Reformers must listen to teachers

9th December 2005 at 00:00
A change in classroom methodology will not come about unless attitudes change, says Ian Smith

aspire to be an educational reformer. Our website gives that away. It points out that, while I want to help teachers do the best they can in the present system, my main aim is to help change it. You'll understand then how a book I have just read came as quite a challenge. It's called Inside Teaching: How classroom life can undermine educational reform, by Mary Kennedy.

Her basic thesis is that reform over the past 30 years has not had a significant impact on classroom methodology in the United States. I believe this applies to Scotland as well, especially to secondary classrooms. My belief is that, despite promising reforms in collaborative learning and formative assessment, classroom methodology in the average secondary classroom on an average day has not changed that much.

I am not in classrooms regularly enough these days to back up these statements by first-hand evidence, but I have spent a great deal of the past 12 years in deep discussions with thousands of classroom teachers about classroom methodology and how difficult it is to change it. So let's accept Kennedy's premise does apply to Scotland for the moment.

Her next question is fascinating. If reforms have generally failed to affect classroom practice fundamentally, who is to blame? I hear a lot of criticism of teachers from reformers. They are control freaks or only interested in teaching subjects rather than fostering young people's creativity. They block reform and their protestations about how hard it is to change classroom practice are at best excuses and at worst sabotage.

This is not true of the huge numbers of classroom teachers who engage with us in our workshops. The vast majority want to make a difference of some sort in young people's lives. They want to teach important content and want them to get good grades. But they also want to help them to enjoy learning and engage with it. They want them to think for themselves, make sense of what they are learning and take more responsibility for their own learning.

This begs another question. If many teachers believe they should be doing all this, then why don't they do it consistently? Kennedy's main thesis is that the circumstances of teaching prevent teachers from altering their practice and work against what she calls the reform agenda.

In the current system, the teacher's prime responsibility is to make sure that the content of the course is covered and that all pupils get through the activities and discussions that are designed to help them learn and perform well in examinations.

A more important responsibility is to maintain order, manage behaviour in the classroom and avoid having to exclude students who misbehave. To do this, they have to work hard to create a tranquil environment where pupils feel emotionally safe.

This means that the job is very much about maintaining momentum and avoiding distractions. Kennedy found that teachers' fear of distractions is very strong. Too much engagement can lead to disruption and open-ended activities heighten the risk. Active and engaged pupils are more likely to generate ideas that teachers don't anticipate and are not "in the script"

they feel obliged to cover.

Kennedy suggests that many of the reforms may simply not be attainable given pressures on teachers to cover ground and maintain order. Indeed they may work against each other. Classes where there is a wide range of ability make it difficult to achieve an appropriate level of pace and challenge for all pupils. Where there is pressure to keep highly volatile students in mainstream classes, the pressure to keep the lid on one pupil can affect the way the teacher teaches the entire class, dampening enthusiasm and spontaneity even because one pupil can't cope with it.

In these circumstances, the kind of methodologies reformers would like to see and teachers themselves would like to employ may actually take more time and energy than the majority of teachers actually have. This was the most challenging point of all for me and I am still reflecting on it.

Kennedy's fascinating research inside classrooms should give pause to think, especially for those involved in promoting A Curriculum for Excellence. It has set out an ambitious description of the kind of people we want schools to develop. Reformers need to recognise just how ambitious this is, and what radical changes are needed in how teachers teach and how students learn.

You cannot develop responsible citizens and confident individuals through behaviour management, or successful learners and effective contributors through covering examination content. The reformers must therefore listen to the teachers who want to make these changes, and pursue policies at national level on matters such as inclusion, curriculum and assessment that support them to do so.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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