Saturday, 12 October 2013

Teaching and Learning

I’ve had a long, diverse and, overall, successful career in education.  I believe I made a positive difference at particular times and in particular circumstances – although there were also times where I was less effective and/or where circumstances meant I was banging my head against several bricks in the wall!  However, I actually only taught for 9 years.  I’m sure there are many teachers who will feel that wasn’t enough to then go on and be in influential decision-making roles in local and national government.  I have some sympathy with that view (although I have experienced excellent leaders in education with even less or no such experience), so I thought it important early on in these reflective blogs to look back at me as a teacher.

I was a good teacher but not a great teacher.  I taught some great lessons and was particularly good at stretching bright kids and inspiring some kids who lacked motivation and were frankly bored by much of what happened in school.  However,  I wasn’t very good with kids with really challenging behaviour and I didn’t always know my subject as  thoroughly as I (or Mr Gove!) would have liked – this was particularly true of the history I taught where my knowledge of  dates  and key events is often hazy and was mugged up the night before ( Janice and I often refer to ourselves as ‘conceptual historians’ – we preferred to look at why something happened, how it changed people’s lives or how an event could be interpreted differently depending which side you were on – but maybe that was just an excuse for not knowing the date it happened!).  If the Ofsted of today had been in my lessons of 30+ years ago they’d have been critical of the limited differentiation and whilst some kids were making progress not all were and these kids often didn’t know what they needed to do to make that progress.  (Robert Hill in a recent blog noted how 20 years after the seminal work on assessment for learning, it is still a seriously underdeveloped skill in schools*).  I will also confess that there were times when I gave whole classes low level tasks just to keep them under a semblance of control. The other rather shocking thing, looking back, is that I had no training!! I entered teaching in what I believe was the last year where you could do this straight from a subject degree (in my case also a masters) without any teacher training or PGCE.  Unsurprisingly I had a lot to learn and made a lot of mistakes early on.

However, I was interested in how kids learn.  My experience then was that a number of secondary teachers wanted to teach their subject and paid less attention to the overall learning experience for the kids.  I later learnt that primary teachers were far more focused on the learning process.  (I was very proud recently when my daughter Jessie, who is training to be a primary teacher through Schools Direct, said she wasn’t particularly interested in teaching drama  - the subject of her degree - but rather in teaching children –including how to use drama to help children learn.)  I wanted to find ways to motivate young learners to want to learn.  I believed then and still do now that good teaching is about finding the approach that sparks that interest and providing the experiences which could lead directly, or via reflection, to new and powerful learning – we called it active and experiential learning then.   So I tried a range of strategies such as role play, paired and group work activities, hands on use of artefacts, educational visits, etc.  Also I got involved in real curriculum development (this was pre-National Curriculum where there was more scope for this), particularly in humanities, where we developed thematic programmes based around current events and areas relevant to the lives of our students with the aim of developing active citizens who understood history, geography and politics in context.

I also wanted to learn more myself.  So I went on courses, I volunteered to lead projects, I sought out opportunities to play a wider role in the school , I changed schools and I got promoted quickly to head of department (the journey was more complex than this because in the middle I did a PhD – more of that another time perhaps).   It was those things that brought me to the attention of the LEA adviser – by now I was teaching in Kirklees, West Yorkshire - and I was encouraged to apply for a job with the team. 

My career from then was outside the classroom.  I spent a great deal of time in schools and in classrooms but not primarily as a teacher.   Looking back I think this was wrong but the system worked that way.  To put it crudely, if you were seen as successful or innovative or ambitious (or all 3) and you were lucky/good enough to secure a post, then you were moved out of the classroom to be an advisory teacher or adviser.  Then, the most successful and ambitious of them went on to be chief advisers, assistant directors and, for a few of us, Directors of Education.  Later I became Chief Executive of the National Strategies – the national programme for raising standards in literacy and numeracy (as well as improving behaviour & attendance, assessment for learning, science, etc.). There I encountered other professionals who had been encouraged out of schools and out of LEAs because they had real expertise in the classroom and were now to develop this in others, getting further and further from the classroom in the process.

Of course another career path was into senior school management.  This had some similarities in providing a career path which took teachers further away from teaching and sometimes into management roles for which they had little training or expertise.  Although I should say that in my experience good senior leaders and headteachers never lost touch with the classroom - more of that in a future blog on school leadership.

Meanwhile, there were (and are) many really good teachers who simply wanted to carry on teaching and get better at that for themselves and their students.  I’ve met many amazing long-serving teachers who inspired and empowered generations of students. Until recently (and possible still) the career structure never really rewarded these people. 

So now, as I look back on my period as a teacher from the perspective of someone who ended up being a system leader, I think ‘if only I’d known then what I know now’   I learnt so much more about teaching and learning as I moved up through the system but I never had a chance to put into practice myself.  That suggests there is something wrong with the system and I’m pleased to say there are some signs of this changing.  In one of my last contributions to education I worked for the National College for School Leaders to help implement the Teaching Schools programme.  For those who don’t know about this it is similar to the idea of teaching hospitals but in the school sector.  Up to 500 schools are being designated as ‘Teaching Schools’ because they have demonstrated their excellence in teaching and learning.  They are then being used, in school partnerships, to support other schools and to provide in-service and initial teacher training.  There are inevitably some teething problems with this programme but, in principle at least, it provides the chance for excellent practitioners to help to support other schools and teachers whilst continuing to develop their own practice in the classroom and in schools. I certainly hope it proves a success.

So , these are a few reflections on my teaching and the system of which it was  a part.
I'd be interested to know if this strikes any chords, provokes any reactions/disagreements or generates any ideas  for how to improve things for future teachers and, most importantly, learners.



  1. Although we have talked about this, it seems right that I should post a comment too. I have certainly thought, many times, how much better a teacher I would be now...except of course that I'm not sure I would have the stamina to be in the classroom for all those hours, every day. I have considerable admiration for those friends of mine, who remained classroom teachers until retirement. J.

  2. I owe a tremendous debt to good teachers and remember them still - their voices and mannerisms staying with me although the faces have faded somewhat.
    Differing as people, but their approach was similar in all cases - if you wanted to learn they were there to stretch you to the utmost.
    I was lucky enough to be bright and interested so, as all classes were streamed, was never in a class with problem pupils ....I always had a secure, tranquil classroom experience.

    My mother's experience was different. She went to school in the twenties - at first in a massive class in the country where one female teacher coped with a wide range of ages and abilities.
    Her mother told her that the teacher in question was proud of the fact that she managed to instill basic maths, good handwriting and an ability to read in every child, nomatter how thick, but there was no question of stretching anyone - she did not have the time.
    I think she had one advantage then - there were obstructive boys, but stepping out of line brought reports not only to the parents but also to the school governors - the vicar and the better off farmers - and most pupils' fathers still worked the land.

    Friends went into teaching, mostly via teacher training colleges and all stayed classroom teachers in primary and junior schools for their whole career (some were teaching headmistresses)...there was an attitude that if you wanted to teach you stayed a teacher; you did not go off into admin or advisory roles. I think that while advisors were welcome in their earlier teaching years they were often regarded as a nuisance as my friends approached retirement!

    My only experience of teaching was cramming foreign students through their Bar exams in my early years when it took solicitors three years to pay didn't give me any incentive to take it up as a career - too egoistic, I think, to make a teacher.

    The only thing that I can contribute - as a learner - is that I responded best to a quiet classroom, a chance to work independently and have feedback.

    I would have hated role playing, found the odd times we were required to work in pairs a sheer frustration - in short, I was and am a non interactor - but teaching friends found these strategies successful in many cases.

    I'm most interested in your blog and look forward to learning more about what is, for me, the dark side of the educational moon.

  3. Thank you for taking the time to comment with some really interesting reflections from someone outside the profession - and sorry its taken so long to respond. I do think we, in education, are often a little too precious and not open to other views. It is always heartening to hear of people who have been inspired by their teachers. In my experience there are many good teachers but I suppose I was always driven to say how could we make all teachers better. Sadly I also came across some pretty poor teaching and often with the most vulnerable of pupils. Your reflections on what worked for you as a learner are fascinating. I became convinced that there are many different ways to learn and that most of us have our preferences. The challenge for the teacher is to be able to find what works best for each child. As a teacher I think i was reacting against the traditional model of the didactic teacher with passive learners. I probably went too far the other way and later in my career took a more balanced view. But by then I was out of the classroom and one of those rather annoying advisers! My hope and belief is that there is a better way to help all teachers continue to improve their practice because there are few more important things than to inspire the next generation to fulfilling lives and the chance to create a better world. I suspect you may find my future posts even more remote and esoteric but if you do persevere I'll be interested in any responses.