I’ve often thought there is a tendency in teaching to try to offer intellectual justification for educational trends that lead primarily to diminishing the role of the teacher. Partly, I suspect, this is because of a philosophical and cultural fetish for anything that contravenes settled notions of authority and hierarchy; partly, it is because of a hazy commitment to such nebulous terms as ‘independence’ and ‘freedom’.
But what if there were more to it? I’m no historian, and so couldn’t chart any patterns of causation or correlation, but what if so many of these trends were actually just attempts to add bien pensant pseudo-psycho-baubles to what are essentially strategies of self-preservation? What if the constant move toward making the teacher less important in the educational process is the result of the fact that the teacher finds it increasingly difficult to be in control of the educational process?
Let me explain. Over on ResPublica’s blog, Joe Nutt can be found musing on the difference between current indigenous educational philosophies and those prevalent in more successful educational systems through the medium of, well, red ink.
In essence, he is arguing that to improve educational standards we must demand academic excellence, both from our students but also from our teachers. To tease out the differences, he notes that whereas in Finland he witnessed a teacher who was willing to cover a pupil’s work in thorough and detailed written feedback, in Britain there is naught but jangled nerves about covering work in red pen, either because we no longer believe in academic excellence, or because our current commitments lie with other pastoral concerns, such as confidence building and the like.
As such, for Nutt a commitment to excellence in teaching, which means also in teachers, is the single most important factor in improving standards and outcomes, this being more crucial than (for example) the structure of the institution in which they work.
And he has a point. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had to endure sanctimonious twaddle about the use of red pen in the classroom. Or the cruelty inherent in ‘over-correcting’ work. In this sense, maybe Nutt is correct in saying that the issue is a cultural one rather than an organisational or institutional one, meaning that any solution to it lies in a conversion of the heart rather than the Head (see what I did there?).
I’m sure Nutt would also have the support of a great many of those who send their children to schools expecting them to be educated. To focus in on one example, it is not at all uncommon to hear people criticising teachers for the standards of marking, or more specifically the fact that they ignore such seemingly fundamental things as spelling and grammar and instead cover a book in ticks and the occasional motivational refrain. This is perfectly understandable: parents, along with everybody else, expect teachers to educate the young and whilst this clearly includes subject knowledge, they also expect ‘the basics’ (spelling and grammar) to be picked up on as being a non-negotiable core aspect of the teacher’s duties.
And, all things being equal, these people are absolutely right in that expectation.
But then, there’s rather more to it than that. Because what Nutt’s argument presumes, and the argument of those parents suggests, is that if only teachers could be converted to the cause of academic excellence then the most significant barrier to achieving this standards vision will have been removed.
But this is simply not true: even for those who yearn to spill the red ink, the reality is that they are not always able.
To explore this a little, lets take the example of a humanities subject teacher. Now, teachers in Britain, at least those without any management responsibility, will have to teach twenty-two classes per week. At an average of, say, thirty children per class, that works out at six hundred and sixty pieces of work per week. That is, by the end of each week, each teacher will have accrued 660 pieces of work that they need to have marked.
Now, imagine the teacher has given their class a set of 10 questions to complete. Or, a piece of prose to write which covers, say, one side of their exercise book. Not only does that teacher have to ensure that all content is accurate and/or well expressed, and make corrections accordingly, they also have to pick up on that grammar and spelling that any normal person would reasonably expect them to amend. There is rather more to it than that, of course, dependent on the level of work set and much else, but let us keep it basic for now.
As such, it is not at all unreasonable to assume that as an average, to mark a piece of work in full detail could take, say, three minutes. (There are many variables, but let’s just take this as a reasonable average)
Now do the sums: 660 pieces of work, with each taking three minutes to mark. That would mean marking each week works out at 33 hours. On top of the 22 hours teaching. And the however many hours planning for those lessons. And making the resources for them. And everything else that comes with being in a school, from pastoral roles to extra-curricular activities to myriad else besides.
And one could (perhaps should) have added in homework, usually one piece per subject per week, but as this varies from school to school I’ll leave it out: nonetheless for most teachers, the setting, chasing and marking (and punishing for non-submission) has to be factored into their time too.
Whilst this is clearly far from a rigorous scientific analysis, the general point is this: whilst Joe Nutt can rightly admire the Finnish teacher who spent six hours giving detailed feedback to one class on one piece of work, he is wrong to simultaneously speculate that the only barrier to this happening in the United Kingdom is cultural rather than institutional. The truth is that, however much one might desire to cover a page in detailed feedback (or evil red ink, depending on your view) there yet exists only so many hours in a day in which to do it. In this sense, the problem really is institutional, with philosophical or cultural considerations being the secondary issue.
Which brings me full circle and that daft idea that correcting work is somehow oppressive, or an example of bad practice, or whatever other reason given against it: might this not just be a manifestation of the preservation instinct, a way of saying (without actually having to say it) – we simply cannot do this?
Which is ironic. Not least because it would mean the trendy educational progressives become the stalwarts of the status-quo, the useful idiots finding ways to rationalise the system that simply demands too much.
If teaching is to improve then teachers need to be given time to be teachers. And that really is an institutional issue.