Better and Better

At my school’s Open Evening last week, I noticed a couple staring intently at me. This resolved in an increasingly familiar way, as I had taught them both over twenty years ago; they were now returning with a child of their own. I even managed to dredge one of their names from the subconscious…

I enquired about their intervening years and was told a story of how many of their cohort had done the usual thing on leaving education and headed for ‘the money’ in The City; that many of them are not particularly happy but had done what parents and school had urged was important. In their own case, they had since made a significant change of direction to something they felt was more worthwhile. “People need to think what they really want from their lives”, they said. “The current system is just a conveyor belt”.

We need to ask something similar about education: what is it for? I have my own ideas which daily drive me strongly – but I’m not sure they are particularly congruent with what the system is currently set up to do.

I have just started reading John Tomsett’s book. I respect John: he seems to have achieved a balance between managerial responsibility, intellectual curiosity and compassion for those in his care, and it was his blog that led to my starting my own. Early on, he challenges teachers to be ‘ever better’. But as always, the more one thinks about this the more meaningless it seems: the issue is so huge and complex that it can seem overwhelming. It is one thing to talk aspirationally about success, excellence and constant improvement, but quite another to know what those things really mean.

I fear that such optimism derives from the Affluenza belief that more is better – one that doesn’t trouble itself with the hard questions about what More or Better actually mean. By such logic, the world 100m sprint record will eventually reduce to zero seconds. After all, we can all keep on improving indefinitely… can’t we? No we can’t. Human beings will never be able physically to be in two places at once. By the same logic, we will one day arrive at a state where every school has a 100% A* pass rate. And what will we do then? Besides, we will have very neatly rendered the whole purpose of qualifications redundant. There comes a point where we have to settle for good enough.

Maybe John will come to that, but very few of the answers I have ever encountered about the deep conundrums within education are really very satisfactory. It is encouraging to see that he is pluralistic – but there remains the thorny problem that to be helpful, we need to know what such wishes mean. No doubt conventional definitions would see those former pupils of mine as successes – requisite bits of paper leading to well-paid employment. And yet, in their own terms (which are surely the most valid) those people have discovered that the received wisdom was not right. Likewise, if we subscribe to the present view of the link between teaching and learning, then we, their teachers, delivered successful outcomes – except that the recipients themselves have come to find them wanting. The best I can hope for is that the education we provided helped them along that journey of self-realisation – but I doubt that is what the education system has in mind by way of ‘outcomes’.

One can argue that sooner or later, one must settle one’s objectives in order to achieve anything at all. One might further argue that those like me who constantly split hairs are being evasive or obstructive. Perhaps – but one must still ask whether setting inappropriate or unachievable objectives is really better than having none at all. Perhaps such things are better left undefined?

So I think we need answers to the following questions before the call for ‘ever better’ becomes plausible:

  1. In what way can/should teaching get ever better? What would such teaching look like compared to present practice? It implies changing the long-established basics of human interaction – but how? What definition of ‘better’ are we using here, and how will we know when it happens? My concern is that this can only be defined against some arbitrary preconception.
  2. Why do we want teaching to get better and better? What is actually wrong with it now, and is that anything we can control anyway? Do the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits?
  3. For whom does teaching need to get better? How will people benefit from such progress, compared to those who experience the present type? Teachers cannot know their real impact on their pupils so how can we even define what is better? What is the point in pinning so much on unknowable, even unachievable aims? I fear that here we are heading back to exam results as the arbiter – and as my former pupils demonstrated, such societal indicators of success are not foolproof. The only alternative is our own evaluation of our work – with all the problems of consensus and cognitive biases therein. Is this really about what we provide for children – or is it really for us? Or – Heaven forbid – just the ability of The System to account for itself better? It’s easy to see why these things preoccupy head teachers, but their reasons for doing so are not necessarily educationally sound.
  4. Why is all this dumped at the door of the individual teacher? Why is there so little recognition that the conditions within which teachers operate also need to get better and better? Given that most teachers are already working at or beyond capacity, this might even yield quicker returns. It all looks perilously like risk-displacement by an establishment intent on squeezing more and more from less and less. The fine words might mean more if those saying them were equally focused on addressing the limitations under which teachers work. Plenty of the mediocrity in the present system lies not with classroom practitioners, and why exactly does the need to be better exclude the workplace experiences and general sanity of teachers?

I can accept that we might want teaching to be better to optimise the life-chances of our pupils – if that is really what it does; I would like to think it also cultivates a more deliberative society. But I worry that it is being equated purely with narrow institutional definitions of success related as usual to exam passes and conformity of ambition rather than anything more genuinely liberating.

I also agree that professional pride should make us want to do the best job we can under the circumstances. But that is not the same as believing there are no limits, nor for accepting all the blame when it is otherwise. Life is a compromise. There is such a thing as ‘good enough’ – and it comes at the point where going further down one avenue in one’s life seriously damages the others.

My own teaching is always compromised, and always will be, by my obligations to my wife and family, by my own limitations and my reasonable personal needs. It is unrealistic to expect otherwise – certainly while little is being done to reconcile the external conflicts and constraints faced by teachers, whose actual effect is the opposite of making them better. This is the real irony: for all the imprecations, the things being demanded often push us in the opposite direction. If those who utter such words really mean them, the first thing they could do is get off teachers’ backs.

All the more so since the usual answer is that we have to work with what the system will allow. Well, that goes for expectations of teachers too.

If the education system is serious about wanting better teaching, then it can start by halving my teaching load so that I have adequate preparation and marking time to deliver the standards it says it wants. It can work harder to resolve the dog’s dinner of a timetable I have been given this year. It can continue by removing the utterly unproductive anxiety I experience due to ‘accountability’ and the unrealistic direct causality it thinks exists between teacher inputs and pupil outcomes. And it can recognise that my life, as everyone’s, is a compromise between conflicting demands of which my profession is but one. I don’t think this makes me a bad, uncommitted – or unusual – teacher.

It might also ask itself what it actually means by such phrases as ‘ever better’. What do they mean in practical terms? What pressures do they impose on those charged with – and held accountable for – delivering such indefinable ideals? Do we even know what better looks like? It is not as though there have never been false educational dawns in the past – and as my former pupils show, the present view of success is no more absolute than any other.

Such notions are best left as vague aspiration, a useful mechanism by which we self-monitor in order to maintain high professional standards. But beating ourselves up for accepting that there is such a thing as good enough is another matter entirely – particularly when those who question it clearly hold that view in the way they often treat us.


3 thoughts on “Better and Better

  1. Better, in what way? Better used to mean, ‘meets spec.’ It used to mean, ‘more reliable.’ It used to mean that you could successfully do something scarce and profit from it… now, better means more connected, more human, more vulnerable. Something we would miss if it were gone. We can always do better. (Paraphrase from Seth Godin).

    Better, why? Because otherwise we’ve sacrificed our humanity.

    Better, for whom? NOT for students! Please don’t get better in the way I’ve described above for the students. Do it for yourselves as teachers. Only for yourselves. Do it so fully that the benefits are felt by everyone you meet, including your students but please don’t begin with them. Begin with yourself.

    Why is all this dumped at the door of the individual teacher? Because people who feel they were shoe-horned into a certain direction, mandated by rules of a system, and are now unhappy with their lives need others to blame. they will do this until they’ve figured out how to take back and use their own compass. Don’t worry about them. They’ll be fine and they’ll be fine quicker the more they see others taking back their compasses. Teachers could be great examples of this – takes courage though.

    • Hello Leah, thanks for your comment.

      Unfortunately Better has taken on a life of its own. It can mean whatever you want it to mean – but most often it now means delivering more of what your superiors say they want, however unadvised or simplistic. Or else is the mindless cry of those who have never even stopped to think what it might actually mean.

      Better should be for everyone. I take your point, teachers should want to be as good as they can be for their own personal pride but that has to involve how well they teach their pupils. Regrettably the system cannot see the difference between this and how well the pupils learn.

      Teachers should (and mostly do) not need others to tell them about striving for excellence. But the education system is using this as a shorthand for demanding ever more while deflecting attention from the real problems, namely the practical constraints under which we all operate, particularly time. As I extensively wrote quite some time ago, the ‘wisdom’ that such conditions can never be changed is a fallacy – just look at what many other equivalent countries do.

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