New Year’s Resolutions: three honest reflections on my own practice

This time next week I will be welcoming back students into my classroom and I feel okay. I don’t have the knot in my stomach I did last year before I began NQT, I know a lot of my students already, I know what my classroom looks like, I know what our schemes of work are. All of that gives me the chance to reflect on my practice over the last year and come up with some New Year’s Resolutions for the 2019/20 school year. I’ve decided to be brutally honest about my own critical reflections last year in the hope it will help some people do the same. So here they are:

 

1: I will devote more time to recapping last lesson’s knowledge.

I move on too quickly. I guess it’s good to be able to identify such a big flaw in your own teaching because it means you can fix it and become a tangibly better teacher. This last year I have had my scheme-of-work set out before me with a big deadline of an assessment or the end of term and I felt stressed about fitting in all the content so I tried and move through as quickly and serenely as possible. About two-thirds of the time I was getting to the week before half-term and thinking of a video to play or some other way of filling time. That’s me being brutally honest and saying I’ve not been the best teacher but then that’s why this is top of the list of ways to improve.

This year I will spend more time on recall and re-cap at the start of lessons. Mark Enser writes here, in the first chapter of his new book, about the value of recap and recall over the previously lauded ‘starter activity’. I already use my RE version of Retrieval Roulette and I have been using recall quiz slides in KS3 for a good few months but I want to add in time after these activities to respond to the results of the quiz. It seems blindingly obvious that we should be recapping last lesson’s knowledge and explicitly showing students where today’s knowledge fits in with that but when I’ve done the register and scored the quiz and settled the class that idea seems to leak out of my brain and I just leap into the work for today.

How am I going to practically ensure I bring more recap into my lessons? Where I’ve got my lesson notes written out on A5 paper I am going to add a post-it with the key points from last lesson and stick it over the top. I’m also going to try and stick more to a semi-formal lesson plan of recall > recap > explanation > questioning > modelling > writing. I will write that somewhere and stick it on my desk to help me keep on-track.

 

2: I will stop seeing feedback as an irritation and start seeing it as an integral part of learning

Okay so continuing with the theme of me being honest about my own failings: I have failed to use feedback effectively last year. I know how important feedback is and I have spent time on feedback from assessments and other pieces of work but I have too often viewed it as an irritation standing in the way of getting on with the “proper” work of delivering new knowledge. This year I’m going to see feedback, in all its forms, as an integral part of the learning process and something to be relished, not dreaded.

In Making Every Lesson Count the purpose of feedback is “fairly straightforward. Following the identification of a ‘learning gap’, the resulting feedback should be aimed at closing this gap”. I think it’s actually quite easy to identify the learning gaps in my classes, it’s hard not to when you’re marking 30 12-mark questions or looking at the results from 28 recall quizzes but I’ve often been too hasty in getting a bit of green pen into exercise books and calling that gap closed.

This year I am going to make a note of what I think those gaps are alongside my feedback to classes so that I can explicitly see that they are closed before moving on to another form of assessment. I’m fortunate that we have a pretty sensible marking and feedback policy in my school so I’m going to utilise it and see what works best. Whole-class feedback will definitely be playing a major role as I move from marking for its own sake towards quality feedback.

 

3. I will be warm/strict

I started my NQT on the wrong note and it very nearly led to the end of my teaching career before it even started. Reverberating around my head were the words of PGCE mentors about “too much teacher talk” and “behaviour is always communication”. I made an expectations slide covered in emojis and I thought I’d be a different kind of NQT, I didn’t need to be strict because I was young and passionate about my subject and I would make my lessons so interesting that they wouldn’t have the chance to misbehave. I then spent six weeks trying to teach Year 10 set 3 Buddhist Beliefs and I crumbled.

This year I have an overarching idea behind my approach to behaviour, relationships and expectations and it’s Doug Lemov’s warm/strict approach from Teach Like a Champion 2.0: “we’re socialised to believe that warmth and strictness are opposites: if you’re more o one, it means being less of the other. I don’t know where this false conception comes from, but if you choose to believe in it, it will undercut your teaching”. He argues that we shouldn’t seek to be strict then warm or warm then strict but both, exactly at the same time. I will be photocopying these two pages and putting them in clear sight of my desk so I can more consciously and explicitly think about how I deal with poor behaviour and difficult students in the moments where that behaviour is occuring.

Some smaller resolutions

4. I will use my (significantly reduced) PPAs to actually do planning and marking and not just sit and read EduTwitter and the Guardian website

5. I will find some way in which that thirty minute afternoon form time does not just become a colossal waste of time again

6. I will try and use social media with more grace and good faith and stop seeking out people to disagree with

The Radical Case for ‘Trad’ Education

The fundamental question I have found myself asking as an early-career teacher is this: is my pedagogy compatible with my politics? At first I was really worried the answer was no when the advocates for “trad” pedagogy seem to be die-hard Conservatives and defenders of Roger Scruton. I have since come to believe that the answer is yes and way the left has ceded an effective, radical and popular educational culture to the right has been a huge mistake. Here I try to tackle some of the key questions I get asked, and I ask myself, when I reveal my status as a left-wing ‘trad’ and present a case for why the left need to embrace, not reject, ‘trad’ pedagogy.

Firstly, I think it’s important to state that I don’t find the term ‘trad’ or ‘traditional’ to be a helpful descriptor of the ideas it’s attached to. As far as I can tell ‘trad’ teaching has two strands: a strong link between pedagogy and cognitive science and a knowledge-rich curriculum. Calling this ‘traditional’ does it a huge disservice as it immediately brings to mind Thomas Gradgrind, drill-and-kill and the cane. Sadly I have yet to find another term in broad usage to neatly describe what is meant by ‘trad’ so I find myself reluctantly using it as a self-descriptor when I fundamentally reject the reasoning for the term, ah the life of a #leftytrad.

 

Isn’t dialogic teaching inherently authoritarian and anti-progressive?

No and I think this view has done a huge amount of damage to the education of working class students in this country. One of the benefits of teaching that is backed by cognitive science is that it works.

Why should we deny children in state schools access to effective teaching in the name of progress? To my mind it is difficult to think of any rigorous topic which can be more effectively taught through discovery learning than through good teacher instruction, modelling and practice. That is not to say that schools ought to resemble the Victorian classroom filled with wax models in a regional museum with students copying out chemical equations onto slate. In Why Don’t Students Like School? Daniel T Willingham argues that though sometimes we need to teach things by rote like the symbols on the periodic table or phonetic sounds, the vast majority of our teaching should be building and adding to internal schema so that new knowledge has meaning and interest for students.

Tom Sherrington in The Learning Rainforest comes up with the idea of Mode A and Mode B teaching which I have really taken to heart in my own practice. Mode A teaching is about building the knowledge structure, modelling work, guiding practice and teacher explanation, this should be the bulk of what happens in the classroom (80+%). Mode B on the other hand includes more ‘progressive’ teaching methods such as group work, projects and creative responses but this ~20% of teaching is (a) not the primary method of delivering knowledge and (b) interwoven with Mode A teaching. This further links in to Martin Robinson’s ideas in Trivium 21c about grammar, dialectic and rhetoric and Peter Hyman’s head, hand, and heart learning. I don’t have space here to fully discuss the importance of having Mode A and B teaching but it should show that accepting ‘trad’ ideas about cognitive science and effective teacher-led lessons does not mean a total disposal of ‘prog’ ideas about creativity and discovery.

 

Isn’t a knowledge-rich curriculum inherently right-wing and reactionary?

This is certainly a fair question and one I have been struggling with for many years before I even became a teacher. Whilst the left has been hugely successful at shifting the social conversation in this country, one of the biggest mistakes, in my opinion, has been to cede so much intellectual and cultural ground to the right whilst failing to provide metanarratives of history and culture which can compete. In my own subject of RE I feel like there has been too much emphasis from well-meaning teachers in providing students with the skills to be reflective and critical without giving them material and knowledge on which to practice.

The Bible seems to be the preserve of the right with Gove doling out copies of the KJV, yet, as a Christian Socialist, I want my students to engage with the radical Christ and the truly revolutionary messages contained in, for example, the book of Acts. Through this text, through this knowledge, they can then bring in their own questions and references but without it they leave school able to ‘think critically’ but under the belief that is prevalent in society that Christianity, and Christ, are naturally regressive, right-wing and conservative. Giving students a real knowledge of the Gospels gives them the ability to make their own decisions and, in my opinion, to make the right decision that that prevalent view is nonsense.

Similarly the idea that knowledge-rich necessarily means regurgitating an existing canon or traditional set of ideas and texts is not true. Look at Adam Robertson’s great work in developing resources for teaching a radical history of the British Empire and the accompanying arguments that Labour should support this knowledge-rich but radical history teaching in their education policy. I am not necessarily advocating an explicitly biased, ideological approach in the classroom (not that there is such a thing as an unbiased, unideological approach in the classroom). Rather, I think that through curriculum choice, through access to great works, through making young people clever, we do a much better job of preparing them for political, historical, cultural, scientific and ethical discussions and decision making than we do through a skills-based education.

There is a whole further conversation to be had about the absolute imperative left-wing teachers have to provide their students with cultural literacy (and/or cultural capital) but I have a separate post about that in the works.

 

Shouldn’t we reject harsh, authoritarian behaviour management in favour of allowing young people to thrive?

I’m going to steal a phrase from conservatives here and talk about the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’. I felt very strongly that when I was at school I could get away with a lot because I was in foster care and was seen as having a ‘hard time’. Teachers adjusted their expectations around homework and behaviour and even effort in class to try and take account of my difficult circumstances. I loathed it and I especially loathe it now when I think about the hugely damaging effect it has had on my development and opportunities. I was, and still am, prone to laziness and lacking in work ethic and with no appreciation of delayed gratification, I didn’t succeed at university until I was in my 20s and I have ended up five or six years behind in my career compared to my contemporaries as a result.

Rather than giving me the boundaries and high expectations I desperately craved as a teenager I found I was able to push and push and nearly always get my own way. I seriously worry that this the route that so many SEND, pupil premium, looked-after children and, generally working class students are still on today.

Of course I do not advocate a return to the cane or the installation of a Chokey in our department base. Instead I think Doug Lemov, in Teach Like a Champion 2.0, has hit the nail on the head with his idea of a warm-strict approach. He argues that we are socialised to believe that warmth and strictness are opposites but actually effective teachers must be both. Young people do not thrive when they are bored. A classroom where there is no order and no challenge is an incredibly boring place for students to be, they can’t focus, they can’t work, they can’t achieve anything. A classroom where order is enforced with warmth and where challenge is matched by excellent teaching is a fundamentally radical environment because giving working class kids the chance to succeed is a fundamentally radical activity.

 

Isn’t ‘trad’ teaching inextricably linked to Tory education policy, academisation and right-wing commentators?

I think, if I was being honest, I would have to say “sadly, yes”. On Edutwitter sometimes I look at my feed and see Katharine Birbalsingh and Toby Young arguing on the “my side” of the debate and feel like I’m in the middle of the famed “are we the baddies?” sketch. Fortunately I know there are many teachers out there breaking this link between knowledge-rich teaching and right-wing ideology such as the self-proclaimed #leftytrad gang on Twitter including Mark Enser, Adam Robertson and Adam Boxer as well as the numerous teachers you meet in school or at union events who aren’t on Twitter and who love this pedagogy because it works and are quite happy to stay out of the proxy-political ‘debate’ altogether.

I do not find it at all helpful when people claiming to represent teachers (whether through the unions or the Labour Party) make generalisations about ‘trad’ teachers and schools which do nothing but cede the educational successes and growing popularity of these pedagogical methods to the right-wing talking heads and policy makers. It is time the unions realised that they are there to protect us as workers and stand up for education not pick fights with their own members about how they choose to teach and where they choose to work.

Overall I think it is time to challenge this political-pedagogical link between ‘trad’ teaching and conservatism and find voices who will drown out the Youngs, Goves and Birbalsinghs in promoting ideas that work and empower young people. It works both ways, traditional left-wing spaces like unions and Labour have to acknowledge that ‘trad’ teaching is here to stay and not antithetical to their aims, and left-wing ‘trad’ teachers have to be more vocal and challenge those who want to claim our methods for the right.