I used to coach rugby league. When I was coach, if I was asked to specify what I wanted from my players, the list would go something like :
- Big (20 stone)
- So fit as to be functioning as effectively after 80 minutes as at kick off
- Fast as Usain Bolt (despite size)
- Clever, choosing the correct pass and play option every single time
- Can pass equally well off each hand
- Never drops the ball & never misses a tackle
- Perfect communication skills with teammates
- Made of titanium so never injured
- Stronger than Schwarzenegger
- Scores a try per match
- 100% goal-kicking record from every angle
- Can drop a high-kick exactly on the sixpence they aimed for
- Agile as a mountain goat with lateral movement as fast as forward sprint
Of course, I never had a player like this.
What Best Practice assumes v Reality
Nobody has, not even in the Australian test team. It’s because such people don’t exist. Some players had some of those abilities/attributes, most of the time. Often they ruled each other out (20 stone guys don’t tend to be too laterally mobile). I’d have been mad to expect this performance from anyone.
Similarly, in the military field, societies have been trying to manufacture the perfect soldier for millennia. The Spartans trained boys from birth to become fearsome fighting machines, killing their own children if they showed any deficiency. Yet those hoplites still suffered fatigue, still died from infected wounds, and needed sleep and food. In the 19th and 20th Century, all major armies used drugs to try and enhance their soldiers’ performance: Prussian soldiers were issued with cocaine, while Allied soldiers in WWII used Benzedrine. The 21st Century sees the US army experimenting with robotic exo-skeletons to enhance performance, and psychotherapy to address stress brought on by combat. But of course, our human frailty remains – despite Stalin’s alleged attempts to cross-breed humans and apes to produce “a new invincible human being, insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat”!
The common thread in all this is that while sports coaches and generals know what they’d like to have, they also have to deal with what they do have in order to achieve their goals. A coach or general who expected his players or soldiers to perform like their superhuman ideal, would lose, and lose badly. In sport, and in the military, leaders recognise that they have to operate within real-world constraints if they are to achieve their goals successfully. So coaches produce game plans which take account of the strengths and weaknesses of their players – they don’t demand props run as fast as wingers, or that fullbacks should make as many tackles as second-rows. Generals produce battle plans in which logistics feature very highly, and soldiers are rested as often as possible – even in WWI, soldiers were rarely in the front line trenches for more than 15% of their time, while divisions which had recently been in action were often moved to quieter parts of the line to recover. A leader in those fields who did not address the reality of their human material, but simply asked for more, and then more, and then more, would be a terrible leader, and one who would be unlikely to achieve success.
Me = FAIL !
The Academy Chain “Leader” addresses end of year staff meeting. Awards self bonus.
Which brings me to this :
I have no problem with this discussion at all. It’s well-meaning, thoughtful, and absolutely right in wanting to refocus lesson observations from performance judgements to professional development. I also agree with Joe Kirby on the difficulty of arriving at a consensus of what to look for in a teacher or a lesson. Different people tend to weight their preferences differently: engagement over knowledge, behaviour over assessment etc. The result, though tends towards an all-inclusive list in which all preferences are given equal weighting ! Just take a look at some of those descriptions and lists of what should be seen in a lesson, or in a teacher. Look at the lists in their entirety.
Here’s my own contribution of a lesson observation form, from my school :
|1 Outstanding||2 Good|
|Pupil||Pupils’ progress and learning||Almost all learners thrive and make rapid progress in the lesson and over time. Sustained progress seen based on learning objectives.||Most pupils, including groups and SEN/D achieve in lesson. All groups making progress well over time.|
|Pupils’ attitudes to learning||Students show high levels of engagement, interest, resilience, confidence and independence (RCI).||Most students are motivated to participate. The qualities of RCI are encouraged.|
|Behaviour||Behaviour management and Safety||Behaviour management is systematic and consistently applied.Lesson proceeds without interruption.
Pupils understand unsafe situations and are highly aware how to keep themselves and others safe.
|Behaviour management strategies are applied consistently.Disruption to lesson is ‘unusual’.
Pupils understand unsafe situations and how to stay safe.
|Pupils’ response||Pupils ‘make every effort’ to ensure that others learn and thrive. There is an atmosphere of respect and dignity.||Pupils respond very well to the teacher’s behaviour systems. They consistently meet the teacher’s expectations.|
|Teaching||Teaching overall||Much of teaching seen is outstanding.No aspect is less than consistently good.||Mainly good elements of teaching seen with many elements of outstanding.|
|Teacher’s planning and expertise||Excellent subject knowledge. Perceptive planning; challenging personalised tasks; effective use of time; imaginative teaching strategies.||Very good subject knowledge. Effective planning; Personalised tasks. Effective teaching strategies to enthuse and motivate.|
|Teacher’s expectations||Consistently high expectations of all students/conveyed to all – they are enthusiastic, keen to participate and committed to learning.||High level of expectation. Students therefore keen to participate and learn.|
|Interventions and supportSMSC||Focused and timely, matching individual needs. Addressing of SMSC is ‘exceptional’ / impact learning.||‘Appropriate’.Good impact on learning. Every opportunity taken to address SMSC.|
|Teaching of RWCM||Teaching of RWCM is ‘exceptional’. Every opportunity is taken to develop ‘crucial’ skills, including RWCM.||Very effective. Evidence in lesson and from previous students’ work|
|Assessment||Assessment||Systematic and accurate assessment of prior learning. Systematically checking of understanding. Questioning (planned and impromptu) –challenges impacts on learning||Accurate assessment of prior skills, K&U. Progress assessed regularly/ accurately. Questioning – skilfully. Lesson modified (if appropriate) to impact on the learning.|
|Marking, feedback and homework||Appropriate/regular/set homework contributes effectively to learning.Marking/feedback – frequent/ consistently high quality. Students know how to improve their work.||Appropriate and regular homework contributes well to learning. Assessments are discussed with pupils / they know how well they have done and how to improve.|
Despite the fact that this is obviously born of Ofsted guidance, none of this is bad in isolation. Individually, each item is A Good Thing ™. How could one argue with it ? Because to argue against any part of it suggests you don’t want Pupils to be “enthusiastic, keen to participate and committed to learning”, or you disagree with the benefits of “personalized tasks”. You bad person, you.
Yet I can’t do it. Not only that, I have never once in the 9,000+ lessons I have taught in my career, managed to tick each of those boxes. If I taught just one lesson a week, and spent the rest of the week carefully planning that one lesson, then I could probably have a go at most of them, but even then I can’t guarantee pupil progress (because, like teachers, pupils are also infuriatingly and imperfectly human). Oh, I know enough to get graded 1 (back in the days when grades were given), but did I ever really do all those things ? No. Instead I relied on the reasonable humanity of my observers to recognise that despite not ticking every box, it was still an ok show. But let’s be clear : according to this model of best practice, I never achieve it.
General Haig decided it was “best practice” to walk, not run, towards the German machine guns
I looked at the lists of equally Good Things ™ in Joe’s excellent blog post, and the same issue was apparent : I could not demonstrate all the criteria in any given list. The amount of planning, preparation and in-depth knowledge of individual students which would be required is literally beyond my ability to provide. Primary colleagues might be in a different canoe (perhaps theirs has a paddle) with their smaller numbers of students, but I cannot provide that level of personalization to the 200+ students I teach each year, and I know some secondary teachers who face double that number.
What I can do as a teacher is dependent upon a range of variables, including intrinsic factors such as my own ability, intelligence, experience and energy, but also extrinsic such as available time and resources, the nature of the students before me, and the complexity of the outcomes I’m trying to achieve or the material I’m trying to convey. Like a rugby player or a soldier, I cannot produce “perfect”, because “perfect” would require me to evolve into a new species, and probably operate outside the normal space-time continuum.
Best Practice is only Best Practice if you can Practice it !
It seems to me that what has happened is that in teaching, “best practice” has lost its meaning. In other fields, “best practice” is exactly what it says on the tin : it is the best you can achieve within the constraints of reality. In teaching, however, “best practice” has come to mean the best you could achieve if there were no constraints at all, but infinite time, energy, ability and resources.
Take a look at the various lists above and on Joe’s blog, or take a look at the current draft of the Teacher Standards; there’s not a whole lot of recognition of any kind of constraints. Yet we all operate under constraints. Let me try and give an example which illustrates this problem.
Marking the Marks of the Marked
Earlier this year, word went around Ofsted-fearful schools that what inspectors were now looking for was what has become known in the profession as “double-marking”. That is, the old system of :
- Student does Work One
- Teacher marks Work One, records mark, and gives feedback
- Student does Work Two and should take account of feedback
- Teacher marks Work Two, records mark and gives feedback
Was replaced by :
- Student does Work One
- Teacher marks Work One, records mark, and gives feedback
- Student comments on teacher feedback on Work One
- Student does Work Two and should take account of feedback on Work One
- Teacher checks, records and comments on student comments on Work One
- Teacher marks Work Two, records it and gives feedback on Work Two about whether account was taken of feedback on Work One
Nobody can argue that the second system is not desirable. Feedback is good. Checking that the student understood the feedback and internalized it, is good. Hopefully this all works as a self-reinforcing loop. Yet even a non-teacher can see that what this system does is massively increase marking time. Let’s say you have a class of thirty, and you give yourself just 180 seconds per student to read their comments on your initial feedback to Work One, cogitate, and then write a reply. That’s 90 minutes right there, in addition to the actual marking of Work Two. And that’s one class. Of possibly eight or nine classes ! This policy just increased teacher marking time by twelve hours in each marking cycle. Or, to put it another way, one-and-a-half paid working days. There’s no way of looking at this without seeing the huge increase in expectation and workload. If such an increase was expected in sport or the military, then adjustments would be made : troops would be rotated more often, more people would be thrown at the job, the game plan would be changed. In education: nothing. When the expectations have already become unfulfillable by normal humans, then it is simply a matter of changing policies to add another impossibility to the list of existing impossibilities.
I can pick other examples, particularly in the field of “personalized learning”, which again, is an unarguably good idea. Ideally we’d teach all children 1:1, but we can’t. Nevertheless, many observation lists or teacher standards demand “personalized learning activities for each student” in each lesson. Which is, of course, an incredible demand under normal constraints. Assume a secondary teacher with 240 students spread evenly across 24 fifty-minute lessons (3 lessons each class). If that teacher did nothing else except focus on individual students (itself impossible), then each student would get 5 minutes of time per week from the teacher in lesson while being utterly neglected for the remaining 145 minutes. I’m not mentioning the planning which would be required. Of course very few, if anyone, could do this in a meaningful sense, but it’s written there in a lot of lists of what is expected “best practice”.
Do We Have A Problem?
It’s possible to argue that this isn’t necessarily a problem. Best practice is there to show what’s best in the best of all possible worlds, and acts as an inspiration to us all to aspire to the best, not an expectation. Well, yes, but while most people have no problem distinguishing between what we aspire to achieve and what we expect to achieve, there are too many SLTs out in the world of schools (not my own), and too many Ofsted inspectors, who really seem to struggle with this distinction. Ask those teachers whose schools adopted double-marking this year whether it was presented to them as an aspirational goal which we’d like to do if we can find time, or whether it was handed down with the instruction “do it”, without any compensatory cutting of other existing “best practice” responsibilities and expectations.
So what are the consequences of this departure from reality when it comes to setting out teaching “best practice” expectations?
Obviously, if you increase workload, you get more tired, more stressed, staff. More tired and stressed staff means lower quality output, less involvement in extra-curricular activities, more sickness etc.
Disappointed Idealist on any given day in the History office
The beauty of these lengthy lists of impossible standards is that an observer can always find a failing. I could attend a lesson of any teacher in the country, no matter how good, and find something from that observation list above which they had not done. Unless, perhaps, their lesson lasted a full week, and their students were from Stepford. Which would be boring for us all.
Some academy chains and unscrupulous headteachers have used these impossible standards to ease out those who are perfectly able teachers, but cost a bit more than the next Teach First replacement. When every teacher knows that they can’t actually do what they are supposed to do, and thus their career hangs on others’ willingness to ignore their failings, then that’s a deeply damaging place to be, psychologically, which contributes to…
Burn-out isn’t just tiredness from overwork. It’s also the daily sense of failure which comes from not feeling able to do your job properly. We might know that these demands are impossible, and we might even have an SLT who are sensible and supportive about that. But we still go home each day knowing that someone, somewhere, has said “This is what a good teacher does”, yet we don’t do it. That is a worm gnawing in the bowels of proud professionals. Again, I suspect a survey of those who leave the profession pre-retirement would find that a lot of them would identify this inability to meet these expectations as a contributory factor in giving up.
Best becomes the enemy of Good
The latest addition undermines what you were already doing well, because you’re now doing two desirable things in half the time each needs, rather than one desirable thing with all the time you need to do it well.
Won’t anyone think of the children ?
Unachievable lists of best practice result in lost coherence, and the teacher loses sight of the child. Teachers stop asking themselves : “what would be best for this child”, and start wearily ticking off a list the actions they are supposed to take irrespective of the child.
Sometimes called initiative fatigue, what happens is that when people cannot cope with the unreasonable demands made of them, they lock-down and start refusing to engage with anything beyond the routine they can just about manage. This is why it’s so hard to get teachers to change their practice significantly after the first couple of years : after two years they have realised that they can’t do everything they’re expected to do, so they bunker down, establish a routine they can cope with, and resist any change to that routine, even where it might be advantageous. If you want people to embrace new ideas, you have to give them the space to move their arms.
The Answer Is Leadership
The best way of addressing this would of course be for the various quangos such as Ofsted and NCTL to stop pumping out ever more unachievable examples of “best practice”, and to learn the lessons of genuine leaders in other fields about the need to ensure best practice is also deliverable in the real world by real people. However, I wouldn’t hold my breath there. So this is an area where we are forced to look to ourselves, and to those who have come to be known as “leaders”.
I’m fairly scathing about “leadership” as it is currently promoted in the education system by national agencies and the DFE, but that’s for another blog. The fact is that this issue of “best practice” is where leaders can have the greatest positive or negative impact in schools. Indeed, this issue of “best practice” is at the heart of most dysfunctional SLT-staff relationships, in my view. Establishing a workable “best practice” should be one of the very top priorities of any SLT, because it is so inextricably linked with teacher effectiveness and student outcomes.
Translation : “Teachers not following Best Practice will die. Teachers following Best Practice will also die. The Chain values your sacrifice!”
No, not this kind of Leadership
A weak leadership team never really consider best practice beyond whatever Ofsted are apparently now looking at. They never consider that the constraints of time and humanity require choices to be made between different options. They see their role as simply receiving the latest idea and imposing it on their staff, then demanding compliance through a monitoring regime. These are the people who effectively allow Ofsted to write all their school policies for them, and then witter on about how crucial they are in “leading” the school “ethos”. Yet if an SLT are demanding compliance with a model of “best practice” which is unattainable for most or all teachers, then they are driving a wedge marked “Unreasonable” between themselves and their staff. These people should never have been promoted out of the classroom, and certainly shouldn’t have a role in charge of adults. They probably use the phrase “No Excuses Culture” without irony, as they demand staff perform impossible feats which they themselves never did, and never could have done, while they were in front of a whiteboard. They are the educational equivalent of a coach who sends a team of amateurs out with a game-plan designed for the Kiwi national side, or a general demanding a brigade of unarmed conscripts perform consistently in the same way as the SAS. These people do exist. Sadly. Thankfully not in my school.
“Best Practice” Leadership (see what I did there?)
A good SLT, like a good general or coach, understands that they are dealing with real people operating in the real world, and will seek to produce a rational and considered system of best practice – ideally in consultation with the staff who will then have to deliver it. Crucially, this means choosing what to leave out, as well as choosing what to put in. It also means considering that best practice in the light of issues such as non-contact time, CPD allowances and class sizes, and making hard decisions about whether, given the constraints, this marking policy or that approach to differentiation fits in the “nice-but-impossible-at-present” category, or whether to cut this subject/activity in order to fund more preparation time for these teachers in this subject. Lists should always be short : not twenty specific things a teacher can’t possibly do in half an hour’s observation, but four or five broad headings which allow for post-observation formative discussion. A clear distinction should be made between aspirations, and expectations, with celebrations for the former, but congratulations for the latter too. These are difficult things to engage with, especially as the good SLT might have to defend their decisions to an inflexible Ofsted which long ago departed the real world. But that’s what real leadership is : getting the best results out of the reality you are faced with.
Hopefully there are more of these thoughtful, independent kind of leaders than the Ofsted Compliance Enforcer variety. Because ultimately, “best practice” which nobody can deliver isn’t “best practice” at all.