I teach, therefore I am.
There is a big argument about whether teaching is an art or a science, and much of the criticism of research or evidence in education is that it is reductive because teaching is an art, a performance, a study of relationships. However this argument leads us into difficulty as we begin to mistake experience for expertise and personality for success (in much the way we often mistake pupils’ performance for learning). The truth is we don’t just argue that teaching is an art, we start to argue that it is a talent and we begin to use words which suggest there is some kind of magic to teaching which is intangible.
So you’re a new teacher, struggling with your class and the advice you are given is: “go and watch so and so, they’re an amazing teacher”. Along you trundle and there this teacher is “being amazing” but all you’re really seeing here is a performance of teaching. This is problematic in two different ways: firstly, it reinforces the idea of personality being core to teaching (which is impossible to emulate) and secondly, it doesn’t really even show you how successfully they are teaching as we know most learning is not visible within a single lesson (or at all).
You see this particularly when it comes to behaviour management – the idea that you’ve either ‘got it’ or you haven’t rather than maybe there are some consistent strategies that might also make it work. But it is actually a problem throughout every aspect of teaching, in fact we encourage each other to be proud of our ignorance. Consider how often someone has joked that they are just one page in front of the pupils in a class text, or that they didn’t plan their lesson but got away with it, or has had staffroom banter about how little pupils are retaining in their classes. I don’t say this to shame teachers, the majority don’t make these jokes because they don’t care but because they really do; because beneath that laughter is a huge amount of self-reproach, guilt and shame about not moving pupils forward. The moral responsibility that comes with teaching means that every failure feels deeply personal, but we are scared to say that out loud. Therefore you have all these teachers going around beating themselves up about not being good enough, then going home and spending hours marking to make up for it. The irony of course being that research proves how inefficient this type of marking is as a way of helping pupils.
We are in this vicious circle that seems to get worse the further up the school you get, because if you feel ashamed of your ignorance when you’re an NQT imagine what it is like for a member of SLT: people who have reached the heights of their profession and are too scared to admit they might not have the answer or to look to others for help. You only have to take one glance at some of the school approaches to curriculum and assessment, to see what happens when leadership cannot admit a lack of expertise. Curriculum has become a focus, assessment is back in the hands of schools but you have people leading on it who know absolutely nothing about it, so generic policies get rolled out which take no account of the differences between subjects, no account of how curriculum should be chosen or sequenced to help pupils actually succeed at the subjects and have a complete misunderstanding of how assessment can help pupils improve and/or provide valid judgements. Whilst at the same time these SLT are running ragged trying to meet accountability measures, which are reliant on effective curriculum and assessment. And we wonder why teachers burn out – what other career do you basically get told to just muddle on and try out some different things until something sticks or you leave?
We can keep up this mad narrative that somehow we magically work things out, or that certain people are just “made” to be teachers and/or leaders or we could stop beating ourselves up trying to recreate the wheel and actually look to some research which could help. This doesn’t mean help by thinking research is the silver bullet, but it can give us a nudge in the direction of things that work better or things that we shouldn’t be spending our time on. Most importantly it starts to make teachers and leaders think about what they are doing and offers rational strategies to choose from to improve their practice. It is this difficult thinking and challenge that comes through engaging with research, which is absolutely vital and is why we must look to becoming a more research informed profession. I’m a great believer in the importance and power of emotion and instinct, but we have come to over-rely on this in education: we need to start thinking rather than just feeling.