'The teachers who shout loudest don't always know best'

Beware self-styled experts who tell teachers that they know all the answers – one size never fits all, says Susan Ward

When looking for pedagogy advice, teachers shouldn't necessarily listen to those who shout loudest, writes Susan Ward

Imagine walking into a clothes shop and browsing through the rails. Spotting something that you like the look of, you check the size label. Hmm, not your size. Check another, same problem – and again, and again. You call over the sales assistant who proudly tells you that that all the garments in the shop are the same size, that they’ve worked very hard to make it so.

You’d be out of there pronto, wouldn’t you? Because it would be ludicrous for a shop to sell only one size of clothing, a disastrous business decision. Fashion chains don't flourish by limiting their customers' choices, after all.

So if it’s not OK for Topshop, why is it good enough for teaching?

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Grab your phone and have a quick scroll down through Twitter and stop when you get to a teacher or educationalist espousing his or her belief in The Right Way of Doing Things. It won’t take long. Social media is awash with people telling you how to teach or how to lead a school, all claiming this way or that way is far superior, deriding and ridiculing those who disagree, and all from the safety of their keyboard. It is exhausting in its relentless intensity.

Teachers don't all have to think the same

And it’s not just online. As a profession, we are utterly and increasingly obsessed by this idea that there is one correct way of getting teaching and learning right. "Ofsted favours this way," whisper teachers in corridors in England. "I heard HMIE are looking for this," we breathe in undertones in the staffroom here in Scotland. As if it is all some big, secret code and if we can just crack it and guess what the inspectors are thinking, glory and greatness await.

The push in recent years to encourage teachers to engage with research has put "practitioner enquiry" on the lips of many school leaders, but here, too, we feel the relentless pressure to pick a side. "The research supports it" is a phrase slung across staff meetings, used to lend weight to the argument that it should be this way or that. This weaponising of research to push a favoured pedagogy creates a  minefield for teachers, particularly those taking their first timid steps towards engaging with research and enquiry as a means of improving their practice. One wrong move and they could find themselves blown out of the water by the derision of colleagues who choose to step in a different direction.

The key word here is choice. Why must it be one way or the other? Why is your opinion more valid than mine? As teachers, we stand for patience, tolerance, a well-balanced view of the world. Why, then, do we let the loudest voices do our thinking for us? Why do we think someone with a few TED talks under their belt or a fancy PowerPoint knows what is needed in our classrooms better than we do?

Of course, we need to use research and educational theory to make us better at our jobs. Of course, we need to challenge our thinking and push ourselves to justify if the way we do it is the best it can be. That is what makes good teaching.

But we do not all have to think the same. In a tolerant, forward-thinking society, there is room for all. A plurality of pedagogies means we can learn from each other, challenge each other about the why and the how. It means we can make changes for the better, based on these challenging discussions, yet stand firm in our belief that we know our school contexts and our learners best.

Be wary of anyone trying to convince you that there is only one right way of doing things – because in education, one size doesn’t fit all.

Susan Ward is depute headteacher at Kingsland Primary School in Peebles, in the Scottish Borders. She tweets @susanward30

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