Path to success is blocked by automatons

16th October 2009 at 01:00

Having been a teacher for 33 years, I have sampled a considerable variety of continuing professional development. Location has included schools, regions and national venues, sometimes with the opportunity to listen to the great and good in education. Quality has at times been inspiring - more often mediocre, or depressingly poor.

A few weeks ago, I received the best, most innovative CPD in my career. At great expense, my school brought Howard Gardner to share his educational insights for three glorious days of talks and seminars. Just kidding! This initiative was a tad less dramatic. Some would consider it mundane: each teacher had a copy of Brian Boyd's book, The Learning Classroom (sponsored by TESS), put into their pigeon hole.

A week passed and, as you would expect, the responses varied. One colleague, sounding somewhat surprised, said: "There are some interesting chapters." Over lunch, others discussed teaching mixed-ability classes, while another referred to the book distribution as a waste of money.

Although Boyd's book is a good, accessible summary of current thinking on the learning classroom, my enthusiasm for the initiative had nothing to do specifically with it. Rather, I was inspired by the revolutionary idea that giving teachers a book on education to read was a good investment.

As we wait for the ineluctable axe to fall on education spending, there can be little doubt that CPD will be cut. Giving teachers books on education to read is exceptionally cost-effective. Our entire staff received Boyd's book for less than the cost of sending two colleagues to a one-day conference in Glasgow.

However, the key question is not cost, but effectiveness. One astonishing aspect of Scottish education is its anti-intellectualism. Many in education rarely read or discuss educational ideas. Of those who do, for many it is because they are pursuing a course for headship or chartered teacher. For the mass of teachers, all that is regarded as necessary to keep abreast of educational ideas is our participation in CPD at the close of the school day.

I believe we have got to this situation because we have an education system that does not really want confident teachers making effective contributions by sharing educational issues and ideas. We have a system that is top-down and, above all, values conformity. It regards teachers as automatons, satisfied to allow them to deliver subject content, provided we leave thinking and expressing views to those in the hierarchy.

Our system rewards those willing to exhibit deference, not only to those in a position of authority but to their ideas. This is why our educational system is stagnant and lacks the vibrancy of genuine discussion and diversity of opinion, which is vital to ensure teachers feel a sense of ownership in a collaborative learning institution.

According to Boyd, "A Curriculum for Excellence is predicated on the assumption that teachers can be trusted to read, reflect, discuss and share their expertise." I believe that teachers can be trusted to deliver, but only if the present suffocating system is radically changed.

We need leaders nationally and locally who are comfortable to operate in an environment where robust debate is the norm, and where independence of thought, reading and reflection are nurtured. At present, our educational culture is more Stalinist than Open Society. Too often, schools have the semblance of effective dialogue without the reality.

Unless we change our culture, there is little prospect of it being able to prepare young people to be effective contributors, learners and citizens in the 21st century.

David Halliday teaches at Eyemouth High, Berwickshire.

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