Principle Skimmer

Anyone who has ever run an inset in a school is aware of the potential pitfalls. It’s either the first day of term or the last. Attention spans are shorter than usual and stomachs are rumbling as teachers begin to adjust to the abrupt change in their daily routine. You – the person entrusted to improve teaching in your school over the space of an hour or two – are under no illusions. You are only too aware of how little is retained a few months or even a few days after an inset, and you want yours to have some lasting impact. So, what do you do? The easy answer is create some key take-aways, some practical suggestions that the teachers can begin to use immediately. “Don’t worry about the principle,” you imply. “Here’s a useful strategy.” If you’re a leader in the school, perhaps this useful strategy becomes a non-negotiable expectation for some or all future lessons. Perhaps this even becomes the latest addition to the checklist of strategies that must be seen during the next round of lesson observations. The teachers’ practice will be observably altered, and you feel you’ve done your job. Congratulations! You’ve had an impact – that’s the good news; the bad news is that you and your colleagues may have been far better off if you just hadn’t bothered…

Attempting to enforce changes in behaviour often leads to unintended consequences. A famous example is that of Mexico City’s Hoy No Circular program.[i] In an attempt to encourage the use of public transport, the program banned older, less environmentally-friendly cars from being driven in the city on particular days, based on the last digit of the car’s licence plate. The plan backfired as car journeys were widely replaced by taxi journeys, and many people substituted ownership of one quite old car for two very old cars so that they could drive in the city on any day of the week. Mexico City’s air quality did not improve, though this has not stopped the same program being copied and rolled out across other cities; as with education, it is often the apparent simplicity of a strategy that appeals, rather than its efficacy. Forget the principle. Apply the strategy. In this way, schools are rarely any different.   

Dylan Wiliam is clearly a man who recognises better than most the nuances in discussions on education, and I imagine that few principles are as widely accepted across primary schools as one he has promoted for decades: the need to clarify, share and understand learning intentions. So why does the man himself describe this element of formative assessment as “possibly…the least well done of all”?[ii] Perhaps it is because many schools have taken Wiliam’s principle of sharing clear learning intentions and turned it into non-negotiable strategies, usually in the form of written learning outcomes or objectives (LOs), that have been applied thoughtlessly with unfortunate consequences:

  1. A small – but cumulatively significant – fraction of every lesson is wasted through the writing of LOs by children, sometimes in more than one language. 
  2. Being forced to write LO achieved at the end of each lesson unconsciously nudges teachers, especially inexperienced ones, towards the comforting but ultimately deluded view that there is no difference between what has been taught and what has been learned.
  3. In some schools LOs have evolved into a way of determining in retrospect what a child has supposedly learned. “LO achieved? Oh, good. Tick that one off the list.” This is summative assessment at its weakest and a further waste of time.
  4. The process of writing LO achieved or LO ongoing under pieces of work has undermined the use of research-informed ideas such as retrieval practice: as an inexperienced teacher once said to me, “I can’t cover that bit again. They’ve already got LO achieved in their book. How would that look?” The truth is obviously that every LO is ongoing until it is painstakingly committed to long-term memory. That is the nature of learning.

It goes without saying that I believe Wiliam understands – better than I ever could – how his eminently useful principle has at points been warped into a range of counter-productive strategies.

What do I think can be learned from this example? To those of us occasionally entrusted with the responsibility of improving teaching in our schools: We must not short-change our colleagues with ready-made, checklist-friendly, non-negotiable strategies. We owe it to our colleagues to trust them with the underlying principles of effective teaching and to let the individual strategies grow organically from these (though suggesting some strategies that have proven to be effective is a useful starting point).

(An addendum: Implicit in the above post is the idea of teacher autonomy. I’m in the fortunate position to work in a school that supports my desire to try new things and learn in the process. If you are a teacher and you work in a school that doesn’t allow for this autonomy, my recommendation is that you find one that does as soon as you can.)



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