool in the world that is the answer. 
  • Teachers are agents of change, there’s no point in waiting for Superman. A new Government, central workload initiative or a transformed Ofsted isn’t really going to change the world. Continual CPD that subverts, contextualises and challenges systems will.
  • In the UK, there is a game to be played – get the Progress right and Attainment will look right and Ofsted will bugger off.
At the Google Teacher Academy we debated what the point of school actually is.  The internet can broaden knowledge and parents can help young people to have life experiences; to find their moral compass and apply their understanding to new contexts. The reality is that schools need to overcome barriers to learning if progress is to be made. Such barriers can include poor parenting.  We could blame others and pass the buck.  This makes our institutions complex beasts. Don’t get me wrong, in a secondary school external results in examinations are our priority, but how we get them is up to us.
We also have to take in to account the context of where our buildings sit.  Schools are part of the community, not isolated from it.  Sometimes as teachers we need to demonstrate the passion and model the enthusiasm of learning something difficult just for the sake of it. Sometimes we have to work really hard to engage parents and remind them of their responsibilities to send their wards in to school.  Teachers can provide role models, stability, a counter viewpoint to home or the media.  Schools need to be safe places – if not progress can’t be made.  What works in one school may not work in another in exactly the same way.
When it comes to teaching, there are many ways to make progress.  As a leader I’ve seen teachers who have styles contrary to mine (indeed, some of them make me scream!) get fantastic outcomes.  Children thrive in their lessons. I can walk down a corridor where traditionalist and progressives alternate by almost every classroom.  Some of them get the most brilliant progress outcomes, others not so much.  In the discussions that follow each progress check (when done properly the data trawl is vital to having conversations) the teaching style never comes up.  Some traditionalists get spectacular outcomes whilst other teachers, using the same style are plants.  Same goes for other teachers.  This means that:
  • You’re a teacher, trad/prog blah blah
  • The relationship between the teacher and their class, including high expectations, challenge and their own knowledge (especially subject and assessment knowledge) is more important than the teaching style.
What comes up can be illustrated through my dream model of learning:
Now, I can never see all of these in one lesson. And this is OK because lessons don’t matter. What do are sequences of lessons that are the best quality they can be.  
Wherever progress is, professional conversations need to be had.
If progress is where it should be, then departments and teachers should be given greater autonomy – they know what works.  Whether it is still working can be monitored through a rigorous and moderated assessment system.   Where progress is lacking, a conversation needs to be had.  From experience, the following barriers have existed that stop teachers making teaching the best it can be:
  • The have weak or inconsistent classroom management techniques.
  • Work isn’t matched to where students are either because of a lack of planning, assessment or because expectations are too low.
  • There are subject or assessment knowledge issues.
  • Progress of students isn’t checked appropriately. As a result interventions aren’t tracked and are often too late.
I can’t recall a conversation with a teacher (past their training or NQT year) about how the lesson was taught.  Of course, as a geography specialist I may make suggestions to the geography team, but the head of department should be the master of the subject pedagogy. Poor outcomes need to be challenged and there need to be systems in place.  These systems need to be in place to minimise in school variation which is the killer of progress and dreams.  Get progress right and Ofsted will go away. For this to happen they need to know that leadership in the school, at all levels, is strong and challenges a lack of progress.  
Such systems shouldn’t rely upon lesson observations but draw information from the rich environment that we work within:
  • Student focus groups.
  • Speaking to other adults in the room, such as TAs.
  • Looking at books whilst speaking to students about feedback.
  • Progress checks, internal and external examinations.
  • Parental contact.
There are many ills in education but it is also the best job in the world.  I honestly have to pinch myself – am I really paid to do this?  Should schools be lifeless vessels that impart knowledge, develop skills and challenge understanding?  No.  We also are not employment factories. We impart the basic skills but employers need to stop complaining and put in to place training programmes.  However, our students and families expect and demand that what they do with us will lead to something.  When teenagers finally figure out what it is they want to do in the future, they become more animated and engaged.  Therefore schools would be foolish not to signpost the point of learning: to get a better job; to make sense of the crazy world around them and to provide the stimulus to do something about it.  Schools have to overcome the particular barriers to progress in their setting and therefore, although learning is always the focus, we have to do a lot more.

If I were more clever, I would compare education to some other aspect of life. However, the debate around the purpose of education is refreshing.  Those who don’t like it can just ignore it.  Thing is, every aspect of life continually evaluates and refreshes.  At some point the medical profession became focused on prevention as well as treatment.

I’m a teacher because I believe in public service and because it gives me a sense of moral purpose.  I don’t impart this through teaching, just model it. And show the odd selfie or two……

Photo Credit via Flickr

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