Only connect;Opinion;Making the Connection conference

29th May 1998 at 01:00
How can teachers make a difference? Joan Mowat finds food for thought at a TESS-backed conference

I was privileged to be a delegate at the recent "Making the Connection'' conference focussing on teaching and learning. It drew together voices of teachers, local authorities, Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, Educational Institute of Scotland, further and higher education, and, yes, inspectors.

The conference, among whose sponsors was the TES Scotland, exercised my mind not only in terms of its principal focus, which was realising theory in practice, but as to how Scottish education can make a difference beyond narrow definitions of attainment (dare I mention target-setting?) so that it affects the quality of the experience for all and equips pupils and students to lead their lives to the full.

Who, or what body, ultimately has the potential to effect the greatest impact? Is it the national bodies: HMI, SCCC or the Scottish Office? Is it the local authorities? Is it the headteacher and hisher senior management team, middle management or might it even be the classroom teacher?

Many teachers would automatically assume that their influence would be the least influential factor but is this the case?

David Reynolds, in his research paper School Effectiveness: Retrospect and Prospect which was delivered at last year's conference of the Scottish Educational Research Association makes the point that, while most studies focus on the whole-school level and on inter-school comparisons, the range of variation within schools (ie. between the practice of individual teachers) dwarfs the range of variation between schools.

In his own words, we have, "by intervening at school level rather than the learning level, been 'pulling levers' that have small effects on their own and which may not effect any 'ripple through' to affect the key level of the classroom''.

If we follow this through, we have to focus upon the practice of the individual teacher if we are to make a difference. This is easier said than done. How can we draw out and build upon the work which is undertaken by many dedicated classroom teachers?

Two of the key principles which emerged from this conference were related to:

* the importance of adopting a pedagogy which states that crucial to effective learning is an active model in which understanding is fundamental - understanding enables the learner to ''make connections'', to apply knowledge and skills with flexibility and within different contexts, and fosters independence in learning.

* the importance of enabling teachers to become reflective practitioners within a whole-school climate.

If we put these two principles together, remembering that teachers are also learners, we have a model which states that they should be encouraged to develop understanding of principles and practices and should develop the skills to become truly reflective and adaptable.

However, a fundamental question arises from this. If teachers do identify factors which enable them to make a difference and, even if they are successful in applying their enhanced understanding in their own classrooms, how can the system as a whole benefit?

The terms "disseminating good practice'' and the "reflective practitioner'' have been used so frequently that perhaps we have ceased to look beyond them and question their true significance.

Here are a few questions if schools are to make a difference: To what extent are headteachers and senior management teams aware of the good practice in their schools? How do they define and identify good practice? By what mechanisms do they enable good practice to be disseminated? To what extent is innovation encouraged? To what extent is there a culture which is supportive of teachers who are truly reflective and innovative? To what extent does the school try to break down hierarchical barriers to change? Do senior managers recognise that they can learn from classroom practitioners just as they can also provide effective leadership? To what extent are classroom teachers able to exert influence for good? To what extent are classroom teachers aware of the high-quality resources and systems designed to support their teaching and professional development?

For me one of the inhibitors to change can be summed up as ``conformity breeds mediocrity''. While I am not suggesting that local authorities, schools and teachers should be pulling in different directions, I believe that if a clear rationale for learning and teaching is understood by all, then there is freedom to encourage innovation. We have allowed ourselves to be side-tracked by a range of initiatives (many of which are laudable in their own right) but which have deflected us from our central purpose of teaching children.

One of the conference's overwhelming conclusions was to place learning and teaching at the core of Scottish education and my final thought was, why should it ever have been otherwise?

Joan Mowat is principal teacher of music at Woodfarm High School, East Renfrewshire

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