Five ways to unleash great teaching

7th September 2016 at 12:16
Sats results by local authority
A professor of learning explains how Justine Greening could set teachers free to teach

A few years into my teaching career, Tim Brighouse, then my local authority’s chief education officer, gave me a secondment opportunity to develop the English language element of the Oxford Certificate of Educational Achievement. It was an act of trust in a young teacher which I have never forgotten. It unleashed levels of motivation, commitment and research capability which I had not known I possessed. It introduced me to my now friend Philip Pullman, similarly seconded. It gave me confidence to start writing for teachers; I now have more than 40 books to my name.

So if, like Sir Tim, Justine Greening and her ministerial team really want to set teachers free today, what could they do?

  1. Stop playing with structures and think seriously about the point of school

    In England we’ve got new Sats, the English Baccalaureate is on its way and Attainment/Progress 8 are now going to happen. That’s enough structural change for now. Let’s remind ourselves of the wider purposes of education; while it would be morally repugnant not to help all children do their very best in national tests, these tests are only a small part of what school is about. Let’s explicitly talk about values – kindness, generosity, forgiveness, tolerance, trustworthiness, moral bravery and care for the planet. Let’s be clearer about those habits of mind which are desirable in life and also enhance performance – curiosity, resilience, self-regulation, craftsmanship, optimism, appropriate scepticism, creativity and collaborative problem-solving. Nobel laureate James Heckman and colleagues have clearly demonstrated the efficacy of these kinds of attributes[i].
  2. Start saying ‘and’, not ‘or’ – and avoid those who trade in false-opposites 

    "But what about knowledge?" I hear someone saying. Let’s unequivocally stress the importance of disciplines and subjects, too. Indeed, in the public discourse it’s surely time we valued knowledge and capabilities equally. We need pupils who are passionately talented mathematicians and also able to keep going when they get stuck; confident historians who entrance us with their tale-telling and are also capable of being sceptical of others’ claims when they need to be.

    When it comes to teaching methods, we want teachers who are deeply facilitative and effectively didactic. We need them to be fluent in both theory and practice. Successful outcomes occur when, as John Hattie reminds us[ii], teachers teach and learn, and learners learn and teach. It’s not about being progressive or traditional but rather about being evidence-based and values-driven.
  3.  Actively encourage innovation

    For too long too many teachers have been under the illusion, sometimes attributed to Ofsted, that only certain kinds of lessons can achieve the highest accolades. This is patently not true. We must hang on to the idea, so elegantly articulated by Mark Goldberg[iii] that "watching a great teacher at the top of his or her form is like watching a great surgical or artistic performance". Let’s resist those who want formulaic approaches or who seem to imagine that there is only one right way.

    We need to actively encourage teachers to innovate, giving them permission to fail sometimes. The ResearchEd movement, the Education Endowment Foundation and our own Expansive Education Network[iv] actively encourage and support teachers to use evidence and undertake their own rigorous small tests of change, improving outcomes for pupils all the while.
  4.  Rethink the relationship with parents

    One of the good things about the old Department for Children, Schools and Families between 2007 and 2010 was that it was just getting round to understanding the fundamentally important interrelationships between home, family and school. Too bad it did not see this through. We need major cultural change. Let’s rethink homework. Let’s abolish the way we currently do parent/teacher consultations in crowded secondary gymnasia or in front of primary teachers’ desks on chairs which are too small for our bottoms. Let’s harness technology like MarvellousMe[v] to start a different quality of conversation. Let’s think more deeply about how practically parents and teachers can work best together as partners, something I have explored with Guy Claxton in Educating Ruby: what our children really need to learn.
  5.  Create a climate of trust

    I’ve left the most important to last. Justine (in case you are reading this), make it a priority to get out into schools at least one day every week and talk about the broader agenda of schooling. For you really can help to unleash the creativity and passions in headteachers and teachers if you start to trust more and legislate less.

Professor Bill Lucas is director for the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester and author, with Guy Claxton, of Educating Ruby: what our children really need to learn.

A webchat with Professor Bill Lucas on how school leaders can promote great teaching will take place on 13 September at 4.30pm, with Andrew Maiden in the TES leadership forum. Follow the discussion and post your questions here.

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[i] Kautz T, Heckman J J, Diris R, Weel B. ter, Borghans L (2014) ‘Fostering and measuring skills: improving cognitive and non-cognitive skills to promote lifetime success’. OECD Education Working Papers, No. 110, OECD Publishing

[ii] Hattie, J (2009) Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Oxon: Routledge.

[iii] Goldberg, M (2003) in Teachers with Class: True Stories of Great Teachers. Kansas: Andrews McMeel Publishing


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