The Hindu triumvirate consists of three gods – Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. We will not today concern ourselves with Brahma, the supreme creator of the universe. Instead we shall focus on Shiva, the destroyer, and Vishnu, the preserver. In Hinduism, the acts of destruction and re-creation are closely related – Shiva not only wreaks havoc on the universe, but also gives rise to beneficial change. Vishnu, however, is the compassionate conservative, returning to the world during times of need to restore the balance between good and evil.
The tension between change and preservation is one all teachers have to contend with. It is the Shiva acolytes (the Shaivites) who seem to have the upper hand here in Britain. Change and its many avatars – improvement, development and reform to name but three – hold sway in ministerial chambers, DfE offices, exam board schmooze-parlours, SLT conference rooms and line-management meetings up and down the land as important people donning plastic name-badges compete to design the future of education. Curricular are rewritten, assessment systems dumped, exams redesigned and definitions of ‘best practice’ replaced with the regularity of Spurs managers. The rate of change is break-neck. The classroom teacher eking out a living at the chalk-face is rarely consulted, even though she and the children she teaches will be the main beneficiaries of all this gift-wrapped newness.
I will never forget the oft-repeated sentiments of my wonderful mentor and friend John Wolstenholme, who recently retired after over thirty years in the classroom. In the face of decades and decades of change-for-the-sake-of-change, John always hoped at the start of every year that he would have the chance to teach exactly the same curriculum as he did the previous year. It never happened. Someone always saw the need for change.
It seems to me that we must not forget Vishnu and his unfashionable preference for preservation. We talk of teacher expertise, of the need for practice and repetition, of small day-to-day changes as the practical path to long-term classroom mastery. Yet how often is this precious process torn to shreds by the winds of unbridled change?
Let me share an example. As an English teacher, I have taught certain novels several times over, each time trying to hone and improve my delivery. I have agonised over the minutiae. Which details should I guide my students towards and which should I sensibly overlook? Which questions should I ask and when should I ask them? Which passages do students struggle to grasp and which are more easily comprehended? Yes, the experience of having taught different novels in the past helps me to plan the teaching of a new text more carefully, yet nothing can compensate for the experience of actually having taught that particular text before. Every time a text is removed from the syllabus, a wealth of teacher knowledge and expertise goes with it. We become expert teachers not only through the generic classroom skills of, say, behaviour management and questioning, but also through our deepening knowledge of subject content and how best to teach it. (The recent Sutton Trust report is clear on this.)
Just this term, I taught Orwell’s Animal Farm to year 8s for the first time. This was an autonomous decision (as all the best changes are!) and a worthwhile improvement on the turgid teen novel I had taught in previous years. Even so, there will be much for me to improve on next time round. Next year’s classes will get the better deal.
A single change like this is easy to manage and to bear. It is when change is piled upon yet more change that things become tough and, over the years, draining. Unable to draw on the comforts of well-hewn expertise, and overloaded with new content and initiatives, we flounder. We fall back into the uncertainty of our NQT days. Our years of experience count for less than they should.
This is not an argument against change, rather an argument against the rampant fetishism that surrounds it. Sadly, one does not improve one’s job prospects by suggesting that things should be kept just as they are. Change validates us. To become a success, we must be seen to be the constructors and executors of the new. From education secretary to ITT student, our role is to destroy the past so that a better future can follow in its wake.
I prefer a slow, cautious version of change. Of course, in extreme circumstances wholesale and brutal change is unavoidable and often for the best. It does not follow, however, that everything should be hacked down to its roots while we cross our fingers and toes in the hope that it will grow back in a healthier condition next spring. Instead, like the artful, nurturing gardener, our pruning should be subtle and minimal; it should imagine the splendour of the future tree beyond the wispy sapling before us.
I thought I would leave you with some simple questions that could be asked of all proposed changes in education:
1. Who will lose and what will be lost as a result of the change?
2. Will the gains achieved from the change outweigh the losses?
3. Have those who will implement the change – i.e. classroom teachers and their representatives – been listened to and involved in the consultation process?
4. Is the purpose of the change to develop and improve the knowledge and skill of children (and less measurable effects too) or is the purpose to create the illusion that children are developing and improving?
5. What evidence base – research or otherwise – is this change supported by?
6. How many other changes and reforms are teachers currently grappling with? Would it be wise to increase the pressure and uncertainty on teachers by adding another change to the mix?
7. If we could be teleported to the future (6 months, a year or a decade) and while there informed that our proposed change has been a failure, what would the likely causes have been? (Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is great on the planning fallacy – it is easier to imagine future success over future failure because failure comes in many more forms than success.)
8. How will the effectiveness of the change be evaluated?
9. If the change leads to more working hours, what will be stripped away to compensate for them?
It is said that Vishnu will return to earth one final time (he has entered the corporal world nine times already, most famously in the incarnations of Rama and Krishna) to restore harmony once more. The ancient texts have it, more worryingly, that this appearance will take place just prior to the end of the world…
More prosaically, classroom teachers up and down the land would like our leaders to acknowledge that nurturing what we already have provides us with the simplest and most sustainable path towards improvement.