We’ve all been there: formal observation with a non-specialist. Being told that our AfL was sub-par, that our activities weren’t engaging enough, that we hadn’t appropriately differentiated for SEN, EAL, PP, G&T, HPA, LPA etc etc.
It’s incredibly frustrating to be told by someone who doesn’t know your subject that you are teaching it wrong. How can it be that someone who knows nothing about covalent bonding can tell me that my teaching of it is sub-standard because I didn’t progress up Bloom’s taxonomy? How can it be that someone can judge my sixth form marking when they cannot decipher the symbols and equations on the page?
It has somehow become an orthodoxy that such a thing is possible. That a science teacher can assess the quality of an English teacher who can assess the quality of a maths teacher who can assess the quality of a PE teacher and so on and so forth. I remember once being told to go and observe an “outstanding” head of MFL. The entire lesson was in Spanish, a language of which I habla nada (?). But it’s fine, because I was there to observe teaching and learning: a universal set of practices that could be employed in any classroom in any subject to achieve rapid progress.
Ofsted has its part to play here. I don’t know the exact history or much care, but a culture has developed around observing teaching and learning. From an accountability perspective it makes sense: you need some way of going into a classroom for a short period of time and saying whether or not the teaching and learning is effective. So you invent some kind of proxy that makes it easy to judge the quality of a teacher in twenty minutes, and the proxy has to be obvious and observable. So you end up with three part lessons, mini-plenaries every 90 seconds with whiteboards, traffic lights and thumbs up and down and students wandering around the class hunting for information so that you can see by their shining faces just how engaged they are.
I remember when I was training going to visit a local school with a brilliant reputation for teaching and learning. I sat in on staff briefing where a couple of hip young teachers had this thing where they went to the local pound shop and bought some piece of junk: a tupperware or a furry dice or whatever. They pulled a name out of a hat and a member of staff had to take the junk to use in their lesson at some point that week. After this, last week’s lucky winner had to, in front of all the staff, explain how they had used a purple macintosh as part of their year 12 Latin lesson.
It’s all a good laugh, sure. Staff bonding and all that. But it completely ignores something that’s pretty damn important: the actual subject. It says “right, how am I going to use this resource in my teaching?” instead of “ok which resources are most appropriate to my teaching?”
On the surface it sounds great, and it makes a staff feel like there is a real “buzz” around teaching and learning. But the buzz rings hollow, devoid as it is of any actual substance.
Like many others, my thinking on this has changed radically over the past few years. It’s only recently that one of my performance management targets was to embed more group work into my lessons, as if it were some kind of universal Good that would improve any of my lessons, regardless of the actual content. But I’ve been lucky enough to read some inspirational writers on the topic and have my thinking jarringly challenged. I’ve come to believe that the phrase teaching and learning simply won’t do any more. It carries too much generic baggage: too much of the tick box culture which has allowed non-specialists to tell me that I’m not teaching science properly. Most importantly, it starts from the wrong place. It starts the teaching, not the content. What is the point of talking about teaching unless you are talking about content?
Frederick Reif has a great graphic in his book which looks a bit like this:
You start with two states: Student (initial) and Student (final). The change from your student as they are at the beginning (initially) to the student as they are at the end (finally) is called learning:
And, somewhat obviously, that learning is as a result of teaching: from a teacher, from a book, from a life experience – it doesn’t matter:
But here’s the thing: the T bit of the diagram is the least interesting part of the process. Even the “learning” part of the diagram isn’t the most interesting, because that’s just a journey.
The interesting part is not the teaching or the learning, it is the difference between our initial student and our final student. What have they learned? How are they different now to before? To me, that’s what’s really interesting.
I talk here of course about curriculum: education buzzword of 2019 and beyond. The substance of what is to be taught. That which inheres in Student (final) but does not in Student (initial). The teaching and the learning are important, but they are tools, processes which are subservient to the curriculum. We do need to talk about them, but only insofar as how we optimise them to deliver the curriculum.
Ofsted’s draft handbook for September 2019 is a radical document steeped in this kind of thinking. To me, just as important as what is in the document is that which is not in the document. I talk here of the old heading “teaching and learning” or “teaching, learning and assessment;” phrases which have been excised from the 2019 draft. Instead of teaching and learning, we have a broad heading of “quality of education,” which splits into subsections. The one that interests us here is “curriculum implementation.” To me, this phrase rings the death knell of Teaching and Learning, because it’s so much better. Sure, it doesn’t sound as snappy and being Assistant Head with Responsibility for Curriculum Implementation probably won’t get you many followers on twitter, but it’s more correct. Because it puts the curriculum first. It says right, this is our curriculum, this is the difference between Student (initial) and Student (final): how are we going to implement it? How are we going to make sure our students make that learning journey?
The answer to these questions by definition is tied to the curriculum. I am implementing a science curriculum, and the way I do that is different to how my colleagues implementing their history or English or maths curriculum will do it. Because Student (final) is different in my subject to theirs. It’s all in the curriculum, and how I implement it.
You can’t come into my classroom as a Spanish teacher and tell me I’m implementing my curriculum wrong, because you don’t know my curriculum. And Lord knows I don’t know yours, so I’m sure as infierno not going to come into your class and tell you that you’re implementing your curriculum wrong. I wouldn’t have the faintest clue.
Schools will need to change. It isn’t good enough to rename the Assistant Head for T&L as the Assistant Head for Curriculum Implementation. Schools will need to mine the knowledge of their subject experts in a bid to understand what progress looks like in those subjects. To understand what a science, geography or D&T curriculum is, and how its implementation is carried out. To clarify the difference between Student (initial) and Student (final) in each and every subject which that student is immersed in.
I think teaching and learning is dead. I suspect that teaching and learning doesn’t know it’s dead, and I suspect that it will stagger on for many years to come. But it’s certainly time for it to be retired, for that generic chapter in our sector’s story to be closed.
Teaching and learning is dead: long live curriculum implementation!
You can find a follow-up to this blog here, which deals with what a non-specialist can do in an observation
My thinking on this has been greatly influenced by Chistine Counsell and you can find more of her writing on the topic here. I also have a list of things on curriculum to read here and I recommend Stuart Lock’s blog here. You my also be interested in the recent symposium on curriculum in science here.