Jessica Ringrose and Victoria Showunmi.
Many school and university teachers around the world have been asking how to discuss the 2016 USA elections with children, young people and students in the aftermath of what has been called the most divisive election in American history.
Wednesday night, in the wake of the election results, we were presented with the timely opportunity to re-tune our planned MA lecture in Sociology of Education on “Racism and Black Feminist Intersectionality” into a discussion about the global significance of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States. Since the lecture was on Black Feminism, we would naturally be addressing the issues of racism and misogyny and also the deep class divisions that became powerful focal points throughout the battle between (more…)
Jessica Ringrose and Victoria Showunmi.
What do we really know about teaching and teachers in England’s schools? What is teaching in England really like by comparison with other jurisdictions? Too often, discussions about teacher effectiveness, teacher appraisal, professional development and job satisfaction appear to be based on a sample of about one: massive over-generalisation from the specific instance.
So the publication of the OECD TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey) 2013 data for England is important. This is not the first TALIS – that was in 2008 – but the first to include England. TALIS covers lower secondary teachers in 34 countries, and the OECD reports its findings over 440 pages of dense text and charts. The English report, itself 200 pages long, was written by an IOE team led by John Micklewright and provides the most extensive data we have on teachers and teaching. The sample is still not enormous – 154 schools and 2,496 lower secondary teachers – but the response rate was very high (75% compared to just 17% in the DFE Teachers’ Workload Diary) and, importantly, this is the first survey to cover both state and independent schools.
Micklewright and his team deliberately do not come to an overall conclusion on what TALIS tells us about the state of secondary teaching in England. They try to tease out what the data say about different issues, framed as a set of questions – but it is for the reader to draw conclusions.
The result is fascinating: a treasure trove of data and graphs, which allow us to make informed comparisons across the OECD. Politicians and the press always ransack reports like this for the simple answer which tells us that “if only” we were more like [fill in name of organization or country] then everything would be different. But the TALIS report is more complex and realistic. There are differences between countries, but they evade easy generalization.
Take teacher workload: TALIS confirms that teachers in England work hard: a working week of 46 hours, one of the highest in TALIS and 9 hours more than the average. In only three of the sub-sample of high performing jurisdictions is the figure higher: Alberta (48 hours), Singapore (48 hours) and Japan (54 hours). But teaching time in England, at 20 hours, is close to the international average. This gap between working hours and teaching is a puzzle because English schools have significantly more teaching assistants and administrative staff than across the OECD. But it may be a result of high levels of autonomy enjoyed by English schools; examination of the TALIS data bears this out, suggesting that the difference is because English teachers spend slightly more time on each aspect of their work: planning, marking, and administration.
Or take classroom management. Across all OECD countries, a quarter of teachers report losing a third or more of time to classroom disruption. But in most respects England is at or better than the TALIS average. 21% of teachers in England say they have to wait for students to quieten down at the start of lessons, but this is below the median for all countries (27%) and below all high performing jurisdictions except Japan. Teachers in independent schools report better behavior than teachers in maintained schools or academies, but of course independent schools teach a more socially selective population.
Micklewright’s team look carefully at variations between schools, and conclude that classroom climate is correlated with the make-up of the school intake, and, more, of individual classes. And, there is evidence that disciplinary environment improves in smaller classes – of course, smaller classes are preponderantly found in independent schools. Even so, two thirds of teachers report a positive classroom climate. It’s in these classes that teachers are likely to use a variety of approaches including group work, extended investigation and information technologies. Teachers are more likely to teach like this if they participate in professional development involving individual and collaborative research, visits to other schools or teacher networks. Or consider findings on continuing professional development. Overall, there is exceptionally high engagement with CPD in England: 92% report some CPD in the last twelve months, but the number of hours spent on training is relatively low: high participation, low volume. And for all the rhetoric that continuing professional development is not simply about ‘going on a course’, courses and workshops account for the vast majority of CPD; just 45% of English teachers reported CPD involving ‘working with a group of colleagues’.
There are some insights into CPD quality, which tell us that CPD on the most challenging aspects of teaching is the least effective. Across TALIS, just 13% reported that training on teaching in multi-cultural or multi-lingual settings had an impact on their teaching; the figure was 8% in England. Figures on SEN training are similar.
But there are reasons to be positive about what CPD can do: across the OECD as a whole 66% of teachers thought that subject-focused CPD had an impact, and 50% thought that CPD focused on pedagogy had an impact. The figures varied between countries. Both were lower in England, and higher in the nine highest performing jurisdictions – but before that becomes a policy line, we note that 73% of teachers in the eight lowest performing jurisdictions also reported a positive impact from CPD in their subject! Teachers in schools with higher levels of deprivation were more positive about the impact of CPD. Taken as whole, the OECD claim a correlation between regular collaborative professional learning activities and teachers feeling more confident about their capabilities.
TALIS suggests that England has a near universal system of teacher appraisal. Compared to the OECD as a whole, Micklewright’s team characterizes England as a “high feedback country”: 99% of teachers report receiving feedback. But schools are not making the most of it. Only about half of teachers (and this is a consistent figure across the OECD) felt that feedback enhanced efficacy.
It’s on self-efficacy – teachers’ beliefs about their ability to influence learning – that the English report concludes. There are variations between teachers’ sense of their effectiveness. But variation within schools is much greater than that between schools. Teams and departments matter. There is no difference between independent and state-funded schools, nor between affluent and deprived schools. Instead, the IOE team conclude that self-efficacy is highest when teachers report strong professional relationships, but they conclude that causality is unclear: it may be that teachers with high self-efficacy build good relationships, or, by working in teams with good relationships teachers become more confident.
It’s this puzzle, like so many others, which the report for England is so good at illuminating. It offers immense detail, but never at the expense of the underlying key questions. It challenges practice and policy on the basis of rigorous analysis, which is what really good research should do. It is balanced between strengths and weaknesses and clear-headed about international comparisons. It will be reduced, and perhaps traduced, in press headlines, but deserves serious research and policy attention on how we can best shape the teaching profession.
For over 30 years a central plank in the reform programme for education of all governments has been the strategy of identifying and disseminating ‘best practice’. There’s only one thing wrong with this approach: there’s no such thing, but the FE and Skills sector is saturated with the term.
I first began to doubt the strategy when watching with student teachers a video of an ‘outstanding’ teacher working with a small group of well motivated and impeccably behaved pupils in a sun-lit classroom. Were the students inspired by the ‘best practice’ of Miss Newly Qualified Teacher of the Year? On the contrary, they either pointed out that they were teaching not 12 middle-class but 32 working-class students from a sink estate, some of whom were refugees with next to no English. Or they worried that they would never be able to match the smooth, practised performance of the more experienced teacher.
In other words, the two contexts were so different that little learning was transferred or the expertise of the “outstanding” teacher was so far above their current level of performance that they felt intimidated. My attempt to spread ‘best practice’ was more like a con-trick played by the unimaginative on the unsuspecting, particularly because the students were left to work out for themselves how to transfer the ‘best practice’ of the video to their own classrooms.
Further reflection led me to the central weakness with the strategy: it builds up psychological resistance in those at the receiving end, because they are being told implicitly that their practice is poor or inadequate. If their practice was thought good or outstanding, why are they being expected to adopt someone else’s ‘best practice’? Almost certainly they think their practice is pretty effective; that’s why they are using it.
Besides, there are questions that need to be asked of all those pushing ‘best practice’. Who says it is? On what grounds? Based on what criteria? Would another observer looking at the same teaching episode agree that it was the best? Is this ‘best practice’ equally effective with all age groups and all subject areas? What are the distinctions between ‘good’, ‘best’ and ‘excellent’ practice, terms which are used interchangeably? These questions are not answered; we‘re expected to take ‘best practice’ on authority, without evidence. There are no sure-fire, student-proof recipes for the complex, ambiguous and varied problems in teaching.
Luckily, there is a well tested alternative – JPD – where tutors jointly (J) share their practice (P) in order to develop (D) it. In an atmosphere of mutual trust and joint exploration, they explain to each other their successes and struggles in teaching their subject. They then move on to observing and evaluating each other’s classroom practices in a supportive atmosphere which encourages the creativity of both partners.
JPD restores trust in the professional judgement of teachers because it does not undercut their current practice, as happens with the strategy of ‘best practice’, but rather it seeks to enhance it by opening it up to discussion with supportive colleagues. Both partners in the exchange play the roles of observer and observed, of being the originator and receiver of practical advice; and both roles are accorded equal status. This equality in the relationships between tutors in JPD goes a long way to explain why it is proving to be far more effective than ‘best practice’.
This is one of the main themes that I explore in my new book – Beyond Bulimic Learning: Improving teaching in FE – which is published this month by the Institute of Education Press. The rest of the book is devoted to showing how some FE and sixth form colleges are responding to Ofsted making teaching and learning the number one priority by introducing what the research claims are the most effective interventions, while dropping the least effective.
I shall explore here in a little detail two examples. First, I show how to harness the potential power of feedback; I say ‘potential’ because too often feedback has negative effects and some types of feedback are more powerful than others. Many students are dissatisfied with the quality of the feedback they receive – eg what is meant by “Be more analytic”? Tutors too are frustrated by students who prefer to receive praise rather than being challenged to think more deeply. The research emphatically suggests that tutors use the strong definition of feedback, namely, if it doesn’t change students’ behaviour or thinking, it isn’t feedback.
Another chapter shows how Socratic questioning can change the culture of learning in classrooms and workshops. It’s a means of challenging students’ thinking in a non-threatening way; and it treats challenges from students as constructive contributions to dialogue.
Other chapters show how social media can motivate students; combine psychological and economic factors to explain students’ motivation; and they assess the impact of ‘flipped’ learning, peer teaching and peer assessment.
The final chapter addresses the question: “can we transform classrooms and colleges without first transforming the role of the state?” My answer is that we can improve the quality of teaching and learning and make our colleges more like learning communities even within the current constraints of government policy and declining resources.