Unprofessional development

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.)

[i] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-49728831

Do I have to read this?

Edutwitter is a bubble, and like all social bubbles, it can be jarring when it is popped by an outsider. That’s what happened to me this week when I spoke to a friend of mine, a teacher coming to the end of his third year. Twelve months ago, he became a mathematics subject leader at a nearby primary school. He is an avid reader of fiction, and we occasionally chat about books, so he asked me what I was currently reading. When I replied that I was reading a book about mathematics pedagogy, he looked astonished. “I can’t think of anything more boring than reading about maths teaching,” he said. As delicately as I could, I probed a little further and found that he hadn’t read a single book about the teaching of mathematics since being given the role of mathematics subject leader. In fact, he claimed to have not read a single book, research paper or education blog since leaving university. From other conversations with fellow teachers, this experience of teaching is not as rare as I think we in the Edutwitter bubble might realise.

It would be very easy to become judgmental about my friend. “How could someone who is paid to be a primary school’s mathematics expert have done zero reading or research into mathematics pedagogy?” I imagine you asking, conveniently. I think the explanation has two components: time and outlook.

Time

It would be easy to write off my friend as lazy or feckless. He is not. Most weeks, he works 50+ hours, and – as far as I can tell – he is a good teacher who wants the best for his pupils. He is organised, caring and enthusiastic about his day-to-day teaching. I suspect that if I asked his headteacher to describe him in one word, ‘conscientious’ would be it: his marking is detailed, his curriculum tracking grids are evidenced and dated assiduously and his displays are pristine. Nevertheless, he is also the designated mathematics expert at a school with a bought-in ‘mastery’ curriculum who, when asked, didn’t know what ‘mastery’ meant. (When I explained mastery as, essentially, an approach where whole classes learn rapidly together with the teacher not moving on until the vast majority has understood a concept, he deemed the very idea utterly impracticable.) He understands his job as doing what he is asked to do by SLT and doing it to the letter, something that sees him working very long hours. To suggest to him under these circumstances that he ought to start reading about mathematics pedagogy – or anything related to education – seems a little short-sighted. (I did it anyway. What are friends for, eh?)

Outlook

My friend appears to lack curiosity regarding the accumulated wisdom and expertise of generations of maths teachers and researchers. It would be easy to rely on the ‘teacher as martyr’ trope as explanation for this. After all, he is busy, undeniably so. However, this is really only part of the issue. The truth is that he just doesn’t see this kind of professional development as part of his responsibilities as a teacher and mathematics subject leader. He finds the idea of reading about teaching and learning to be boring, and thus he doesn’t do it in the little free time that he gets away from school work. But here’s the crux: he doesn’t seem to think he’s missing out on anything.** Why? Probably because his school doesn’t seem to think he’s missing out on anything either. His work as mathematics subject leader – as defined by his SLT – mainly consists of undertaking book and planning scrutinies and writing half-termly reports about what he finds. His role is to ensure that teachers are following the marking policy in maths, not help them to better understand maths pedagogy. While he and his school may be an extreme case, I wonder how many core subject leaders in primary schools around the country see their role – or at least the majority of it – in these terms.

If you’re anything like me, you probably agree that this situation is pretty disheartening. There’s no point in sugar-coating it: a teacher is being paid to not teach his class for two hours leadership time per week, during which time his class is taught by someone significantly less qualified than he. This, naturally, requires significant justification, but instead this time is used to implement strategies that probably have little impact on the learning of the children across his school. So, what can be done? In my view, both aspects of the problem need to be tackled at the same time. I estimate that many primary school teachers do around 8-10 hours of work per week that has little to no impact on children’s learning (e.g. personalised marking, perfect displays, planning for the endless ‘special’ days that take place, massive documents detailing in minute detail what is done for SEND children, gathering evidence for summative assessments that still ends up relying on a vague ‘gut’ judgement, etc). Where has this pointless work come from? The answer is longer than I care to go into here, but the short version is that it appears to always lead back to our dysfunctional system of accountability and the fear of not keeping up with what other, apparently Ofsted-pleasing, schools are doing. Until this unnecessary work is stripped away, little can be done to get teachers like my friend to read about the knowledge that others have to offer.

Education isn’t my friend’s hobby; it’s his job, and if we want him to engage with the “boring” work of reading about teaching, then we need to ensure that this becomes a reasonable expectation of his working week, something that is impossible when he’s already working 50+ hours. The conditions needed for this engagement are long overdue. It’s not about a change in outlook alone; in every sense, it’s about time too.



*Before I get any understandable push-back for my willingness to criticise a fellow teacher, I should probably mention that the ‘friend’ described in this blog is a fictional construction, 90% based around a younger version of me, one who found teaching and learning to be less fascinating than I do now. I somewhat ‘fell’ into the job and only realised how much I loved it when I began to do some reading a few years ago. Funny that.



**Then again, maybe my ‘friend’ isn’t missing out on anything. Naturally, reading about pedagogy (or listening to people speak about it) isn’t the only way to show intellectual curiosity or to become a useful mathematics subject leader. Perhaps I am blinded by my bias towards reading as a form of professional self-development. Perhaps the entire premise of this blog-post is false, and it is perfectly possible for an inexperienced teacher to be a really useful subject leader without reading or listening to a damn thing. I’ve given this side of the argument some consideration, but I’m not convinced. What do you think? Answers on a postcard.

Are your lesson observations a wasted opportunity?

If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!

William Strunk

Why compound ignorance with inaudibility?

E.B.White

Meet Hannah. She’s in her fourth year of teaching. Today she took part in her second formal lesson observation of the year, roughly her 30th observation since she began her PGCE. In preparation, she discussed her lesson plan with colleagues. She spent hours creating resources and differentiating for every possible outcome or detour in her lesson. (Away from the prying eyes of the SLT observers, a stack of unused ‘extension tasks’ went into the bin at the end of the lesson, unneeded as they turned out to be.) She stuck sheets into children’s books so that not a single second of the learning time would be wasted, though usually the kids would do this job themselves. She sharpened pencils, cleaned whiteboards and imagined each part of the lesson with the precise foresight of a military logistician. She told children about the upcoming observation and subtly ensured that children knew that the rewards and sanctions for their actions during this precious period of time would be greater than usual. Immediately after the lesson, she scoured the checklist – the one given to each teacher at the start of the year – to ensure that everything had been included during her 40 minute observation. Cooperative learning? Check. A mention of homework? Check. Mini-plenary? Check. Visible excitement for learning? Check. Thinking skills in one of the agreed school formats? Check. (The observers surely saw on her lesson plan that her plenary explicitly referenced de Bono’s red thinking hat.) In short, this was no ordinary lesson. Now, as she skips from the meeting room in which she received glowing feedback, she feels that her hard work has paid off.

Meet Sarah. She is in her third year of teaching, and for the past two years Edutwitter has become a slightly-too-prominent part of her daily routine. While she remembers little of the pedagogy that was discussed during her initial teacher training, since then she has read countless books, blogs and research papers (though often just the abstracts and conclusions of these).  Having initially tried to apply all at once everything she had learned – with chaotic results – she is now committed to changing her teaching one element at a time. Most recently, she has focused on improving her questioning. She finds that particular techniques (cold-calling, pose-pounce-bounce, etc) have begun to ensure that all children in the class are listening and that she understands the children’s misconceptions better than before. She has read Tom Sherrington’s blog-post on the subject at least five times.[i] She is never truly satisfied with her teaching in any given lesson, but she is confident that she is traveling in a positive direction. At this moment, she is sitting quietly in her classroom, having just received her feedback from today’s lesson observation. She is not visibly upset; that is just not her style. But she is demoralised. As much as possible, she tried to ensure that she taught the way she usually would. The observing members of SLT said some complimentary things about her lesson, but they were not happy about the desks that were in rows; they were not happy about the amount of time spent on consolidating learning from the previous lesson; they were not happy that the displays on the working wall did not have the date written on them, in line with school policy. (“Who knows how long they’ve been on the wall?”) These same observers will decide whether she moves up the pay scale at the end of the year and whether she is suitable for a position of responsibility. Sarah occasionally thinks about looking for another school, but she is told by colleagues that this is “just how it is everywhere now”. She has a 1st class degree in accountancy and is beginning to think that she isn’t a good fit for primary teaching.

Meet Joanne. She is the head teacher, and she dedicates her life to the school. It is 5:30 PM, and she has just realised that she hasn’t eaten since breakfast. She is mentally exhausted from a day of observing lessons and giving feedback. It has been worth it, mind. The school is a different place to the one she took over two years ago. Having seen the effects of disappointing Ofsted inspections first-hand as a deputy head in her previous school, she knows that what she is doing is for the best in the long run. This is her first headship, and she is desperate for the next Ofsted inspection to go well; she wants some breathing space so she can begin to create the school she’s always wanted to lead. Beyond that, she eventually wants to work in education on a level above any individual school, and developing an “outstanding” school seems like a necessary launchpad for such ambitions. Thus, every structure – from lesson observations to interventions to assessment – has been designed to provide straightforward, easily-argued answers to whichever inspector has to judge the entire workings of a school over the course of just a few hours. She suspects that assessment results will always be paramount, despite Ofsted’s claims to the contrary, so she has ensured that SATs booster clubs now start in year 5, though not with that name, of course. Today’s lesson observations were another tiny step towards her goal: apart from a few exceptions, the teaching across the school aligned very well with the checklist she created. (Three out of the four NQTs are struggling to meet the school’s expectations, but one seems to be doing fine, evidence that the other three just need to pull their socks up.)  Ofsted will doubtless want to know how well Joanne understands the teaching across the school, and if everyone sticks to the checklist, she can be confident in every answer she gives. As she so often says, consistency is key. Recently, she’s heard a lot about retrieval practice and is convinced of its efficacy. The only question is exactly how much of each lesson should she ask teachers to dedicate to it. Five minutes? Ten? There’s no need to decide that now. That one can be added to next year’s checklist.


The above cases are all fabrications, obviously. However, they are representative of most of the schools in which I have worked and reflect what I have been told by the majority of primary teachers that I have met. I was tempted to let the above vignettes speak for themselves, but against my better judgement, I’m not going to. Some thoughts:

  1. Any lesson observation where a teacher is hoping to impress and puts on a lesson ‘for show’ is a wasted opportunity to improve their day-to-day teaching. School leaders must ensure that their teachers know this.
  2. Before a lesson observation, school leaders should ask a teacher exactly what they are trying to improve in their teaching and why. The observation should then support the teacher in this area of improvement and then discuss future areas that the teacher could work on. (If a teacher is not focused on an area of improvement, then the aim of the lesson observation should be to find one.) Becoming a better teacher is a process of inculcating new habits. This takes weeks or even months and is inevitably achieved (or not) by the teacher when no one is watching. A lesson observation structure that does not recognise this fact and does not consequently work within its confines is a wasted opportunity.
  3. I suspect that on some intrinsic level, lesson observations will always mirror the power dynamic of Ofsted inspections. Ofsted inspections are perceived primarily as something ‘done to’ schools, who are thus more keen to impress than to improve. Due to this, many schools’ attitude to Ofsted is similar to Hannah’s attitude to lesson observations: Put on a show. Earn praise. Get back to business. It’s tempting to blame the individual teacher or school for adapting to their environment in whatever way maximises praise and minimises criticism from those in authority, especially when doing so is patently short-sighted; individual responsibility is important, after all. But at some point we must address the circumstances that incentivise such attitudes.[ii]


[i] https://teacherhead.com/2018/08/24/great-teaching-the-power-of-questioning/

[ii] There are a lot of positive noises coming from Ofsted currently. However, I hope they do not lose sight of the fact that many of the changes that they are suggesting are part of an attempt to undo damage that has already been inflicted by Ofsted themselves. Accountability almost always seems to create perverse incentives; this should inspire caution and humility in those who seek it.

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.)


[i] http://greeneconomics.blogspot.com/2006/10/unintended-consequences-of-driving.html

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fC29IyqPVr0