As a subject specialist, my main concern was developing knowledge and skills in my particular discipline and, in the process (I hope), instilling a love of the subject. Assessment had a supporting role, implied rather than articulated in the various ways that a teacher takes stock of how much is getting through.
That primary focus on subject content and how to present it tends to preoccupy teachers. It also tends, albeit through the prism of test results, to dominate the discourse of school improvement. In attending to the “from good to great” agenda, the spotlight of school improvement often defaults on to pedagogy, and to teachers’ classroom practice, with scant recognition of the obvious fact that how teachers perform is hedged around and circumscribed by factors not necessarily in their immediate control.
Part of the problem lies in this two-dimensional concept of education. We should add a third dimension to the triangle. This makes a pyramid whose fourth vertex represents the locus of learning itself – adding a “where” to the “what”, “how” and “whether” of formal education. This takes in the school itself – the physical container in which learning happens – but also its organisational structures and its leadership.
A school’s leadership can do much to empower teachers and neutralise the negative impact of factors like exams, inspections, appraisals, resource constraints and timetabling exigencies. And it can help to create and nurture progressive pedagogies. School leaders can set in place many of the constructive conditions for learning, including: the design and availability of formal and informal learning spaces in the school; the adequacy of ICT affordances and support, and policies around the use of mobile technology; the importance attached to cross-curricular work and enquiry; policies regarding homework, marking and feedback; and supportive reciprocal lesson observations.
'School leaders set the tone'
School leaders set expectations and priorities with regard to aims and outcomes, and the best schools seek to extend these beyond success in public examinations. Teachers respond to clear statements about the importance not just of what is learned, but of how it is learned. School leaders decide on the allocation of scarce resources. But they also set the tone.
Many schools have articulated their broader educational aims, often by describing the qualities and dispositions desired in pupils as outcomes of education. These may be mapped on to the school culture and curriculum, and used to interrogate its approach to teaching and learning. But the organisation itself, and not just the teachers within it, should be modelling the dispositions desired in the pupils.
If one desired outcome is the willingness to be creative and take risks, it should be possible to identify precisely where and how in the curriculum and in the school’s own organisational structure and leadership those aims are being modelled.
School leaders should ask how effectively they encourage their staff to initiate innovations, take risks and not teach safely to a syllabus.
Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1