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'No amount of tech or artificial intelligence will ever replace the love of a great teacher and a growth mindset'

Tech is great. But a brilliant teacher will always be essential, writes a former schools minister, and TES Global's chief education adviser

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This week thousands of educators will descend on the Bett Show at the Excel in East London. Visitors from around the world will tour countless trade stands and listen to some great talks – but what are they after?

This annual quest appears to be, increasingly, in search of effectiveness, rather than the latest shiny new thing. This is a good development. It will always be the case that teaching comes before technology; technology is simply a tool that teachers may use to enhance their practice.

This doesn’t only apply to technology. It is the same with anything new.

My attention was drawn to a recent interview with Carol Dweck. Her work on the Growth Mindset has interested a huge number of teachers. At its heart are two complementary ideas. Praising children for being clever gives them a fixed mindset that good performance is innate and can’t be grown. By contrast, educating children to understand that we can grow abilities, through effort and resilience, helps them thrive.

However it appears that poor application of this thinking is bothering Professor Dweck.

“Recently, someone asked what keeps me up at night. It’s the fear that the mindset concepts, which grew up to counter the failed self-esteem movement, will be used to perpetuate that movement. In other words, if you want to make students feel good, even if they’re not learning, just praise their effort!”

She is clear. Growth Mindset isn’t just about effort. Equally, identifying a fixed mindset is not a justification for a student not learning. Parents who praise effort but react to their child’s mistakes as problems are missing the point. The Growth Mindset is about learning from mistakes and unlocking learning.

Like the use of technology in the classroom, applying new thinking, such as the Growth Mindset or flipped learning, needs reflection and training. There are no silver bullets, and any visitors to Bett should never forget that when being wowed by the great salespeople in their lovely corporate T-shirts.

But I also think we all need to reflect on effectiveness.

It feels like we are trapped into the idea that effectiveness is only what is culturally deemed rigorous, and what is measurable.

This was best exemplified by the announcement of tests of times tables for Year 6 pupils in England. 

I am not against memorising multiplication tables as a useful skill – I still use it every day, even at the age of 50. It is right that it should be in the national curriculum programme of study, with an expectation that Year 4 pupils should be able to recall multiplication and division.

But why 12x12 in a metric world?  Because that is the way it always has been in rigorous schools.

And why now put it into the accountability system? Why not offer free online tests for teachers to use when appropriate? Because-policy makers don’t trust teachers.

And why test at Year 6 when the learning should be done by Year 4? Because the accountability system comes before the needs of learning.

All of this contrasts with some of the commentary from the USA. A recent survey of school superintendents shows 77 per cent agree that students’ level of hope for their own future is a good measure of school effectiveness. While surveying students is perfectly measurable, I suspect this wouldn’t pass the rigour test here in England.

I then noticed this New York Times article, "How measurement fails doctors and teachers". This last passage really struck me:

Avedis Donabedian, a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, was a towering figure in the field of quality measurement. He developed what is known as Donabedian’s triad, which states that quality can be measured by looking at outcomes (how the subjects fared), processes (what was done) and structures (how the work was organized). In 2000, shortly before he died, he was asked about his view of quality. What this hard-nosed scientist answered is shocking at first, then somehow seems obvious.

“The secret of quality is love,” he said.

Once I got over my cultural reaction to write this off as hippy nonsense, I thought about it. It is obvious. What we want from public service is more love. We want teachers who love teaching because they love unlocking learning, and love helping children grow. 

But how do we measure love?

At BETT there will be artificial intelligence that can teach the times tables, and test them, without humans. But will there be love? Our worst fears of a dystopian future, of humans competing with machines, is loveless. As we continue to seek out the next thing that works in teaching we should keep it human, and cherish the love.

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