Sometimes, it takes an external set of eyes to show you what you already knew, but weren’t aware of it. Bill Bryson did it with his brilliant analysis of all things British in his book ‘Notes From A Small Island’ , and today I experienced the educational equivalent.
I just spent a brilliant afternoon listening to three expert teachers from the High Tech High schools in San Diego, feeding back on their two weeks getting their heads around the English secondary school system. It was full of those moments of insights which, as a project leader, you crave but rarely get, and still more of those moments when you say to yourself ‘why the hell do we put up with this?’
Pam, Bobby and Stacey (many thanks to you all) have experienced the highs and lows of the life of an English teacher this past two weeks. From the emotional tailspin that staff are thrown into when OFSTED (our English schools inspectorate) announce they’ll be coming in two days, to the joy of hearing teachers drinking, having fun and yet providing their own D-I-Y professional development at a TeachMeet event (TeachMeet is teacher training for the net generation, professional development 2.0, and if you’re a teacher reading this, get on Twitter, and find out when your next regional event is – you’ll love it).
There has been much for these practitioners to take back to California: great examples of student/staff co-construction, learning to learn meta-cognition, and not least the way in which our mega-schools are organised. But it was the stuff that baffled them which made me wish that we’d had the entire staff of the Department for Education present at the de-brief. Here’s just a handful of their observations:
Why do English schools place such low value on student engagement and making learning fun? Why do we make so explicit things like targets, student tracking, lesson objectives, assessment criteria? (As one of them commented, it’s a great way of saying to students ‘school sucks…’). Why do we develop innovative engaging pedagogies which allow students to both engage and achieve at pre-examination levels (Key Stage 3 in England) to suddenly abandon them for rote memorisation and drilling-and-skilling once they’re in Year 10? Most frequently heard: why do we make our timetables (schedules) so complicated that some teachers may only see their students for an hour every fortnight one term, yet three times a week the next? Why are students shunted around from one classroom to another every hour? And how can students really get to know their teacher if they’re seeing 15 or 16 of them in any two week period (because of their small scale, project-base and breadth of ‘subject expertise’, a student in HTH will have no more than 6 teachers in any semester)?
And, worst of all, why do teachers allow the timetable to prevent them from doing the kinds of learning they know works, by using the schedule as an excuse not to do it? Shouldn’t the timetable serve the needs of the learning and not the other way around? And why does it all have to be so ridiculously complicated?
I tried to explain the pressures of the dreaded ‘accountability framework’, the pressures schools are under because of league tables, inspection regimes and the rest of it. But, in the end, perhaps it’s just that as a profession, we have become far too compliant,far too defensive, far too obsessed with external pressures (not least those generated by ‘pushy parents’) and, as a result, we’ve become far too risk averse – and far too divorced from our own intuition. Because it’s often easier to explain why we can’t do things than to imagine doing them differently.
One of High Tech High’s maxim’s is ‘complex structures lead to simple learning; simple structures lead to complex learning’. That’s why they have virtually no school rules, and some fairly basic sets of desired skills to be acquired by learners. And yet, with no selection (other than by lottery), high numbers of students with English as a second language (they’re just up the road from the Mexican border) and a firm commitment to project-based learning, they have achieved astonishing results: 100% of students finishing high schools and 90%+ of student going to college.
They’ve been able to share some of their fantastic planning protocols, rubrics and tools, that demonstrate their rigour, with our Learning Futures schools, along with the truly impressive outputs of student work. But, underneath it all, there are some guiding principles which seem to defy successive UK governments’ fascination with ‘deliverology’. Firstly, they believe that if you’re not having fun whilst teaching, you’re in the wrong job; second, teachers should be judged by the quality of student work produced; third, do unto others (and that includes students) as you’d have them do to you and fourth, any fool can create complexity – it takes a real genius to keep it simple.
Maybe it’s just my naivety to believe that our politicians and policy-makers (and that includes Arne Duncan, along with Michael Gove) might one day, as Ken Robinson says, get back to the real basics – not standards and structures, but students and teachers, each reinforcing a mutual love of learning. But days like today, remind me that we, as teachers and administrators, are not totally impotent either.