Does experience make you a better teacher?

Does spending years in the classroom make you more effective or simply more experienced? This is the question Dan Thomas sought to answer by looking back through his records to compare a lesson from when he was newly qualified with his practice today
31st January 2020, 12:03am
Does Experience Make You A Better Teacher?


Does experience make you a better teacher?

One of the fundamental ideas I remember being taught during my PGCE year, way back in 2007, was the notion of the “reflective practitioner” (Schön, 1984): the cycle of teaching, reflecting, reviewing, reapplying and so forth.

The process certainly ate into those early training days. Daily doses of reflective diaries, post-observation critiques and numerous lesson plan revisions became a big part of my early teacher practice.

However, over the years, the reflective nature of my practice dissipated somewhat and it was gradually replaced by the accepting pragmatism of experience (caveat: this is not a necessarily good thing). No doubt the introspection always remained there in the background, but the truth is that I hadn’t consciously reflected about my practice for many years.

More recently, however, I’ve been reflecting about it quite deeply - the resurgence of evidence-informed practice, high-profile educational conferences across the country and the ubiquity of edu-Twitter posts have almost compelled me to.

In particular, I’ve been considering how well key aspects of my practice stand up 11 years after I began life as an NQT. What elements did I celebrate then that I baulk at now? Which long-forgotten aspects, if any, should I tentatively reinstate?

Ultimately, the underlying question was this: am I actually any more effective as a teacher now - or am I simply a more experienced one?

I did a little research and tried to find out. Going over my notes and records, I realised that there was a huge chasm between the given scheme of work, overall learner expectations and key aspects of my own practice when comparing a Year 7 lesson in 2008 with one from 2019.

It is worth noting that I’ve been lucky enough to have taught at the same school for this entire time, giving me a somewhat unique insight in this regard.

So, how do these methods hold up under the scrutiny of hindsight? I took a little tumble down the educational rabbit hole and focused on two artefacts in particular:

  • 2008: A lesson taken from a six-week Year 7 scheme of work on the short play Collision Course by Nigel Hinton.
  • 2019: A lesson taken from a 12-week scheme of work on the novel The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman.

My teacher self in 2008

Back in 2008, one of the first Year 7 English schemes of work that I taught was a short play script entitled Collision Course, a Longman Literature adaptation from the original novel of the same name. When I say short, I mean about 70 pages. And while the subject matter itself is interesting enough (a teenager steals a motorbike, crashes it and kills an innocent bystander, then struggles with guilt until he decides to admit responsibility), in hindsight, the language throughout is incredibly simplistic and the overall challenge of the unit was almost negligible when compared with 2019 expectations.

Most of my lessons back then consisted of a brief recap, a read-though of a small section of the play (I had to make it last for six weeks, remember) some discussion of characters and events, and an event-based task, such as a storyboard or diary entry to finish.

One key lesson involved taking my group of Year 7s down to the drama studio for the hour: their task was to work in small groups, using various props (coloured sugar paper, colouring pens, craft items and anything else they could reasonably use from the room) to re-enact the key scene where the protagonist, Ray, falls off the stolen motorbike and kills the bystander, Mrs Chalmers. They had 45 minutes to do this before performing to the rest of the class.

Cue slow-motion jumping off chairs, Oscar-worthy contorting of faces and dubious sound effects: essentially, the opening credits of Casualty performed by over-excitable children on a £1 budget.

Did it work? On reflection, this seems like a parallel world to me now.

Was the lesson fun? Yes. Do I look back on it with fondness more than a decade later? Definitely. Did the children fundamentally learn anything during the entire hour? Absolutely not. And here lies the crux of the matter: while the pupils at the time may have been engaged in what they were doing, the question is, engaged in what?

Were they considering their use of naturalistic or non-naturalistic methodologies? Were they critically analysing the protagonist’s motivations, the bystander’s final thoughts, the writer’s craft at building tension throughout this scene? Were they engaged in the authorial method or process?

Or were they simply having an enjoyable time with their peers for an hour, tearing up pieces of paper and pretending to die in slow-motion agony? Were they simply engaged in the overall feeling of the lesson?

Reader, I think we both know the answer to that particular question.

At the time, I believed that using this drama-based activity for a lesson was the very pinnacle of teaching and learning: I was engaging them (look, no teacher talk!), I was both aware of and adapting to their differing learning styles (the wonders of kinaesthesia) and, most importantly, I was ensuring that they empathised with the protagonist’s situation and the notions of cause and effect that went with it (social and emotional aspects of learning box firmly ticked). I realise now how misguided I was in this judgement. Yes, I may have sparked some momentary consideration about the protagonist’s situation for some of the learners, but was this really enough? The short answer is no.

The lesson was largely based on bubblegum beliefs: those offering instant flavour but very little underlying substance. And as we all know, bubblegum often rightfully ends up being spat out and unceremoniously squashed on to the underside of creaky school desks.

But am I really doing any better in 2019?

My teacher self in 2019

A trimmed goatee and mid-twenties frame have long since been replaced by a salt-and-pepper beard and what media outlets refer to as the classic “dad bod”.

The lesson begins with a “five-a-day” recall starter: five low-stakes questions taken from students’ The Ruby in the Smoke knowledge organisers. Subjects range from Pullman’s authorial method and style to the Victorian context influencing the novel.

We read significant chunks of the book, stopping to discuss, analyse and evaluate the characters, themes and contextual elements: often, we’ll spend explicit time discussing the language of the novel to ensure that all learners are developing their vocabulary and able to access both the novel and its wider issues. We have time to do this as the unit is set over a full term, so as to allow in-depth and secure understanding.

Following on from the work of the Learning Scientists’ Understanding How We Learn (Weinstein et al, 2018) and Tom Sherrington’s Rosenshine’s Principles in Action (2019), I frequently use direct instruction, live modelling of essay-style answers, recall and retrieval activities, and strategic targeted questioning. As the expert in the room, it is my responsibility to ensure that all learners have a secure knowledge base in their long-term memories and develop critical analysis skills along the way.

Is this better? Certainly it is more evidence-informed. And it seems to lead to greater learning. From the outside, I now appear to be a better teacher. But is that really true?

The verdict

I am aware that this may read as if I am being completely dismissive of my past practice and holding up current pedagogy as if it were some kind of professional panacea: it is not. After reviewing my past and current lessons, I think the truth lies in the grey area - a midpoint between the two worlds.

It would be churlish at best to suggest that employing drama activities in English offers no benefit - of course it does. They simply need to be done with a clear understanding of what we are actually trying to achieve - and a solid grasp of both the how and the why. As professionals, are we just using a strategy because we think it will be fun or memorable? Both educational evidence and professional outcomes suggest that this is never enough.

With a few tweaks, my drama lesson of 11 years ago could have been significantly more effective: I could have ensured that learners were focused on dramatic or authorial method; I could have explicitly emphasised language or contextual elements. The fact that I didn’t do so meant that the opportunity for real, deep learning was, ultimately, lost.

Similarly, relying on knowledge organisers, low-stakes testing or direct instruction is not enough on its own. Evidence-based practice may have come on in dramatic leaps over the past 11 years but that does not mean that these strategies solve all problems.

As Mark Enser (2019) explains in his chapter “Education myths: an origin story”, “many myths in education originate when some kind of strategy or technique becomes divorced from the rationale behind it”. In other words, the why must always be at the forefront of our teaching practice.

So, am I a more effective practitioner now or am I simply a more experienced one? I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that, on balance, I actually think both. I am approximately 6,000 teaching hours more experienced than I was as an NQT back in 2008 and I do believe I am a more effective practitioner overall. The latter is not necessarily because of my pedagogical choices alone but because I am actually more consciously aware of what I am doing and why I am doing it when compared with my early years of practice.

In that sense, the lessons above perhaps say more about the difference in approaches used by an inexperienced and an experienced teacher, rather than telling us that much about the approaches themselves.

This comparison of my 2008 teaching self and my 2019 teaching self is an important reflection. It should guide my practice. Moving forward, I’m going to continue to reflect, understand, adapt and evolve in order to improve my pedagogy further and hopefully, along with it, the outcomes of my learners. No longer will I rest on my experience and assume it is all going well. After all, who knows how my current practice will be viewed in 11 years’ time?

Dan Thomas is an English teacher and head of faculty at a secondary school in Leicestershire

This article originally appeared in the 31 January 2020 issue under the headline “Have you grown as a teacher since you first started?”

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