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Teachers Must be Held to Account – But for Their Own Decisions, not for Implementing Someone Else’s

If we’re genuinely interested in improving the system then we need to stop messing about at the point of pedagogy and focus on the quality of the curriculum, says David Didau...

  • Teachers Must be Held to Account – But for Their Own Decisions, not for Implementing Someone Else’s

As you know, Ofsted has stopped judging lessons, and, slowly, this is starting to trickle through the system, with more and more school leaders beginning to understand that high-stakes assessment of lessons leads to all sorts of foolishness.

But, can lesson observation be used more formatively, to make teachers do more of the ‘right’ things and less of the ‘wrong’ ones?

The research supporting teacher-led instruction, and against enquiry learning, is increasingly well-known and, whether you agree or not, you’ll no doubt be aware that there’s a growing consensus that some pedagogical approaches more likely to be effective than others.

This being the case, should school leaders be tasked with making sure that teachers are use and understand, say, Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction?

Even though I wholeheartedly support these principles, such an idea fills me with horror.

Perverse incentives

The problem is, no matter how you go about collecting data, and how carefully you try to aggregate what you see across a whole school, getting observers to look for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things will lead to perverse incentives.

Even if the research really did show that, say, enquiry learning was unequivocally bad all of the time, forcing educators to step into line stops them thinking.

If we really want teachers to be their best we must hold them to account intelligently.

The three sacred principles of any well-run accountability process are as follows:

  1. Teachers must know they will be accountable to an audience
  2. The audience’s views must be unknown
  3. The audience is well-informed and interested in accuracy

When we decide we know better than a classroom teacher how they ought to teach their classes, we inevitably end up giving unwanted and possibly unhelpful advice. Instead, we should always ask teachers to talk about the reasons for the decisions they’ve made, and then listen.

We should ask teachers what they think needs to be done and what support they need to make these things happen, and then hold then to account for doing whatever they’ve said they should do.

Unhelpful emotions

Unless we believe those holding us to account are interested in accuracy rather than simply having their preferences met, we tend to become fearful, dishonest and risk averse.

If those in authority predefine what ‘good’ looks like and hold us to account for meeting a set of standards, we will give the appearance of meeting those standards. This results in two equally undesirable outcomes:

  1. Compliance – some teachers will just do whatever they are told to do. Some will do it well, others will struggle. They will assume managers know best and try hard to please them.
  2. Pretence – some teachers will feel they know best and assume managers are foolish or corrupt. They will sometimes give the appearance of playing the game, but will, as far as possible, ignore the accountability process

Some of those who are successfully compliant will feel pretty good about being able to meet observers’ expectations, but everyone else will experience a combination of guilt, fear and anger.

None of these emotions is particularly useful for improving teaching. The bitterest irony though is that even when these accountability systems appear to be successful they promote a lack of curiosity and blind adherence to a set of partially understood principles.

We lose the ability to make considered professional judgements and embark on Cargo Cult teaching – following the forms and structures of teaching but without understanding the underpinning theory or purpose.

It’s about what

And that’s the crux of it – teachers should be encouraged to be professionally sceptical and to ask ‘why’. And then listen.

Using any kind of observation checklist is at best a distraction from what you are trying to achieve.

Even if you have ironclad evidence that you’re look for the right things, you’re missing the point.

How teachers teach is only the visible tip of a very large iceberg; the question of real importance is what they’re teaching.

If we’re genuinely interested in improving the system then we need to stop messing about at the point of pedagogy and focus on the quality of the curriculum.

It’s not that how teachers teach is irrelevant, it’s just that what is both more important and less well understood.

David Didau is an independent education consultant and writer. He blogs at learningspy.co.uk.

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