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The term fidelity has very much become a contemporary educational buzz word. It can be found in documents from the DfE’s ITT Market Review of Teacher Education to MAT central policies. It’s expected in the delivery of training for the Early Career Framework (ECF) and it is central to many NPQ leadership qualifications. It stems from a central tenet – that the implementation of policy, materials and processes needs to happen as it was intended. I will be clear here that this blog pertains to teaching and learning issues, not issues regarding safeguarding. Safeguarding is an important area and it is intrinsic to good safeguarding that we all follow processes correctly and reliably. This blog refers to communities of practice and how teaching and learning takes place.

We have already seen early rumblings of discontent around fidelity. ECF tutors delivering materials to Early Career Teachers (ECTs) going off-script was very much banned. ECTs should be taught the slides as they were written by the in-house slide authors goes the decree. However, Teacher Tapp’s report into the ECF makes for uncomfortable reading with 65% of primary and 49% of secondary ECTs saying the training doesn’t meet individual teachers’ needs. A clue to the solution for all this is in a little reported statistic that only 6% of ECTs felt that their conversations and interactions with mentors needed to change. Conversations and interactions good – rigidity of scripts and materials not so good.

Lave and Wenger (1991) are well known for their ideas about communities of practice (CoP). It’s quite a straightforward premise – schools, MATs, universities and so forth are communities of practice. The identity of the organisation is made up of interactions between members – called ‘legitimate peripheral participation’. During each participation, each member learns from the other and they also reaffirm their sense of identity within the organisation. Every time a teacher talks to another teacher in the CoP this happens. And your level of mastery within the organisation also counts. Those who have been in the organisation for a long time not only are masters, but are responsible for actions which are more central to the functioning of the community. Further, those who are masters broker the principles and ideas of the community to newcomers and thus ensure the community’s identity is reproduced within the interactions of the newcomers There’s an exchange followed by a reaffirmation (or rejection) of the identity that those in the community hold. It goes further, every time you adapt a resource or produce a resource for the community you undertake a form of reification for the CoP. Imagine, the school is embracing a knowledge rich approach and you produce a booklet which reflects this value within its design. What if the school then buys in another curriculum that replaces your booklet? What if the values that you embedded into your booklet are now not present and yet you are asked to show fidelity to this new ‘master’ author who you have never met and whose work you feel is inferior to your own in delivering good quality teaching to your pupils? You can quickly see how such situations can become quite toxic for those who are used to having interactions within a community. Should you have too many toxic interactions or no interactions at all then you begin to feel disaffected and wish to leave the community.

There are times when new entrants to the community bring new ideas. They may be a senior leader or a regular teacher, but bring challenge to the established ideas of the CoP. Occasional challenge to the CoP’s way of doing things from those within the CoP, whether teacher or senior leader, can be sometimes helpful and is seen, in sociological terms, as an important part of the process of keeping an CoP up to date. Allowing some autonomy and debate is a healthy part of a functioning CoP.

Yet, fidelity is useful. Reification of the principles of an organisation through actions and artefacts is part of the identity of a CoP and the collective vision of a school and its leadership. However, as Wenger warns – too much reification is not so helpful. Too much fidelity can achieve the opposite effect.

Achieving a balance of levels in participation and reification of the CoP is what leaders need to set out to achieve. Excess reification can be an issue. An example would be non-negotiables. ‘All lessons must start with five questions retrieving information from a lesson a year ago, 6 months ago, one month ago and last lesson regardless of the lesson’ (my italics) would be a good example of where adaptation has been removed. Even more, the retrieval might be handed to teachers in workbooks or pre-written slides with an instruction not to adapt. There are a number of issues with that non-negotiable not least from schema theory as well as whether the retrieval of that knowledge (for study purposes) is best placed during valuable teacher time at the start of a lesson on another area of schema. An experienced and knowledgeable teacher should be trusted with the freedom to adapt and, further, also to broker that adaptation to other members of the community.

The downside of removing teacher control is highlighted in a brand new study by Collie and Carol (2023). As teacher control is reduced, teacher workload begins to have a pernicious effect on teachers’ desire to stay in the profession. Their study of 400 teachers demonstrated that there are three profiles: teachers with job control, teachers with some job control and some with vastly reduced job control. They found, “Teachers in the maladaptive and midway profiles also reported greater emotional exhaustion and intentions to quit. The reverse was true for teachers in adaptive profiles ā€“ they reported the lowest levels of emotional exhaustion and were least likely to want to quit their job” (Collie and Carol writing in Teacher Magazine).

We should also consider that the majority of teachers will hold a L7 qualification in teacher education in the form of a PGCE or PGDE and some will have taken that further and completed an MA. The QAA L7 descriptors set out carefully what such qualified people are able to do: “demonstrate self-direction and originality…act autonomously in planning and implementing tasks…initiative…decision-making in complex and unpredictable situations…” (QAA, 2014).

The problem comes when you prevent such a deeply qualified person from undertaking any of those things in the name of fidelity. Such qualities are valued across the country in sectors other than teaching and so if we don’t take advantage of those qualities, if we don’t enable teachers to participate in their institution and become part of the institution and help broker newcomers to the institution, then they are more likely to leave that school, that MAT and perhaps our profession. The world of work outside of teaching will happily consume potential employees with that level of qualifications, knowledge and skill set in today’s competitive market.

I am fortunate that I work with a wide range of schools and trusts who really value their staff and involve them in the fabric of the school and MAT community. These trusts and their schools are excellent placements for trainees teachers and I am proud to work with them. But they have got the balance of fidelity right – they work hard as a community to decide what they want fidelity to and they allow staff to adapt learning and teaching using their expert knowledge evidenced by their time earned qualifications (which are a proxy for the above characteristics). It’s important we celebrate those trusts and schools as well as point out the weaknesses in insisting on too much fidelity. The cost is considerable if we consider the loss of those excellent and well qualified teachers who end up leaving our MATs and schools; our university teacher education departments and SCITTs; and without whom the teaching profession would be very much worse off.

You can follow Dr James Shea on twitter at @englishspecial

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