Archive for October, 2019

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Teacher autonomy is the most difficult issue in the education debate. Part 2

October 27, 2019

When should teachers not be allowed to do their own thing?

I recently wrote a blogpost which summed up most of what I’d previously said about teacher autonomy, which emphasised how teachers should not be obstructed by their managers. When I had finished, I thought about what needed to be added and realised that I could probably continue writing any number of additional circumstances in which it was best to leave teachers alone. However, the tricky part of this issue, for me, is the extent to which teachers should have their freedom limited and be told what to do or how to teach.

The most obvious constraints are those that arise from a teacher’s duties. Teachers are contractually obliged to keep their students safe, turn up to teach them and so on. In matters of pedagogy and curriculum, practices that are so flawed that they amount to a failure to do the job of teaching effectively should be stopped. While I’ve no time for performance related pay, student outcomes that show a marked failure to learn are a justification for finding out what a teacher is doing, and if the cause of those outcomes is clear, to ask them to stop doing it. If a lack of assessment, or a lack of time, means there is no evidence of student outcomes, managers may need to intervene where the teaching methods themselves seem likely to be ineffective. However, it is probably worth noticing that managers are not necessarily good judges of this, and intervention in the absence of evidence of student outcomes should only take place where this is good reason to believe teaching is ineffective, i.e. where methods are obviously flawed, or where there is solid research evidence to show how something should be taught (e.g. use of systematic phonics for early reading) rather than where a manager simply has a different opinion to a teacher. Even then, it would help if both evaluation of student outcomes and judgements about ineffective teaching methods were open to debate.

The limited nature of this grounds for constraining teachers, and all the arguments for autonomy in my previous post, might suggest that I see little role for leaders in shaping what teachers do outside of extreme cases. However, while I do favour a lot of autonomy for teachers, this is not the end of the story. In schools, leadership is necessary to establish what is normal. By this, I don’t mean that there should be a list of “non-negotiables” that are forced on every teacher. I mean there should be default behaviours that would be expected from staff (and students) whenever there is no specific and explicit reason to do something different.

So while I don’t think managers should say, “All desks should be in rows.”. I think it’s fine for managers to say, “All desks should be in rows unless there is a specific reason for them not to be.” While I don’t think managers should say, “No groupwork”, I think it’s fine for managers to say, “You must have a reason for doing groupwork”. While I don’t think managers should say, “All classrooms should be silent”, I think it’s fine for managers to say, “Only let students talk in lessons if there is a reason for them to be talking”. It is fine for school leaders to set out what is normal in their school in this way. INSET and CPD should be based around how best to do things in that normal way. All staff will be informed of what the default way to do things is. School rules and routines will be based on enabling teachers to teach in the way that is normal for the school.

These defaults should be more of a help to teachers than an imposition; they should make it easier to make decisions about what to do in the absence of strong reasons either way and they should ensure that students have a clearer idea of what to expect from lesson to lesson. If anything, I would argue that school leaders should be more explicit about these defaults than they might otherwise be. It is absolutely fine to teach all staff some shared routines (“This is a good way to give out books.”; “This is a good way to dismiss your class.”; “This is a good way to assess learning.”; “This is a good thing to remind students of when they are using worksheets.”) and shared language to describe classroom practice (“Do nows”; “Check for understanding”, “Modelling”). This kind of detail does not have to be enforced on staff, just so long as it is well known enough to teachers that they will find these ways of doing things to be obvious options to take on board, and to use when needed. So, for instance, there is more than one way to ask a class to stop and pay attention, but if a teacher is torn between saying “SLANT” or “Pens down, eyes on me” or “Excuse me”, they should know which option is normal for the school.

This gives rise to the greatest necessary limit to teacher autonomy: teachers should not be doing things that give rise to new defaults for the school. You may allow your own class to talk when you say so, but you shouldn’t give the impression that it is generally okay for students to chat in lessons, unless that is the chosen default for the school. You may allow students to hand their books in at the end of every lesson, but you shouldn’t give them the expectation that they don’t need a school bag, unless that is the chosen default for the school. You may show a video relevant to what you are teaching; you may not given the impression that you just watch movies in the last lesson of term, unless that is the default for the school. Most of all, you might not have quite the same rules in a drama lesson as in a maths lesson, but you don’t get to pick and choose which school rules are to be enforced and which are to be ignored for an easy life.

School leaders make a huge difference, not because they can control everything that happens in every classroom, but because they set the culture in the school. I am all for teacher autonomy, but teachers should not have the freedom to create a different culture for the school, particularly not if it’s one of lower expectations.

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