In one of my favourite episodes of Yes, Prime Minister, Jim Hacker is called upon to put forward a candidate to become a bishop. Presented with a choice between an agnostic and a political troublemaker, he protests that one wants to get God out of the Church of England while the other wants to get the Queen out. Sir Humphrey reassures him that the Queen is inseparable from the Church.
“What about God?” asks Hacker.
“I think he’s what’s called an ‘optional extra’.”
Such a failure to see the wood for the trees feels all too familiar to the modern teacher. Who has not felt utter despair upon seeing hours of INSET pencilled in for the latest educational fad? Brain gym. Left and right brains. Multiple intelligences. Learning styles. De Bono’s thinking hats. MOOCs (remember those?). Bloom’s taxonomy. Energizers. Deep marking. Triple marking. 21st century skills. Dimensions of learning. Discovery learning. Project-based learning. Child-centred learning. Flipped learning. Different colours for different personalities. Etc. etc.
All of these have been thoroughly debunked, disproven or at the very least shown to be unsubstantiated. Teachers should no more be taught them than surgeons be instructed on how to operate with a saw and a bucket of tar. Yet they were all at one time introduced as the greatest innovation since the wheel. All remain common currency in teacher training colleges as well as in educational establishments, and some schools even insist on them as policy. Why should this be the case?
Habits, of course, are hard to break. Some teachers would have absorbed one or more of these theories in training and become hard-wired to put them into practice. Others adopted methodologies when they were required by Ofsted, allowing them to become routine even after the inspectorate abandoned such requirements. Orthodoxies like learning styles have grown so ubiquitous that it is considered almost heretical to point out the mass of evidence against them.
Great teaching should be simple
There are also more sinister reasons behind the prevalence of this nonsense. These ideas are intentionally rendered complicated and couched in opaque language by the confidence tricksters who peddle them, preventing their marks from catching a glimpse of the wizard behind the curtain. How often has a session of professional development turned out to be a clumsily disguised sales pitch for some new app or a novel set of resources? It is pure snake oil.
Then comes another layer of jargon, with teaching practice shrouded in further mystery by the predominance of abstruse terminology. Learning walks. Learning objectives. Learning outcomes. Targets. Non-negotiables. Success criteria. Added value. Plenaries. Cognitive flexibility. Metacognition. Cultivate. Enrich. Empower. Once merely the preserve of ad execs and management consultants, this lingo has been swallowed wholesale by schools, with the result that conversations around teaching must now be conducted through a fog of newspeak and circumlocution.
My dictionary gives the following definition of ‘teach’: “impart knowledge to or instruct (someone) as to how to do something.” We must cut this Gordian knot of fads and fiction, and consider how best to achieve that end. The answer is simple – charismatic and knowledgeable teachers with clear instruction, firm discipline and a gradated, logical approach. Such methods may be unlikely to swell the coffers of the snake oil salesmen. They do not have the makings of a bestselling book, or a TED talk to take the internet by storm. Nonetheless they are – and have always been – the crux of great teaching. We treat them as an ‘optional extra’ at our peril.
Let us abandon disproven educational crazes and treat new ones with healthy scepticism. SMTs must be brave in paring back unnecessary and time-consuming practices too. How can marking be simplified? Might it even be abolished, as has been done in some schools? Could data tracking be more automated, or minimised? Are there other areas of administration which could be curtailed or axed entirely?
Were such changes to be made, the advantages would be legion. Teachers would maintain a better work/life balance. New teachers would be attracted into the profession. Most importantly, the children would be all the better educated for it.
Now that’s what I call a learning outcome.
Photo by Wesley Fryer from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA (Snake oil or Memory Elixer anyone?) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons