Is teacher instinct becoming extinct?

Amid all the pressure of accountability, is there any room for a teacher’s gut instinct? Ed Finch put this to the test
18th October 2019, 12:03am
Teacher Instinct: What Would Happen If Teachers Were Free To Teach What They Wanted?


Is teacher instinct becoming extinct?

I’ve dragged a desk outside and the class are gathered around it, agog. I’m sweating - what if it doesn’t work? I pop the fizzy tablet into the capsule and slop in a little vinegar. I fumble a little but manage to snap the lid back on and slap it on to the desk. There’s a pause. Bubbles appear out of the side of the old film canister. I start to formulate a sentence where I explain why our rockets haven’t demonstrated Newton’s third law quite as clearly as I’d hoped…

Pop! The blessed little thing shoots into the air, gaining an altitude of three, maybe four, metres, with every eye in the class following in wonder. There are whoops of joy. Someone punches the air triumphantly (it may well have been me).

Now, vinegar and bicarb rockets are hardly new: I must have done them first 15 years ago and they haven’t let me down yet. But the sad fact is, it’s probably 10 years or more since I last blew the dust off my bag of film canisters and sent them into space. Somehow, there seems to be less time in the school day than ever before, and more things to fill that time with.

You have your “starter for five” arithmetic when you enter the classroom, your phonics session, a good hour for English and another for maths, guided reading is half an hour after lunch, there’s assembly and two PE lessons that must be fitted in. The primary curriculum is packed to bursting and it always seems to be the ace stuff, the stuff that really gets the children talking, that gets squeezed out.

So, when Tes contacted me to see whether I was up for a little experiment - one in which some of this stuff had the possibility of being reintroduced - they found a willing lab rat.

The experiment

“What would happen,” the Tes commissioning editor asked me, “if, just for one day, you let the teachers teach whatever they liked, however they wanted to?”

The idea, he explained, was to examine whether accountability and research-backed safe-bet approaches were shifting teachers away from what they instinctively thought was the best way of teaching. Tes wanted to see what teaching looked like if it was completely dictated by gut instinct, formed from extensive experience in the classroom; to see how the teachers felt, what the kids thought and how it all compared with what has become the norm.

Imagine! For one day, you set the national curriculum aside and teach something you’re passionate about? Or you take time to go deeper and investigate the gaps in the curriculum. What were the benefits? Would teachers find renewed purpose and remember why they joined the profession in the first place? What were the risks? Would the school descend into anarchy, like a modern-day St Trinian’s cartoon?

Here’s the thing; at our school, Larkrise Primary, in diverse East Oxford, we have brilliant teachers and teaching assistants who put the wellbeing of the pupils at the heart of everything we do. We tell them what we want them to teach and, in some subjects, we’re quite prescriptive about how we want it taught. This is not control freakery: like most schools, we’ve absorbed a little research and a little best practice, and tried to embed it.

In phonics, maths and reading, most particularly, there are practices and routines we want to see in our classrooms. We have good reason to believe that these policies, followed well, will make for decent progress. After a couple of years of disappointing results, we really want to see some good progress, so we have tended to tighten up our expectations of the way the teachers teach.

I imagine this sounds familiar to teachers and leaders right across the land.

Risks and rewards

Deciding to give teachers freedom to teach what they want to teach and how they want to teach it would come with some risks - they could choose the wrong content or choose the right content yet use it ineffectively - but it would come, we thought, with some plausible benefits, too.

What if the people who developed the good practice that we choose to emulate were effective partly because they were engaged in a pioneering journey? What if their sense of themselves as being creative in their practice empowered them and made them more authoritative, and perhaps more charismatic, as teachers? What if giving teachers some agency might improve their effectiveness?

For better or worse, we agreed to go along with the project.

I am an old stager at our school. At 48, I’m double the age of a good number of our staff, but even so, I haven’t been teaching quite long enough to remember the time before the national curriculum.

There was, older colleagues tell us, a period before 1988 when each school, each individual teacher, was free to make their own choices about what was to be taught, and when and how. No doubt there was some shocking practice going on - one colleague told how me she spent an entire term raising chickens in the class cloakroom. “The children learned so much!” she enthused.

“Yes,” I thought, but chose not to say, “about chickens”.

The freedom of those far-off days sounds to us now, with so much of our focus on curriculum development and on the curation of skills and knowledge, half enticing, half daunting. What if every day really was a blank page? Without the expectations of the curriculum and structures of the school day, how would we even know what to do with ourselves? Would we be able to fill our days? We were about to find out.

We gave the staff a few weeks’ notice of our “teach from the gut” day and I took care to remind them a couple of times in the days leading up to the great experiment.

I needn’t have worried, however: the idea had taken root and colleagues were determined to make use of the day just as they wished. Tell them they’re having freedom and freedom they will take. I offered to help out anyone who wanted some ideas of what they might like to do - and was politely rebuffed: plans were clearly afoot.

Freedom Friday

I was nervous as I walked through the park to school on the morning of our day of being free to teach from the gut, not just because a photographer from Tes was going to spend the day with us - and I don’t see myself as the most photogenic of subjects - but because of the risks we had opened ourselves up to.

At Larkrise, we have a higher than usual number of autistic children - would a day off the usual timetable upset their routines and make it hard for them to cope? Would teachers become irresponsible with the freedom and make unwise choices? Would we be searching for support staff to accompany ad hoc mini beast hunts in the nature park or trying to talk colleagues out of water fights and battle re-enactments?

Or worse, perhaps today’s younger teachers are so de-skilled by the overly prescribed order of the day - with schemes for this, units for that and downloadable resources for everything else - that they wouldn’t find anything “free” to do. Perhaps it would be just like any other day and #FreedomFriday would mean freedom to do just what you’ve always done?

The truth is that we did have an unusually calm and pleasant day, but one in which my colleagues proved that creativity still runs in the veins of primary teachers, whatever the exigencies of the job.

Year 1 had a “wilderness day” based on Max’s adventures in Where the Wild Things Are. They drummed and danced, went to the nature reserve, and explored and hunted for natural treasures; they had a picnic lunch together on the school field and made art from natural materials. They challenged themselves to use no power all day: no electric lights, no photocopying, no computer or projector. They had absolutely the best time and used language their teachers had never heard them use before.

Year 2 invited in a real live archaeologist, who let them hold marvellous ancient things. I was lucky enough to be there when a child asked the archaeologist what the best thing he’d found was. He told them - imagine their round eyes and them leaning forward quietly in the room as he explained this - that on a dig in Siberia, he had found a piece of pottery so old that it was from before anyone thought humans even lived in that part of the world.

“Where is Siberia?” “How long ago did people first live there?” “How did you know how old it was?” The questions were motivated by a genuine desire to learn.

In Year 3, the children were learning all about their teacher’s hobby of sugarcraft and making their own creations, applying a surprising amount of maths along the way.

The Year 4 teacher drew on her heritage and shared her passion for Persian culture, art and design, widening those children’s view of the world and of the diversity of the people who inhabit it.

And so it went on, up through the school, with teachers sharing something that had a real connection to their interests or identity, and children listening and responding with openness and curiosity - a sight to gladden the heart of any school leader.

None of these activities is outlandish; in fact, many - the sugarcraft aside, perhaps - are precisely the sorts of things I would encourage staff to be doing on any “normal” day. The children were certainly not overexcited and the quality of the work was in line with what they would normally achieve, better in some cases. One had to wonder why we don’t make every day “Freedom Friday”, if this is the sort of thing that would go on?

The results

What would our concerns be if we did do this every day?

At first glance, some of these activities might have a whiff of busywork about them. A class spending an afternoon making sugarcraft flowers? A class designing Persian carpets? Is it possible that giving teachers all that agency gave them permission to go back to old habits of thinking about activities to be done rather than learning to be gained?

Not according to the teachers when I spoke to them afterwards - without exception, they had thought about what they wanted the children to learn, then thought through how they could make it happen.

Whether it was using a ruler to measure accurately, using rotation and reflection to investigate symmetry, experiencing history or relating existing knowledge of forces to real-world applications, all the tasks the children were engaged in were interesting and absorbing because they related to real learning needs.

My favourite example of this was my Year 5 colleague, Lotte. I took the friendly Tes photographer down to meet her and asked what the class would be up to. “We’re just going to be doing some maths games,” she said as she put dice, counters and photocopied games sheets on to the children’s desks.

With absolute freedom to do whatever she liked with the class that afternoon, surely that was a bit of a cop out? Lotte didn’t think so.

“We have to crack through our maths lessons - it’s so hard to get through everything we need to that there’s never time to really relax into it enough to really enjoy it.

“I thought an afternoon of maths games would let them have a chance to see the real fun of maths - plus they’ll be practising all their skills.”

The things to know here are: first, Lotte is our maths coordinator and she really knows what the children need next to make the progress we need them to make, so if she says they need to spend time relaxing into enjoyment of the discipline, then I’m not going to argue with that. Second, Lotte loves games. When other colleagues are at the gym or with friends in the pub, Lotte is more likely to be in the Boardgame Café huddled around a table exploring a dungeon or battling some Orcs - she chose an activity that connected to her personal interests, and perhaps that’s how she could sell it effectively to the pupils in her class.

The proof of the pudding? The children in Lotte’s class had an ace time, their faces said it all as they relaxed into a genuine enjoyment of a practical mathematical problem-solving and pattern-spotting activity. In cold terms, they practised more calculations in that afternoon than they would do in a week of normal maths lessons, and they did them with a smile on their faces.

In a teaching world where the term “non-negotiable” seems to have taken over from the simple word “policy”, as if colleagues have to be forced to follow guidance and would wriggle out of it if they could, it’s a pleasing and wholesome message to realise that our colleagues are inclined to do the right thing by their pupils, even when they’ve explicitly been given freedom to do otherwise.

My colleagues were mindful of the needs of children who require routine and kept those tight enough that the children felt secure to learn. My colleagues thought about what pupils needed to learn and figured out how they could make that learning happen - some would call that an assessment learning cycle.

My colleagues weren’t afraid to be authentically themselves in the classroom; they opened up and shared something of themselves, whether that was a love for games, an interest in sugarcraft or a passion for sharing their ethnic heritage.

For me, I just loved following one theme throughout a whole day - we started with a book about rockets, wrote our own rocket poems, made and fired our own rockets and created rocket art. Although the subject changed from literacy to science to art through the day, the children were able to keep “in the zone” and rehearse a set of vocabulary throughout the learning.

At the end of the day, the children said they had loved that aspect of the day and asked if every Friday could be a “theme day” - they didn’t notice the freedom but loved the theme, and I will carry that through to next year and beyond.


Would I do it again? Like a shot - one member of our senior leadership argued that we should have a freedom day three or four times a year to make sure all teachers have space to explore their passions - a little like the idea of Genius Hour but for teachers.

Routines and reliability are deeply important for all our pupils; they give them a sense of control in a world in which they often have very little agency, so I would not get rid of the predictability of phonics time, guided reading time, breaks at the same time each day and so on. Freedom to teach in the way your class needs does not mean freedom to make them feel unsafe or to upset the school’s calm for other classes.

Is it possible to square the circle? As school leaders, we want to feel in control of our schools. Whether it’s the local authority, the multi-academy trust or the inspectors, somebody’s watching us and it would take nerves of steel to let go of the reins entirely.

More than that, we know that the knowledge and skills that build towards children’s growing ability in reading, writing and maths need regular sequenced rehearsal. Making every day “teach from the gut day” risks us returning to a free-for-all, where a teacher - using their very best instincts - spends a term raising chickens in a toilet.

Of course, the current buzzword “curriculum” might be the start of an answer. If we have defined clearly what needs to be learned and sequenced it wisely, and ensured our staff really “get it” (which may be the hardest part), then perhaps we can relax our hyper-vigilance and start to create more space for the professional people we have employed to exercise their professional judgement.

If we are serious about making teaching an attractive career, and one that people want to stay in long term, then a focus on raising professional agency has to be front of mind. Overly rigid guidelines for how the day is to be run and how teaching is to be done, however well-intentioned, risk turning teachers off from trusting their experience and risk limiting the job satisfaction that makes teaching such a satisfying career.

One day is little more than a snapshot, but it was a snapshot of a strong and happy school, where teachers are trusted with agency and pay it back in kindness, responsible practice and attention to the pupils’ needs. It’s a picture I’d like to see more of at our school and across the profession.

Back on the field, our rockets flew up in the air, some flipping over and tumbling, some landing perfectly, as if planned. The children saw gravity briefly being defied by our plucky little craft before it took hold and drew them down to Earth again. They looked at the fins and nose cones their classmates had chosen for their rockets, and talked confidently about wind resistance, drag and thrust.

I saw their faces, heard their cheers as a rocket cleared the classroom’s guttering and thought to myself, for the first time in a while if I’m honest, “Yes, this is what I came into teaching for”.

Ed Finch is teacher and senior leader at Larkrise Primary School in Oxford. He is one of the founders of #BrewEd, bringing colleagues together across sectors for debate, discussion and laughter at pubs up and down the land. He tweets @MrEFinch

This article originally appeared in the 18 OCTOBER 2019 issue under the headline “Is instinct becoming extinct?”


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