Teaching’s going nowhere unless we pedal together

7th September 2018 at 00:00
Teachers are suffering from the ‘Exercise Bike Principle’: schools buy into quick-fix CPD and then quickly discard it, without seeing any significant improvement

What’s that old trope? “Tell me and I’ll smile; explain it and I’ll look uncomfortable; involve me and I’ll get annoyed.” Something like that, anyway. Of course, using that as a basis for developing your whole-school CPD programme would work. (Sorry, as Donald Trump might say, I meant to say “wouldn’t”.)

The expectation that you can turn your school around with a simple flick of strategy is a dangerous one. So if, as you start your new school year, someone approaches you with an all-encompassing, “never fails” fix for all of your CPD problems, stop for a moment, scratch your chin a little – and then send them on their way.

You know what I mean. Towering hopes and lofty intentions. The shiny bike that will change everything. You’ve heard about it from others: it comes highly recommended from people you should respect. You’ve even seen it in action at the training day; great examples from highly satisfied customers. So, after walking about with a big dream bubble above you for a few days, you go out and spend your budget on it. This is what you’ve been waiting for. This is the answer to your prayers.

As we start another year, we need to be very wary of what you might call the “Exercise Bike Principle”. With PEF (Pupil Equity Fund) cash swirling around, there is a danger that we will rush into buying short-term solutions to long-term problems. We’ve seen this so many times before. We’ve been blinded by the flashing lights and garish colours, the promises of immediate success and dramatic improvement in school performance.

The introductions to AiFL (Assessment is for Learning) and co-operative learning were a bit like that. We were all gathered into a big room to see how it worked. We were given examples of fantastic ways to use it, ways it would make us fitter, stronger, better teachers. It was a guarantee that our students would be fitter, stronger, better learners. So we headed back to our classrooms with this shiny new bike that would change everything.

And it all started reasonably well, didn’t it? In the first couple of days, with the memory of the enthusiastic sales pitch still fresh in our memories. Then things started to go wrong. Of course they did. Classrooms are like that: they are not identikit spaces. Learners are not all the same. Inevitable teething problems built on more teething problems, and we put the bike aside for a while. Hung some clothes on it – forgot about it.

Changing gears

So what happened? Like countless hack golfers up and down the country, we gave up when we encountered difficulty. “It wasn’t like this in the manual.” “It wasn’t like this on the training day.” We’re not used to being in that position of weakness, we teachers. We like the comfort of the known, the familiar. We’re happy with the things we know we can do, things that have served us well. They’ve perhaps not served our students that well at times, but we like them.

The problem with the Exercise Bike Principle is that it fails to inform us that buying the bike and playing about with it for a while will be fruitless unless we change the culture surrounding it. What it should be about is changing habits, and teachers are the worst at that.

As the joke goes: “How many teachers does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Change?”

What we need to do is work together as teams to change long-term approaches to AiFL, co-operative learning and the like. We need to avoid going back to our own bubble and pedalling away alone. The future of professional development in education requires a radical overhaul of the approach to how we, as educators, learn.

Starting off a new year is always an intimidating prospect. Fresh from the holidays, we start with the best of intentions to provide our learners with the best possible educational experiences. However, instead of chasing the next big fix, perhaps we should be working to change our approaches to professional development on a whole-school basis, focusing on the requirements of our teachers instead of a shiny new strategy for all.

Scel (the Scottish College for Educational Leadership) will continue to go from strength to strength this year and, as it becomes an established part of Education Scotland, it is the envy of many systems around the world. Its online courses allow teachers to tailor their own professional development requirements in a manner never seen before – no more exercise bikes.

The online teacher community Pedagoo.org has been doing this for years: providing a space and a voice for collaboration. Pedagoo attempts to gather like-minded teachers to try to change our approach to CPD and maybe change our habits.

It wants teachers to come together and change long-term approaches to learning and, ultimately, to change habits. It organises alternatives to the Scottish Learning Festival, because many teachers were finding it more and more difficult to get out of school for a whole day.

It’s incumbent on all of us to improve each year. I’m in my twentieth year of teaching and, hopefully, I have 20 years’ experience rather than one year of experience repeated 20 times, as someone once said. There are more opportunities for collaboration than ever before, to continually enrich our teaching. We should use them wisely.

It’s not that we don’t have to work in a bubble any more, it’s that we absolutely must not. We need to stop cycling away in our rooms on our own. Let’s face it – that gets us nowhere.

Kenny Pieper is a teacher of English in Scotland

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