The tyrant voice of best practice

7th August 1998 at 01:00
Teachers need better evidence from HMI that what works for one school will work for another, complains Angus Gray

NO, I am not against "best practice" in the sense of effective teaching which demonstrably works. But unfortunately this ubiquitous term does not always mean that. And when it does, it can lead to unrealistic demands on teachers.

The problem has been highlighted by an apparently stark contradiction. Last year teachers were presented with the results of research into the effectiveness of setting and streaming. It appeared that no benefit had been found in these practices, particularly in the secondary sector.

Almost simultaneously teachers were presented with HMI advice (and we understand the power of that advice) that setting and streaming were to be commended and that schools would be wise to introduce these practices in English and maths in the first two years.

Here - in crystallised form - we have the problem. Someone has decided that a certain type of class organisation works best, presumably as a result of many classroom observations, when the objective evidence is that it does not. How do we square this circle? We simply cannot. The HMI decision has doubtless been made on the same sort of basis as the one which produced the move towards mixed-ability teaching.

We can certainly understand how inspectors and others arrive at judgments about best practice. Surely the concept very much depends on what the individual believes the education system is trying to achieve.

Whereas a research programme may find that setting has an insignificant effect on learning, an inspector may feel that it is important to create a more "academic" classroom environment for the more able as an intrinsically good thing.

The inspector (who is, after all, a civil servant) may have a sociological motivation which goes beyond measurement of real difference in classroom approaches. And I have to admit that it was from this sort of standpoint that many of the egalitarian philosophies which influenced me when I started teaching must have been formed.

It is certainly true that inspectors and others often have the best of motives in that they genuinely believe that their philosophies are for the best. It is also likely that their ideas will be heavily influenced by the sort of society that has promoted them to such positions of power. Politicians will look for individuals to promote their political agenda in schools while at the same time these individuals will surely be unconsciously influenced by their socio-political environment.

This issue comes down to what we are trying to do in the classroom. As an English teacher, I am surely attempting primarily to develop pupils' skills in reading and writing. My principal interest is to know how best to do that, but I find that I am presented with a variety of types of advice. I am aware that different countries adopt different approaches, but I am not aware in any detail of what has been found (by incontrovertible research) to have succeeded.

My first plea is for the teaching profession to look for the evidence that one approach works better than another. I was impressed in the early days of Standard grade when the assessment of listening was removed after research seemed to indicate it was likely to be seriously flawed because of the other elements involved.

I was then depressed in equal measure when the assessment of listening became an integral part of 5-14 and Scotvec courses. I can accept it when someone tells me that they believe teachers should be doing something particular in the classroom, but I cannot accept that their belief is any more valid than mine in the absence of hard evidence.

When we examine what we are told to do, too often we find that it is simply the institutionalisation of the beliefs of one group of people. And these beliefs will change according to the political climate of the time.

My second plea is for course design and advice to be backed by research evidence. I have found national comparison factors and relative rating statistics to be compelling data, particularly the latter. Here we have indications, albeit crude, of whether we are performing as well as we thought.

Schools should now be able to examine how it is that some departments perform better with the same cohort of pupils. Schools and individual departments can then conduct their own research into measures which will promote success - measures such as changes to homework policy, changes to classroom organisation, perhaps even the use of setting if the existing research evidence is doubted.

And what of the poor teacher who receives advice on best practice? Our roving inspectors scour the country in search of examples which are then relayed to us. Best practice is therefore the aggregation of many observed instances of good practice. In this way we may find that we are each asked to turn ourselves into a sort of identikit superteacher - not a creature ever actually observed, but a theoretical construct.

Our methods of classroom management might be derived from work done by someone in Methil; our course materials could be modelled on a Kirkwall teacher's; our discipline strategies might come from Stranraer . . . I certainly feel that there were strong elements of this sort of approach in both the 5-14 guidelines and the original advice on their implementation.

Perhaps a particularly good teacher in Oban might be found to clean the blackboard with her right hand; an equally fine teacher in Wick, however, used his left. There is a danger that the national advice to the rest of us would be to clean the blackboard with both hands.

Angus Gray is principal teacher of English at Tain Royal Academy.

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