Judge not, that ye be not judged…

That is how the bible puts it.  Chris Brown updated it to ‘please don’t judge me, and I won’t judge you’.  But what’s so wrong with judging people, anyway?  The term tends to be used in a pejorative sense: ‘he’s so judgmental’.  We all make judgments on people all the time, from the outfit a friend is wearing today to the helpfulness of the faceless representative on the end of the ‘phone to the competence of the waiter serving us dinner.  We are quick to label people as kind, pleasant, friendly, a jobsworth, officious or rude -these are often the result of interactions lasting minutes.  There is no record of the judgments made, but try going a whole day without making a judgment on anyone – it’s impossible.

Given that we are going to be judged in some sense by virtually everyone we meet, we may as well accept it as fact.  We can hope that the judgments are fair, and in cases where the judgement matters, we should expect factual evidence to trump gut instinct.  When the evidence is overwhelming, it’s hard to oppose a judgment, but it’s also easy to ignore the person who deems a candidate unsuitable for hiring because of their vice-like handshake or odd choice of socks.

One of the things on which all teachers seem to be unified is the pointlessness of grading individual lessons.  Apart from the level of subjectivity that must be involved when only one person makes the judgment, each lesson is never taught in isolation.  No-one ever picked up War and Peace, started at page 307, finished on page 308 and declared it a masterpiece/utter tripe as a result – at least no-one would be taken seriously if they did.  I teach my Sixth Form classes for 7 lessons per fortnight, for about 55 weeks.  That’s about 200 lessons – or if each lesson was a page, it’s a fairly short book (though I’m sure it feels more like War and Peace to them).  How many pages of a book must one read before feeling able to make a valid judgment on the literary merit of the novel?  I reckon you need to read them all – plenty of books set the scene wonderfully and introduce strong characters then tend to fizzle out for an inability to pull all the strands together.  Some books are only possible to fully appreciate once you complete the final page.

It’s never possible to observe teachers for more than a slender fraction of their lessons with any one set, so can our judgments ever be valid?  I think it’s all about piecing together the evidence.  Listen to the pupils – teacher reputations are rarely far from the truth.  You do need to listen to lots of pupils, however, just as you should be prepared to watch lots of lessons.  It is also eminently fair to make judgments based on a teacher’s class results.  But you need to scrutinise a lot of results, across different sets and different academic years.  It is a fallacy that great teachers don’t get at least very good results, likewise the results achieved by pupils taught by poor teachers rarely rise above the ‘in line with ability’.  ‘Teaching to the test’ doesn’t necessarily gain better results that teaching pupils in order they become first rate historians/physicists/hispanists – the first approach creates pupils who are good at exams, the second creates pupils who are good at subjects (hence good at exams).  The best teachers are experts in their subject; have a genuine interest; are able to communicate this interest; care about the education of the pupils they teach; will make time when needed to assist their charges.

This much is probably obvious, but here are two characteristics of the best that sometimes go unnoticed: firstly, the greatest teachers tend to take full responsibility for the results they achieve (even though they know it’s a joint responsibility) – they realise that the pupils they teach are not adults, but they are.  We must try to instill a sense of responsibility for one’s work and actions into our pupils, but there will inevitably some that will fail to do so, and that’s when we must be the safety net.  The second point (and it’s the only part of great teaching that I believe is ‘born’) is that the best teachers have a sense of intuition about their teaching – they know when to slow down, or push the class harder, when they need to move off topic and when they need to keep drilling.  It was said of ex-England cricket captain Mike Brearley that he ‘had a degree in people, and for all those teachers with more than one degree, that’s the most important second qualification.

I will continue to make judgments on my pupils, colleagues, Headmaster and pizza delivery boy, and I fully expect them to make judgments on me.  A few years ago a pupil I taught to GCSE received the only ‘E’ grade in the School that year, across the entire year group and across every subject.  One question required him to explain why magnesium blocks were strapped to the hull of a ship.  He left the question blank, but chose instead to colour in the ship with a 4-way biro.  It wasn’t even a particularly good piece of colouring, involving the going-over of many edges.  Should I be judged on this grade?  Absolutely, but it’s a single point, and I think it’s fair to say, an outlier.  I can still learn from that experience and the day I start saying the pupils ‘get what they deserve’, it’s time to move on.

What do they know of cricket?

The title of this blog comes from C L R James’ Beyond a Boundary, which is the finest book on cricket I have read.  It’s not really about cricket at all, but it does show how cricket is a valid metaphor for life.  Anyone who read Richie Benaud’s tips for commentary that were shared enthusiastically on social media this week will note these could be applied more widely than the confines of the commentary box.  I have not coached cricket for some years (feebly citing work pressure) but I always saw it as one of the most ‘Schoolmasterly’ of pursuits.  Every pupil was coached to walk in with the bowler (and would then generally stop at the point of delivery, thus negating the purpose of walking in at all); every pupil knew to clap the new batsman to the wicket and every pupil was aware of the need to ‘run round’ between overs.  Taking a guard was mandatory, even if the guard was ‘middle’, where a huge crevice had already been chopped out by previous enthusiastic mark makers.  Most pupils then tended to drag a single spike through said crevice, before placing their bat just outside off stump as the bowler turned to bowl.  These idiosyncrasies are repeated up and down the land.  None of them will make you a better cricketer, but these are part of the rituals of the game.  You look like a cricketer, you act like the cricketer, hence you must be a cricketer.  This bears more than a passing resemblance to Feynman’s famous Cargo Cult address from 1974.  The runs that don’t come simply replace the planes that didn’t come.

None of the rituals I have mentioned above will make you a better cricketer and likewise, in education, there are similar pieces of coaching advice that will fail to make any difference to your teaching.  ‘Never smile ’til Christmas’ is the least helpful piece of advice, but there are plenty of others – ‘don’t be persuaded to take on stuff outside the classroom’, ‘seat the pupils in alphabetical order’, ‘don’t mark using red pen’.  I have often heard teachers in training being criticised for being ‘too PGCE-ish’, which tends to mean full of progressive ideology that we suspect has been rammed down their throat by a course tutor.  Equally dispiriting is the teacher who comes straight from a number of years in academia, expecting that pupils will automatically share their love of the subject without question.  Coming into teaching with pre-conceived ideas (or ideas that have been impressed upon you) is likely to limit your success.

Here’s where I think the link with cricket holds true, and with bowling in particular: one does not look to build up a bowling action from scratch, to tell a child what ‘works’ in order to create a bio-mechanically perfect bowling action.  Instead, a coach will tend to ask a child to bowl a few balls in the nets and will then ascertain how he/she can improve on what exists already.  Maybe the natural inclination is to bowl off the ‘wrong’ foot, to have a mixed action, to fall away in delivery stride, to collapse the front knee or to fail to pivot in the delivery stride.  All of these things are likely to compromise bowling effectiveness, but some cricketers have still managed to reach the top of their profession with certain weaknesses from the above list.  The fact is we take what is natural and then attempt to develop and improve it, without leaving things unrecognisable from where we started.  Development, not knocking things down and starting from scratch.

Improving teaching should be done similarly, and by that I mean we need to concentrate on the individual teachers – their circumstances and challenges.  It is much easier to take what we have, to observe a few lessons and then to suggest what subtle and specific changes can be made to improve matters.  It is also sensible to change only one thing at a time.  I don’t believe that by taking note of research being done in education, we can distil what constitutes effective teaching from that which is not.  I agree that a minority of strategies seem likely to fail and others will work most of the time, but that’s probbaly the best we can do because teaching is much more complicated than that.  What ‘works’ one year seems not to be effective the next – what works with one class of fifteen-year olds does not work with another.  I teach five classes this year and would be able to rank them in order of how effectively I am teaching them.  I have ideas of how to improve the effectiveness of my teaching with each class, and I’m sure that if a colleague were to observe a sequence of lessons with a class, they would have ideas too.  I would be very happy to listen to advice on what amendments I could make.  Nothing is more important than being a reflective practitioner, and to look to make subtle and necessary variations to our delivery where necessary.  Just as batsman, pitches and overhead conditions change, so do pupils, class dynamics and time of lessons.  We should be aware of the need to vary our approach when necessary and this requires the ability to self-audit and also the willingness to listen to the ideas/wisdom of colleagues.  Schools are full of good teachers/coaches and we should be happy to take advice as well as to proffer it.

What do they know of education who only education know?