We must trust teachers’ instincts

Research and accountability should support teachers’ professional judgement, not work against it, says Jon Severs

We need to learn to trust teachers' instinct, writes Jon Severs

People try to make you suspicious of your instincts when you have your first child. They tell you to read the books. They buy you the books. They ask if you have read the books. And you end up reading all the books at 3am in a panic binge because the baby has not stopped crying for two days and you now believe that maybe – just maybe – the reason why is in those books.

Then you try to follow the research-backed – yet completely contradictory – advice from the books, midwives, health visitors, parents, in-laws, extended family, friends and the woman down the road … And the baby still cries. Because the baby is meant to cry. And when the baby does stop crying, the thing that made it happen was the thing you sort of felt you should have done from the start. Your instincts as a parent, it turns out, are pretty good when it comes to parenting.

But are your instincts as a teacher pretty good when it comes to teaching?

I guess it’s hard to know. Because over the decades, we have eroded teacher instinct. First came the accountability chisel, chipping away at the edges. Then came the evidence-informed movement with its hand of friendship and guidance that soon ended up wielding a mallet.

Trust in teachers

It’s a bad mix. We have entered parenting-manual territory: “could” becoming “must”, “might” becoming “is”, “approaches” becoming “the one true word of research/Ofsted/Nick Gibb that you must bow to or face eternal damnation”.

What space is there for instinct here? Or for professional, accumulated experiential knowledge? Ed Finch tried to find out. He removed the shackles of prescription, accountability and research from the teachers at his school and, for one Friday, told them to do whatever they liked.

Some might have expected anarchy. Finch feared paralysis: “Perhaps today’s younger teachers are so de-skilled by the overly prescribed order of the day … that they wouldn’t find anything ‘free’ to do,” he writes. “Perhaps it would be just like any other day and #FreedomFriday would mean freedom to do just what you’ve always done?”

No one should have worried. The teachers embraced the freedom, not by being reckless but by combining what they instinctively knew was best for the children with what they instinctively thought pupils would enjoy. A lot of it looked similar to a normal day in school, but with added smiles, creativity and rockets.

Indeed, when explicitly told they could make their own decisions, teachers did all the things that some in the evidence-informed movement and in government feel they need to be forced to do.

Is that habit? I don’t think so. It’s teachers using their professional judgement to select, from a broad range of influences, what is best for their pupils. Research is one strand, accountability another, and instinct a third. Research is a powerful and necessary force: as Tes columnist Mark Enser repeatedly says, it should empower teachers to make better decisions, not take decisions away from them.

Yet, we are in danger of allowing the latter to occur. Through accountability and an increasingly didactic research movement, we risk taking agency away from teachers and leaving them floundering like new parents. The books say it should work, but it doesn’t. What then? We are squeezing out instinct and it is to the detriment of the profession. It deskills teachers, it automates them and it leaves them powerless.

Of course, we need research and checks, too. But let’s trust teachers more, because when we do, we’ll see they are pretty good at making the right call – and, as Finch and his colleagues found, the love of teaching comes right back and the pupils benefit.

Jon Severs is commissioning editor at Tes. He tweets @jon_severs

This article originally appeared in the 18 October 2019 issue under the headline “Should we trust teacher instinct? My gut reaction is: yes, of course

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