The Famous Four

I recently read a very good piece by Carl Hendrick concerning the importance of personal relationships to pupil motivation and subsequent academic success. Claudio Ranieri was (reasonably enough) cast as a central figure when providing evidence to back up this assertion. His Leicester City team will win the Premier League this season, which is I suppose the equivalent of many of the lowest achieving pupils at the end of the Lower Sixth all winning Oxbridge places fewer than 12 months later. Yet this is the same Ranieri who was sacked by Greece from his previous job, following an ignominious defeat to the hapless Faroe Islands. This is the equivalent of a teacher with the weakest results in one School being forced to leave for just that reason, then having the ‘Oxbridge effect’ I mentioned earlier in his first year at a new School.

All we can glean from this is that football is an unpredictable sport. The very high currency of the goal (which differentiates football from many other sports) is a major factor, but the sport is littered with managers (and players) who were riotously successful with certain teams before becoming catastrophic failures with others (Graham Taylor, Terry Venables, George Graham, Paolo Di Canio to name just a few).

Teaching is, I think, more predictable than football, but I’ve noted teachers arriving at new Schools with saintly reputations from previous employ, only to be distinctly underwhelmed with them once they started at our place. Incidentally, this is also common to football, when the player who looked like a world-beater when he played against you suddenly signs for your team only to display all the hallmarks of a true Eyeore the second he pulls on your club shirt (Marco Gabbiadini, I *am* looking at you). The opposite is also true – we have at times taken a bit of a punt on certain individuals with less than stellar reputations, who have then flourished in their new surroundings.

Teaching may be more predictable, but it’s also a lot more complicated than football. The more one reads, the more courses one attends and the more one discusses and debates, the more it feels like there’s a real lack of consensus over ‘what works’. You can almost always find some research to back up your gut instinct over how it’s done, and most teachers seem to operate that way round ie decide the best approach and then look to see if anyone agrees. Just as I tend to prefer chefs who only put two or three ingredients on a plate, I respect teachers who adopt a relatively simplistic approach to education. Make sure you know your material (and plenty more besides) inside out and then communicate that material with a sense of clarity that allows the subject material to occupy centre stage (not the ‘engagement activities’ designed to act like the glass of water slipping the bitter pill of content down unnoticed).

So much, so simple. If we all did this, wouldn’t our outcomes be good, and the same? Well, no, because there are two other factors (at least) which have similar importance. The first is charisma and the second is intuition. If we assume that subject expertise can be guaranteed by appointing subject experts (would that this were true in practice, but at least it’s measurable) and that clarity of communication for all teachers will improve practice, it is the second pair of factors that can raise the merely acceptable teacher to levels of greatness.

When the charismatic individual talks, people listen. Topics which have hitherto held no interest for you suddenly become fascinating. When this person talks to a room full of people, they are talking to you as an individual. You don’t take your eyes off them for a moment for fear of missing something. They are a wonderful storyteller, they listen to you intently and take a genuine interest in what you say. When you talk to them, you want to appear knowledgeable and you are disappointed when you can’t find the right words. Their praise is not sprinkled like confetti but when given it really means something. People compete for this praise and for the individual’s attention. I don’t think great teachers are born, but I think with charisma, you’ve either got it or you haven’t.

Intuition is similar – why is it that some people just seem to *know* the best approach to take when there are many factors supporting option A and just as many supporting the polar opposite option B? Of course, in teaching, there’s usually options all the way down to ‘Q’ and only one of them can be correct. These are the people who will choose option A on Monday, which turns out to be correct and then option B on Tuesday, even though the scenario is virtually identical. They will then be proved right again. Of course experienced does help here, but I don’t think it’s enough on its own. I’ve worked with some teachers for whom intuition was only a very distant relative; when given the choice of ice cream or a dog turd for dessert (metaphorically), these people would choose the ‘steamed pudding’ on every occasion. Mike Brearley famously said that ‘people are like plants: some need fertiliser and others need pruning’. This applies to teaching too, but it’s not always the runaway vines that need pruning and sometimes it’s unwise to add fertiliser to even the most recalcitrant perennial.

Some pupils will make any teacher look competent, and other classes can make even the finest practitioners look more Christian Gross than Mario Pochettino, but a combination of expertise, communication skills, charisma and intuition is pretty potent.

Let me know if you ever meet someone matching this description, won’t you?

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The teaching cycle

The world’s favourite non-teaching education expert defines creativity as ‘original ideas that have value’.  Not much to argue with here, except much that comes under the heading of creativity in education fails on at least one of these counts.  In the real world, having an original idea is easy (hearing aids for dogs, anyone?) but imparting value is trickier.

In education, it seems hard to find any genuinely original ideas, let alone ones with value.  The same ideas are recycled (preparing pupils for jobs that don’t exist; teaching grit, character and resilience; remote learning and the impact of technology; using research in neuroscience to develop teaching) but often as nebulous concepts that are hard to argue against and equally tough to pin down.  How might these ideas be enacted?  How is their success measured?  When these questions are asked, the creative ideas tend to be as easy to punch through as tissue paper.

We are of course preparing pupils for the future, and I agree with Greg Ashman when he states that to prepare for an uncertain future, we are best served to teach knowledge that has been useful in the past – that which has endured.

My approach to teaching has always been fairly traditional.  At various points in my career I have played around with technology, social media and a whole host of ‘engagement’ tactics.  I have tried double preparation, peer teaching, pupil voice and no hands up.  I have explored innovative marking techniques, learning triangles, WALTs and student logs.  I have two starred and wished and been both red and green carded.  Exit tickets have been collected, pupils have been greeted at the door before entering an innovative learning space.  The effect of lighting on learning space has been investigated and pupils have been paired by inverse ability to promote peer assistance.  I have tried a 5 minute lesson plan, complete with starters and plenaries.  I have instigated exercise as a means to stimulate concentration.  I have modeled my thinking to try to get pupils to think in the same way and I have explored meta-cognition as  way to get pupils to control their thinking.

Despite all this, my most successful teaching has always been by Direct Instruction, and I define success as having pupils learn the subject, understand the subject, being able to communicate the subject and to genuinely enjoy the subject.

I have stood at the front of the class, with pupils sat in rows, and I have taught them things – content, facts, knowledge.  I have backed my charisma to deliver content in an interesting manner and I have tested understanding through questioning, written work and standardised testing.  I have tested factual recall and problem solving.  I have tested single topics and concepts and the links between them.  As Joseph O’Neill says in The Dog, the ‘human race refreshes itself in complete ignorance’ and it is therefore the duty of each generation to supply the next with a body of knowledge, a tradition, to prepare them for the world, even if some of those jobs haven’t been invented yet.

 We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring 

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time

Eliot’s words sum up my teaching career fairly well.  I have done a fair amount of educational exploring, but I have now returned to the beginning.  This teaching cycle is similar to the journey taken by many chefs.  They are trained in the classics, go through a phase of creativity involving unusual food pairings and food philosophy; foams, gels and atomisers; liquid nitrogen and dry ice, but then return later in a career to the classics, the tried and tested, those recipes and food pairings that have stood the test of time.

I wonder if this is a good metaphor for teaching, and if so, whether we are able to skip the middle *creative* stage entirely?  Snail porridge isn’t actually very nice, after all.