Tuesday, 22 September 2015

And Give Me Back My Curriculum! (or, The Mean, Green, Teaching Machine)

By JL Dutaut

In my last post, Stay Out Of My Classroom! (Unless I've Invited You.), I urged teachers to retake the initiative on their professionalism, to wrest control of their pedagogical practices from teacher-leaders, school leaders, politicians, academics, Joe Public and snake-oil salesmen alike, to kick them all out of their classrooms, and only to let back in those who could be trusted to help them make a positive impact on their students.  But what then?  Who can a teacher trust?

Within schools, it's easy to see how teacher leadership might be achieved.  Reciprocal accountability, self-direction in CPD, mutually supportive networks of colleagues and collective responsibility are all facilitated by a shared experience of community and culture: a clear sense of localism and self-reliance, within a global context of citizenship and morality.  It isn't an unattainable ideal but the ethos of many school leaders, the reality for many schools, and arguably the reason they are deemed outstanding.

Beyond schools, however, reinstating teacher professionalism in the modern education landscape raises two important questions.  In the context of the atomisation of institutions and providers, the apposite centralisation of power over the curriculum, the marketisation of exams, the publication of competitive rankings of schools and school systems, and the proliferation of writing about and research into pedagogical practices, policies and educational philosophy: what power do I have, and what responsibility?

At all levels in education, a fear permeates decision making, and it is the fear of a loosely defined under-performance.  The zeitgeist has it that the ogre of education must be brought to heel, to serve the interests of economic growth and competitiveness.  An ogre!  Think of the children!


The Ogre Awakens: What are you doing in my swamp?
The result of many years of agonising (read: voter-baiting, research funding, book selling...) over 'failing schools' has turned the world of the ogre into a swamp full of homeless fairytale characters: The Three Learning Styles, Little Red Thinking Hat, Jack and the Hierarchy of Needs, Flow Right and the Multiple Intelligences, Growth Mindset and the Three Core Subjects, A Luddite and the Genie of the Laptop.  One-dimensional in their didacticism, their narratives are self-contained, simple, and linear.  Everything education is not.

To usher these fairytales back to their rightful places in the pantheon, to limit the damage their wrongful application and their jostling for attention continues to have in classrooms across the world, we must move the ogre to action.

How long will teachers let it go unchallenged that they are the ogre, that theirs alone is the responsibility for under-performance?  No government I know of has challenged this syllogism:
  • Education is under-performing;
  • Teachers do education;
  • Therefore teachers are under-performing.  
They only offer different solutions: some say we need more stick, others more carrot, but the diagnosis remains constant, notwithstanding the occasional passing of the buck to a previous government for giving us too much stick/carrot (delete as appropriate).

And for as long as the stick and carrot have been applied, nothing has ever moved the ogre.  He has continued to under-perform, and allowed his swamp to be invaded.

Leaving aside the first proposition of the syllogism for a minute to better focus on the second.  If education is an ogre, then there is one thing we know about ogres.

Ogres are like onions.

There Will Be Tears: The layers of the education onion.

The current paradigm has teachers as lone practitioners, isolated from the world, wrapped in concentric layers of authority.  Everything (pedagogical practice, curriculum design, examinations, and daily administration) is handed down through consecutive layers with little or no teacher agency.  Effects are then monitored, assessed, reviewed and conceptualised in a process increasingly removed from the classroom and subject to competing forces.

In effect, our classrooms are the petri dishes of a vast social experiment run by a mad scientist with multiple personality disorder. Our students are cells to be cultured, and teachers are the inoculum, in a fools' race to find a cure for a mysterious disease called under-performance.  Its symptoms are unclear. Its diagnosis is inconsistent.  Only two things are known about it: its epicentre is the ogre's swamp, and its victims are our children.

There is a dissonance at the heart of this.  To blame teachers for under-performance in a system within which they have no control over their professional practice is like a biologist blaming the inoculum for creating the wrong culture, or me blaming paracetamol for not clearing my hangover.

I, Teacher: Free School 18. Your workforce upgrade is ready for deployment.

Conceptually, we need to stop thinking of education as a medicine to be administered, and of teachers as the delivery mechanisms for that medicine, as the inoculum in the petri dish, as the ogres in the swamp.  There is only one logical end to that way of doing things: Our children will increasingly be taught by a roboticised workforce of content delivery personnel, until those can be replaced entirely by content delivery robots.

Education is messy.  It's a swamp of beautiful and monstrous potentials.  It can't be sanitised.  Every part of it grows according to its own requirements, and it never under-performs.  It performs as well as the climate allows it to.

If our aim is to see more children grow into happy, capable and independent young adults, then all of the myths of the swamp have to go:  Little Red Thinking Hat, The Three Learning Styles, and the Ogre of under-performance too.

The way to make that happen is to become professionals again, to involve ourselves in every aspect of education, from staffing and school policy decisions to research and curriculum development, from inspection and monitoring to setting government priorities.

Donkey Xote: Tilting at the windmill of under-performance.

The carrot and the stick have been wielded effectively by governments for decades.  While the stick has been dominant in recent years, it can't continue to be in the midst of teacher shortages and a recruitment crisis.  But it's important we don't fall for the unattainable carrot again.

So.  What's next? Professional self-determination that is contained to one school is only a simulacrum of professionalism.  If your school has got this far, it is still subject to the vagaries of the political cycle, the news cycle, and the whims of book publishers.  "Stay out of my classroom" isn't enough. Up the ante with: "And give me back my curriculum!"

Who can we trust?  Ourselves and each other, because we all want to do our best for our students.  That's what a professional is.

What power do we have?  The power to say no, to reclaim control of our working practices, to enable ourselves to be involved at every level we want to be involved at, according to our strengths and our desires.

And what responsibility?  To ensure our children don't grow up believing in ogres but in themselves; that they, too, can shape the world into what they want it to be, and not to have it imposed on them the way it is.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Stay out of my classroom! (Unless I’ve invited you.)

By JL Dutaut

ResearchEd was a fascinating experience.  Helen Pike’s closing compliment about the exceptional commitment shown by so many teachers to attend an educational conference on a Saturday, and her comment that there was a feeling throughout the day that something like a movement was beginning to form were welcome and accurate. Tom Bennett’s quip that it wasn’t a movement but a cult drew the laughs, and in a few words stated exactly what this movement’s main driver is: to reclaim the profession from all those who seek to influence it for political ends and from ideological standpoints.

Tom Bennett: He's not the Tsar. He's a very naughty boy.
The educational cultists are legion, from back-to-basics conservatives to 21st-Century-Learning reformists, chalk-and-talk traditionalists to technology evangelists, subject hierarchists to creativity gurus, defenders of canonical knowledge to crusaders of skills-centred learning to name but a few.

From the lowliest believer to the most exalted cult leader, through to all the noble souls whose calling is teaching, all can agree on one thing: education is in flux.

What ResearchEd has done (and it’s going global in doing it) is to undermine the tyranny of education cults, a tyranny whose primary victims are teachers and school leaders, and whose collateral damage is inflicted on students, by way of trends with all the depth of a fashion catwalk, monitoring with all the scrutinising power of the eye of Sauron and the impartiality of a tabloid paper, and initiatives with all the knowledge-base of your average troll’s tweet and the consistency of jelly.  It looks solid, until you prod it.

In all the confusion sown by the cult of personality in education, it’s been hard to unite as a profession.  If the teacher retention and recruitment figures tell us anything, it isn’t simply about the government, school leadership, the media or other top-down bogeymen; it’s about the lack of an idea to rally around.  Teachers’ unions are ostricised from the political discourse, rarely making a dent in the media frenzy.  Blame the government and the media as they might, they’ve repeated the same top-down, ideological, cultist attitudes they so readily identify in others.

I’m pro-union, by the way, and have much to thank the NUT for, as do we all, but if they are to stay relevant as advocates, over and above the admirable role they’ve found themselves relegated to as professional organisations, they are going to have to be the change they want to see, because the rest of us aren’t waiting around.  We’ve found our rallying call, and it is this: Stay out of my classroom.
I realise this needs some fleshing out, so bear with me.

Billy Connolly once came back at a heckler with this: “Don’t tell me how to do my job. I don’t come to your work and tell you how to sweep up.” I think the teaching profession needs to have the same chutzpah.

Billy Connolly: When he knew how to handle hecklers.
Omnipresence is the cultist’s favoured tool for ensuring adherence to the cult’s principles: it’s achieved through unannounced visits, routine inspections, group sessions, charismatic leadership, goal-setting and performance reviews.  Recognise these from your school experience?

Of course, all of these can be benevolent and beneficial, but when applied for the wrong purposes, they are destructive to all but the cult’s core membership, the hardliners, the believers, the adherants, in short, those that need monitoring the least and gain the most in professional confidence by it.

As a profession, we shouldn’t wish away the classroom observations, the learning walks, the Ofsted inspections, the performance management, the CPD or indeed charismatic school leaders and politicians, but if their intentions are to be benevolent and beneficial to us all, then the myth of ‘the right way’ needs to be totally and irreparably dismantled.

Stay out of my classroom (unless I’ve invited you).

The Panopticon: Mr Jones. Please report for your observation feedback.

The only circumstances under which anyone should disrupt the atmosphere and relationships a teacher creates with her students, so crucial to learning, are if they are invited to do so, or are obliged to do so because of safeguarding concerns.

That won’t be popular with a particular brand of leader, and it is undermined by a particular brand of teacher, too, but if it is in the power of a leadership team to do anything, it is to create a climate within their organisation, much as the teacher creates the atmosphere of her classroom.
For a culture to pervade, as opposed to a cult, only one thing needs to happen: inclusion.  No culture can exist that doesn’t reflect all the voices of those who create and consume it.  In a culture, we are all creators and we are all consumers.

You want to observe my teaching for performance management?  Sure, and when is my observation for yours scheduled?  You want to do a learning walk?  By all means, and when is my learning walk scheduled for?  We have CPD on Tuesday? Great. I can’t wait to see what I can choose from and I’m already working on the one my colleagues asked me to deliver next Tuesday.  Time to scrutinise my books?  Have you got all the governor and SLT meeting minutes ready for me to read?
Reciprocity is one facet of inclusion, and openness is another.  How much more welcoming will a teacher be when being observed on standards she has ownership of, for targets she has set herself, by colleagues she, too, will be observing?  How much more legitimate will a leader be when being appraised by the staff she manages?  How much more honest will a culture be when everyone’s doors are open by choice rather than coercion and when asking for support is a mark of professionalism, not weakness?  How much better will students be served by teachers working together to find the right way through the curriculum  for them.   

If your school already exhibits such amazing reciprocity and openness, that’s fantastic news, but you haven’t won yet.  Why do so many schools not, for starters?  And for seconds, why are so many education myths still going unchallenged?  Why has it taken a student-led petition to ensure Edexcel includes female composers in its music curriculum?  Ofsted has already moved towards being far more inclusive of teachers: its new framework is the result of extensive consultation (and research, would you believe it?), and it has committed to ensuring 70% of its inspectors are practising professionals, but can more be done so that inspections feel like less of a threat?  The absolute prize pudding, though, will be when ministers of education serve educators, and not the other way around. 

Direct instruction and student-centred learning, teaching from textbooks and project-based learning, pen and paper and iPads, individual endeavour and teamwork, knowledge development and  personal development, English, Maths, Science, Languages and Humanities, and Art, Music, Drama, Food tech and PSHE, discipline and self-expression, logic and creativity, career guidance and relationships guidance, tradition and progress - the list of potential binary opposites is seemingly endless, and it is the list of all the things we teachers do.  And you know what? It’s okay for us to say we need help with that.

Leadership: In this context, who wouldn't want to be at the top?

Trust no one who tries to convince you one is more or less important than all the others.  Trust no binary set-ups.  Trust no one who makes you feel it’s your fault when things are hard. Trust no one who tells you there’s a right way, or that you’re doing it the wrong way. Trust no one who comes uninvited.  Trust no cult leaders.

We don’t need a cult, we need a movement.  We don’t need a leader, we need a cause.  I hope its rallying cry will be, once and for all, “Stay out of my classroom.”