If you want to get really good at something, you need to practise it repeatedly. This is commonly accepted in sports and drama, but often ignored in the academic curriculum, where ideas about creativity and independence are wrongly interpreted to mean that drill and practice will somehow hold back the intellectual development of pupils.
Drill and practice are absolutely essential for fluency, however, and this applies to teachers as well as pupils. Fluency of teaching cannot be achieved without repetition, any more than pupils can achieve fluency in any academic subject without repetition. But how often do teachers get to repeat lessons? Often, teachers will only deliver a lesson once a year, and it is one among hundreds. By the time they come round to teaching it again, too much time has lapsed for them to remember and apply the lessons learned and fine tune the delivery. And there is no hope of automaticity with such infrequent repetition.
This infrequency of repetition results from the typical arrangement of a British secondary teacher’s timetable, where they teach their subject across multiple year groups. It is not uncommon for a secondary English teacher to be teaching as many as seven year groups. They could easily have between twenty-five and thirty different lessons per week, making hundreds of different lessons per term. With the best will in the world, there is no way that they can become fluent in the delivery of any of those lessons.
We have to recognise our own limitations as teachers, and apply the lessons of cognitive science to ourselves as much as to our pupils. Teaching lessons is a demanding and complex process, and the majority of it needs to be automatic for sufficient attention to remain for thinking about the really interesting element: the subject knowledge. If there is going to be any hope of real mastery on the part of the teacher, there needs to be a limit on the number of different lessons they have to teach each year. I would suggest that no secondary teacher should teach more than three year groups. Two year groups would be even better.
Teaching fewer year groups would also have the benefit of allowing teachers to deepen their subject knowledge and become really expert in the part of the curriculum entrusted to them. Of course they should know about the rest of the curriculum to some extent, but deep expertise cannot be achieved in everything. Teachers would be able, in these circumstances, to think of themselves more in the way university academics do, as real experts in a particular aspect of their subject.
Schools are more free to innovate than ever before. It would be wonderful to see more brave leaders considering this question of mastery and fluency in their teaching staff, as well as in their pupils, and placing limits on the number of year groups each teacher has to deal with.