Why good teachers are above standards

6th November 2015 at 00:00
Assessing technique ignores the most important part of teaching: judgement

Seven years ago, I was on a PGCE course. We were getting towards the end of our training and had bulging folders of evidence to show we had met the standards required of us as new teachers. One standard, however, was evading us. In that part of Hertfordshire, virtually no students spoke English as an additional language (EAL). In fact, the only pupils for whom English was an obstacle to learning were, as far as I remember, two Polish brothers in Year 8.

So, knowing that we needed to demonstrate the skill of teaching EAL, each of us worked hard to gather evidence that we’d helped these same two boys. We had already been doing our best to accommodate them in our lessons, of course, but now our qualification as teachers depended on it. So, in a naive and ham-fisted way, I did my best to deliver them a lesson equivalent to what their peers were receiving. Goddess Lakshmi herself knows how much – or how little – I managed to explain of Hinduism, or what the boys made of my Google-translated gobbets of Polish, but my attempts were sufficient to get a tick in the box and away I headed to qualified teacher status.

Standard issue

What are we to make of this episode? Maybe it shows that a common set of standards doesn’t fit all schools. Or maybe it shows that trainees need more help to achieve them. I think, however, that a more fundamental issue is at stake. The very idea of teaching standards reduces a complex practice to something too simple: a set of criteria to meet; ticks in boxes and evidence in folders. In this reduction, this boiling down of what it is to be a teacher, something very important gets lost.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that when I qualified as a teacher, my competence was not down to having met the standards – even the much-toiled-over EAL one. I’m not saying for a moment that teacher training wasn’t valuable: on the contrary, that year furnished me with what I needed to be a happy and, I hope, effective teacher. My training, however, cannot be reduced to my ticking off a set of skills. Rather, it gave me the opportunity to learn to judge how best to teach, to practise, to apprentice in a craft.

Joseph Dunne and Shirley Pendlebury make exactly this point in their contribution to The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Education. They trace this mentality about teacher training to a “triumph of technical reason” over practical judgement, something that resulted from the scientific advances of the Enlightenment. As we have discovered how powerful science is as a method, we have increasingly (and wrongly, they argue) downplayed the judgement that comes from practice.

Dunne and Pendlebury argue that the rise of science has led to a false distinction: anything with measurable data is perceived to be rational, and “merely practical knowledge [is seen to be]…unreliable, makeshift [or] unaccountable”.

Unaccountable it might indeed seem. If good teaching is a matter of judgement rather than meeting a set of standards, how do you measure whether someone can do it? How much judgement is enough to let someone loose in the classroom? Moreover, how can you assess the quality of teachers’ lessons? How can an inspector decide what makes a good lesson if she is looking for traits in a teacher, not prescribed standards and techniques?

Art of the craft

That said, many would support a shift of focus in observations away from prescribed standards towards looking at the complex craft we practise. In fact, putting the spotlight on certain techniques rather than judgement means that we all know what to show off when being watched. As our friends in the physics department like to remind us, the act of observation tends to change the thing being observed.

Yet when we think of our most inspirational colleagues, it is not just their techniques but their traits we bring to mind. We remember patience, kindness, rigour, clarity, integrity: the virtues of a good teacher.

These virtues are all about judgement: when it’s best to be kind and in what way; when it’s right to push for rigour in students’ work and when, conversely, you should be patient and wait for them to develop skills; how to aim for clarity while maintaining the integrity of the subject. Without this judgement, it doesn’t matter what techniques someone employs or what standards they meet. Without judgement, the endeavour will fail.

Techniques are and ought to be secondary to our judgement: no technique or application of a standard will instantly make your lesson better if you can’t apply it judiciously. It is for this reason that teachers are the biggest cost on schools’ budget sheets, and rightly so: the traits and judgement that you find in the best teachers are worth every penny to the students who benefit from their guidance.

I understand why requiring teachers to meet certain standards is a pragmatic way of systematising teacher training and making sure new teachers can do certain things. In fact, I can’t think of another way for the vast governmental machine to do it.

But let’s not allow standards to colour what we think good teaching is about: a prescribed set of standards alone will never capture its subtly judged craft.

Clare Jarmy is head of academic enrichment and Oxbridge, as well as head of philosophy and religious studies, at Bedales School in Hampshire. She is the author of Arguments for God, Attributes of God and Miracles, A-level books published by Pushme Press

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