The world of Twitter and edu-blogging can feel far removed from the reality of my day job. There seems a metaphorical Berlin Wall wedged between the two. I have been blogging for over a year now, yet only a handful of my colleagues read my posts. With the pace of modern teacher life it is hardly surprising. Keeping up to date with our own planning and marking is enough in itself. Sometimes I feel I am leading a double-life as a blogger and a teacher. Writing these words is ultimately something I do for myself, audience or no audience.
I do, however, genuinely believe that there are great gains to be had from reading about teaching, whether in the form of blogs, ‘edubooks’ or research papers. I have written before about the importance of nurturing the cerebral life of schools, of finding time for talking and thinking about teaching and learning, and it seems such a missed opportunity that after eight years in the classroom it is only recently that I have begun to investigate my own practice with more rigour.
So what has stood in the way in the past? It has, I think, been the reductive totalitarianism of the Ofsted-driven description of what makes for effective teaching. There has always a great distance between what I have intuitively found to work in my classroom and what has been decreed as best practice. A few years ago, I remember a teacher declaring that, “If the learning objective does not contain the phrase ‘to be able to’ then your lesson cannot be ‘outstanding’.”
I have never forgotten this. I thought it was nonsense at the time and I still do now.
But things have changed. At the end of last academic year my school ditched lesson grading and all its associated absurdities. We have developed a ‘tight but loose’ definition of teaching and learning built around the principles of challenge, explanation, modelling, practice, questioning and feedback. As a ‘research leader’ this year, one of my roles has been to introduce a whole-staff ‘EduBook club’ as a way to bring fresh teaching ideas and robust outside evidence into the school. Each teacher and TA has chosen a book which they will discuss during INSET days in groups lead not by members of SLT, but by ordinary classroom practitioners.
Last Friday, I hosted the group reading Graham Nuthall’s The Hidden Lives of Learners. Our group, consisting of classroom teachers, NQTs, subject leaders and teaching assistants, discussed the introduction and the first two chapters, using our reading as a springboard for a broader reflection on our own experiences in the classroom. We considered how teaching methods and learning are fundamentally different things. We considered how orthodoxies of ‘effective teaching’ are often decided by fashion as much as anything else. We considered how the style of teaching and the personality of the teacher are of lesser importance than the effectiveness of the learning (a big phew! for a dullard like me.) We considered the importance of warm, kind classroom atmospheres but also the hard truth that these do not necessarily lead to good learning. We considered how students dumbfound us: they seem to know both more and less than we think they do! (Nuthall’s research has shown that students, on average, tend to know just short of fifty per cent of lesson content already.)
We talked about more, too, and I am certain that each group member took away quite different thoughts and ideas. The wonderful thing is that the book encouraged us to talk about teaching in an open and honest way, far beyond the limitations of the lesson grades and tick-box descriptors that have been the norm over the past decade or, in other words, the span of my teaching career. In our discussion, drama teacher David Hall talked about how sincerity is a vital quality in teaching. It is vital to good CPD too.
Of course, thinking and talking about teaching alone are not enough in themselves. They must lead eventually to changes in classroom practice and, crucially, student learning. However, the fact that teachers are being given the time and the trust to investigate and engage with wider evidence and ideas fills me with genuine optimism for the future of our profession.
The wall is beginning to crumble.