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?