I’ve just finished Teacher Proof and enjoyed Tom Bennett’s writing and his points. Indeed, I recommend it to any teacher, especially those about to start out on classroom adventures for the first time. The book aligns with my belief that teachers should never stop learning and engage with educational research (by which I mean reading critically). I enjoyed Tom’s style of debunking many of the educational fashions of recent (ish) years, and it’s made me reflect upon my own practice, what and how I write on this blog and my own approach.
As a former Fasttrack teacher I can identify with Tom’s experience of NLP (I have to admit to reading the course bumph and writing it off. I chose to go on a project management thing instead). As someone who looked after whole school CPD, I can also attest to the power of Headteachers and Inset. You know the deal, the whole school gives over a whole day to a certain strategy. A speaker is invited in, you aren’t allowed to sit with your friends and then you have to implement said plan, without any real follow up. I remember during my second year of teaching. We were in the hall to watch De Bono himself deliver his Thinking Hats talk on a raised platform using an overhead projector and acetate that rolled. I did then as I try to do now, take the best parts and adapt them. Then used them when appropriate. I still do. I didn't use them wholesale without thought. I never do after an in-school training day. The main reason for this is that you know all of those new strategies will be used with every class for the next two weeks. The children will tire of them and then it’s forgotten, never to be revisited. The only exception to this being behaviour training where the adoption of a unified response did improve behaviour as expectations matched across the school.
As a leader of CPD I’ve tried to counter this effect by letting teachers choose their workshops (after all, they usually know what they need to work on) and talk about what they have found out. Nothing should be presented as the answer.
I’ve always maintained that there isn’t a magic tool that makes teaching and learning wonderful. It just isn’t out there. Young people get to learn when skilful, well supported and experienced teachers chose the right blend of activities and strategies for the class in front of them. I’ll use any (legal) means and method to improve learning. What does that mean?, I hear you cry. Ultimately, better examination grades. From experience (and I agree with Tom’s assertion that ‘Experience trumps theory every time’ p59), using a wide range of bits and pieces works best. My teaching has been an evolution: slowly adapting as I get wiser; train more trainees; get more experienced and watch more lessons. I think of educational research in the same light as dietary advice: it’s makes you think but shouldn’t dictate how you live your life.
As someone who delivers CPD, I’ve always been aware that I could come across as presenting the way to teach which is why I always start with the following:
- This is just a snapshot. Teaching can’t be like this all the time. I’d never see the sun and die if it were.
- All I can tell you are stories of stuff that has happened. Some of it worked well, others not so much. It doesn’t mean that it will work in your classroom.
- Teaching is all about gathering and maintaining a toolbox of strategies, methods and approaches. My actual toolbox has two sections. The lift out section has the tools that I use most, or can be adapted to work in many ways. Underneath is a jumble of other tools that I need and can call upon. The skill is in selecting the right tool. If I buy a new tool, it’s added to the box. Sometimes, I I rush out to buy some new tools as I’m impatient and need to get a job done, like replacing my bike’s chain. When I get back home, I realise that I already own a set of torque wrenches. This is just like INSET – ‘new’ strategies come along that have been around for a while, they just need refreshing and some time taken to plan for every class.
Engaging critically with educational studies and research and INSET is important, as long as it informs a debate or makes you reflect on what you’re already doing. It doesn’t mean that what you’re already doing is wrong. I’ve always seen the role of a teacher as someone who subverts the curriculum, guidance, latest tools for the good of the students. The skill of our profession is in using such tools appropriately and being informed and professional enough to say no.
Staying informed and adopting a drip-feed approach to CPD is best. That way you can argue your way out of almost anything.