Albert Einstein defined insanity as: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Yet, inescapably, the English education system ignores this logic, and repeats the same tired strategies and the same ill-informed notions in and out of the classroom year after year. Are those entrusted with the education of our young insane, or is there more to the story? In this entry, I am going to explore some of the conditions that I believe have entrenched this stasis in the development of education – and then offer some solutions.
There are some fairly powerful forces out there that militate against innovation – and for good reason. I spent some of my winter break reading the recently published “Bad Education, Debunking Myths in Education”, a text filled with research essays addressing widely-held educational myths and examining their gossamer-thin evidence-basis. It canvasses the existing research on everything from teacher assistants, through learning styles to ability grouping, and in most cases demonstrates convincingly that these practices have no sound basis in evidence. This has been a salutary read for me. It has reminded me of the reality that what I might call “my professional practice” is largely a homunculus of tradition, instinct and fad. I mention this at the beginning of this entry because it must be established that change isn’t necessarily good for the sake of it. But neither is staying the same good for the sake of it.
It would be easy to believe that everything is anti-innovation in education these days. Whether it’s the educational bureaucracy who appear to be obsessed with narrow performance measures, a school leadership who, in spite of themselves, instil anxiety in their staff, or colleagues who are too quick to undermine each other – it all conspires to generate fear. This fear corrodes our confidence in ourselves and most importantly it stifles innovation, with its inherent need for (educated) risk-taking. (Head Teacher Tom Sherrington has written eloquently about this, and the solutions apparent – I urge you to read his blog from beginning to end, starting here)
As I see it, outstanding teaching practice should be embodied by a willingness to learn, to experiment, and to improve. In this environment this means we have to be brave. We have to be willing to be champions for our students, our subjects and ourselves. In the face of overwhelming pressure to walk the safer paths, to engage in risk-averse practices of repeating what has always been done, we must declare our independence.
Let’s face reality. As teachers, we are at the front-line. We work for our students. We are paid by the taxpayer. Everyone else in the chain; the support staff, the SMT, the Headmaster, ofsted, ofqual, the examining board, the Department for Education and the politicians work for us, to support US to do a better job in ensuring the best possible outcomes for our students. If any of these agents are getting in the way of this, we must work to mitigate their impact. This is our responsibility and our gift. Impertinent as it may seem, my internal monologue when engaging with those support agencies is “Your work is designed to support mine – how effective are you at this?”.
So, once you have restored perspective and placed your classroom back in the centre of the educational universe, it becomes incumbent on you to make sure that it represents the state of the art. This does not mean that teachers should abandon all conventional wisdom. In spite of Einstein’s pithy aphorism, much success in education can indeed be achieved through repetition. I have said myself that doing something again and again until you’re good at it is a mainstay of learning, and until we can have knowledge and experience injected into us “Matrix”-style, this is unlikely to change. There are also plenty of voices out there in the firmament who will warn against abandoning the old ways. What it means is that we must embrace opportunities to improve, to explore, to research and to investigate our practice. It means we have to be open to the idea that there just might be better ways to teach and learn. There just could be a strategy or approach that will lead to superior outcomes.
So we must explore, take risks, engage in critical practice. We need to be very clear with ourselves about what we’re there for in the first place. I would contend that we must then gain knowledge of the best practice in our craft, understand its application in our unique context, analyse and evaluate the effect of the actions we take in class, and synthesise new processes that improve on the old ways. Really, we should simply be engaging in the same higher-order processes that we are frequently urged to ensure in our students. Our classroom should be a place of learning for us too. This is not irresponsible or a distraction from the task – this is integral to the task. We are the professionals, it’s our job to improve. Instead we must guard against those who would have us adhere to everything already known, or worse implement strategies known to have a negative impact (streaming, anyone?) or even to flog ourselves to death doing more of what we already do – in the name of ‘school improvement’.
I’m doing this with my own inventions, like the student blogging project, Edutronic. I’m doing it by implementing new research-based programmes and strategies such as the University of Exeter’s “Grammar for Writing” programme and the King’s College “Let’s think in English” cognitive acceleration programme. I’m reading widely in my field and communicating with my colleagues in school and via twitter. I talk to people from think-tanks like the Education Foundation. I write this blog. Clearly I’ve got a very very hard working, well-trained, set of supporters in my SMT, Headteacher, and assorted bureaucracy!
If you need assistance in your quest, engage the services of your SMT, your Headteacher, your HOD, the support staff. That, after all, is what they’re for. They work for you. Try not to scare them.
If you’re interested in accessing evidence to support your innovation, the very accessible Education Endowment Foundation is a great place to begin. The next step is to generate your own evidence.
Iesha Small, a member of the leadership team in another London school, has written a companion piece to this article entitled “Placing the classroom back in the centre of the (leadership) universe“.