In a recent Twitter poll, I asked whether it is ‘unreasonable for school leaders to expect staff to read edu-books/research outside of school hours.’ Luckily, the majority (53%) of the 477 respondents said no.
Let’s talk about the 47%.
At the very least, in this country right now, there are 224 teachers in this country who consider it unreasonable for school leaders to expect their fellow professionals to better themselves as practitioners, by reading around the profession that they have chosen to pursue. Even without thinking of the 33,600 students under the care of the professionals who hold this view, this is inexcusable.
In a thread that followed the poll, @adamboxer1 explained that his father is a doctor of 40 years who still reads the British Medical Journal, as well as others, in his spare time. Adam went on to make the point that practitioners of jobs such as ours-jobs that play a vital role in the proper function of society- should make a concerted effort to be the very best they can be. And I agree with him.
The fact is, the school day, doesn’t give us time to read research and peruse pedagogical texts. Not with all that data to input. What’s more, often those in charge of schools prefer to spend what CPD time is available, discussing data, behaviour management, and resilience. The fervent determination and effort in getting the kids to read, is rarely, if ever, applied to staff. And so, if we want to be better, we have to accept that reading about pedagogy, reading about our subjects, reading about how the brain works, is something that must be done in our own time. It just must.
What concerns me is that I don’t think I’d be stretching it to say that many of the teachers who think that reading is an unnecessary encumbrance on one’s leisure time, see no problem spending hours on end marking books during evenings and weekends. This is despite the fact that a recent report by the EEF has shown that ‘the quality of evidence focused specifically on written marking is low’ and that ‘few large-scale, robust studies, such as randomised controlled trials, have looked at marking’. Furthermore, of those studies that have focused on marking, ‘very few have identified evidence on long-term outcomes.’ I’d argue, that the endless hours spent marking, would be better spent reading. And here’s why.
The Sutton Trust’s report, What Makes Great Teaching outlines 6 components of great teaching. Number one on the list is Pedagogical (Content) Knowledge:
The most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to students’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.
In fact, despite the seemingly obvious opening sentence the wider research picture is a little more complex. Actually, research by Baumer et al has shown that the effect of basic Content Knowledge-that is, teachers’ knowledge of the subject they are trained to teach-has close to zero effect on the quality of teaching. (Of course, from an English teachers’ perspective this cannot be the case. Knowledge of the content of the books you teach is essential to effective teaching of those books). However, as the second half of the above statement from the Sutton Trust states, Baumer has shown that 30% of variation in teacher quality is attributable to variation in teachers’ levels of pedagogical content knowledge. In other words, teachers who know more about how kids learn, how the brain retains information, and how best to avoid-and rectify- subject misconceptions, are better than those who don’t. So, teachers need to make a decision: do they want to rely on the two days of pedagogy based CPD they get a year and hope that’s enough for the kids under their care? Or do they want to actively seek out books that, like rich garners, can provide them with the full-ripened grain of pedagogical content knowledge which is available, right now, for them to access whenever they want.
We also need to consider the move towards a linear system of assessment centred around terminal exams. Currently, all students of English Literature and will be examined on the following:
- 1 x 19th Century novel
- Any two of 18 poems from the 18th-21st Century
- 1 x post-1945 text
- 1 x Shakespeare play
Students will be expected to know all of these texts-and memorise quotations from them-because unlike in previous years (WJEC aside), the exams will be closed-book. That is, students will not have the texts in the exams with them. This means, that to achieve the top grades, students will need to commit to memory a wide array of quotations from twenty one different literary works spanning three hundred years. And this is just one subject among many. A Twitter poll that is ongoing, 81% of respondents who have recently trained as teachers have not been trained on cognition and how the memory works. This is appalling. There are adults sending students into exams where they will be expected to remember lots of information off the top of their heads, without even a basic understanding of working and long-term memory; with no idea about the spacing effect and the testing effect; with no idea about chunking and retrieval practice. If you are someone who does not know what these terms refer to, are you willing to pass it off as SLT’s responsibility? ‘It’s their job to give me some CPD on this stuff.’ Because, right now, there are teachers all over the land, who aren’t being given CPD on this stuff, but they know it because they’ve sought it out, in their own time and of their own accord. They’ve bought books and they’ve read them.
Reading books builds empathy. Studies such as the this one have shown that reading improves ‘a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling.’ In his excellent blog on teacher-student relationships, Carl Hendrick cites research that suggests that teachers who share common ground with students could potentially get better results than teachers who don’t. In his excellent, ‘Reading Reconsidered’, Doug Lemov makes note of the fact that the brain doesn’t discriminate between actual lived experiences and read experiences. That is, reading about an experience or subject, in terms of how the brain processes the ‘memory’ of that experience or subject, is no different from having actually experienced it yourself. So, unless you want to spend your evenings playing Minecraft, trampolining, or bottle-flipping, reading about these things (although flippin’ dull) could help you to better understand those students you teach who are doing these things (not necessarily at the same time) day-in, day-out. And teachers who understand their pupils- and reading is a gateway to better understanding, remember-could get better results than those who don’t.
Of course, school leaders have a responsibility to make things easier for us. As I’ve said before, SLT should abolish onerous marking policies. I even think theirs a case for making flawed Marking practices- such as spending inordinate amounts of time ticking and flicking through books- something to looked at- and dealt with-quite seriously.
And yet, we have a responsibility too.
Doctors do it. Lawyers do it. So why not us? Without us- and forgive me for blowing our collectively owned, albeit metaphorical, brass instrument here- there’d be no doctors and there’d be no lawyers. It is our duty to better ourselves and it is our duty to do so because if we ain’t getting time (and we’re not by the way), we need to make time. We need to make time for the students who will one day become the doctors that cure cancer and the lawyers who fight for the needy.