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Watching Teaching

To the eyes of those who watch over us, teachers are much more important than students. We have their sole attention, we are their singular pursuit, it is we whom they come to see. This has increased the status of teachers (if not our authority) – it has given us celebrity teachers and forensic attention on the minutiae of teaching performance, books aplenty on how to be ‘outstanding’ and cult-like status for a teaching elite.  However, this trend has also shifted focus away from where focus needs to be – the students.

As an example, underachievement very often follows lack of effort. This is not to say that all who underachieve lack effort – but those who lack effort often underachieve. I should imagine this is universal, and will forever be so. Yet so far as accountability and improving performance goes, we rarely focus on student effort, and hold the student accountable for lack of it; instead, we raise an eyebrow to the teacher and assume it was the teaching that lead to a lack of ‘engagement’. In other words, we hold the wrong person culpable, and target our interventions on them accordingly – whilst often leaving the student to drift through school showing a similar lack of engagement across the curriculum.

In a similar way, we have become accustomed to saying those who misbehave do so because they cannot access the work, instead of wondering if they have difficulty accessing the work because they misbehave. Student effort, after all, is far more important to success than differentiated worksheets – yet we seem to spend far more time differentiating worksheets than we do insisting upon, and ensuring, effort. In other words, we put the cart before horse, then castigate the horse for the cart not moving fast enough.

Yet this tendency has become so normal as to pass unnoticed. Politicians, OFSTED, SLT – all of them keep dreaming up more and more ways to monitor and shape what a teacher is doing, without taking a step back and wondering if it might actually be more effective to spend the time instead watching what the student is doing. On this, I’d be willing to bet (though I’ll happily admit I can offer no evidence to support it) that such an approach is far more common the further one descends down the school league tables. Which is no surprise, I suppose – excess monitoring of teaching and tinkering with praxis is one way for an anxious management to demonstrate to OFSTED that SOMETHING IS BEING DONE!! about poor performance (of teachers, that is – the implicit assumption being that the failure must primarily be theirs). Still, it would also mean that top schools come at it from the other direction – a focus on what the student does, and getting them to do it better, and holding them to account when they do not. If this is a pathway to success, then it would in fairness be a bold one to take in an environment where OFSTED wants to see evidence of how a school is improving teaching and learning – by which it means improving what the teachers are doing. And assessing the capacity and strength of leadership by how effectively they watch and intervene in what teachers are doing.

I should add, I’m not saying that the teacher is not involved in this process – it is of course our job to ensure students learn and to intervene when they do not. If we do not intervene then we are culpable. I’m also not saying teachers shouldn’t try to get better and be encouraged and supported in doing so – which includes constructive criticism where required. But nonetheless we must constantly assert the truth that when a student chooses not to work hard and try to succeed in class, it is rarely for the lack of effort or determination or skill of the teacher. Meaning we ought to try and restore the balance, since taking away primary responsibility from the student not only neglects our duty to ensure students learn, it also sells our students a lie about life and how to succeed in the art of living it well. 

And so the paradox: maybe to improve learning we need to focus less on the teaching. Which means finding a new way to judge what happens in our schools, so that we focus more on the things that matter most. And question any habit of thought or structural processes that disincentivises our doing so. 

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