I'm doing it my way - and so should you

15th August 2014 at 01:00
Encouraging all kinds of teaching styles doesn't just help staff to flourish but the pupils, too. Let's celebrate the return of difference

I began my teaching career in 2005 in the midst of a culture of conformism. As a rookie teacher in the UK, all the messages I received from those in authority were about the need for universality of classroom practice and a repetitive focus on the "three-part lesson". The idea was that subject knowledge was outdated and the future of teaching was automaton-style soulless delivery of bland, cross-curricular mulch.

In England, much of this was driven by the inspection regime of Ofsted, whose relentless focus on jumping through hoops to achieve excellence encouraged school leaders to adopt a similar approach in assessing staff performance. The other factor was New Labour's disastrous 2007 curriculum, which went out of its way to savage subject distinctiveness of any kind.

In recent years, however, there has been something of a backlash against this kind of thinking. It has been recognised by many that we nearly lost something that needed to be preserved - namely the idea that a diversity of approaches is a good thing. We have grown to appreciate that there is room for different styles of teaching, and indeed for different characters, within the profession.

I will win few friends among my colleagues for saying this, but Sir Michael Wilshaw and his Ofsted deserve far more credit than they have been given for the reforms to the inspection regime, which more than ever before allows and even encourages a plurality of teaching styles. I have never felt so comfortable in delivering lessons my way, and that is to inspectors' credit. It is taking a while for this to filter down to some schools in terms of how they grade lessons, but we seem to be heading in the right direction at last.

The personal touch

That said, as a profession we should never have been so weak-willed as to become puppets dancing to the tune of the inspectors in the first place. Changing back just because they deem it acceptable is a hollow victory. We should celebrate and encourage the idea of having distinctive characters and varied teaching methods in the classroom as a fundamental principle of good practice, and here's why.

First, variety is a vital step in children's socialisation. Sociologists such as Talcott Parsons saw education as a "bridge" between the norms and exclusive attachments of childhood and the grown-up world. As adults, one of the things we need to get used to is that people have their own values and ways of doing things. As children go through school, an exposure to a range of teaching styles and personalities will help to prepare them for the world of work and for life in society in general.

Second, defending diverse approaches in the classroom is also a way of preserving teacher authority. There is a fine line between finding what works best for children and pandering to them. It is vital that teachers should be encouraged to have faith in their ability to master their subject area and how best to deliver it. Part of the rather dangerous agenda that came with the idea of different learning styles - which, thankfully, is now nearly obsolete - was the notion that teachers should provide a range of activities to cater for each child, rather than each student adapting their practice to suit the subject.

Third, a variety of approaches helps us to promote educational progress and avoid professional stagnation. The best teachers exhibit a constant drive to improve what they are doing through innovation. In the 2000s there was a sense that we were heading for some kind of "end of history" moment in teaching, where the orthodox methods of the time would become the only game in town. Allowing a greater variety of teaching styles promotes personal autonomy, which incentivises staff to improve things themselves and to do so in their own way.

Lastly and most importantly, celebrating the range of teaching styles and personalities within a school improves teacher morale and commitment, and fosters a sense of true fulfilment. Part of the joy of teaching is that you don't just bring your subject knowledge to the classroom but also yourself. The array of personalities in a school is one of the things that makes it such a great place to work, and for the students a great place to learn.

For most of us, the great teachers we remember from our childhoods are the slightly unorthodox ones, the ones who had their own unique ways of doing things, and that is precisely the reason we still recall them and cherish our memories of school. One of the very best things about our species is that, to quote Monty Python's Life of Brian, "we're all individuals".

Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of politics at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham, Kent

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