I’m reading an increasing number of blogs proclaiming an allegiance. The Progressives are defensive; the Traditionalists are assertive; the arguments are primed and the main characters arrayed in battle formations. Time, I think, to call it Christmas, produce a football, and come on out from the trenches, have a good kickabout and start talking about what we have in common rather than what separates us. Because it does the profession no good in these times to divide itself over competing orthodoxies when for the first time in my experience the chief of the referees – Sir Michael Wilshaw – has set his face against a preferred methodology of teaching and is calling for a pragmatic ‘what works’. I know that message seems to be slow to seep through to Ofsted teams, LA inspectors and some SLT – but it would be more productive if we used our considerable powers of debate to ensure the judgement teams are fully up to date with Wilshaw’s criteria for successful learning than with an introspective in-fight over how we want to teach.
Last weekend we held a revision weekend with 25 mixed ability Year 11s at Cranedale centre in the Yorkshire Wolds. In a warm-up exercise for getting the students to consider the qualities that made for a ‘successful GCSE student’ I asked them to consider the qualities they would look for in a ‘successful teacher’ of their GCSE course if they were involved in interviewing someone. This is what they said in no particular order:
Makes the subject interesting
Friendly – can still have a laugh, but can still insist on the rules
Calm and provides a relaxing classroom atmosphere
Reliable – always there and with the goods
Confident – about their subject and dealing with students
Know their subject well – and more so they can answer a wide range of deeper questions from teenagers
Willing to give up their time to help students
Can control the class
Help individuals to learn as well as the whole class
Aren’t afraid to voice their own opinions – engage in a discussion with students that shows they are human
Have deep knowledge of their own subject
Nothing about whether they were taught in groups or rows; involved in discovery learning or didactic teaching; teacher as instructor or facilitator; canons of knowledge or skills applicable to new contexts. These didn’t figure. It was how they felt in the classroom more than what or how they were taught. They want to feel safe, comfortable, challenged, inspired – and the person in front of them is a trusted adult who they can put their faith in to take them through the course. And how much discussion do we ever give to these personal qualities of teachers as leaders of learning and instruction behind every classroom door once it has shut for the hour?
Reading out the teacher qualities these students look for (and there was considerable agreement amongst the groups as to what they appreciated and valued in their most respected teachers) it reminded me of a landmark study that is rarely referred to now but cast the same net. The Hay McBer report of 2000 into the Professional Qualities of Effective Teachers formed the basis of subsequent Threshold and Upper Pay Spine success criteria. It starts with what Year 8 students said they looked for in their best teachers and it seems students 13 years later are still wanting the same thing.
I think the arguments between Progressives and Traditionalists, whilst intriguing in the same way a soap provides a good barney, are a side-show. Because it’s not an ‘either/or’ but a continuum. We spread ourselves across the range. This week my students have worked in groups, written on windows, discovered relational connections with hexagons and debated. But with groups where I’m running out of time to complete the course before exams in May I’ve been didactic, instructional, and even – yes – virtually dictated notes. A couple of lessons with Year 10 have been routine note-making from revision guides onto highly structured note frames – lessons that would certainly be judged no more than ‘satisfactory’ if assessed on the current framework, but which inspired a sheaf of jaw-dropping homework responses as the students applied this soundly-learnt material into letters from imagined tourists comparing holiday experiences in Dubai and Belize. But I’ll make sure there is variety after Easter on the basis of ‘keep them guessing’ about what they will be doing each lesson. The debate shouldn’t be about an orthodoxy – but the inspection system that still encourages an artificial performance, that insists on an unsustainable wish-list such as ‘progress’ time-frames measured in twenties of minutes and whose message is liable to variable interpretation by the executive.
If we fall into different camps of classroom teaching orthodoxy we are arguing more from how we prefer to teach, rather than how students prefer to be taught. If you’ve never tracked a student through a full day of 5 lessons, my advice is try it. You soon discover you yearn for variety from one lesson to another. You value the highly organised teacher who put you into collaborative groups, but are refreshed by the next who provides a quiet reflective atmosphere where you can get on individually, the next who ditches the lesson content halfway through and gets you all to fall into 2 sides for a debate on an issue that has just emerged…. Learning thrives on variety but the constant students want is in the integrity of each of the teachers they encounter: people who know their subject richly, can present material in interesting ways, who manage behaviour sensitively but firmly, and people who are confident of where they’re taking the group – but recognise implicitly that they’re leading a collection of individuals. If we spent as much time discussing our professional development in these qualities we would more accurately represent what students appreciate and buy into rather than those we argue they should be offered. If we played to teachers’ individual strengths and not just welcomed variety between classrooms, but insisted up it, we could go some way to ensuring that each student was exposed to an orchestra of learning classrooms rather than a pipe-band of similar instruments with players unsure of how to produce the requisite sound.
You can read the Hay McBer study here. It’s worth an investment of time; the qualities are pretty timeless.