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…

 

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10 thoughts on “Lions led by donkeys?

  1. I agree with many of your thoughts here. I have been interested in the many conversations you have had on Twitter since going to the conference in Sydney. I agree that many in Australian education are going too far in attempting to throw out subject based content and teacher driven explicit teaching. My concern is that some of your assertions come across as generalisations where from my experience, R-12 education is very hard to generalise.

    Could a fresh graduate only majoring in literature or mathematics be an effective junior primary teacher? Hopefully some day, but with no educational based training, no way would I have them in our classrooms. Surely pedagogical/education based training has its place.

    Knowledge about how children and teenagers learn is crucial. Without training, teachers are doing a disservice to their students.

    Since I have learnt how to effectively use blooms taxonomy, my kids have had a better understanding of content than when I was simply pushing ‘knowledge.’

    What about effective assessment design, differentiation, quality feedback? In my experience, without proper training (pre-service or in-house) teachers just do what their teachers did to them. Much of it marginal.

    Happy to hear your thoughts..

  2. I agree with many of your thoughts here. I have been interested in the many conversations you have had on Twitter since going to the conference in Sydney. I agree that many in Australian education are going too far in attempting to throw out subject based content and teacher driven explicit teaching. My concern is that some of your assertions come across as generalisations where from my experience, R-12 education is very hard to generalise.

    Could a fresh graduate only majoring in literature or mathematics be an effective junior primary teacher? Hopefully some day, but with no educational based training, no way would I have them in our classrooms. Surely pedagogical/education based training has its place.

    Knowledge about how children and teenagers learn is crucial. Without training, teachers are doing a disservice to their students.

    Since I have learnt how to effectively use blooms taxonomy, my kids have had a better understanding of content than when I was simply pushing ‘knowledge.’

    What about effective assessment design, differentiation, quality feedback? In my experience, without proper training (pre-service or in-house) teachers just do what their teachers did to them. Much of it marginal.

    Happy to hear your thoughts..

    • It’s certainly true that we’re heavily influenced by the way we were taught at School.

      I think Primary teaching is a good point, given this is the only stage where generalists tend to prevail (and I think that’s a good thing). I’m talking more about the MS/SS environment where subject expertise is essential (though one could also argue that having a depth of knowledge will make you a more interesting teacher in the primary environment).

      I’m not sure what you mean by the difference between content and knowledge, but Bloom’s taxonomy doesn’t do much for me and doesn’t appear to be backed by modern psychology either. It was developed in 1956 and I think we’ve moved on since then.

      I’m certainly not one – eyed and there’s an element of providing a diametrically opposed viewpoint to the current orthodoxy.

      Thanks for taking the trouble to write – always happy for you to visit or continue the conversation over a beer?

      • Always keen for a beer and a bit of teacher banter.

        Blooms is still so good. I’m English and History focused. I’m not into seeing the levels hierarchical, as in one is fundamentally superior than the other. They should all relate.

        However, when I started questioning students and giving them tasks that required them to analyse, evaluate and synthesise the content they were learning, it was a game changer, especially for highly able students. Their thinking became far superior and visible compared to classes that only required them to remember the facts.

        However, if you are more open to something modern, I’m just starting to explore SOLO taxonomy. I have a feeling it may be more relevant for the scientific domains. Give it a look.

        Add me to Twitter if you care to connect: @aj_cott

  3. Though ‘donkeys’ is perhaps harsh (and ‘lions’ perhaps optimistic: today’s ‘donkeys’ were likely yesterday’s ‘lions’), and though, too, I do not share all of Ben’s assumptions about the nature of education, I am nevertheless in full agreement with most of what he has written here, and strongly endorse the alternative vision of teacher development that he recommends.

    I have always had misgivings about generic approaches to professional development. They frequently operate on the following assumptions: that educational research gives us a better understanding of what teaching requires than does the experience of teaching itself; that, therefore, teaching can be considered a primarily technical undertaking; that, accordingly, the application of new research devised methodologies will more effectively address old problems. Hence, they tend to proceed from the premise that the challenges of education are best solved by the application of some new pedagogical technique, or interesting change of perspective. Often enough, confidence in these novelties derives primarily from their status as novelties – like the ‘lions’ above, full of promise all the more beguiling by virtue of being, as yet, unrealised.

    When we affirm a given approach as justified by research, we too rarely critically examine what such research involves. No doubt, educational researchers are ingenious in their methods of procuring significant data, whether or not such data actually measures, or can even register, the most significant occurrences within a classroom, much less can do so more effectively than can a teacher, is at least debatable.

    Conversely I have found subject specific professional development (particularly in the IB) to be worthwhile precisely because it is addressed to issues of content, understanding, clarification and so forth and correspondingly less concerned with matters of pedagogy

    Most of all, what worries me about contemporary educational discourse is its eagerness to tailor education to the student. In my view, we do not educate students to prepare them for a job, nor even, as Ben suggests, to be more knowledgeable, but to prepare them for life as adult human beings. Much of recent educational thought involves a sophisticated inquiry into how education can be addressed to students. Education begins in this way to understand itself as a form of marketing. The intrinsic fascination and ever expanding horizons of of this inquiry can easily distract us from questioning whether its underlying premise is sound. Arguably, contemporary education (and marketing, and much else besides) seeks to adapt the world to the student when rather it should be helping the student to adapt to the world.

    This means that a crucial dimension of education is more or less tacit, and involves students coming to grips on a daily basis with all the innumerable challenges of adapting their particular dispositions and aptitudes to the various requirements of working with other students, working with diverse teachers, working in an organisational and communal setting, and undertaking particular scholastic and non-scholastic disciplines. While, assuredly,, it is our job as teachers to support students in facing these challenges, by seeking recurrently to render the experience ever more amenable to the student, we can deprive them of some of their most important educational opportunities.

    In respect both of the content of teacher training and its method, this line of thought aligns itself Ben’s advocacy of a more experience focused mode of professional development.

  4. Given all this good sense being bandied about, I thought I should leave something Gnomic: “If the lion was advised by the fox, he would be cunning. Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.” WB

  5. Hello, Ben. Interesting stuff. As a long-serving teacher I have suffered similar conference fatigue imposed upon me by contentless presentations. As you know, I share your disposition to keep an eye on both sides of this pedagogically blurred fence. I feel similar disdain for anyone pitching camp exclusively in one side or the other. A school should bring variety to those that attend it, and each organisation should encourage teachers to reflect on what is actually going on in their classrooms from the pupil point of view as well as their own – not necessarily an easy thing to do. I do support the idea of schools reclaiming the PD of their staff. Too much goes to waste. I would push back a little with the idea of agility. The world is more agile now than it used to be. In danger of being squashed as a buzzword – agile is the new black – for me, it represents a need to maintain an awareness that, whilst we must celebrate and maintain academic enquiry as a successful and meaningful process, we must also be open to new methods. Where I differ to the current crop of evangelists, maybe, is in believing that agility is often dependent on a sound general knowledge, which in turn is acquired through many different means. I identify with your suggestion of motivation being something of self and addressing attitudes rather than offering sweets is the better foot forward. However, a teacher employing skill-driven enquiry-based methodologies who witnesses an increase in engagement has every right to state that they believe it is the method that made the magic happen. NB: I sympathise with your frustration in the latter being proffered as the holy grail.

    I posit the concept of caring. Of making people care about it. Could it be that what all-comers claiming classroom success are actually talking about – the common denominator – is that they found a way to make pupils care about whatever it is they are doing. The didactic subject expert may do this through their agility in questioning and leading a way through the mire. The project-based pupil-centred facilitator displays an agility in endorsing the young mind helping them navigate the mire. And many variants in between. Be they Mr Chips or Ms Kale Smoothy, I would aspire to a school that could accommodate both. I love chips and healthy stuff.

    What I would like to read on your blog is what you are doing in your school to achieve what you believe is best. For me that is where the value lies; sharing what it is that we actually do.

    • Thanks Dai, I can send you my development plan if you like? Many presentations focus on ‘what we’re doing in my School’ but whereas certain educational truths tend to be universal, Schools are idiosyncratic beasts and implementation to similar ends may look very different. Good point though, will blog…Simon Breakspear good on ‘agile Schools’ btw.

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