Never mind the breadth – feel the quality.

I’m sure that Geoff Barton is a thoroughly decent man and deeply committed to his work as head teacher. I came across his latest blog post here. I want to cut to one short phrase within it, which gets used far too often, but which means nothing.

“… the quality of teaching will not have improved.”

As he is referring to time under the current Secretary of State, Mr. Barton is presumably discussing the state of the nation as a whole. Just what is this thing, “The quality of teaching”? There is no such thing in any national, measurable sense, such that we can ever tell whether it has improved or not. I’m afraid this is more smoke and mirrors, one of the worst abuses of the bean-counter’s charter, and it pops up all over the place – so I’m not having a personal dig at Mr. Barton.

That this phrase is used so carelessly is just more evidence of the extent to which educational management-think (and indeed teacher-think) has modelled itself on the mindset of the commercial product. It assumes that what we do for many hours each day is no different from manufacturing BMWs – or Trabants. And it is not in the least bit helpful for cultivating – or managing – the real, infinitely unpredictable educational process.

We are not talking about changing the sugar content in British cans of Coke here.

All there are, are lessons, lessons and more lessons. Some of them achieve more or less what the teacher intended, some of them don’t. Even that doesn’t mean that the latter are inevitably useless.

Depending on their understanding of education, some teachers are more concerned by this than others; they all use different techniques to move their classes in their desired direction, some more premeditated than others, some more flexible and heuristic than others. Different things work for different people; who is to say what ‘quality’ teaching is? Apart from anything else, there exists no single success indicator to measure, even if we could.

In some cases, the pupils behave well, and in others they don’t. In some cases, they ‘learn a lot’ (always assuming we can define that) and in other cases they don’t. Some children will be inspired, others won’t. How on earth do you get a generalised national figure – or even vague benchmark – out of that?

I’m not saying here that it is not possible to observe patterns; it is. Some teaching strategies are more predictable and reliable than others, but none is watertight. Almost nothing guarantees a successful lesson – however you define it – there are too many variables at work as I discussed recently here.

Apart from anything else, even if we could agree criteria, there is no way of  knowing what ‘successful’ means in any lasting, cognitive (let alone societal or personal-developmental) sense – unless you go back to the bean-counters’ approach of measuring ‘targets met’.

The worst abuse of this is when educational systems ignore such natural uncertainty in order to justify their own existence. There is no worse way of doing this than talking about the (national) quality of teaching as though it is akin to the increasing amount of fluoride in the water. It is deeply misleading for all concerned.

I am no wishy-washy ultra-relativist – but I have spent too long trying to pin down (and in some cases being lambasted for failing to hit) the undefinable. It’s pointless to try, and it would be a matter of professional wisdom not weakness to concede as much.

The sooner we get it into our collective heads that this is all part of the Great Myth of Pedagogy, as e=mc2andallthat discusses here, the fallacy of magical thinking – in the service of claiming for the educational establishment powers to deliver that it simply does not have, the freer we will each be to get on with teaching as well as we possibly can.

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5 thoughts on “Never mind the breadth – feel the quality.

  1. You’re absolutely right in your first sentence: I am a thoroughly decent man. You also express something that I thought when I first re-read the blog online: you’re right that it’s simplistic to view teaching as some kind of measurable commodity. I didn’t mean that, but that’s how it reads. I actually meant that for all the reforming zeal, MG hasn’t really created a culture whereby teaching is going to improve as a result of all that reform. If it happens, it’s for other reasons, I’d suggest. Hope that makes some sense. GB

    • Many thanks for your reassurance about that! I think you are probably right about MG creating more heat than light, though I also fear that much of the opposition is actually knee-jerk ideological rather than anything more considered. And I fully agree with your views on the importance of the Arts in education as one fully engaged in such activities himself. Another thing that is difficult to quantify.

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