In his book, Why Knowledge Matters, ED Hirsch Jr. writes that:
Teacher effectiveness is contextual
At first sight this seems completely commonsensical and, indeed it is in theory. It is just in practice where too many involved in education undermine this simple adage. Hirsch goes on to say:
We are blaming teachers because of our disappointments with the results of our reforms.
How many times do we hear that we have the best generation of teachers ever as yet another round of top down management or governmentally driven accountability measures undermine that very concept?
Hirsch sees that the disappointing result of reforms is more likely to be structural in nature rather than down to the characteristics and proclivities of teachers. He puts this in the following way:
Educational success is defined by what students learn – the received curriculum.
Hirsch sees that the fundamental problem with the curriculum is the replacement of content with the notion of skills that can be developed by any suitable content. Instead of blaming teachers, apart from those who are obviously incompetent, Hirsch thinks one should ‘blame the ideas’ if you have an incoherent curriculum it is extremely hard for a teacher to be effective. As he puts it, most succinctly:
A more coherent system makes teachers better individually and hugely better collectively.
A coherent curriculum also ensures that teachers can master the content they are teaching. If you know what you are doing sometime in advance of course you can ensure you know it better rather than being a slave to whatever is in the stock cupboard or on a resources webpage.
Which brings me to tech. Hirsch is not convinced that technology will transform teaching, especially in the primary school where:
Young students rely on an empathetic personal connection that not even our most advanced computer-adaptive programs can deliver.
He sees computers as supplemental and, sensibly, not transformative.
It is the scapegoating of teachers through an obsession with their quality that most exercises Hirsch. He points to the idea that teacher quality affects the quality of learning more than anything else as being problematic. He cites research by Dr. Russ Whitehurst as evidence that:
A better curriculum can range from being slightly to dramatically more effective than a better teacher.
The whole ‘value added’ teacher effectiveness programmes instituted through evaluations, incentives, and a few sticks to beat teachers with, might be better off looking at quality of curriculum than obsessing about targeting a teacher’s performance.
In the light of my previous post about Hirsch’s book it is heartening to see that he writes here:
My plea to teachers – for the sake of their students, and themselves, – is to rebel against the skills delusion; to insist on coherent and cumulative multiyear content; then cooperate and consult.
Collaborative curriculum planning is essential and this planning should take the long view. This is not to say that skills should not be taught just that they should not be in dominion over knowledge. A mainly skills focus would see, say, ‘collaboration’ being the central thing to be taught and any old content thrown at pupils sitting in groups harbouring under the illusion that they are learning about collaboration or, indeed, anything else.
I agree with Hirsch that great teaching relies on the coherence of the school system which supports it. Even the most gifted teacher struggles to teach if children have received no coherent grounding in subjects, aren’t supported by a safe environment in which to work and are constantly distracted by gimmicks which teachers are drawn to to try to enthuse children who are tired by having to struggle through months and years of incoherence desperate to find nuggets of wisdom by which to justify their investment of time.
In the UK we have been obsessed with outstanding lessons, outstanding schools, outstanding headteachers and have used various measures to try to put all this in play. As a result we often see layers of middle management tracking and targeting pupils and teachers, working them to the bone, observing them, judging them, tracking data, and adding layers of bureaucracy including performance management goals that are linked to potential pay as though these obsessions with personnel will change the system radically. There is evidence that not much has changed qualitatively in the last thirty years, and this is despite externally imposed National Curricula from 1988 onwards. Does this prove Hirsch wrong? Maybe, but I would argue there is an important difference, it is not just curriculum, it is how that curriculum is arrived at that makes the biggest difference. England has had a National curriculum, yes, but this has not been created through teachers’ professional collaboration. Arguably it has added to the problem by divorcing teachers from their central concern of curriculum design and how best to teach it. Instead teachers ignore or struggle to fathom any curriculum logic, are expected to follow it uncritically, and are left bereft expected instead to muck around with pedagogy as though how to teach can be divorced from what to teach.
Teachers understand what is working or not with a curriculum design if they get to work on creating and reviewing it. By putting curriculum design into the hands of the State or even in the hands of a pupils pursuing project work too early on in their education, we will forever see teachers struggling to do their jobs properly. When I work with schools I often point out that a coherent curriculum, one that is broad, academic and interesting will do much to ensure the teaching and the learning will be successful. I also emphasise that teaching is a team pursuit and each part of that team has a role to play in ensuring that the pupils can do their very best.
Instead of layers of management telling teachers what to do staff should have time to collaborate and the responsibility to come up with great curricula, this might be school based, MAT based or through other networks; collaboration is key but with a shared sense of purpose in the first instance to discipline and shape the approach to be taken, for me this is provided by the trivium.
Forget about outstanding teachers, it is the wrong obsession, obsess about an outstanding curriculum instead, one that is designed and reviewed by teachers who aren’t forever obsessing about their own performance but instead are thinking critically about what is being taught, when, and how they and their colleagues should go about teaching it.