"The unexamined life is not worth living," according to Socrates, or at least according to Plato’s account of Socrates.
I think that, in those seven words, we might find the answer to a question that has been frustrating educationalists for some time: why don’t teachers keep getting better?
We have known for a while that teachers in the majority of schools make rapid improvement for the first few years in the job, but then most plateau (See Rebecca Allen and Sam Sims’ The Teacher Gap).
More from Mark Enser:
Despite countless hours of what is passed off as continuing professional development (CPD), very little change in teaching practice back in the classroom seems to take place.
I have been teaching now for 18 years but it might be truer to say that I have been teaching for three years and then taught the same year another 15 times. I found what was comfortable, what seemed to work pretty well for me, and I kept doing it.
Professional development: Making the most of teacher CPD
Research from Hobbiss, Sims and Allen (2020) into teacher effectiveness found that habit formation can be a barrier to change. I have asked questions in a particular way and dealt with disruptive behaviour a particular way thousands of times, and getting me to change how I do this is going to be difficult.
I have developed fluency in doing these things to avoid having to think about doing them differently. Without developing this fluency, teaching would be as exhausting now as it was as an NQT who was having to find new ways of doing things all the time.
I know this because the past year has felt exactly like being an NQT again as so much has changed about the way we are working. Much of that fluency was lost.
I was reflecting on this recently after a mentor meeting with a trainee teacher. I have been lucky enough to have been a mentor throughout most of my teaching career, and one thing that has always struck me is just how rapidly mentees are able to improve on aspects of their practice.
In one lesson you might notice that their questioning isn’t working, perhaps the responses aren’t well developed or the questions involve pupils trying to guess at answers they have no hope of knowing, but the next week there will be a dramatic improvement.
This, of course, is because between those lessons they have not only had feedback but also the chance to discuss their thinking about questioning and to reflect on why they might need to do something differently. They can pause and examine, and therefore learn.
We do the same thing with pupils in class. Rosenshine’s 10th Principle of Effective Instruction is to engage students in weekly and monthly reviews. He writes that research on cognitive processing supports the need for teachers to give their students the opportunity to read, discuss and apply what they are learning.
They need the time to stop and think about what they have learned and what it means to them.
How often do we truly give teachers the same opportunity to do this? How often do we plan a programme of CPD in which teachers are given the chance to identify how what they have learned applies to their classroom, to then plan how to use it and then to meet with someone to discuss how it went? In my experience, this is pretty rare. But my experience shows it also makes a huge difference.
In my current school, all teachers are given an additional hour of non-contact time a fortnight to meet with a small group of fellow teachers and then go through a structured programme of reading, discussion, action and reflection.
I now feel I have the opportunity to examine what I do in the classroom and to see what might work better and to see the progress it leads to. I am no longer teaching the same year over and over again.
I know that this presents a challenge to school leaders who are already doing their best in extremely challenging times. But if we want to see the countless hours of CPD pay dividends then I think it is a challenge we need to rise to.
An unexamined life is not worth living because it leads to us drifting along on autopilot. Living is about learning, about development and change, and that takes opportunities for reflection.
Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His new book, Powerful Geography, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark