Why schools need a fresh approach to new initiatives

Let's stop looking at solutions in search of a problem and start identifying problems we actually have, says Mark Enser

Mark Enser

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It feels like a lifetime ago that I collaborated with primary school teacher Jon Brunskill on an article for Tes in which we attempted to answer the question "Are knowledge organisers now essential tools in the classroom?"

The reason it feels so long ago is because this is the year 2020, and everything feels like a lifetime ago. But it could also be because in the three years that have passed since writing that piece, knowledge organisers have, in many cases, already gone from bright new thing to something collecting virtual dust in departments’ shared drives. 

The knowledge organiser isn’t alone there. The pace of change in education feels incredibly quick as initiative after initiative is introduced in a flurry of activity and then abandoned.

Why is this happening? The problem is rarely the idea. Many things could be done in a school to lead to some kind of improvement. The problem comes from the way new ideas are introduced and implemented. 

Often, an idea begins with something that has been done by an individual teacher or school; especially now with the rise of social media, grassroots teacher conferences and the plethora of teaching books being published. This will be something that they have developed, over time, in a particular way to solve a particular problem. 

The curse of the knowledge organiser

Let’s return to knowledge organisers. These were something created by teachers because they wanted to make sure that everyone in their department had agreed what should be taught, identifying the knowledge that they saw as critical, and wanted to organise it in such a way that students could use it to refer to and revise from throughout the course. 

This idea is then taken out of this context and stripped of its purpose. It becomes a structure, a thing, that teachers in other schools are suddenly told they need to do. Teachers, already juggling dozens of demands on their time, do their best to comply in the most efficient way they know how, pay lip service to the thing and do it just well enough to be left alone, and so it languishes somewhere until they are allowed to forget about it and move on. 

In my 17 years in the classroom, and years working with teachers in other schools across the country, I have seen this happen on countless occasions and the time and energy it wastes is heartbreaking. 

I think it might be time to start doing things a bit differently in schools. 

Firstly, we need to stop looking at solutions in search of a problem and start identifying what problems we actually have. 

If we think that there is a lack of consistency in what is being taught across a curriculum, then perhaps knowledge organisers could be part of the solution. If we know that pupils are working hard but not learning from this work, we might want to look at the benefits of retrieval practice. 

Focus on the 'why'

This puts the why before the what. The focus is on the reason for doing something and not the thing itself. It is this why that we need teachers to understand if we are going to do something well.

Secondly, we need to remember that teachers are highly trained professionals. If we make sure that CPD keeps their professional knowledge up to date and we give them space to read, think and discuss, they should be able to propose solutions to problems themselves, and these are more likely to work in the context of their subjects and their school. We teachers should be able to come up with an action plan to solve the problems that have been identified, rather than having solutions imposed upon us. 

Finally, we need to make sure that any new initiative is given the time for its proper implementation. This is always a struggle with school funding cut to the bone, but if we genuinely think we have a problem that needs to be solved, energy and resources need to be diverted to solving it. We need to start asking, "What can we stop doing to make the time to do this well?" If we don’t dedicate enough time to a new idea, the time we do invest is wasted as it is poured into yet another initiative doomed to failure. 

I don’t think we should be surprised that teachers are a cynical bunch when it comes to new ideas. Most of us have seen so many come and go that it is hard to get enthusiastic about the next one. We need a change of culture in our schools where we work together to solve problems rather than having solutions dropped upon us from a great height. 

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His latest book, Fiorella and Mayer's Generative Learning in Action, is available now. He tweets @EnserMark

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