Teaching and learning is not sexy

Okay, this is a bit of rant but I do hope to outline a well thought out position that has been bugging me for years. How have we got to the point where teaching and learning has to be glamourized and politically positioned that if you say anything different than you are morally inept to contribute to the debate. Teaching and learning is not sexy – it’s plain, logical and rational which is suppose to develop people from novices to experts.

Teaching and Learning should challenge you to think differently so that you are able to interact with the world around. Instead it has turned into a hyped up, drugged induced, adrenaline junkie that is turning the classroom into an episode of “Pimp My Ride” in which underneath all the paint and shine is still a rusty worthless old car without an engine. And this is the very essence of what is wrong with teaching and learning – everybody wants the shiny stuff but it has no substance, instead we should focus on the engine which drives learning and for me that is knowledge. It’s not sexy and it won’t lead to a new generation of Teach Meets or “100 ways to improve teaching” books, it is about the concrete knowledge that one must know to move from a novice to an expert learner.

Currently, I believe that we are witnessing a system error. We use language such as “is the learning engaging”, “is the teacher taking risks to improve learning”, is there “challenge” in the lesson or are we meeting the needs of “all” of our students. We need to stop and have a really about what these actually mean in practice.

For instance, when we hear that the “learning is not engaging”. In whose opinion are the proxies of engagement decided – the student, teacher or observer? In most cases it is what can be observed – the teacher performance viewed through a subjective lense that most likely regards engagement as “not being boring” (regardless of what Ofsted says). So to plug the engagement hole an incredible amount of emphasis is placed on dressing learning up teaching and learning which can detract from actual learning of key knowledge. It may not be the sexiest thing on the market but knowledge is intrinsically engaging because it allows you to engage with the world, engage in creative opportunities, it allows you to make engaging connections and opens doors to engaging possibilities.

If we are truly in the game of giving all our students opportunities to shine then its ensuring that they have the knowledge to succeed. The growing gap between the top and bottom is not that schools like Eton are experts in bribing their students with the next best shiny thing but by instilling in them a culture which values the power of knowledge. I use the word bribe because many teachers feel that their lessons should entice students to learn and many may even feel guilty if the lesson was not lively enough. But this is a Type 1 error – false negative. We believe, unintentionally, that bells and whistles lessons improve learning. However, the stark reality is that more often than not students make no special additional gains. I know BUT it has worked for me for years and my grades are fantastic. Possibly or it may have been the hundred hours of intervention lesson leading up to the exam.

Take for an example an interesting conversation I had with a previous deputy headteacher. This was a few years back when raising boys achievement was at the top of the teaching and learning agenda. I sat through hours of insets selling me sparkling well-packaged strategies to improve the achievement of boys. We explored many avenues like “have you changed your reading material to be more boy friendly like using comics” or “included football players in your examples” – these were not stereotypical at all. Basically we were to appeal to what the boys would find engaging.

So there I sat as a new head of department with incredibly low boys’ GCSE results with a massive gender gap. I explained that there was a system error and that to improve boys’ achievement I was going to restructure the curriculum to focus on key knowledge and writing skills. I was asked which twinkling boys’ achievement strategy I was going to use to which I replied “none”. I reiterated that I’m changing the system to develop key knowledge and I am also ditching revision lessons and all intervention. Let’s just say that the meeting ended with a target on my back and now time for the but… BUT it was never discussed again – why? We were the only department that closed the gender gap and boys’ achievement went out the roof. Did I change the material? No. Did I add lots of fancy stuff? No. I only changed the system to develop what was most important – knowing the stuff!

I worry that the celebrisation of teaching and learning is sending the wrong message to students. One of the major issues I have with most current rewards systems is that they incentivise expected behaviours therefore sending a signal out to students that the task is so undesirable that we have to entice you to do it.

Are we spending too much time trying to find the perfect glittery reward for them to say “thanks for showing up – please like the lesson?” We may well just say “hey, this stuff is so not worth it but if you show up we will have a good time.” When in actuality the true reward that closes gaps and leads to good qualifications is knowledge.