Evidence is important, but great teaching is still an art

In the rush to promote research-based teaching, we must not forget the artistry that builds relationships and gives the profession magic, writes Simon Smith

Simon Smith

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Teachers are working in interesting times: we are certainly becoming an evidence-based profession. I am, however, more convinced than ever that there is more to teaching than that.

“In the rush to make teaching a science we mustn’t forget the artistry and craft of the job. Watching a great teacher is a wonderful thing.”

My recent, somewhat small pearl of wisdom on Twitter received a flutter of replies, but sometimes 140 characters is not enough. So what exactly was I getting at?

Time for some clarification. First things first, I believe in teaching: more importantly, I believe in great teaching. Being a great teacher isn’t easy. It’s a complex job. WC Fields famously said, “never work with animals or children.” But as well as providing the greatest challenge, the greatest joy we have within teaching is that we are working with young people.

I’m concerned that sometimes this key relationship – this alchemy – gets lost in the rush for evidence-based practice.

There is a magic apparent when you see great teaching, an indefinable something that makes your heart sing. There are so many factors that come together to make great teaching. Trying to define it is always problematic. I have seen too many occasions when something that worked in one class goes on to crash and burn in another.

I think I can recognise the whiff of snake oil when it’s about. If there is a common factor that characterises great teaching, it is the trusting and honest relationship between a teacher and their class. This is not a new idea; I will not sell textbooks and training packages off the back of it. But try a bit of completely non-scientific evidence gathering: ask 10 people what the most positive memory of their education is. I would bet my elbow patches that most replies will include a teacher, a person, a relationship.

But where does this leave our evidence-based profession? Talk of alchemy and magic is hardly helpful in pushing the research agenda, but that was the point of my initial tweet.

We need to nurture the craft, the art of teaching. Looking at my early years of teaching through interlaced fingers from behind the sofa, I have to admit some of it was a bit duff. But I was given time to develop. I worked hard at it, I read and I tried stuff, some of which worked, some of which didn’t. I feel for newly qualified teachers, who are expected to deliver from the moment they step through the door. I worry that so many leave the profession just when they are getting good. They are not given the space and support to hone their craft.

There has been a big push for teaching to be informed by scientific method – that is no bad thing. Finding the most effective ways to teach can only help us impact more effectively on the life chances of all our pupils. When teachers are more knowledgeable about what works, that can only be good for schools.

Searching for answers

The key word there is knowledgeable. Quality research should inform our practice but we need to be wary of assuming there is a silver bullet. The Educational Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning toolkit is an interesting place to start. It provides an excellent resource for educators interested in research. There is, however, a big issue that is ignored: many teachers are not skilled in reading research and science and are not taught how to interpret it critically – in other words, how to become knowledgeable.

In my time, I have had numerous shiny initiatives thrust into my classroom from senior leaders looking for the answer like a post-Easter egg dieter extolling the virtues of the latest Nutribullet recipe book. But like many fad diets, these education revolutions were frequently poorly researched, tenuously linked to a weak evidence base and, alas, never the answer.

In my view, too much research sold to teachers as evidence is, in scientific, terms not particularly robust. There are too many variables, sample sizes are often negligible and measures applied are often not based within theoretical frameworks. Research is often funded to fit an agenda and being aware of publication bias is important, but ensuring a critical reading of research is the crux of the issue.

How many educators have gone back to the original research rather than had a package pushed their way? How many teachers and education leaders have read the limitations of the research outlined by the researchers themselves? Scientists know that research builds an evidence base, but it never provides proof. Picking out the valuable stuff is not easy; picking it out without bias is even trickier. We are all, sadly, prone to confirmation bias.

When it comes to using research evidence in the classroom I would say I am healthily sceptical. As the good psychology graduate I am, I read a lot and I question more. Good teachers deal in evidence-based practice every day. If we encourage staff to be reflective and explore what works in their class, they often find the things that make the difference. This may be enhanced by understanding the research, but replacing personal insight with off-the-shelf packages rarely shows impact beyond the initial placebo effect.

During the last 23 years, I have had the privilege of spending a lot of time in other people’s classrooms. I say privilege because that is what is: to watch someone teach well is a wonderful thing. A great teacher makes all the difference. If you want children to make great progress, frankly, there is no other solution. In our schools, the priority has to be creating the systems that allow our teachers to be great. There is no easy route to that. It is hard work, it takes time, focus and effort: there is no silver bullet.

Teaching is a craft: something to be honed, not solved. By all means, read good research but be mindful that it might not help you to teach fronted adverbials to an excitable Year 5 class on a rainy November afternoon. For that, you might need to use a bit of imagination, expertise and the artistic nature of your craft.

Simon Smith is headteacher at East Whitby Academy in North Yorkshire. He tweets @smithsmm

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