Education has always attracted thinking people, I'd like to think I'm one, many with special interests that they have taken to degree level or beyond, with the desire to share their innate love of their subject(s) and wider interests with younger, or less experienced people. I am thinking education, not just schooling, which can, at times assume more rigid approaches that can be seen, by some as limiting, while others will applaud the narrower expectations.
The ability to break one’s own knowledge down into sections that can be delivered and explored over a known timescale is, to me the difference between the one-off expert who shares their experience once, as part of a whole and a teacher, who looks at the longer term, strategic needs of each piece of learning.
So, a teacher is a thinker, with special interests and the ability to strategically order and organise the sharing of the curriculum within the available classroom and school resources, adapting as needed to perceived deficiency.
The thinking teacher is also a very good storyteller, responding in the moment with their “audience”, interpreting and enhancing vocabulary within the topic at hand, linking the current with earlier understandings. The story telling might be enhanced by carefully used resources, especially imagery, 2D or 3D manipulatives.
On top of these attributes, the thinking teacher also knows children’s development generally and their class(es) of children well, through analysis of prior outcomes from earlier experience, which supports more refined planning and delivery, with subsequent reflective reviews and adaptation to evident needs.
What gets in the way of necessary clarity is overly top-down dictat that appears to require specific approaches, which, in reality create a form of double-thinking, as the “correct” form might be assessed by the person. This could be internal, through middle or senior leaders, or external via different inspectors. “What does x want?” can become slightly debilitating, at a personal and systematic level.
Teaching is a multi-dimensional puzzle. It takes a certain amount of lateral thinking to coordinate all the aspects which go to make up a good or very good lesson. Being very good at one aspect may not ensure excellence in another. It is the holistic visualisation of the dynamics of the lesson which allows the teacher to extemporise, to go off-piste and follow an idea, knowing how to get back to the main path. Inevitably, there will be some element of personal interpretation, which some commentators describe as bias, but that can be addressed through moderation activity.
Outstanding practitioners can do this with relative ease and may be at a point in their career where informed instinct/intuition governs reactions, based on thought processes that have already been rehearsed and honed many times in many classrooms.
Essentially, good teachers think through every aspect of every lesson;
· within their planning;
· as they share essential information at the beginning of the lesson, interpreting difficult ideas and vocabulary through modelling and synonymous, appropriate word use;
· within their in-lesson interactions, tailoring responses to individual children, whose neds are well known, or become evident;
· then in post-lesson evaluation, to determine where they can next take the class learning.
· And every aspect of this is based on their judgement, which refines over time. In other words, teachers spend their time making judgements or assessing situations. Yet teacher judgement itself can often appear to be under attack, through what is argued as “bias”.
For NQTs, teachers new to a school or for developing teachers, all of whom are picking up a great deal of information very quickly, practice may still seem like a series of structures or activities to be accomplished, each part being seen as separate, so having reduced impact on subsequent decisions. This could be seen as a structural phase.
Working alongside ITE students, it is very clear that they are trying to put together the pieces so that they make sense. In this situation, it’s also possible for inexperienced teachers to seek to shortcut the thinking need, as time is pressured and to adopt bright ideas from more experienced colleagues without fully understanding the processes behind them. This can lead to poor delivery, poor experience for learners and poor outcomes, which are then demotivating for everyone concerned.
Preparing for a group of School Direct trainees recently, I had to present ideas on assessment. The previous week, as part of the SD programme, I held a meeting with the trainee mentors and explored background issues facing the trainees on their second experience in a new school. High on the agenda was assessment, with nine mentors articulating seven different approaches to that issue, including four variations on the local County scheme. All had “tweaked” the system in some way. So it became clear that assessment (essentially tracking systems) was very much school specific. None was confident that they had finished developing their system.
In many ways, over the past few years, the certainties that had held sway for nigh on thirty years had been overturned by the arrival of the new National Curriculum in 2014, with associated SEND changes. The fact that there was no integral assessment element within the NC was to enable schools to develop their own models, as if they wouldn’t be hard pressed to embed the curriculum and the SEND changes at the same time, while still teaching from the older curriculum…
While, to some, there was a need for change, for a large number, losing the securities of the past was a cause for concern. It is interesting that a visit to a local special school, recently achieving an outstanding Ofsted grade, had decided to keep early levels, for now, as a better descriptor of their children’s progress.
There have always been a number of strands to any curriculum, the essential knowledge within a subject and the skill set needed to be able to use and apply that knowledge in appropriate contexts.
The knowledge base starts from early stages through to post-doctoral levels. Young children, coming to some knowledge for the first time, will need time to familiarise themselves with the novelty, then seek to compare this with other things that they know, hanging ideas together, as similarities and differences. They learn the vocabulary to go with the knowledge. In fact the vocabulary begins to embed the knowledge. Words like dog, cat, rabbit and bird become generic descriptors for sub-categories of the broader group of animals. Later, ideas such as terrier, bulldog, Chihuahua might build additional detail into that classification.
So, to some extent, there is structural knowledge, which might be something like a timeline in history; knowing that the Tudors came after the Normans, with associated date parameters. Knowing about William the Conqueror and Henry VIII is likely to embed specific details. How much detail is appropriate can be a matter of decision for the teacher and this can even vary within any class. Sharing knowledge is not the same as acquiring that knowledge.
Teachers need knowledge, in general and specific terms, particularly for those subject areas that they teach. Some will organise this as knowledge organisers, aides memoire for teaching. The approach and challenges that arise will be determined by the teacher in broader plans.
When I was a head, every subject had age appropriate topic specifications, developed with the County inspectorate, that showed the essential knowledge, the potential questions or challenges that could be developed and the available school resources, including teacher guides.
Within the specs, we also included key skills associated with the knowledge, to combine the two elements within practical tasking.
What we developed, essentially, was a curriculum map, covering reception to year 6, with every subject mapped from early stages, with year group specific, knowledge based themes, appropriate to the age group, but with the addition of extension challenges to ensure that every child could be engaged appropriately.
In addition, we had organised exercise books and personalised writing and maths targets and records that also doubled as aides memoire to the child and the adults in the classroom. Where these were based on the level descriptors, they could just as easily be developed from the new curriculum KPIs. These allowed real-time tracking of children’s achievements.
The holistic system also supported assessments at different points, of a developmental nature, but also, where needed, as a summary.
• They need to know the subject at hand, which may be different for a graduate specialist in a Secondary school compared to a Primary generalist, responsible for a range of subjects, where some personal subject knowledge will be stronger than others.
• They will have ordered the curriculum into discrete themes, topics or programmes of study.
• They order and organise the coherence of their plans over a known timescale, ensure that classroom and the resources for learning support the learning proposed.
• They know their children, to varying degrees, depending on their contact time through the week, but they are trained to understand learner development through the age range.
• Their plans seek to match the needs of the subject with the needs of the children, providing appropriate challenge to all abilities.
• They plan learning over a timescale to ensure a dynamic is established which fully engages learners, in and out of school, and assures the imparting of a particular body of knowledge.
• They create tasks appropriate to the challenge, with an understanding of the subsequent developmental stages of the learning, so that by engaging with the learners while on task, they are able to guide and support their developing understanding.
• They ensure that teacher input gets across the essential information on which the lesson is to be founded, through a variety of means, which are enhanced by the availability of in-class ICT facilities.
• They ensure that behaviour allows learning to take place.
• They interact with outcomes, orally in class and in writing after the lesson, while marking books. They are constantly making judgements, on an individual, group or class level.
• They use the outcomes as new reference points against which to plan the next steps.
• And they add broader value to schools in many other ways………………….
• They undertake personal CPD that enhances their practice.
If teacher-think is the essential component of enhanced learning opportunities, there needs to be consideration of the barriers to this thinking. There will be more for each list.
• Subject or pedagogic knowledge.
• Extended experience with a specific age group or ability range. (New school, new year group)
• Personal order, organisation, record keeping, reflective practice.
• Self-confidence, possible status with learners.
• Demands for planning (thinking) in a particular format.
• School specific, preferred approaches to teaching and learning.
• School specific schemes, with limited opportunity to adapt to class need.
• School organisation demanding whole year approaches.
• School resources, including the availability of support.
• Work space limiting some approaches.
• Regular changes to practice to accord with external influences.
• Local context issues, such as parent demands, children arriving at school with social or personal issues, behavioural distractions.
• Changes at National level, particularly where there is an extended period of uncertainty about policy interpretation.
The greatest impact on teacher-think is the fear of being judged as ineffective and found wanting. There is a need to quality-assure teaching and learning is a school. It is naïve to think otherwise, but the systems in place can add to the stress of being observed, both at school and inspection level.
The value of feedback from an observation is to retell the lesson narrative, highlighting significant points, as a basis for discussion and development. Internal observations should always happen on this basis, not as a numeric judgement, in the same way that feedback to learners to support future learning is better as description than an arbitrary grade.
Teachers work within human systems, which can appear sometimes to be less than humane. The best systems look out for the individuals who make up the team, providing support and guidance to colleagues in the same way they do to children. Even the best practitioners can suffer a dip in performance when life offers personal challenges. Thoughtful, reflective management breeds thoughtful, reflective, autonomous teachers and independence in learners.
Teaching is a great job, but free the teachers to think, that’s what they are paid to do.
Further blogs on thinking teachers:-