Learning notes from Basel – 2

One of the great things about our school partnership is that it isn’t just the students who benefit. Over the years I’ve been running this, I have got to know a fair number of Swiss teachers reasonably well, and it is always a great pleasure to catch up with them during the various visits, both professionally and personally. I will express publicly my gratitude for the hospitality they always show both to me and the various colleagues who accompany me.

While the students are busy, we have some time to talk teaching (and other things), and it is very interesting to compare notes in a more sustained way than is perhaps possible with a more ad-hoc type of exchange, where one may be less able to ‘blend in’. So one might see that the level of familiarity presents an opportunity for sustained interaction on professional development.

One of the things to emerge from discussions this time has been a degree of consensus about the highly personal nature of teaching, the need for each person who makes this journey to find their own solutions, and the limitations of formal structures in helping to do so. At the risk of the usual confirmation bias, I find it reassuring that some of my own reservations about the effects of high control on teachers are echoed elsewhere.While the Swiss system does not (yet) suffer from anything like the degree of top-down prescription of the English one, there are nonetheless some moves afoot in that general direction – and the reaction of teachers here seems to be pretty much the same as that in the U.K. Maybe this is simply human nature at work; the dislike of overt control seems universal – but perhaps that is telling us something that we could learn from and build on. What is repeatedly evident here, though, is the relatively high degree of autonomy that remains –  the management structure is very flat – and yet everyone seems to go about their work in a professional and conscientious way with very little direct oversight from management.

An interesting point to emerge has been an acceptance that teachers come in all shapes and sizes, and that attempting to impose a single template is neither fair to them nor does it expose students to a range of personality-types and teaching styles. One view expressed was that there are nonetheless perhaps four loose ‘types’ of teacher. This might seem to be heading in a dangerous direction, but for a few critical mitigating points. Firstly, this is merely a descriptive exercise, not a prescriptive one – it simply attempts to identify observed patterns rather than draw tight stipulations from them; secondly, four is a distinct improvement over the ONE that I sometimes feel is the perceived British ideal. (I have written before, for example, about the dominance of extrovert role-models in the U.K. – and also the apparently extrovert-biased centre-of-gravity of opinion about what characteristics are desirable in a teacher). One view expressed here  is  that a school actively benefits from a mix of personality-types and teaching styles – and that is something that might conceivably be managed at a whole-school level in terms of recruitment, and the breadth of approaches that are permitted or encouraged.

This might appear to be stating the bleeding obvious – but in fact it strikes me as subtly but importantly different from the monoculutral approach that seems to predominate in the U.K. Hopefully, more to come on this.

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