Thursday, 7 September 2017

Teach Like a Thespian



My love of theatre can probably be traced back to Year 5 when I played Macbeth in front of a whole-school audience, the most dramatic moment coming as I thrusted my plastic devil’s fork into James Forrester’s bollocks. The painful scream which echoed around the dinner/ PE/ assembly hall marked not only the death of King Duncan but also my short-lived aspirations of becoming a thespian.  

Fast-forward 15 years (circa 2005)...

I didn’t take the decision to become a teacher lightly. Before starting Initial Teacher Training I spent a couple of years as a youth worker and school-based learning mentor, dipping my toe in the water before making the pedagogical plunge. It was during these years that I realised teaching was indeed for me. There are, I guess, tenuous similarities between acting and teaching; the classroom a stage, the lesson a performance and the pupils making up the audience. Though, admittedly, I am yet to receive a standing ovation for my endeavours. That aside, teaching is also very different from acting. For example, you have to respond in real-time to your audience, there is a great deal of ad-libbing and there is certainly no curtain call. Teaching is so much more than a script to be delivered; it involves human interaction which, from my experience, rarely goes as plans. Which is one of the many joys of teaching. 

And yet, there are some people in education who argue in favour of fully-scripted lessons. Yes, like one would expect an actor to deliver. For clarification, scripted lessons are not merely detailed lesson plans but rather step-by-step guides for content delivery. Below is an example from Bridge International Academies (BIA) whose schools educational model has been heavily criticised for using unqualified teachers and unsanitary working conditions. What's more worrying is that Lord Nash, the schools minister, recently invited representatives of BIA for talks regarding this low-cost model of teaching. 




Supporters would argue that they are a way of 'teacher-proofing' lessons and ensure that learning becomes more efficient and effective. However, I believe scripted lessons go against what teaching is (an art/ craft) and actually reduces learning to a robotic transmission of knowledge from adult to child. Which, in light of a some reductive educational discourse, should come as little surprise. For me, scripted lessons are but another step towards the automation of teaching. Something I believe is worth fighting against. 

Although scripted lessons are still largely uncommon in the United Kingdom, there has been an increase in scripted curricula in the States following the introduction of the No Child Left Behind agenda, resulting in a huge growth in commercialised lessons and programmes. Worryingly, as we have seen with the introduction of Chartered Schools and No Excuses behaviour policies, what happens in schools in America often finds its way across the pond.  In fact, a recent Secret Teacher article highlighted how scripted lessons had been introduced to a MAT with experienced teachers being told to 'stick to the script'. This concerns me for number of reasons:
  1. Scripted lessons de-professionalises teaching. You don’t need a qualified teacher to deliver a script. You just need someone who can read from a piece of paper or a tablet. Not only that but they are an attack on practitioner creativity and autonomy. It eliminates the possibilities of using dialogic teaching which has been proven to enhance learning.  
  2. Children deserve better. I say that as both a teacher and a parent. I want my children to be taught by someone who has a passion for teaching and learning and not some sort of iTeacher reading mechanically from a pre-paid script.
  3. This is yet another example of inviting market forces into the educational landscape. There is a lot of money to be made out of scripted curricula. I’ve written quite an extensive piece on how neoliberalism permeates every aspect of educational policy and practice in the UK, this is another nail in the coffin for public education. 

Yes, I know these views are shaped by my own biases, however, some of the research around scripted lessons hardly fills one with a great deal of confidence. In a ten year study of effective reading instruction, Allington (2002) concluded that there are no ‘proven’ scripted programmes and actually the most effective schools are those that invested time and money into developing teachers’ expertise.

Dresser (2012, p. 83) found that scripted learning programmes actually had both a negative impact on teachers and students and concluded that a 'better option to scripted instruction is to prepare teachers with the necessary knowledge, dispositions and skills to succeed'. Yes, just as Allington (2002) discovered, schools need to train teachers properly if they are to have a positive impact on children’s learning. Dresser (2012, p. 82) goes on to suggest that 'scripted programs keep education and learning at a superficial level in that they narrow opportunities for teachers and students to be innovative'. It’s fine if you don’t believe innovation to be important in the learning process but I actually think it’s at the heart of meaningful education. Dresser (2012,) concludes by arguing that the drive for standardized curricula has left many children unprepared and teachers disillusioned about their profession.

Similarly, Parks and Bridges-Rhodes (2012) have highlighted  concerns on the impact of a scripted literacy programme on a teacher's instructional practices in maths. Such as, 'the act of following a script may encourage teachers to interact in more automatic and less thoughtful ways with their children' (2012, p. 321). Moreover, 'the curriculum’s highly structured scripts made it less likely that the teacher would engage in innovative practices in mathematics, which reduced opportunities for children in the classroom to reason and problem solve mathematically' (2012, p. 308). Again, scripted lesson limit creativity, innovation and can actually detrimental to pupils’ learning. Thanks, but no thanks.

Finally, if we take a look at BIA's model, which seems to be favoured by the likes of Lord Nash. In a recent study (Riep and Machacek, 2016), the academy chain came under serious criticism of their scripted lessons with pedagogy being rendered automated, computerised and mechanised. Furthermore, it has been argued that scripted curricula in BIA schools is controlling, rigid and 'disables creativity and innovativeness' (Riep and Machacek, 2016p, p. 29). And also doesn't require qualified and experienced teachers. 

'Exemplary teaching is not a regurgitation of a common script but is responsive to children's needs' (Allington, 2002, p. 474).  The art and craft of teaching is something that is developed over time through experimentation, reflection and adaptation. By suggesting  it can be replaced by a script is not only insulting to teachers but potentially detrimental to children's learning. 

References:

Allington, R. (2002). 'What I've Learned about Effective Reading Instruction From a Decade of Studying Exemplary Elementary Classroom Teachers', Phi Delta Kappa, Vol. 83, No. 10, pp. 740 - 747.

Dresser, R. (2012). 'The Impact of Scripted Literacy Instruction on Teachers and Students', Issues in Teacher Education, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 71 - 87.

Parks, A. and Bridges-Rhoads, S. (2012). Overly Scripted: Exploring the Impact of a Scripted Literacy Curriculum on a Preschool Teacher's Instructional Practices in Mathematics, Journal of Research in Childhood Education, Vol. 26, No. 3, pp. 308-324.

Riep, C. and Machacek, M. (2016). Schooling the Poor Profitably; The innovations and deprivations of Bridge International Academies in Uganda. Education International. 
https://www.ei-ie.org/media_gallery/DOC_Final_28sept.pdf


Sunday, 16 July 2017

Teachers as Active Researchers...


Yesterday at the Chartered College's #ThirdSpace event there was a lively debate around the motion of 'teachers should also be active researchers'. The panel debated key principles, problems and the potential impact of practitioner research. The audience were also engaged asking challenging questions and raising pertinent points. For my part, I tried to moderate a parallel Twitter debate through #debatED. Again, there were some excellent contributions from tweeters with opinion being broadly split down the middle. I didn't get the chance to join in either of the debates so I thought I'd share my thoughts here...

Within education, there appears to be a growing sense that teachers should be engaged with research and their classroom practice should be informed by 'what works'. However, this needs to be approached with a degree of caution. Just because the EEF toolkit suggests that feedback can result in eight months progress is not to say that children will make these gains if you suddenly overhaul how you respond to pupils' work. As was noted on numerous occasions yesterday, context is very important in educational research - what works, where and for whom is a better maxim to adopt. Nonetheless, the majority of teachers I speak to see real value in engaging with research. However, there does appear to be somewhat less of a consensus over whether or not teachers should be active researchers (yesterday's poll was split 57% to 43% in favour). Personally, I'm broadly in favour, however, with a few caveats...

Training/ Qualifications:

I didn't properly engage with educational research until I began my MA back in 2013. Sure, I'd been involved in numerous working parties looking at areas of the curriculum, behaviour etc., but didn't really grapple with research theory and methodology until doing a postgrad degree 8 years into my teaching career.  My MA was fully-funded by the Local Authority with the school having to commit to releasing me for 3 study days per year. Unfortunately this scheme has now been scrapped which seems to be the norm across the country. I heard several people yesterday talking of how they've self-funded their postgrad research. I think every teacher should have the chance to study for a fully-funded MA though I appreciate this isn't going to happen during these times of budget cuts, pay caps and CEO salaries. Notwithstanding, given the rise of MOOCs and mayhem it can't be too difficult to create an online course (FutureLearn) covering some of the research basics. 
I think this could also create further opportunities for Higher Education Institutions to work closely with schools and teachers in providing training. I've heard of one university that puts on research-focused free sessions for teachers where researchers share their expertise and cake is provided. Yes, free cake. Below is by no means  an exhaustive list but does cover some of the areas I found most useful when starting out in educational research:

Philosophical assumptions - epistemology, ontology, axiology 

Interpretative frameworks - positivism, postmodernism, feminist theory etc. 
Methodologies - case studies, action research, grounded theory etc. 
Research methods - surveys, interviews, observations etc. 
Interpreting and analysing data
Ethics (more on that below)

Ethical frameworks:

If schools are going to embed a research culture with teachers becoming active researchers then they must have a robust ethical framework in place which cover and address fundamental areas such as informed consent, choice, risk/ harm and confidentiality. I actually believe that this should be the starting point for any school on a 'research journey'. The importance of ethical considerations when conducting research with children cannot be overstated. I would suggest consulting BERA's ethical guidelines as a useful starting point.   

Access to Literature:


Teachers already have access to Google Scholar, ResearchGate and Academia where they are able to download some research papers. While other teachers might have access to academic papers through university courses many others do not. This is one of the reasons why the Chartered College of Teaching (CCoT) offers such great value for members. Joining the CCoT gives teachers access to full text journals, ebooks and other research materials which is great value for money given than one journal article can set you back more than the annual membership fee alone. 


Additionally, there needs to be some support in developing teachers' critical reading of research; who conducted the research? Why was it done in that way? What questions were the researchers trying to answer? How might it have been done differently? Were there any sponsors? How might this research impact on professional practice? All of these questions require a critical approach when reviewing research literature. 


Dissemination of Findings:


I gather some schools who are currently involved with practitioner research already provide opportunities for their staff to disseminate findings to their colleagues. Which is great. Though I think sharing across schools would be far more powerful. I like the idea of having #TeachResMeets (maybe even doing a few #BrewEd specials) where teachers are able to share their research and also answer questions/ feedback from other attendees. Teachers should also be given support in getting their research published whether that be in a peer-reviewed journal or alternative online publication/ platform. 

Research Leads:

Every school should have a designated Research Lead. This should be a specified role with responsibility for promoting and supporting staff with understanding/ conducting research in schools. It also needs to be fulfilled by someone with an understanding of research and passion for research. This can't just be added on to someone's already demanding TLR as this will probably amount to little more than tokenism. 


Time:

This is an obvious one. So obvious I'm going to say it anyway. If teachers are to conduct meaningful research, analyse data and present findings then they need to be given time to do this. It can't be another thing that's added on to an already burdensome workload. If so, it  will be met with justified resentment. Finding time may involve spending money which is difficult during these turbulent economic times and for that have no real solution other than the government needs to fund schools adequately and equitably. Now. 

Optional:

I'm finishing with this as I think it's the most important. My major reservation about teachers becoming active researchers is that they will be forced to do so. If research becomes another measure of teacher performativity then it almost becomes worthless. Especially if it is connected to performance management and/ or pay. I believe all teachers should be given opportunities and support to carry out research projects that interest/ drive them. To enforce a draconian and compulsory practitioner research policy will no doubt create an environment of skewed data and unreliable findings. If the aim is to support teachers in becoming active researchers then it's definitely worth doing properly.