At my start-of-term briefing to RGS teaching colleagues only a couple of weeks ago, I talked about my experiences at the Education Reform Summit held in London in July.
Only now, perhaps, do I dare say what I felt about it. To be honest, at first I was bewildered. We listened to Michael Gove and other politicians and policymakers, as well as a number of heads who would fall into the camp of hard-line reformists following the Gove model. I confess that they were describing a world I don’t recognise: come to that, I’m not sure I want to be in it.
It was, as ever, data driven: intolerant of human weakness; actually intolerant of any weakness; driven and driving; lacking in humanity. If that was a kind of club that I’d joined by being invited to this highly selective summit, I was ready to go along with Sam Goldwyn and say “include me out!”
Just as I was wondering whether to go home early, though, the tone and climate changed. The professionals took over: they were teachers, classroom practitioners – okay, quite experienced and senior people in their schools, perhaps, but still people with a foot in the classroom door, much more than I have nowadays, for example.
They talked about how teachers are using modern media to share ideas, indeed to share best practice. There was a revolution underway, after all, but it was quite different from the Gove-driven reform agenda. Inevitably some parts of the summit involved us working in groups around tables: and again, it was professionals bringing their experience and good practice to the table and sharing them that characterised every such session.
We reached the end of the day, but I sensed it didn’t end there. So many Twitter addresses had been swapped that the dialogue continued. And, as I approach the first anniversary of my joining Twitter, I now understand what a powerful tool it is for the profession to develop itself without pressure or interference from policymakers. Indeed, technology allows the profession to subvert that pressure: it’s very democratic!
I wonder how many times I’ve used the expression, when writing about the latest crazy imposition or initiative by government, that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing. Teachers have been portrayed by hostile government as loonies often enough: but if they’re the sort of people I’ve been mixing with both physically and digitally in the last few months, I hope they carry on taking over!
Thus it was with confidence and enthusiasm that I told my colleagues about this revolution, urging them similarly to take control in our school of developing teaching strategies, sharing best practice, taking pride and taking risks. They are doing it: it’s an exciting time for us. I just want them to do more and more: as I said, I’m happy just to put my feet up in my office and leave them to do it all! (Sadly, I don’t think I’m quite at that point yet).
In my less confident moments, I sometimes wonder whether I’m just making it up. I know there’s a risk that I can behave like those politicians who meet a chap in the pub demanding that something be done about a particular problem: they convince themselves that they’ve heard the vox pop, that they know the will of the people, and turn it into government policy.
But it seems I am right. Last Friday’s Times Educational Supplement contained an editorial by my friend, Deputy Editor Ed Dorrell. He was reporting on last weekend’s ResearchED conference. I’d have liked to go to that, but I left it too late to book (hooray! How nice to see a sell-out), and no one took me up on my offer to speak at it (boo!)
ResearchED is the brainchild of Tom Bennett, a teacher in the East End of London who has been very much a trailblazer in using Twitter to spread ideas and good practice. The mantra of ResearchED is that we should stop being pushed hither and thither in education by the latest fad or idea that comes out of government or anywhere else. We should only adopt in schools strategies and approaches that are properly ResearchED. Which is why it comes back to the professional revolution, people who know what works (in other words, the teachers) tying in or contributing to research, sharing it, comparing notes, adopting, adapting and improving it. It really is an attractive vision of the profession behaving professionally and developing itself.
There’s no doubt that it’s happening. It’s working. In his editorial, Ed Dorrell was enthusiastic, and rightly so. He issued two timely warnings, though. There is a danger that, as any movement gathers momentum, it starts to organise itself, become formalised. There’s even a risk that, instead of being a reaction against government’s heavy-handedness, it could become in some way the driving force and then become in its own way heavy-handed. So the first danger brings about the second.
Ed said he was delighted to see that it hasn’t happened yet: he enjoyed witnessing two blogger-researchers who hold very different views chatting amicably over coffee. That was, he said, a positive and important sign. He’s right. There’s always a danger that, when we get too certain, we become intolerant of other views.
ResearchED founder Tom Bennett himself fell into that trap, I felt, in the TES of two weeks ago where he lambasted group work. It doesn’t teach anything, he said. It’s inefficient in terms of learning, takes ages to achieve something that could be done in five minutes with the teacher setting it out clearly, is a waste of time – and he won’t be doing it anymore.
Well, as a means of imparting a defined body of knowledge or skills, group work isn’t the most efficient. But it teaches a great many other skills, while there’s no doubt that the voyage of exploratory learning is also a powerful if sometimes time-consuming one for children. It seemed to me that Tom was falling precisely into the trap that Ed outlined. Of course there’s a place for group work and the various attributes and skills it develops. For one thing, it is a powerful antidote to the constant demand (fuelled by the exam system) from certain types of learners – prevalent in our kind of school, as it happens – to be spoon-fed: “just tell us what to learn and we’ll learn it”.
So I’m all for ResearchED and its agenda. I desperately want the profession to promote and spread things that work and reject those that don’t. And I wish we could find more time and opportunity to encourage and enable teachers to read the useful research and reflect on it, so hard to do in such busy lives.
But let’s not create a new orthodoxy. Open minds, a willingness to experiment and innovate and a greater-than-ever readiness to share what works is what’s going to lead the profession forward.
It’s certainly happening: let’s not spoil it