Lions led by donkeys?

This blog post is inspired by, and related to, my experiences of various Australian education conferences over the last year or so. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about conferences, professional development, teacher training: what they are for and how they might benefit the developing teacher. A worrying conclusion I came to is that far from boosting the effectiveness of teachers, which must surely be the aim, we run the significant risk of over-complicating education, confusing teachers and in the worst case scenario, creating worse teachers than would be the case if they were left to their own devices to work things out for themselves.

I met several really impressive early-career teachers at a recent conference in Sydney. They were clearly bright, committed and sponge-like in their willingness to absorb information. Their subject expertise was unquestioned and I felt sure they would improve with time, practice and with appropriate support. By ‘appropriate’ I mean having a line-manager who knows how to strike a balance between support, development and challenge and probably a more ‘social’ mentor, who could be a slightly more experienced teacher able to offer more generic advice on how to prioritise and therefore cope in the School environment.

It is one of the benefits of teaching that most people will be appointed to roles months before they actually take up the post, and hence ample time exists for planning. Line-managers can be careful with the classes given to an inexperienced teacher, with the aim of enabling them to work on the business of pupil learning rather than behaviour management, which tends to improve with time, seniority and experience.

The best way to improve your skill in any area is to practice and then reflect, and in as realistic a situation as possible. There is nothing more realistic than a ‘class which counts’ and teachers will always tend to do most of their learning on the job. I don’t see this as a problem at all, especially given the safety nets I have mentioned above. If we can get the brightest and best into our classrooms (and don’t worry about the offical training, especially given its quality) we can ensure the systems, structures and processes are in place to develop that ‘craft of the classroom’. After all, teaching only requires people to have an excellent knowledge of their subjects and to be able to communicate that knowledge to their charges, right?

In Australia, we all need to complete a minimum of 60 hours’ worth of professional learning in a three year period, and on the outside, this is a noble aim. However, it does lead to a tick-box mentality, where teachers are keen to attend two or three day conferences (often far more filler than killer) to get their hours up. Most conferences (understandably) do not focus on subject-specific teaching, but on more wide-reaching matters of pedagogy, which tend to be less easy to take back to the classroom. The best thing I tend to do at conferences is make contacts, and I think others feel the same.

The aim of professional learning should be two-fold: to improve subject expertise and quality of communication (pedagogy). The former requires training to be domain focused and Schools could take a lead in this, hosting conferences with a specific focus on certain subjects, or Faculty areas. Creating a network of like Schools, with each School committed to hosting certain subject meetings each year would enable genuine collaboration, a focus for teachers on staying on top of one’s subject and a likelihood that each teacher attending would be able to pick up ideas and approaches to take back to their classroom. This would contradict teacher isolation, allow for sharing of good practice between Schools and would remove the need for well-paid consultants to offer ‘off the peg’ training that lacks the focus and knowledge of the individual School where it is being delivered.

The quality of the conference presenters (I’m judging from a sample of only about 50) has been low, both in term of message content and delivery. The word ‘engaging’ is used on an almost minute by minute basis, without any definition of what this means. When looking round the room, the assembled throng usually looks less engaged than Miss Havisham. The current edu-narrative goes something like this:

Kids in Schools are disengaged. This is down to the unwillingness of Schools to move away from a C19 ‘factory model’ of education, with children in rows and all content being passed on by the teacher. The C21 requires a paradigm shift due to technological advance and an uncertain future jobs market. All knowledge can now be looked up on the Internet, so instead we need to teach generic skills (creativity, collaboration and critical thinking) which can be applied in any domain. These skills are best taught through relevant, real-world examples, through a vehicle of ‘passion projects’ where children effectively decide what they want to learn about (content not important).

If you wish to know in detail why I think this is fundamentally flawed, please ask for my presentation from said conference, or peruse my Twitter feed for the last 72 hours. In essence though, the argument against all this can be summarised thus:

1. We are not preparing children for jobs that don’t exist. The vast majority of them will end up in jobs that do exist, and even those who end up in current non-existent jobs are far better off being prepared in core academic disciplines which have served us well so far and will presumably therefore support a yet unheard of job. The idea that success for an unknown job might involve not knowing anything is odd.

2. Knowing things is vital. You cannot apply any critical thinking to something about which you know nothing. Consider the quality of School debates when pupils are debating a topic on which they are inexpert. They can have as much access to Google as they like but without the background expertise, the debates end up being fought only on the surface.

3. Projects tend to mean pupils end up displaying knowledge they already have, thus learning nothing new, or worse still, they end up learning nothing at all about what they were supposed to, but instead learn only about the medium (PowerPoint, website, diorama(!))

4. The C21 requires no paradigm shift. Yes, technology develops apace, but skills of critical thinking, collaboration and creativity are not new, and certainly no more important in the C21 than they were in the C20, or C19…

5. Most of us are not interested in the same things as when we were ten years old. I loved the ships of the Royal Navy and the Roman Empire when I was ten, but I’m now pretty glad that I was introduced to Betjeman, Bach and Balthus by expert teachers. It has made my life much richer.

6. We live in the real world. Everything that happens in School and outside School is happening in the real world. I have no idea what makes for a ‘non-real world’ problem, and I expert solving other-worldly problems could be even more fun.

7. Children will always learn stuff, it’s in our nature to be curious, but it’s a good idea if for a significant amount of School time, they are learning what we want them to learn. Children do not develop their Maths and Science by playing in the playground, as I was bizarrely informed earlier in the week.

8. Learning is sometimes fun, hard, boring and thrilling, and so is life. Life is not supposed to be fun all the time and it’s the same with learning. We need to embrace all of life’s natural emotions.

9. ‘Disengagement’ is not a diagnosable illness (I’m sorry, Mrs Smith, but…it’s disengagement, just as we feared…). Motivation comes from the self, and it is with the attitude of the disengaged pupil we need to start, rather than running back to the crepe paper and glue to try to find a fun and gimmicky activity.

10. Stop using a ten minute Ken Robinson doodle to form your entire educational philosophy. It’s remarkable how many people who espouse the need for critical thinking can be so easily hoodwinked by an affable after-dinner speaker with zero teaching experience.

I would be happy to bin all teacher training, and instead expect all Schools to offer a thorough programme of induction and training for their staff, with a long-term commitment to develop teachers, and not just for the first year or two. We would get better subject experts into the profession, and not from those 60 ATAR requirement education degrees, but people with a degree in an actual subject if we removed the need for official training before commencing a career (please don’t use the surgeon/pilot analogy, it doesn’t work). I’d like to see a better balance of subject-specific training with more general pedagogy and I’d like for managers to remember what it was like to teach a full timetable, and to consider a large part of their role is to free up teachers to teach, not to brow-beat them with initiatives to show just how dynamic their leadership can be.

There were times earlier in the week when I caught sight of a young impressionable teacher deep in conversation with an out-of-date charlatan (yes, I am talking about you, Merrick) and I feared for our profession. We have the ability to promote and develop an outstanding new generation, or we can take them backwards by filling heads with out of date and anti-intellectual edu-waffle.

It’s our choice…