Teaching: five things I wish I’d known fifteen years ago –Reflecting on what I know now that I wish I'd known then

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As I sat moderating a pupil panel who was tasked with asking candidates to headship the sort of awkward yet endearing questions only children can think of, one of the questions that caught my imagination was: if you could have a superpower, what would it be?

The most popular answers were invisibility and flying – a 50% split, in fact. This got me thinking frivolously. What would I choose? I first thought maybe teleportation – travelling instantaneously to any place on the planet does sound fabulous. But then I thought winding back time. Wouldn’t it be great if I could relive my teenage years with the knowledge and – hopefully – wisdom that I possess now as forty-something-year-old teacher, deputy head and father of two? If only I had applied myself better at school. If only I had been a better friend. If only I had known then what I know now. How would my life be different?

As I enter my 15th year in teaching, I wonder what the things are that I know and understand now that I could have done with knowing and understanding fifteen years ago. On reflection, I think this covers it:

1–Understanding how feedback works best

This would have had a massive impact on reducing my workload. There were times as I struggled trough another pile of exercise books when I wondered what on earth I had let myself in for with this teaching lark. A mixture of well-meaning but ultimately misguided school wide marking and feedback policies and my own poor understanding of how feedback works best ensured that I sat marking and pointlessly writing individual what-went-wells and even-better-ifs for students, most of whom would almost certainly never read my advice or act upon it in any meaningful way.

As I gained experienced and read further about the nature of feedback, I started to understand that good feedback begins with making your learning intentions and criteria for success clear and explicit from the outset; that feedback is best given in the run-up to summative assessments (not after them); that teachers are better of focusing on how feedback is received, rather than how it is given; that feedback should challenge learners with a roadmap to achievable changes; and that alternative, effective ways to feedback do exist that don’t require teachers to be sentenced to evening after evening of writing purposeless personalised piffle.

Earlier this year I summarised what makes good feedback in this article.

Recommended read

Embedded Formative Assessment, by Dylan Wiliam

“In this book Dylan Wiliam argues that quality of teachers is the single most important factor in the education system. He outlines the many possible ways in which we could seek to develop the practice of serving teachers and concludes that of these, formative assessment has the biggest impact on student outcomes. […] Formative assessment functions to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted and used by teachers and learners to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better than the decisions they would have made in the absence of that evidence.”

2–Keeping up with research and educational debates

Imagine staff, heads of department or senior leadership meetings in which everyone is well-informed about teaching and learning practice and the most compelling anecdote doesn’t win the day. Imagine professional discussions in which professional judgement is informed by the latest findings from educational research and cognitive psychology. Imagine professional development that does not hang on whether the school can afford to send you on one over-priced, tangentially relevant training course per annum.

Keeping up with research and educational debates can be dismissed as too time-consuming, or as adding to an already excessive teacher workload. But is it really more time consuming than being browbeaten into applying pointless departmental marking and feedback policies without being able to challenge them constructively with facts and well-informed opinion with a view to effecting appropriate change? More time consuming than being made to teach conforming to past or present orthodoxies without being able to offer or discuss well-informed alternatives? Isn’t being knowledgeable about what works well in our profession and what doesn’t the best antidote to daft school policies and thus, to a significant extent, excessive workload? I’ll leave you to think about those questions.

Last November I wrote about the five evidence-informed strategies I have found most useful in my classroom.

Recommended read

What Does This Look Like In The Classroom: Bridging The Gap Between Research And Practice, by Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson

“Educators around the world are uniting behind the need for the profession to have access to more high-quality research and evidence to do their job more effectively. But every year thousands of research papers are published, some of which contradict each other. How can busy teachers know which research is worth investing time in reading and understanding? […] In this thorough, enlightening and comprehensive book, Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson ask 18 of today’s leading educational thinkers to distill the most up-to-date research into effective classroom practice in 10 of the most important areas of teaching. The result is a fascinating manual that will benefit every single teacher in every single school, in all four corners of the globe.”

3–Not reinventing the wheel

Devising yet another worksheet. Creating the seventh bespoke interactive whiteboard flip chart in a week. Painstakingly finessing the mother of all powerpoints, senseless elaborate transitions and all. These are all things that I frequently found myself doing in my early years of teaching and yet, given the amount of resources available departmentally and externally from specialist publishers, there was really no need whatsoever to spend all my non-contact time at school and time away from my wife and children at home doing something that I now understand to be pretty pointless. That is not to say that these things aren’t sometimes necessary, required or indeed ‘best practice’ – but rather that it’s about finding the right balance.

We all know the perfectionist teacher who dismisses all textbooks and existing published resources as unsuitable for not meeting their incredibly high standards and insists on creating their own texts and resources for KS3, 4 and 5 from scratch instead. If you know them, please tell them to stop and spend their time and effort doing something more productive and more likely to result in improved learning outcomes for students. This profession doesn’t need more martyrs, it needs teachers who can focus on being great at teaching, not on constantly reinventing the wheel.

Last year I wrote about how publishers could improve the quality of published resources, including textbooks, by applying key principles from cognitive science.

Recommended read

Why textbooks count, by Tim Oates

“High quality textbooks are not antithetical to high quality pedagogy – they are supportive of sensitive and effective approaches to high attainment, high equity and high enjoyment of learning. A failure to recognise this may be impeding improvement of education […].”

4–Planning (sequences of) lessons with learning in mind

For years I was a slave to the tyranny of individual lesson plans that focused more on what I, the teacher, would be doing, minute by minute, than what students would be doing and thinking over time. I bitterly regret that the charade that is the all students will…/most students will…/ some students will… style lesson plan was imposed on me and I did not know better than to spend hours upon hours essentially writing fiction in Word document text boxes.

Only later I realised that planning is best done at departmental level, pooling resources and collaborating; that planning what students will be doing and thinking is more important than choreographing the teaching; that detailed planning makes more sense on the scale of a half-term and not as individual lessons; and that the most important factor in planning sequences of lessons is to build in the highest expectations of all students, for a rising tide lifts all boats.

Last year I wrote about how the introduction of linear courses presented teachers with a great opportunity to review and adapt their schemes of work and programmes of study with learning as well as teaching in mind.

Book recommendation

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Brown, Roediger and Mcdaniel

“Memory plays a central role in our ability to carry out complex cognitive tasks, such as applying knowledge to problems never before encountered and drawing inferences from facts already known. New insights into how memory is encoded, consolidated, and later retrieved have led to a better understanding of how we learn. […] Many common study habits and practice routines turn out to be counterproductive. Underlining and highlighting, rereading, cramming, and single-minded repetition of new skills create the illusion of mastery, but gains fade quickly. More complex and durable learning come from self-testing, introducing certain difficulties in practice, waiting to re-study new material until a little forgetting has set in, and interleaving the practice of one skill or topic with another.”

5–Using technology appropriately and effectively

I remember distinctively being told during my PGCE that technology in the classroom elicited engagement and thus it was to be recommended. But engagement then ment pacifying a class with an online game or a YouTube video. Many teachers quite rightly saw through the thin vail of edutainment and decided that technology as a gimmick added no value to learning. They were, of course, right.

But it doesn’t have to be so. It may not surprise the rational mind that in between the happy-clappy technology evangelism and the pseudointellectual doom-mongering about excessive screen time lies the notion that technology can be used well as well as badly, and that the appropriate use of technology in some circumstances may well contribute to improving teaching and learning.

Two years ago, I wrote in more detail about how technology, when used appropriately, can support the processes involved in successful teaching and learning.

Book recommendation

Bloomsbury CPD Library: Using Technology in the Classroom, by, well, me!

“The provision of technology focused CPD is often based on the whizz and bang approach, promoting the use of eye-catching digital tools and equipment in classrooms without due consideration to pedagogical factors and, crucially, the individual school’s context. [The book] provides research-informed strategies to help improve teaching and learning by using technology effectively. It focuses on the need to train staff in the skills required to choose the right technology to have lasting impact and combines not only information about how technology can best work in the classroom, but also what makes great teaching and how technology can complement this. The goal of the book is to help teachers integrate technology seamlessly into daily practice so that technology is used almost reflexively, effectively and without fuss.”

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  1. Excellent post, Jose – thoughtful, balanced and comprehensive.

    Just watch “I bitterly regret…” though – we all learn from experience, and in some ways the world of education has moved on over the last 15 years in ways we couldn’t necessarily have anticipated, eg the popularity and prevalence of educational research. I think the teacher we are today is based on the teacher we were when we started and every year since then – the mistakes and false assumptions as well as the successes. And even when we believed in things we now know to be fallacious, or spent time on things we now know to be unproductive, we were usually motivated by a strong desire to do the best job we could!

    And a Happy New Year! Hope 2018 is an excellent year for you.

Your feedback and comments are very welcome