Car-crash teaching

22nd February 2013 at 00:00

New teaching and learning strategies are a bit like catwalk fashions. While size zero models or advanced skills teachers can get away with Versace gowns or pedagogical bustles, they make old plodders like me look like a rhino in a rhinestone frock. Thankfully, since most teaching and learning (TL) strategies have the life expectancy of a tachycardic mouse, I can usually ignore them. Not so the latest craze. "Dialogic assessment" is the new kid on the block and it's spreading faster than an outbreak of nits.

Worryingly, it's not just the die-hard TL innovators who are championing this latest assessment for learning strategy. Even the curmudgeonly old-timers who usually just tick every third paragraph are filling their pupils' books with extended diagnostic questioning.

Such strategic interrogation makes a change from our usual QA oeuvre, which tends to be limited to "Miss, can I go to the toilet?" and "Only if you've got a note". We now undertake lengthy exchanges where instead of writing "No, no, no!" in the margins, we set questions to prompt pupils to reflect and redraft.

In practice, this dialogic approach is like having 32 uber-keen pen pals, except that instead of sending you miniature clogs or postcards of Berlin, they bombard you with their redrafts of an agony aunt's letter to Juliet giving her advice on love.

This type of exercise rarely ends well. When you scribble "What's wrong with 'I first seen Romeo at the party'?" in the margin, they are likely to reply "Because I seen him first behind the fish tank?"

I'm not a big fan of this dialogic approach. It's a bit like BSM teaching you how to drive by letting you kill a few pedestrians, then asking you at the inquest how you might have slain fewer people. It ignores the fact that there is an expert on hand to advise, and that sometimes it's better to give instruction than receive an "outstanding" from Ofsted.

We all need help from experts. Even the greatest writers need to be told which of their darlings to murder. I recently read a draft of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land that had been edited by Ezra Pound. Pound pulled no punches when it came to criticising the poet's work. Littered across the poem were comments such as "Verse not interesting enough to warrant so much of it" and "This adj[ective] is tauto[logical]". Pound didn't politely enquire "What can you do to improve this, Tom?" He simply red-lined massive chunks of it before offering his own suggestions.

"Don't do that, do this" might seem like old-fashioned advice but it saves a lot of pussyfooting around. By the time you've written "How else could you interpret the line 'she doth teach the torches to burn bright'?" 32 times, you could have given them the answer, written 12 new lessons and finished that pile of ironing.

And now that the new key stage 4 curriculum is steering us towards double Shakespeare, a 19th-century novel and some seminal world literature to boot, we will hardly get time to speak to our own children, let alone anyone else's.

It's also ominous that the relaunch of the unsinkable English canon coincides with this increase in our marking. Perhaps we should pay heed to Hardy's lines on the loss of the Titanic. "And as the smart ship grew, in stature, grace and hue, in shadowy silent distance grew the iceberg too." Let's hope Gove's smart new curriculum has a double hull.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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