Getting the Telescope the right way round

Silly businessman
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
Provides reassurance
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
Encourage co-operation

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.

Hay McBer

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.



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4 responses to “Getting the Telescope the right way round

  1. I think you make some sound arguments here. I’m not sure that even if we could identify a perfect teaching mode, we would want it applied in all lessons, every day. It would surely lose its effectiveness when that’s all the students were ever exposed to. However, I do think you’re being a little disingenuous when you suggest that you have a foot in neither camp. When you say “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,” There is a clear implication that if you had the time, you would have done it differently. Proponents of direct instruction, however, would claim that it is always more effective and is therefore the method of choice, with or without time constraints. I also think that this is not a theoretical issue; when you’re rewriting the curriculum documentation for the fifth time in five years in order to include thinking routines or some such innovation then the progressive / traditional debate has some solid, practical implications and is not just a side-show.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Greg. Appreciated. I think it hangs on where we place the emphasis on ‘more effective’. Yes – as a teacher dispensing essential information students will require for the exam – being didactic is ‘effective’ for me to ensure I’ve presented the necessary material. But that doesn’t mean it has been effectively heard or learnt by all the students in the group. I would prefer to be able to check that the learning is effective from their point of view by incorporating exercises and tasks that checks the hearing and applies the learning to be sure the transmission has been received and understood as I would wish. The two, ideally, dance along in a sequence of steps. I’m not convinced by the ‘proponents of direct instruction’ idea – unless some teachers wish to lecture students in a university-style format. Half the battle is in motivating students, and I only know of a few that have been fully motivated simply on the stimulus of the ideas being presented. The knowledge v skills issue concerns me, certainly, as some use it in a divisive argument when I can’t see how any significant learning can take place without the two.
      As for the re-writing of SoW – I fully sympathise. Our response upon being asked to re-write curriculum documents to include PLTS, literacy, and – now – differentiated outcomes for each lesson, has been ‘no’. Though I appreciate that type of resilience is more awkward under certain management regimes, I hope colleagues faced with similar pressures are able to come together and present a unified faculty response that takes the discussion forward but reserves your time for more directly effective planning and feedback.

  2. In your original post it is very clear that your conception of traditional teaching is something you do as a second choice, when you have little time available. It also seems that you think that traditional teaching is simply lecturing from the front without interacting with the students. Traditional teachers question their students and interact with them, “Jenkins; how might we find the length AB here?” and I would say that another characteristic is their elevation of the role of practice, something that progressives often describe as “drill and kill”. Although not synonyms, direct instruction is the closest testable model to the more amorphous traditional teaching because they both have the key features of emphasising the teacher as the expert who fully explains the concept (sage on the stage) as opposed to a facilitator who guides some form of discovery learning (guide at the side). This is what Hattie says about DI: “In a nutshell: The teacher decides the learning intentions and success criteria, makes them transparent to the students, demonstrates them by modelling, evaluates if they understand what they have been told by checking for understanding, and re-telling them what they have been told by tying it together with closure.” So, if you think that traditional teaching necessarily excludes you from checking the learning then you have a different conception of it than I do. I would therefore suggest that you have accepted the progressive idea that traditional teachers simply stand up at the front and lecture without perhaps being conscious of this. I know that you seek to rise above the traditional / progressive debate and I understand your frustrations. You are clearly a deep thinker. However, it is not nebulous stuff. There are maths teachers out there who are teaching in schools that have banned textbooks. These things have real, practical implications.

  3. Pingback: Getting the Telescope the right way round | tea...

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