We view the world from our own stance. Our view is unique which means we have unique insights and observations to offer, but it also means other people, viewing from different perspectives, see something different.
I was interested to read Tom Sherrington’s recent blog levelling the blame for substandard teaching at the feet of teachers he describes as ‘Bad Trads’:
The teacher is up there, trying to teach in an instructional manner but finding it hard. They’re struggling to marshall [sic] the material and control behaviour; they’re not explaining well; their questioning is weak; their resources are poorly designed to support practice and provide challenge; they’re not checking for understanding or teaching in a sufficiently interactive, responsive manner addressing students’ knowledge gaps; they’re not using enough modelling or worked examples; they’re not engaging students in guided practice or retrieval activities in an intense enough manner; they’re not being clear enough about the learning intentions or spelling out what excellence will look like.
What I find so interesting about this observation is not that it’s wrong – it isn’t: I too see all these things going on in the schools I visit – it’s how the observation has been packaged. Tom argues that “groovy progs” are not to blame for poor outcomes. Instead he says, “I see lots of lessons in lots of contexts; I do tons of learning walks in different schools, popping in and out of classes unannounced. And here’s the thing: you just don’t see a whole lot of teaching ‘infected’ with all this ‘groovy prog’ practice”.
This strikes me as odd because I too see lots of lessons in lots of contexts and it’s rare for me not to see teaching “infected’ with all this ‘groovy prog’ practice” . Why is it that I see all the “Bad Trad” stuff Tom describes but also see huge volumes of “groovy prog” practice? Whilst I’m obviously not privy to Tom’s unique perspective I think I have an explanation.
Take a look at this:
What do you see? Most people work out in very little time that the image can be seen as either a duck or a rabbit. But, while both can be seen in the image, you have to make a conscious choice to shift perspective from duck to rabbit. And, no matter what you’re choosing to see, the image remains the same. I’m convinced that a lot of time is wasted in education arguing about our perspective rather than reality: I can argue that the image is that of duck; you can swear blind it’s a rabbit but we’re both right. And we’re both wrong. The image is just a dot and a squiggle. It really doesn’t take much in the way of critical thinking to accept that ducks and rabbit don’t really look like this. Sadly though, a feature of our minds is that we rush to judgement, see what what we expect or what we want to be true. But our preferences are as likely to be patterns we impose on random noise.
Another problem with diagnosing the reasons for poor classroom practice is that no one can see causes – we only ever get see effects. As I explained here, we tend to believe that we can, in fact, see the reasons behind the events we see unfolding in front of us. But this is an illusion.
With this in mind, allow me to suggest an alternative reason for all the “Bad Trad” teaching Tom sees.
The teachers Tom describes as “Bad Trads” are probably nothing of the sort – they’re just regular teachers struggling to do their best in a changing world. Many will have begun their careers in schools where “groovy prog” teaching was the stated expectation. Many others will have been trained in institutions where teacher trainers have given the impression that the “groovy prog” approach is obviously right. Recently, many of their teachers will been confronted with an abrupt volte face from senior leaders who have either read some research or are trying to work out what will go down well with the latest iteration of the Ofsted Inspection Handbook. These teachers have probably been told a little about retrieval practice, spacing, interleaving, cognitive load theory, dual coding, or any number of evidence informed approaches to teaching. They may also have been told that there is now an expectation to ‘do’ these things in lessons. But, typically, they will not have been told to stop doing all the other stuff they were previously compelled to do. And so they’re floundering.
My hot take on the main reason well-intentioned instructional practices fail is because teachers are hedging their bets and trying to do a little of everything. As I explained in my last post, sub-standard compliance is the inevitable result of trying to compel teachers to teach in a certain way.
The cause as I see it from my particular vantage is a lack of professional scepticism. A professionally sceptical teacher is one who knows why she is starting a lesson with retrieval practice, but has the well-honed instinct to know why this particular aspect of content would benefit from a moderate amount of group work. She will be rightly sceptical of anything as silly as Thinking Hats but will see the sense in encouraging formal debate in the classroom. She will understand that fads like flipped learning are likely to widen the advantage gap and set homework that is more likely to narrow the gap, such as independent practice of content that has been thoroughly modelled and scaffolded in lesson time.
Rather than training teachers in what we think effective teaching looks like, we might be much better off providing the knowledge and the professionals freedoms required for teachers to determine the most effective ways to teach their subjects to their students, and then hold then to account for the decisions they’ve made.