There was some discussion yesterday about how different teachers could get results using different methods. Laura McInerney tweeted a couple of times about this, commenting that ‘If a teacher can get amazing pupil outcomes from using films, Mr Men, constant teacher talk, or rote learning, then power to their elbow.’, and ‘The idea that it’s impossible to effectively use any, or all, of these techniques is to lack imagination. Teaching comes in many guises.’
Partly in response to this, I tweeted that ‘Doubtless exceptional teachers can get results with any method. But we need to promote methods that work sustainably for ordinary people.’
Laura was deliberately listing methods associated with both sides of the educational debate, and positing that they could work for different teachers, so why be prescriptive about pedagogy?
I was trying to point out that it is helpful to highlight that some methods really do work more reliably, and they work for ordinary mortals who frequently get colds in term time and do not wish to spend every evening creating hand-crafted resources, marking mountains of exercise books, and so on.
When a more traditional approach is suggested, such as every teacher in a school using an agreed set of resources, or a preference for explicit instruction and practice rather than discovery learning, there tend to be cries of outrage about prescription and the destruction of teacher autonomy. There seems to be a general suspicion among teachers that every time Nick Gibb talks about using textbooks, he’s cooking up a plan to impose a standard set of teaching resources on the whole country, once he’s got them all under his thumb through the academisation programme.
But things like standardised resources really help. Is it really better to have every teacher laboriously creating their own work sheets and card sorts and powerpoint slides, when you could simply have materials that everyone uses, and there could be consistency, and teachers could collaborate more effectively over using these shared resources, and actually support each other? We have to think about what is actually going to help the largest number of teachers achieve the best results. Simple, traditional methods, with agreed-upon resources, are sustainable and effective.
It’s the responsibility of school leaders to make the decisions about what is going to help all pupil make progress in their schools. This is a heavy responsibility, and given that they bear this weight of accountability, they really should be at liberty to ban Mr Men and insist upon shared resources. Responsibility without authority is useless, and really torturous. The government is giving school leaders the power to exercise their authority properly, and to implement effective methods. This is what gives me hope for the future.
The best response to my tweet was Katharine Birbalsingh’s. She questioned what I meant by ‘exceptional’. Did I mean ‘magical’? She’s right. There really are methods that are so ineffective that something preternatural would be required to overcome their limitations. Letting pupils ‘discover’ when subject matter could simply be explained and then mastered through modelling and practice really is a disgraceful waste of everybody’s time.
With increasing school autonomy, it’s up to school leaders to remove ineffective methods and chaotic curricula, and build resources and pedagogy that enable every pupil to make progress under every teacher. Not just the exceptional pupils, and not just the exceptional teachers.