Over the following few hundred words, it’s going to sound like I’m throwing much of the teaching profession under the bus, so before I begin, know this: everything I say here comes from a position of respect for what teachers do and an anger at the circumstances under which I believe the majority are forced to operate. That teachers achieve what they do despite the prevailing circumstances that I am about to describe is damn impressive. I hope that’s enough positive regard deposited in the emotional piggy-bank to get everyone through the first couple of paragraphs at least:
Beyond the limits of their own personal experience, the average primary school teacher is grossly uninformed about how to teach specific subjects. If you walked into a normal primary school today, what percentage of classroom teachers do you think would have read a book or research paper on teaching in the past year? I can imagine that a fair few have had Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction (or, if they’re lucky, Tom Sherrington’s book on the subject) thrust upon them during an inset day. But beyond that? My guess is that we’re talking 5-10%, at best, and even lower for anything subject-specific. I might get some push-back on this opinion – especially given that it is by nature based on anecdote – but I think the Edutwitter bubble hides the reality from us: the majority of teachers don’t read about teaching.
“Well, perhaps that is the case,” you might say, “but at least teachers have a solid framework of subject-specific reading from their teacher training on which to rely, don’t they?” Nope. Not in my experience anyway. I studied for my PGCE in 2008. There was definitely no shortage of research papers shared and discussed. In particular, I read a fair bit about behaviourism, constructivism and socio-cultural learning theory; we talked lots about Piaget and Vygotsky; I learned about assessment for learning and mindsets; I even read a bit about behaviour management. All of this was useful, no doubt. But subject-specific pedagogy? Not much. A PGCE is a one-year course, where a significant chunk of time is spent either in school or writing essays. The idea that a course such as this even could give a new teacher a decent grounding in educational research and how to teach, say, maths is – to put it politely – rather aspirational. From discussions with my peers, other routes into teaching don’t fare much better. Like the majority of NQTs, I arrived at my first school not knowing, for example, the difference between perceptual and conceptual subitising, the simple model of reading, what orthography was, the research behind how to teach reading fluency, etc. And, again like the vast majority of teachers, this was where my understanding of subject-specific pedagogy stopped – beyond that which I could develop through trial-and-error and conversations with colleagues.
“What about CPD?” you might ask. What about CPD!? Primary teachers work an average of 47-49 hours per week.[i] Of that time, usually an hour or so is dedicated to developing their expertise, in a staff meeting after a draining day of teaching. The task is so vast that most schools don’t know where to begin. Understandably, quick fixes that attempt to address every area of the curriculum are attempted: hour-long discussions of metacognition or thinking skills or motivation are dutifully sat through and then – at best – briefly referred to at a later date, usually with some new time-consuming obligation attached. Even with training days, CPD equates to around 50 hours per year, of which a significant proportion is dedicated to administrative tasks (book scrutinies, understanding the school’s recent results and SIP, etc) and training that repeats through necessity (sessions on safeguarding, resuscitation, epipen usage, etc.) In all, I reckon that around 5-10 hours a year of training directly relate to an area of subject-specific pedagogy. Usually, this involves an exhausted subject leader – who equally lacks the time to develop their expertise – regurgitating the contents of a course that they have attended and discussing how this relates to the Ofsted inspection framework. In short, teachers are thrown in at the deep end and expected to swim. Some scramble their way to a half-decent front crawl; some learn to doggy-paddle out of sheer necessity, a method they’re stuck with for fear of drowning; the rest struggle to the side of the pool and clamber out, never to return.
You might well be angry at the implication that this describes you or your school. Don’t be. I am not attempting to describe every teacher or every school. I have no doubt that some schools genuinely offer their teachers excellent CPD. Nevertheless, I guarantee that these schools have achieved this by reducing non-CPD workload. How? By ruthlessly minimising the time spent on displays, marking, assessment, reports, etc. If you’re a school leader and you think that your setting offers decent CPD and yet the teachers spend more than 40 hours per week on all of the non-CPD areas of teaching, then you’re kidding yourself.
Over the past few years, I have come to realise just how hopelessly uninformed I was (and largely still am) and have begun to try and do something about it. So, how do I find the time to read about teaching? A few years back personal circumstances forced me to move to a four-day-a-week contract, and when those circumstances changed, I decided to spend that extra day reading and learning about education rather than being a classroom teacher. Effectively, in order to become a little better informed about the profession to which I am currently dedicating my working life, I have had to give up 20% of my salary and 20% of the time that I actually spend teaching children. Most people, obviously, don’t have that luxury. That such a step felt necessary is a fairly substantial reason why our education system is broken.
That all seems rather negative, but in case the potential solutions to this problem weren’t implied strongly enough above, I’ll state them explicitly here:
- School leaders should reduce the number of hours teachers spend on all non-CPD areas of teaching to a maximum of 40 hours. You may think this is unachievable, but this is only because we are so accustomed to the countless tasks that seem important in schools but are infinitely less important than developing teachers’ pedagogical and didactic expertise. Beyond the obvious time-hoovers of marking, detailed assessment, displays, paper trails, etc, there are a thousand little jobs that each seem inconsequential but add up to our current state of affairs. We need to start saying no to these little jobs as and when they arise. If we are not protective of our time, then we will have none spare for developing our teaching expertise.
- Once the above is achieved, school leaders should make reading an integrated part of teacher CPD. It should become a professional expectation that teachers read about teaching. (Naturally, podcasts and videos may also achieve the same thing sometimes.)
- Across the profession, we must change the mindset of how we develop as teachers, from quick fixes to something far more granular. Look at the teaching of specific areas (e.g. fractions, sentence structure, reading fluency, etc) one at a time. Don’t try to do everything at once. When it comes to our expertise in teaching individual subjects, we improve one tiny area at a time. It’s a slow process, but almost anything else is just a pretense. (That’s not to say there isn’t room for training on areas that are broader, such as mastery or meta-cognition. However, the majority of training should focus on the small stuff and allow teachers to build this up over time.)