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Monthly Archives: August 2013

On (not) Learning to Teach

There is something of an irony in contemporary education debate, certainly the online variety, in that discussion is nearly always about skills. In as much as this is the case, the vanguard of the educational revolution often sounds very much like those they’re meant to replace, becoming devotees of an idea or method that can be transposed seamlessly from one classroom to another.  This is understandable, of course, since in a forum with representatives from every subject the common ground clearly exists on the generic skills front, and so it makes sense to discuss it. In addition, it is genuinely useful – after all, learning more about how to teach can only be a good thing, right?
Well, it depends at what price. For example, am I best developing my effectiveness by reading the latest John Hattie book, or the latest Norman Davies? Which is best for my students, that I read the latest Encyclical, or the latest article by Daniel Willingham? Does my teaching get better with debating residual scores on the latest report on the effectiveness of direct instruction, or in a detailed discussion with a specialist on the social, religious and political contexts that framed the ‘Glorious’ Revolution(/Revolt)? The answer is not straightforwardly one or the other – but in my experience, teacher debate and, crucially (I will return to this), professional development, far more often focuses on the former than the latter – at times, even at the expense of the latter.
Now, to save the hernias of the excitable who at this point feel compelled to jump up and down shouting ‘FALSE DICHOTOMY!’, I fully accept that this is not zero-sum. Equally, time is finite for the finite. And we teachers, marvellous as we are, are nonetheless finite beings. Meaning that the spare time we have can only have a certain amount fit into it. And as many will testify, this time is never enough. Some of the more thoughtful souls even make this point by tweeting pictures of all those books they still have to read, lolz.  
Still, the point remains: in spending so much energy and effort getting up to speed, and keeping up to speed, with how to teach, an essential focus on what to teach can become lost.
And this is something I have noticed. As my career has progressed, I feel I have become less and less well versed in my chosen subjects. My knowledge feels like it has become a static body comfortably regurgitated, whereas it was once an evolving and organic thing. And the main reason for this is time: I no longer have the time to develop my knowledge as I once did. And I’d wager that this is true for the vast majority of teachers. Which is fine if the subject is reasonably static, but not so much when it isn’t. And whilst this process is taking place, I tend to wonder if I’m becoming a less effective practitioner.  Spoiler: probably.
Which brings us to attitudes in education. It is perfectly right that we insist on subject specialists and subject specialism – it is also perfectly bonkers to think this is something that is completed prior to becoming a teacher, and not an ongoing process which runs alongside it. In other words, perhaps we don’t insist enough.
To pull the lens out a bit, workload issues, and the current fashion for teachers with a single-minded dedication to teaching, has meant that having outside interests is increasingly a luxury many cannot afford. It has become the norm to allow teaching to trump all other commitments one might have or wish to have (which can even include family, by the way – it’s not healthy).  Whilst such frenzied dedication might seem, on the face of it, to be A Good Thing, something essential is nonetheless lost: the ability of the teacher to bring the outside world into the classroom; to sniff out external opportunities for students that they might never come across whilst cloistered away in the teaching community; to develop their own knowledge through the pursuit of private interests and in so doing, become better teachers. On a personal level, opportunities that I could (and did) provide when I first entered teaching have disappeared with those networks which fell by the wayside precisely because of the all-consuming nature of the job – is this better?
This can easily be viewed, of course, as a tad indulgent – one can immediately see the relevance of reading the latest research on peer assessment, but attend a lecture on English Jacobitism? You’re having a laugh. That is something that you should be doing in your private time. Only…
And so we complete the circle, with both time and fashion making it increasingly difficult to be the rounded professionals, indeed rounded people, which the best teachers must surely be. Perhaps, then, during our holidays we should take a break from learning how to teach, and go do other non-teaching things. It might just make us better teachers.