Reflecting back on my career, which, spanning now forty five years, encompasses the impact of the Plowden revolution in education, when training in the early 1970s, through the introduction of the National Curriculum, with the ensuing reviews and adaptations, notably by Ron Dearing, where the original was slimmed down, the permissions to think have been a significant variable.
Plowden did challenge the orthodoxy that had held sway, putting children as learners in a more central position. That I can see that this approach had started earlier, especially in enlightened schools, through my own Primary experience, in the 1950s, as a product of ever larger classes.
Starting teaching in 1974, the running of classes on an integrated day approach allowed groupings of children to be tasked in a variety of ways, enabling all subjects to be a part of the curriculum and with the potential to create high or low teacher demand tasks, mixing direct instruction, or “formal teaching” with informal approaches that used and developed independence. Time, space and resources were determined by the classteacher, with classrooms resourced as “workshops”, with children expected to find and return the resources appropriate to the task in hand. With classes of 39 children, this approach allowed for whole class, group and individualised approaches; for example, every child was heard to read, individually each week, with some more often. It was a case of time management.
Planning decisions were generic at school level; we knew the topics that we were expected to cover and maths and English schemes were the central spine of those subjects. On a day to day level, it was down to each teacher how they decided to note how their teaching would be organised.
Until I became a headteacher in 1990, I did not have an additional adult in my classroom, except for the occasional helping parent, so all teaching and interaction was through me. There was no decision about who would teach the lower ability. All decisions were mine, so the ability to think about the learning needs of each child was embedded.
The introduction of the original National Curriculum was not, in itself, a reason to be concerned. An audit of current provision with the new requirements showed a 95% correspondence, so with a few tweaks, it was business as usual, but with one significant improvement. Professional dialogue throughout the school was enhanced with the use of level descriptor statements to engage with outcomes. That these became lists of descriptors, interpreted as “can do” statements, supported developmental thinking and gave a common language to moderation, especially between schools.
I would suggest that the introduction of the sub levels and the emphasis on data, rather than children’s learning, started to alter the teacher, trainers and consultant mindset. In seeking ever-smaller improvements, there was a danger that task challenge became ever-narrower, so progress was potentially slowed, as children of 2c, challenged at 2b, might make a smidgen of progress. If this was not then built upon, it was soon lost in the welter of other similar demands. Teachers got lost in the APP forest, not sure how to break away from the minute steps that were being sought.
We have, for some time, tied teachers in knots, some derived from interpretations of what the Government and Ofsted “want”, but with, in some cases, in-house double-checking and requirements that create work without necessarily progressing learning. It’s a case of the bean counters trumping the dynamic needs of thinking.
The problem, though, is that in the most recent incarnation of the curriculum, teachers have been tied to an ever more prescriptive set of expectations, with the potential impact of coverage focus rather than learning. This version can be seen as a list in the same way as the level descriptors were. The recent outcomes of the summer 16 SATs showed that outcomes were separated into groupings, with children effectively labelled as a result of the outcomes. I’m personally not yet convinced that a generic “being at national standard”, based on a test score at year 6, is a more useful descriptor than “4b”, with the potential to describe the areas of security and those still needing to be addressed. It is also the case that teacher judgement may yet be devalued further, with only test scores counting.
It is exactly the progressive devaluing of teacher judgement, rather than it being a central plank of all CPD that may have contributed to the Government feeling that centralisation is the only “safe” route.
Subject knowledge, in the hands of a teacher who has the communication skill to create and develop a clear narrative for the group before them, who can task with an appropriate level of challenge, then interact with the ongoing task, providing support guidance and feedback appropriate to the individual need, has always been the central feature of all teaching and learning. The ability to reflect on outcomes and determine the next appropriate learning challenge and subject detail, is assessment between lessons.
The reflective and reactive teacher is a thinking teacher. Predetermined approaches can, in themselves become repetitive and stereotypes; an example would be the three part lesson, but also such elements as “plenaries”, inserted to show that the teacher can do that, rather than to enhance specifics of learning. Whole class teaching, within a “mastery” model, can be heard regularly being espoused, where a more nuanced interpretation might include some pre-teaching, or a catch up activity before the body of the lesson with the whole. Whole class teaching does bring with it the need for whole class marking, often increasing the burden on pressed teachers.
A wide range of current teacher vocabulary, describing the “things” of teaching, considered as separate entities, begin to distort teacher thinking. An over-emphasis on say, differentiation, assessment, learning objectives, success criteria, mark schemes, can each become time consuming, whereas they each contribute to one factor; how well do you know the learners in front of you?
A thoughtful Primary teacher will be able to summarise their children with some ease, especially after a period of time working with them. Secondary teachers may well find that more challenging.
Dylan Wiliam, in a TES article on 2/9/16, shared the following headline insights into what he wished he’d known when he started as a teacher. Each describes, to me, different facets of teacher thought. Quality teaching is an interactive activity, working with the children who make up each class. As a result, the dynamics of each experience will differ, as individual children alter the working relationships within their learning.
1. Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.
2. Learning is a change in long term memory.
3. Memory is the residue of thought.
4. Learning requires forgetting.
5. If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.
6. The answers of confident student are a bad guide to what the rest of the class is thinking.
7. The only thing that matters about feedback is what students do with it.
8. Effective group work requires individual accountability.
9. Students have deep insights into their own learning.
So, giving teachers permission to think requires a number of very simple steps.
1. Have a clear outline of themes and topics for the year group that that the teacher can mould into a creative whole, as an annual plan. (see below)
3. Teachers plan their week and day according to their view of how best to cover the curricular needs of the children, which will vary from day to day, according to their performance.
4. Pupil targets are clearly shared so that they become discussion points within work, eliciting commentary, feedback and guidance to need. These are regularly updated, as children demonstrate achievement. Workbooks as personal organisers help with this. (see below)
6. Moderate within the staff and occasionally outside, so that judgements are clarified and meaningful.