Life inside the bubble – Part 1

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Inside the bubble, everything is clear.

For the last couple of years I have been writing, blogging and tweeting about education. I have read dozens of fascinating books, countless papers, attended conferences and met many brilliant teachers. I have been invited to write for TES and the Guardian’s Teacher Network, speak at conferences, teach meets and school’s CPD sessions, write a new PGCE course for trainee Geography teachers and consult on school improvement. I am now very firmly in the education-world bubble. It is a lovely place most of the time with a real sense of community (although like any community with its rifts, tribes and trouble makers). You tend to see the same faces at different conferences, blog posts often refer to other blogs and most people follow each other on twitter.

We therefore develop a shared language and shared understanding. People inside the education-world bubble have heard of the Chartered College of Teaching and, whether they support it or not, are aware of the debates surrounding it. They can discuss the changes to AfL or the problems with replicating Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset. They can smile knowingly to references to Learning Styles and debates on whether schools should focus on 21st century skills. We might disagree on a lot but we have the knowledge with which to disagree.

The problem is that this bubble is a small one and most of our colleagues in schools are outside of it. We are seeing a real divide between those who are informed about current educational debates and ideas and those who are not. This cannot be healthy or sustainable for the profession.

Outside the bubble we still see schools where pupils are being given tests for learning styles (although much more rarely than in the past), schools where SLT are insisting that OFSTED require evidence of written feedback in books every two weeks or who are handing out verbal feedback stamps. I recently saw a presentation that was being delivered to teachers by a deputy head teacher that was based around applying the principles of the Pyramid of Learning.

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Based on the misapplication of work by Dale, there is no evidence for these claims on retention rates. 

I think there are a range of reasons why the education-world bubble continues to be so small and misinformation continues to reign in teaching.

  1. There is a view that once you qualify as a teacher, that is it. You have learnt what you need to know and nothing really changes. You hear this when people roll their eyes and say “everything comes back round eventually” but when pushed struggle to really give an example. What they may have seen is some things being tried that failed and the status quo being restored.
  2. People leading CPD on teaching and learning may have no particular insights to offer. I remember when I started teaching, sitting in training sessions in my naivety, assuming that the person speaking must have some kind of authority based on greater knowledge. The more time I have spent in teaching the more opportunities I have had to peer behind the curtain and see the Great and Wonderful Oz for what he or she is.
  3. Even if the person delivering CPD has an excellent idea it is often communicated badly. People are told what they need to do without the reason for it ever being clearly explained. As I wrote about here in The Ritual of Teaching this leads to people going through the motions but losing sight of why something is being done.
  4. There is also a real sense of cynicism in parts of the teaching profession. A feeling that new initiatives and ideas are being done to them rather than with them. This cynicism may not be entirely groundless. A huge amount of a teacher’s time is wasted by ill thought out initiatives being brought in, developed, and then dropped and forgotten when they turn out not to have an impact or when replaced with yet another new idea. As Phil Stock argues in this excellent post – we need much more time to reflect and evaluate on the impact of new ideas. (See also see in this recommendation the incestuous nature of the education-world bubble).
  5. The biggest reason for the gap opening up between the informed and uninformed is the lack of time to be informed. Reading the many wonderful books published each month takes time. Reflecting on them and putting ideas into practice takes more time. Keeping up to date with the various debates swirling around education is a full time job in itself and there are few quick and easy digests giving you the information you really need when you need it.

As ever though there are some solutions to these issues.

  1. We need to reassert the professional status of teaching and see it as a profession in which you never stop learning and developing. We can start to achieve this by building reflection on research into performance management to show that this is something as valuable as measuring pupil outcomes.
  2. We can make sure that the people delivering CPD genuinely have something to offer on the subject and if they don’t, looking for people who do. We need more co-operation between schools to ensure that expertise can be shared more widely. We also need to identify out “expert teachers” within schools. Our school has a series of innovation teams with people given the time to lead on areas of school development and deliver training in these areas. This way excellent practice is developed in-house and shared.
  3. We need to keep in mind that the why is as important as the what. There is no point in telling teachers to develop knowledge organisers, mark books every two weeks or use low stakes quizzes unless you can explain what the aim is. In fact, you should be able to explain the aim and then leave it up to the well trained professionals to work out how to achieve it.
  4. We need to challenge and counter cynicism by showing just what developments in our understanding of teaching and learning can lead to. We need to be very precise in our explanations and show that what we are saying has value. We need to make sure we are not overloading people with endless new initiatives that will get moved to the back burner in a couple of weeks when there is a new pet project.
  5. We must give teachers time. If we genuinely want excellent education for all then we need to focus on teaching and learning and cut away anything that detracts from this. In my school, all teachers have an hour a fortnight to meet with a small group, read research, discuss it and look at acting on it (or not). Without this time dedicated to reading and reflection we will never bridge the gap between the informed and uninformed.

The last two years inside the education-world bubble has had a dramatic impact on my teaching. It feels easier, I understand the why of what I am doing and have been able to cut a lot of wasteful practice. Student outcomes have improved dramatically, more pupils are opting for the subject and the work they can do is of a much higher standard. However, this has only been possible because I have been able to dedicate a lot of time in the evenings and weekends to reading and writing and engaging with the profession. We need to focus on finding ways of bringing more people into the bubble and making it easier for people to enjoy the benefits.. Education is just too important not to.

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