How Can We Improve Teaching?

Many moons ago, I recall having to go through schemes of work and departmental documentation and removing any reference to the word “teaching”. My SLT at the time, in their wisdom, had decided that the word “teaching” was a bad, bad word. It should be removed from the dictionary. Now, we must only talk about “learning”. It was around this time that all teachers were instructed that pupils were now to be referred to as students or, preferably, “learners”.  And, just to underline the point, pencil cases would henceforth be known as “Learner Toolkits”.

Granted, there was a lot of silliness at that school. This was the same school where I was told that “If you take care of learning the behaviour takes care of itself”. The same school where SLT reluctantly agreed to whole school detentions then failed to support them or follow them up. Consequently, teachers stopped referring behaviour issues up to SLT, due to a mixture of, “Well, what’s the point? They do nothing anyway!” and “No! Don’t refer things up! Don’t use call out! They keep a log of the teachers to see who can’t control their classes.” So, after a while there were very few “call outs”, very few kids referred to SLT. SLT took this as a sign that there were no discipline problems in the school.

So, yes, I’ve seen some silliness in my time. Silliness, more often than not, I reckon, comes in the guise of “good practice”. I’m still seeing, for example, a lot of very wordy lesson objectives, often referring to Welsh Assembly Government policies. I’m still seeing lessons where the teacher sets inappropriate tasks where kids are confused and where the justification given is, “Now you are developing your thinking skills”.

I reckon that there’s an awful lot of time wasted in lessons due to the tick box silliness that nobody needs. Yet, people feel they “need” those tick boxes more than anything else. The kids don’t understand the objectives? They’re adding nothing to the kids’ learning? They’re copied to provide “evidence”? Yet all they are is evidence of how the lesson started with the sanctioned time-wasting habits that are the mark of “good practice”? Never mind!

What a rubbish way to start a lesson! But, what a great way to announce to kids, “Hey, look everybody! We’re playing “teaching by numbers”! You know, the game where the teacher does as he’s told and never stops to think what great stuff could be done in lessons if only we stripped away the silly “good practice” mechanistic clunky observer-pleasing nonsense.”

How many starters have I seen that kill the lesson dead? How many over wordy lesson objectives on pretty powerpoint, with “fun” font and great clip art but very little real thought to the intellectual content of the lesson?

This is what’s gone wrong with teaching. The observer must be appeased but the observer doesn’t know your subject and, may be,  the observer just isn’t that good a teacher. The observer may go gaga for lolly sticks, or weak at the knees as you flash you traffic lights or salivate as you whip out your wordles…but none of that’s got anything to do with managing lesson time to maximise learning.

So, because the observer doesn’t know your subject, or because your observer isn’t, and maybe never was, that great a teacher, or because the observer likes the “pretty things”, the “good practice” tickable, instantly recognisable window-dressing things that, quite frankly nobody ever analyses to see if they’re helping or hindering learning, because the observer likes the fluff and can only understand the fluff – we give the observer fluff. He feeds on fluff. He likes fluff. When we give him fluff we’re giving him something he’s heard of, so we’re making him feel “clever”. He likes feeling “clever”. If he feels “clever” he’ll tell us we’re “clever”. Everyone’s a winner! Everyone except the kids whose days are packed with fluff.

Why isn’t ITT and CPD and every single observation ever undertaken focused on managing time? The first ten minutes are often a mess, the last ten minutes are often rushed, core routines often don’t exist or are actually harmful.

Kids routinely talk over teachers, kids habitually start chatting amongst themselves as the teacher pauses for breath, kids don’t line up properly, kids call out, kids interrupt as the teacher tries to explain, kids gaze into space, mouth gaping, kids absent-mindedly doodle.

Teachers “teach” to the very last second, teachers give homework instructions orally and don’t check that they’ve been written in planners, teachers set homework in the last minute of the lesson, teachers interrupt kids, who might otherwise have got on with some work, to get them to colour in a green, orange or red traffic light as a commentary on their understanding in that lesson, teachers set kids off on a task without first explaining whether it is to be an individual, pair or group task, teachers don’t insist on all pens down and all eyes on the teacher as tasks are explained, teachers ask for silence then ignore the kids who are brazenly chatting, teachers, very often, say one thing and do another.

I see these things often. I don’t believe classrooms need to look like this. I don’t believe kids can’t be well mannered and focused and polite. I’m not advocating 60 minutes of silent lecture every lesson. I am advocating that kids sit up, feign interest if necessary, and pretend to focus at very least. What do you do in meetings? Yep, you play the game. It’s a valuable lesson.

Kids need to learn to focus. it has to be their habit. Teachers need to learn to check that instructions are precise and concise and that lessons are set up so lazy kids or cheeky kids or kids that haven’t got a clue after years of imprecise teaching – that these kids can’t sabotage lessons or hide from work.

If we want to improve teaching we need to get teachers thinking carefully about how they use every minute and how the routines they do, or don’t, employ are hindering learning. We’ve all got to stop saying, “But I’ve been told to do it like this!”

I hear that a lot. Silly strategies that don’t work, very often the teachers I meet don’t believe in these silly strategies either, they know that lesson time is being wasted again and again, yet they persist with the fluff. This fluff eats into everybody’s time – within the lesson and beyond. And when alternative strategies are offered where kids can’t hide but where, instead, they will be challenged and supported and learn what delayed gratification and effort leading to the exhilaration of personal success feels like? “But I’ve got to teach the way I’ve been told to. I don’t have a choice.”

I’ve never understood  that. Would you teach the Earth is flat? Creationism as scientific fact? That boys and girls have very different brains and must be taught differently? That kids fit into 3 categories: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic? Of course you wouldn’t.

When did teachers start believing they were morons that had to be directed at every turn? That they don’t have the right, or the intellect, to reflect on genuine good practice? That they need somebody else to tell them what’s good?

Truth is, some teachers, aren’t very good at their job. In fact some are useless. Shockingly bad! I’m, quite frankly, amazed at times. Some teachers are ok. Some are good. And some, they blow you away with passion and expertise and charisma and the sheer volume of learning that goes on in their lessons.

Maybe that’s somewhere else where teaching has gone wrong. As soon as anybody dares to suggest that there are any teachers anywhere anything less than selfless, hugely dedicated, saintly, wholly virtuous, all round wonderful people with hearts of pure gold, intellects the size of small planets and humble, oh so very, very humble, and, of course, hard-working, doing the toughest job in the entire universe, for the love of the kids. As soon as anyone says, “Some teachers are a bit rubbish and a bit thick and a bit lazy”, My God! The walls come tumbling down! How dare you?

If we want to improve teaching maybe, we have to get teachers thinking for themselves and not constantly looking for approval. Maybe they need to be more self-critical, not in a destructive way, but in a way that helps them appreciate where they are being productive or otherwise. I’m not advocating that teachers fret over the small stuff. I want them to hack at the roots of what holds kids and teachers back in lessons.

And maybe we have to admit that to say someone is a “teacher” barely scratches the surface. Teachers are not a homogenous group. We should stop talking about teachers as if they have so much in common. Do we say all doctors are the same? Or bus drivers? Or hairdressers? Or exotic dancers? (Where did that come from?) I don’t think so. Don’t we talk about individual people with their strengths, weaknesses, foibles? Don’t we talk about people as individuals that just happen to do a job to earn a living to pay their mortgage or rent?

Maybe we need more of that then, if we want to improve teaching. Let’s not talk about “teachers” as if we’re identikit automatons that do the same job, in the same circumstances, in the same way, with the same motivation. Let’s acknowledge that we each bring, or don’t bring, our own spark to lessons. Let’s admit that some of us love our subject and it shows. Some of us don’t, and that shows too.

If I had a pound for every English teacher I’ve met who can barely make it past page 5 of TV Quick or every French teacher who simply can’t speak the language – I’d have a few bob. Maybe if we admitted that teachers who aren’t very good make the job that bit more difficult for all teachers?

Calm down! Teachers are not a homogenous group.  That’s my point. To point out that some are dreadful and shouldn’t be doing the job is not to deny that there are also some “blow your socks off”, “wow! I wish I were in his class!” teachers out there. Let’s get some perspective.

Teachers are people doing a job. Some of them do that job well. Some of them don’t. All of them need to pre-empt kids lesson sabotage attempts. None of them should be looking for off the peg panacea in lieu of really thinking for themselves. All of us could benefit from a bit of constructive self-criticism.

Some of you will be spewing forth projectile vomit at this point. Chill! l don’t hate teachers. I don’t hate anybody. I do think that teachers come in all shapes and sizes and I do think that, once we recognise that, we’ll be in a much better position to talk honestly about how teaching can be improved.

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4 thoughts on “How Can We Improve Teaching?

  1. Thanks for this really accurate post. I do agree with your description. Education is conducted by ideology when it should only be guided by the search for efficacity ; that is why constructivism, known as a humanist approach (in fact a very elitist one ) is still the credo. That will go on as long as evidence based practices will be ruled out. This is why several myths are being maintained, such as teaching according to cognitive styles for example.

    You’re describing some teacher’s lack of self criticism ; I do agree, I even have been one of them when I started in the job (until I could not take anymore the failures of my pupils). What I’m saying only concerns our situation in France but you may find similarities: teachers are taught constructivism as a credo and critical thinking is not part of that training ! Our system is rather ambiguous because it admits pedagogical freedom (officially one can teach the way he wants) but on ther other hand, inspectors don’t really appreciate if you move away from the dogma.

    All this contributes to transform that job into a non-professional activity. Could one think of a doctor not using use the more efficient therapy but another one in harmony with its personal fancies ? A real professional should be able to choose the best teaching way according to the proven efficacity of the methods.

    John Hattie likes to explain that every teacher should ask himself regularly : what my actions have changed in my student’s brains ? Or : what do I want to change in their brains ? That is really teaching : operating a lasting change in their brains. Teaching is the action that will provoque this change. That leads me to my last point. Constructivism fails because it mixes up teaching and learning. Learning involves specific processes which are not identical to teaching processes. As you say, in its extreme, it can lead to ignore teaching and believe that learning can happen naturally without any direct transmission.

    I let the conclusion to S.Engelmann : « If the Children Aren’t Learning, We’re Not Teaching. »

    Best regards from south of France,

    Françoise Appy

  2. Pingback: Blogging Makes Me a Better Teacher | A Patchwork Life

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