Proof – the final frontier for teachers

Is it time to return to the cult of the teacher?

It’s the first thing you get told when you come into teaching: what works with one class doesn’t necessarily work with another.

A trainee teacher might lament after a lesson (that did not go so well) where they had repeated the plan from another class and their sage mentor would say – it might have worked quite well with 9x, but 9y are a different class.

This is not about learning styles, which has been substantially criticised. This is about knowing the individuals in your classes. A good teacher is always thinking about ‘maximum learning’. Don’t mistake this for, ‘entertainment’, ‘engagement’ or any other glib insult. We are not ‘making our subject interesting’ – our subject is interesting. But we are fine tuning the lesson to the unique community of learners that have been assembled to experience the subject with us in the form of lessons.

If we are really honest this is one of the biggest issues with the accountability system. A school’s results and standards of teaching don’t go up and down so dramatically as measured from year to year as the data likes to report. What happens is that one cohort is very different to another in terms of collated outcomes. A senior manager prays that a specific cohort goes through the system out of sync with the ofsted inspection cycle of a school. God help any school if ofsted turns up shortly after their one dodgy cohort’s variable results. This is really an amplified version of what Becky Allen refers to as ‘noise’ – the variables that can affect outcomes and attempts to measure progress using what is actually non-comparable data. A school could be comparing one good cohort with one not so good cohort and be deemed terrible or amazing depending on which came first. I’m afraid Progress 8 has done nothing to prevent this from happening as others have already said. The off-rolling we have seen is a direct result of people trying to manage this ‘noise’ and its impact on accountability measures. Indeed, having read Becky Allen’s blogs on closing the gap you begin to think the issue with the RCTs of the EEF is that they need to make stronger their awareness of ‘noise’ and how schools cater for this when exploring ideas that emerge from the RCTs. Rather than use the RCTs as eternal proof that setting, technology or any other intervention ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’, one should see the output from these RCTs as a source of information and evidence that could be useful when looking at one’s own specific cohorts (and remember, every year group is different).

All too often, we end up looking for the silver bullet. We try to remove the very thing which makes us human from the school system – our variability. Once all variability is removed then we can finally say that our resource or pedagogy is proven to work with all. Yet the inherent variables and other influential attributes all mean we cannot prove that something ‘works’ for everyone and every school.  That’s why social science can never lose its subjectivity or its lack of ability to resolutely prove things in the way that medicine likes to do. It’s therefore why you can’t ‘prove’ anything in education. But you can get the next best thing: a teacher.

A teacher, through forming a deep relationship with a class, can use their knowledge, intuition and teaching to maximise the outcomes for the individuals in that class. Those outcomes will be many, varied and not always measured or be measurable. Those outcomes will be assessment outcomes, aspirations, values, passions, inspiration, personal growth and so forth. Some will be quantified and some will be qualitative. The teacher will subjectively work out which methods, from their vast list of methods and evidence, are best for this group of individuals. It’s an amazing feat of human engineering and it’s a time-honoured ability: to be a truly amazing teacher for a class. And it’s the closest thing we will get to proving something works in education. You want a silver bullet? There it is: the teacher.

Are you a PGCE mentor or PGCE trainee? Read on…

woman writing on dry erase board
Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

Every year, around this time, a PGCE trainee meets their PGCE mentor. And this year, more than ever, I’ve seen on Twitter  ‘Anyone got some advice? I’m about to become a mentor/start teacher education.’

You’ll be pleased to know the whole world has been training teachers and using mentoring for some time so you won’t have to reinvent the wheel. That said, get that starting point wrong and you’ll all be playing catch up until the time comes for the mentor and trainee to part – in some cases with the trainee leaving the profession forever.

The first thing to think about is that very first meeting. We have undertaken a two year action research project into this ‘first meeting’, finding out just what mentors and trainees think are important questions for that first meeting. Some of them are quite obvious

What boundaries do we need to set for communicating with each other? Are you okay with phone/email/text? When? When not? How quick does my response need to be?
Do you want the opportunity to speak to me briefly every day about what you’re doing or are you happy to keep it to the weekly mentor meeting?

Some mentors are quite laissez-faire – a trainee can text them on a Sunday evening whereas others would be appalled. Best establish these things quite quickly.

You know how organised we have to be in teaching right? Well, best get it out there quickly if organisation isn’t someone’s forte. And whilst we don’t just mean the trainees, do ask them what their time management is like.

How are you at managing your time – is this something you feel you need to develop?

Some of the questions are about getting straight to the point so people aren’t trying to engineer conversations around to crucial topics so they can finally ask the question that they really need to ask.

What information do you think you need from me to start this placement off as well as you can? What do you expect of me throughout the placement?
What would you describe as your strengths and weaknesses and how do you think they might help or hinder you on placement?

Some of the questions our mentors came up with were quite clever. This one for example:

If you truly had no idea what to do for a lesson, but had to send something in, would you send in something which was in your opinion not very good or would you write in and say you could not do the task?

And what the mentors said was – I can’t give you feedback on empty air. Just because you don’t think an idea is of a good quality, doesn’t mean others will. Send it in.

There was also a tacit acceptance that trainees sometimes arrive to a second placement having had quite a specific first placement experience or previous school experience.

How were you mentored/inducted on your previous placement/employment?  Tell me about what went well and what could have been better.

I haven’t got time to go through all the questions from the research here, but I think I’ll finish with an awareness that there are different pedagogical models that are present in other schools. All approaches come with limitations and recognising that a trainee is a teacher in development not a teacher being inducted into a school as an employee is a good thing to do. E.g. just because a mentor doesn’t agree with group work or direct instruction doesn’t mean a trainee has to follow suit.

What kind of pedagogical approaches and techniques have you had the opportunity to experiment with previously?  Is there a particular pedagogical approach that you would like to develop in this placement?

That first meeting then – it crucial to getting everything out and ensuring that lines of enquiry, boundaries, fixed ideas, prior knowledge, expectations and so forth are all explored so that you can move forward from that point as a team.