How a ‘balance bike’ approach to training will give us better teachers

Taking off the stabilisers in teacher development will yield results, says this assistant headteacher, giving us more confident and effective teachers

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So far, I’ve successfully taught two of my three daughters to ride a two-wheeled pedal bike. While I learned to cycle the traditional way, by using stabilisers and then ditching them once I was a bit more confident, I've eschewed that for my own children and instead followed the current trend for balance bikes. 

It really does work, reducing the complexity of the learning process. And it made me think: when we develop teachers’ skills, either during initial training or as part of ongoing professional development, should we use a balance bike approach, or should we bolt on stabilisers? 

Allow me to flesh out the analogy.

Teacher development

By putting stabilisers on a child’s bike, we remove the need for the most difficult skills to be used – we make the task easier. But then we take the stabilisers away and send the rider almost back to square one, making them learn new and difficult skills without the support they once had, and in a potentially more dangerous way.

So, when training teachers, should we give them stabilisers: easy ways of doing things that remove the difficulty of the job? 

Take differentiation as an example. Should we advise teachers to differentiate three ways in order to cater for three different ability groups? Is this a good way into learning how to cater to the needs of the individuals in the class? 

Once teachers are settled in the job, will it then be easy for them to switch from this way of working to being a more responsive teacher, one who understands there is very rarely a situation where three different worksheets can adequately meet the needs of the learners in their class? 

Similar examples of stabilisers might be heavily-scaffolded planning formats, pre-planned lessons, whole-school behaviour policies that remove teacher autonomy, greater numbers of in-class adult support and so on. 

Could stabilisers such as this give teachers the confidence they need in order to begin their mastery of the craft of teaching? 

Training to thrive

By giving a child a balance bike, we require them to master some difficult skills, but ones that they continue to use once on a proper bike, at which point they hone another, simpler skill in order to master riding (pedalling).

Providing teachers with a balance-bike approach to development might mean expecting them to work on mastering the important basics, perhaps for a longer time than if stabilising support had been provided, but with fewer scaffolds. 

How might this look? Take differentiation again so that we have a comparable example. 

In this model of teacher development, a coach or mentor might work alongside a teacher showing them how to develop assessment that feeds into planning for future lessons. Here we see that there is someone there to help with the difficult tasks instead of taking those tasks away and replacing them with simpler, yet potentially ineffective, ones that masquerade as a job well done. 

In this model, there are no beginner or intermediate expectations for teachers, just the understanding that everyone might be at a different point in their development of a particular teaching skill. 

By giving teachers a balance-bike approach, they should be being equipped with skills that they continue to use throughout their career. Then, just as the art of pedalling is learnt once on a pedal bike, so too can the art of teaching be developed once the more difficult, foundational skills have been mastered.

Taking off the training wheels

If we take a stabiliser approach to teacher development, do we actually instil bad habits that are then hard to change? Would it not be preferable to expect teachers to do things in the most effective way right from the start, even if this does take longer and even if it does come with a few falls on the way? 

Riding with stabilisers only really helps you to learn how to ride with stabilisers – with the right support, most teachers won’t need this approach. Most teachers will benefit much more from being allowed to work on the real skills they need for a lifetime of teaching without stabilisers.

Although this reads very much as a foregone conclusion, I must acknowledge that, as with much in life, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. But developing teachers the balance-bike way is likely to result in teachers being confident, independent practitioners who are dedicated to self-improvement, are willing to take risks and are not afraid to ask for help. 

The only thing left to teach teachers such as these is how to apply the brakes when they’re moving too fast.

Aidan Severs is an assistant vice principal at a primary school in the North of England. He blogs at ThatBoyCanTeach and tweets @thatboycanteach


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