Red-button-itis

She left quickly after the lesson; a brief word of thanks – but the look in her eyes was one of disappointment. Having encountered the ramblings of this blog, the young teacher watching my lesson was perhaps expecting to see pedagogical pyrotechnics, but I fear she was disappointed.

A recent formal observation of my teaching produced a similar result – very competent but not outstanding. There is a difference between having a clear understanding of what you’re trying to achieve (as I hopefully do) and actually delivering it on the day in the classroom. By mainstream measures, my classroom practice is sound but not remarkable.  I will say in my defence that my introverted self does react rather badly to knowing it is being watched, and my persona definitely changes in line with what I know as red-buttonitis – the way in which a piece of music you can play perfectly always goes wrong as soon as you press ‘Record’.

I’m not seeking any kind of public redress here, so what follows is solely an attempt to raise an important issue ‘in the round’; I anticipate nonetheless that it is one that will strike many chords…

Just what are we to do if the criteria against which we are judged fly in the face of what we genuinely believe (perhaps as a result of years of experience, and much reflection) to be actual good practice?

From what I can tell, the criteria for judging teaching, particularly on that good/outstanding boundary, are skewed heavily towards the amount of explicit direction being provided for moving pupils towards their predicted exam grades. In many cases, that seems to involve effectively teaching a lesson entirely and solely around how to score a high exam mark, with all other thinking, activities and content subordinated to that one outcome. I struggle to see that as good – let alone outstanding – education.

Now, I have no issue whatsoever with exams used properly (of which more another time), but I am not the only voice at present to be questioning whether exam results really are such a good proxy for effective learning after all, particularly now that they have in effect become a currency in their own right. I certainly have my doubts.

There is also a substantial body of research which suggests that overt emphasis on targets actually increases the risk of missing them. The reason is simple: effort and attention is diverted towards achieving the target per se, and away from the activity that will actually secure it, namely subject mastery – all the more so if you accept the thesis that says working memory will struggle to do both simultaneously. By aiming at the mark of education, the target shifts away from the thing itself.

It seems to be a common problem: I’ve had two highly-intelligent sixth formers in recent weeks alone telling me how the growing pressure is preying on their minds and actually impairing their ability to study – and they are by no means the first. And yet we are encouraged actually to trade on pressure, in the belief that it can only enhance work rates…

Furthermore, it seems to me that looking too hard for something actually makes it disappear – the more you actively crave happiness, the less you find it. That’s the problem with the red button: as soon as you raise the stakes you become hyper-aware, and that itself is enough to cause failure. Part of the process of Flow is sub-conscious; many musicians know all too well what happens when you start ‘watching’ yourself playing…

The problem with theories comes when they are used in an idealistic sense, as in stipulating how reality ‘ought’ to behave, often where empirical information is either not available or is too complex to make certainty easy. That is how we judge what we presume to be good teaching: so-called pragmatic ‘common sense’ suggests that giving people targets and driving them hard will lead to their doing more work and achieving better results; experience suggests that this is not (always) the case. Even where more work is being done, the quality will not always be such that it is genuinely productive.

The classroom is where many of these problems collide: from the ideology-driven models of what education ‘ought’ to be, through sometimes-misconceived notions of how learning works, to managerial requirements for accountability, teachers are caught between many conflicting demands. If the determinants of what a teacher does in the classroom are compliance with external demands or expectations, then this can easily compromise what he or she judges to be genuinely in the pupils’ interests.

When the expectations in a lesson observation are based on assumptions like these, it makes it difficult to explain why one is doing something different, no matter how well considered. Particularly with the older students, I prefer a more gradualist, reflective approach, one that emphasises the importance of subject mastery in achieving highly, rather than a somewhat cynical attempt to ‘game’ the exam.  I emphasise the need to internalise understanding, and explain that this process cannot normally take place quickly or under pressure; the dynamics of the mind see to that. While my students are aware of their targets, and make good progress towards them, I place little emphasis there, preferring instead to focus all our attention on the actual studying we are doing; if anything, I try to shield my students from the external pressures.

It’s probably not surprising that this doesn’t square well with official expectations. Preconceived judgments made of such lessons may mistake the actual effectiveness of the teaching, and misunderstand the strategies being used by the teacher.

In a culture that demands close accountability, criteria clearly are needed to identify good practice. But measuring things just for the sake of it, simply on the grounds that they are relatively easily identified is not good grounds for doing it. The constraint that this imposes is a good example of how such preconceptions can effectively narrow what is considered acceptable practice – and given the absence of visible alternatives, this then becomes self-perpetuating.

If correct, my view that teaching is a far more subtle activity than is now represented, can mean that things a teacher is doing that actually make a real long-term educational difference to pupils may not be readily visible to the short-term observer looking for exam-targeted progress. The more I read and reflect, the more I conclude that the natural companion of teaching and learning is psychology, not economics. A teacher working on that assumption will not be judged well by a system that thinks the opposite.

I’m content with being merely ‘good’ in official eyes; I have made conscious decisions not to do some of the things I am being told make an outstanding teacher because my reading of the psychology, and the feedback I receive from students, suggests that they may not be quite as outstanding as the system seems to think. I can easily live with that.

But it seems ironic that the system put in place to identify excellence may itself not be up to the job when it encounters something other than what it has – however mistakenly – already pre-ordained it is looking for.

That, I suspect, is also why my young colleague looked disappointed.

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3 thoughts on “Red-button-itis

  1. I feel my lessons are nothing much to look at. My explanations are clear, but not entertaining. My activities are extensive and precisely picked but not in any way fun. Even if you aren’t looking for group work or bells and whistles, there’s nothing obviously good about any of it. I can only justify my teaching by how much the kids learn over time. Nothing else.

  2. That’s the problem, isn’t it? I am told I need to ‘demonstrate’ good practice more clearly – in other words to spell it out to the observer. But that’s not what I’m there for – I’m more focused on the pupils and the subject. Learning is often a quiet activity – but unfortunately neither modern children nor, it seems, modern professionals are programmed to accept that.

    Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ sums it up for me – and I do occasionally flash the image up in front of classes when it seems appropriate.

    Many thanks for your comment.

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