There are some teachers who talk too much without causing their pupils to think hard enough that they learn anything. What’s the solution?
1) Swiftly limit the teacher’s poor-quality talk to 5 minutes and suggest that students get on with their own work for the rest of the time?
2) Train that teacher to slowly improve their understanding of effective explanations, questions and instructions so that they can gradually improve the quality of learning?
Both solutions are actually very well-meaning. The first is short-termist, and suggests that the answer is to mimic a more effective teacher with their more efficient explanations and instructions. The focus is on significantly reducing the poor-quality input and presenting the students with tasks which, it is hoped, will get them thinking harder.
I can entirely understand why some teachers are asked to do this. It may well lead to a slight improvement in outcomes as some students will engage with the task and behaviour may improve a little as there is less need for them to challenge their self-discipline to the limit by listening to someone ‘drone on’. However, the problem in this scenario is that we’ve simply made the teaching ‘less bad’. There is barely any time for quality explanations, for direct instruction, for challenging misconceptions. This might, however, be an appropriate interim ‘quick win’ solution for a teacher who is very inexperienced or really struggling, of course. It’s probably that, after this approach is taken, the classroom will look better to the casual observer.
The second solution is much harder and probably won’t result in such quick wins. It requires a gradual build up of the subject matter being taught, the most effective pedagogies and the common misconceptions and challenges. It requires an increase in the subtle sensitivities of the classroom – an ability to rapidly adapt and refine the teacher talk ‘on the hoof’ in response to verbal, physical and emotional responses from all 30 children. It requires the engineering of situations which allow the teacher to ‘read’ the classroom. This is subtle, complex and challenging. On the journey to becoming this practitioner it is, I would argue, more likely that there will be bad behaviour at times. For the inexperienced or struggling teacher who is ‘on the brink’ then this might not, therefore, be immediately practical.
Which should we be going for? Clearly, it depends. One is a quick win with a little improvement, while the other is a much longer term process which will result in much greater quality. Both have their place, but we seem to have got to a place where approach one gets bandied around as gospel.
The education system seems to be rife with these quick wins. One of the reasons is that teachers have barely any time to improve their own practice beyond the first year or two of their careers. Another is that we have become enthralled to the idea that we can see a good lesson and that teachers should be encouraged to mimic the behaviours that we like to see. As one of the Trust’s advisers, Professor Robert Coe, has recently pointed out, this idea is simply not supported by any evidence.
We’ve seen Assessment for Learning repackaged as ‘write up learning objectives, three-part lessons and write extensive comments in books’. We’ve seen one day courses on ‘how to deliver outstanding lessons’. We see subtle and important arguments about the most efficient and effective methods of teaching being reduced to ‘group work always bad’ or ‘group work always good’. All of these are shallow solutions. Teaching even one child is a subtle, complex and deeply skilled task. Teaching thirty children is disproportionately harder.
It would be deeply hypocritical if I said the solution was to abandon quick wins, of course, as though this would in itself be a quick win! In a time-starved profession where reducing behaviour problems and increasing seemingly-positive observed behaviours are paramount, there is clearly room for a few quick wins. However, unless we make room for teachers to engage in professional learning that is sustained, challenging, collaborative and which engages deeply, reflectively and critically with high quality evidence, we will never make any substantial improvements to national levels of achievement. Too many quick wins will, ultimately, lead us to lose the game.
So, let’s do something better. My charity, the Teacher Development Trust, believes that professional learning should be prioritised in schools and yet we recognise that this is extraordinarily hard to do with so many other pressures on our schools. We don’t believe in simply preaching about this, we’re actively trying to help. If you believe in better then you should get your school to join our National Teacher Enquiry Network – a partnership of schools who are working to climb this mountain together. You can also sign up for our half-termly newsletter where we try and share advice and success stories.