There’s a debate that is raging amongst the twitter-teachers at the moment, so you’ll have to excuse me joining in with this post. If you have an opinion, please feel free to add it to the comments at the end, I’d be interested to know what you think.
So. The debate is centered around a small, select group of schools in the US, called charter schools, Uncommon Schools being part of a group including KIPP and Achievement First schools. As far as I understand it, these are run a bit like our sponsored academies, or free schools, independent of local authority control. They serve largely urban, low-income communities with all their connected race, class and cultural facets, with the express goal of ‘closing the gap’ in academic achievement between rich and poor, and sending as many children on to college as possible. Achievement in exams and tests is high, and so is the rate of exclusion; whether or not this translates to success in further education, I don’t know.
So what’s all the fuss?
On the face of it, you would think that teachers would be jumping for joy at the thought of schools doing so well in the face of the challenges so many of us work with, but, strangely, it is not the case. The schools are controversial, and the cause of considerable disagreement. I am no expert here, I have read no books by authors on the board, visited no schools aping techniques here in the UK – but I have been troubled by what I have read and seen, troubled enough to do a little bit of reading when I was supposed to be doing the housework, and thinking when I was trying to get to sleep.
- Teaching tricks
Now this is a really interesting one. One of the most famous of the Names, Doug Lemov, involved with these schools has written a book, Teach Like a Champion. I hold my hands up. I don’t do a lot of reading around my professional practice, and I’m not sure that his appeals to me, but it is doing the rounds and this is what I know about it. Doug has had a go at analysing what it is that successful teachers do in their classrooms. He has used Data (not the Star Trek character, sorry) (and I don’t know which data he used) in order to pinpoint techniques and he wrote them in a book, and they are the methods that are insisted on in his schools.
Now, all this sounds terribly useful, and I am the first person to admit that when I go popping in to other people’s classrooms I am the first to shamelessly steal all their best ideas, but, to be honest, I like to make those decisions myself. Children are precious, vulnerable growing beings, and I have a lot of experience in working with them. I see it as part of my professional toolkit, if you like, to make my own decisions about what method is most appropriate for the children I teach. Some kids respond well to one thing, some another. This constant decision making, this fine tuning, is all part of what I do.
Every teacher knows that classroom discipline is the key to getting children to learn. We call it behaviour management. If they are chattering, they are not getting on with writing. If they are throwing paper aeroplanes then they certainly aren’t. If they are squabbling then they are more interested in whatever drama is going on between them that they are in what you are trying to teach them. We know this. Teachers who lack the skills to create a purposeful, respectful classroom are not very successful.
One of the things that characterises the Uncommon School is the rigid, some would say militaristic discipline. The children move around the school in silence. Carpet time involves special striped carpets and designated spaces where the children must sit. There is a prescribed way of putting up one’s hand. If you aren’t called upon to raise your Vertical Hand you might be Cold Called (that’s being asked without putting your hand up). You must answer immediately, or be given specific Think Time. Your eyes must track the teacher. There is clicking (but I can’t quite work out what that one’s all about).
Why must the children do all these things? Because they are the outward behaviours that signal an inner engagement with the material a teacher is teaching. It’s a pity we can’t open up their heads, really, just to make sure that they aren’t faking it.
- Pedagogy, or the science and art of education
This is a term which I approach with great caution, and I would probably characterise it as the philosophy that underpins my professional life. As far as I can see, the Uncommon Schools, and schools like them, take the view that children are the recipients of Facts and Knowledge. It is our job as teachers to transfer these facts and knowledge, especially in these days of competition between schools and education systems, as quickly and efficiently as possible by Direct Instruction. Tell them what they need to know and get them to practice it so that they at the very least know it well enough to pass the test(s). Simple, right? Right?
So why my disquiet?
On the face of it, you would think that I would be all in favour of these schools. Rigorous (I hope) research backing up the techniques, calm orderly schools and classrooms, a firm belief in what the teachers are doing and why. But, leaving aside the privatisation and application of market forces to education (by which I mean the competition engendered by results tables), I am left with a feeling of disquiet. I am troubled by what I have seen, and what I have read.
You see, I know that teaching is a complicated business. I know that what works for one teacher does not necessarily work for another. And I know that to insist we do it one way and one way only sucks the soul out of teachers, it turns them from living, breathing, thinking professionals into automatons following a script, into disheartened, disillusioned creative people with no room for that creativity to express itself.
I know that the fundamental thing for a teacher to develop is a respectful working relationship with his or her class. And I know that unless the teacher has fully invested themselves in the methods they use in their classroom, unless they are fully convinced as if they had come up with the techniques themselves, then what you have is a parody of teaching, an empty shell.
I also know a little bit about data. Not much, mark you, a little. I know that there is always someone at the bottom (or the top) of the heap. I know that there is always some awkward little anomaly. I live with one. Every day he presents me with challenges I never thought that I would face. Every moment I must come up with new ways, creative ways to help him to learn, to kit him out with every scrap of skill I can to help him on his way to an independent life.
I’ve written about how I feel about compliance before. I’ve written about how I feel about children serving adult needs before. I’ve written about the mistakes that well meaning people make, all in the name of education. I’ve written about how being different chromosomally, but here, culturally, is part of who we are. I could be more explicit about engagement or behaviour or how to actually do what it is I do, but it’s not my style.
To teach, you don’t just need enthusiasm. You don’t just need techniques. You don’t just need the change-the-world energy of the Bright Young Things. You need the wisdom of colleagues who have seen the fashions come and go to keep you in check. You need people about you who have experience and knowledge you can draw on when you stub your toe against the inevitable anomaly you have a duty to teach just as well as the bright eyed bushy tailed people pleaser. You need the parent to tell you when the children cry, how they really feel about what goes on in class. You need the head, and the heart, aligned.
And no. I wouldn’t send my child, not my Sam nor my other two, to an Uncommon School.