I have had aspirational blog posts come under my nose recently and they have made me think, not about what if... but how?
How do we really tackle issues in a school so that there is improvement?
I will start with Ken Robinson and his message about creativity in schools (despite not really in a position to comment having only really watch one of his videos). About 5 years ago we had a federation in service day and one of the Head Teachers showed a video of Sir Ken talking about schools killing creativity. I remember thinking how I did agree that some students really didn't fit into the structure of normal schooling and it would be much better if we could inspire them/facilitate them into doing something else constructive with their time like ballet dancing. (Which I believe was his example). But in this video there were no practical ideas about what this would look like. I remember thinking "all well and good, but how" and then going on to think that perhaps the children of East Bristol needed more than just a place to learn how to dance and if they didn't engage in art or history lessons dance lessons would probably represent as large a challenge. To be fair to Sir Ken, my confusion at the lack of practicalities wasn't directed at him, but the academy leadership whom I felt had never got beyond Ken Robinson the great orator. I can't think of a single thing that changed as a result of seeing that video and that group of schools seems to have swung in a very different direction. Sir Ken talks about revolution not evolution in schools, yet fails to explain the practicalities of where the money would come from to fund such a change in the way students would be educated. (Forgetting whether or not you agree with him in principle).
Classrooms without walls. Has anyone, anywhere, actually worked out the practicalities of teaching in a classroom without walls? I have tried. I taught my previous school's competency curriculum in a large classroom without walls for a 100 minute lesson per week (The majority of the students' timetable was the competency curriculum). There were three of us teaching 90 students. At the start I moved tables, organised groupings, created resource packs and basically planned to an inch of my life for this lesson. At the end of the year the three groups were taught in different areas as if they were three separate classes. (Not my decision, but of the other people who taught those lessons as students spent most of their week on the competency curriculum). Practicality wasn't considered. In science we were given three classrooms with no walls between them. That lasted just over a year. The practicalities of the timetable killed that.
Practical advice seems to have been very thin when it comes to my career. Speaker talking in ideals and emotion. "Get the children thinking", "empathise with your colleague", "use creative approaches", "raise aspiration", "encourage GRIT", "have high expectations", "close the gap", or any of those sound bites. Even things like "use more literacy strategies" are not that helpful without practical ideas suited to the context. I have read many education books that really don't help me understand how I can improve in my classroom, they just give the big idea. I need the nitty gritty.
What I want to hear are changes and plans that are practical. I need to understand their benefit and outcome and I need to be able to fit them into what I already do or directly replace something. I want to know what it looks like in practice. I need the structures and routines that the changes will mean for both me and my students.
I want management teams I work with to consider the effect on staff when they introduce a new strategy to their school. It can be confusing and patronising to be told the bigger picture without the practicalities. "Have high expectations of your students" is one. Apparently, when I started teaching my low expectations was part of the reason why students were not getting C grades. I didn't expect them to misbehave, I expected them to love learning, it didn't help one little bit. In fact it made me feel worse to think if I believed something enough it would happen, so I obviously couldn't.
Growth mindset is a good example. If all that happens is a few motivational posters and being told about the background then there is little point. (In my opinion). If there advice encouraging a change from staff praising cleverness to praising effort then this is both practical and can be implemented successfully and with understanding. If we understand that as a staff we are looking for evidence that students are spending more time on their learning as a result then we can start to realise the benefits. Moreover it can then be treated as a long term change within the school, with continual reminding and refining. If you believe that it is the right thing now, then surely it will still be the right thing in ten years time, not something to change again next September?
Perhaps I am not really cut out for the management game, but I can't just make hypothetical changes. I can't just motivate, engage, or whatever. I can't embed within the next couple of weeks and I will never tick a box by putting up a poster or creating a space in a lesson plan pro forma. I feel there is no point making a fundamental change that relies on the timetable, or on the skills of one member of staff. (Doesn't mean it isn't worth doing). The problem the change addresses will just have to be tackled again later. Finally I really don't like a strategy that requires a fanfare. There are so many variables involved in education that I don't believe that many of the things we do will cause a great shift forward.
So lets consider the practicalities in what we do in education.
(Notice no practical advice on how to be practical - how frustrating and hypocritical).