The answer to: “What’s the point in studying this?” (feat. Brian Cox)

“What’s the point in studying this?” 

Teachers are often asked this question, especially (I suspect) in secondary school where the tantalising promise of subject choice at GCSE and A-level overshadows option subjects in the earlier years, and where the contrast with option subjects subjects English, Maths and Science teachers to the same question in the later years.

I was never really satisfied with the answers that I came up with for my French students; there doesn’t seem to be one answer that satisfies everyone who will ask that question of their teacher.

Now, I have come to think that there are three approaches teachers can take.

Answer 1) “Because you’re doing well in it, and it will make you more clever.” A bit of a white lie maybe, but might work with those students who are asking this because they are finding the work difficult. I think it is important that students experience mastery of a topic. As a teacher you should try to spot the (at times small) improvements they are making and point them out. An answer that addresses the ‘big picture’ of the validity and benefits of what you are studying won’t address the essentially emotional trigger behind the question in the first place. If this question is born of frustration, then you owe it to the student to get them to experience some success and try to boost their confidence by pitching the work right and pointing out real improvements to them.

Answer 2) “Because some day, you might have to help your kids learn this too.” The truest answer that you can give. The purpose of an education system is to pass on what we already know as humanity, so I think it’s essential that we teach a curriculum that’s as broad and deep as possible, for as long as possible. It’s true that my students may never use French again, but at least they can make that decision as adults having had a genuine option to do the opposite. As parents, it’s their children who might end up being francophiles who want to go on to study French at university or move to Quebec or something. At this point, what they studied in school, might suddenly become helpful again. We should remember we’re educating future parents.

Answer 3) “Because Brian Cox says so.”

Have a read of his concluding remarks to the BBC Human Planet series (2014)

“Science is unreasonably effective. It’s generated knowledge beyond all expectation. It’s also delivered perspective. Yes, we are an insignificant speck in an infinite universe but we’re also rare. And because we’re rare, we’re valuable. So what are we to do to secure our future? We must learn to value the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake and not just because it grows our economy or allows us to build better bombs. We must also learn to value the human race and take responsibility for our own survival. Why? Because there’s nobody else out there to value us or to look after us. And finally, most important of all, we must educate the next generation in the great discoveries of science and we must teach them to use the light of reason to banish the darkness of superstition. Because if we do that then at least there’s a chance that this universe will remain a human one.”




Teaching the uncommon way

This blog is written in reaction to criticism of Uncommon Schools that I came across on Twitter. It has given me the opportunity to develop my own thinking on the subject.

Whenever I use the word practice or practise I mean it in the sense of performing an exercise repeatedly in order to acquire, improve or maintain proficiency in it, as in I am practising my French, or “Practice makes perfect”, said Confucius. Please forgive any misplaced ‘s’ or ‘c’!

This blog (and my opinion)  is based on the following experience:

  • Having read Teach Like A Champion (TLAC), Practice Perfect, (and parts of) Leverage Leadership.
  • Having attended Uncommon Schools teacher trainer training earlier in October (see this post for my initial impressions).
  • Having heard Doug Lemov speak in September (see this post for what I learnt)
  • Having taught in a school in the UK where these techniques were not consistently applied, but where I referred to TLAC on occasion to supplement my ‘toolkit’ of teaching techniques.
  • Having taught in a school in the UK where TLAC systems were embedded, studied, and commonly used by all staff.
  • Having read Harry Fletcher-Wood’s blogs here and here about his visit to Uncommon Schools in New York which add far more to this discussion than I can hope to with this post.
  • I have not visited any of the Uncommon Schools.
  • I have not done extensive research on inequalities within the American public school system.

In this post I will:

  1. Define what I understand to be the “Uncommon Schools” (or TLAC – used interchangeably) approach to teaching and learning.
  2. Explicitly address some of the criticisms and concerns that some people have expressed.
  3. Reflect on my own emotional reaction to the debate.
  4. Issue a challenge to the critics of the approach.

1. My take on the Uncommon Schools approach.

Teaching is a performance profession (like an athlete in a stadium, a soldier in a combat zone, or an actor on the stage) and requires the performers to practise and rehearse before they perform. Most teachers currently plan then perform. Uncommon Schools is structured around a professional development and initial teacher training framework that prioritises practice. The pattern is: plan, then practise, then perform. I suspect many interpretations of the short video clips available online ignore the purpose of the said clips in the first place: they are there to assist teachers when practising their own teaching. When Usain Bolt is training for the 100m sprint, he does stretches, weights, short sprints, aerobic work and so on. He may well spend several weeks practising the first 5 steps of his 41-step 100m sprint. He will then practice the next 15 steps. In theatre rehearsal, actors will do vocal exercises, readings with scripts, dance rehearsals, read-throughs and so on. There are several characteristics of what defines a good practice, one of them being that if working on one particular technique, it is helpful to control as many extraneous and intrinsic variables as possible in order to allow you to focus your efforts on improving that one technique you have identified. In order to practise a teaching technique, you have to isolate it before integrating it. Usain Bolt would never perform a 5-step sprint, much like a teacher would never teach an entire lesson to children on how to fold their hands. But both will form a critical part of a performance routine, which contains multiple techniques, all of which cannot be practised simultaneously in preparation. Finally, the basic premise is that being a good teacher is something that can be taught, through coaching and deliberate practice.

We can all learn from other teachers and the expertise is already out there somewhere. The people who wrote TLAC take data gathering seriously and use it to identify the teachers who seem to be bucking the trend. They then go in and observe those teachers’ classrooms and attempt to codify what they are doing on a granular level. This is, in essence, an empirical approach, and is designed to help share best teaching techniques. It is more than ‘just’ top-tips, although that certainly comes into it. It seeks to identify common practical things that appear to be working across many classrooms, and then disseminate them in such a way that allows others to pick them up and adapt them quickly. For me, one key detail about the way this is done make it work: Each technique is given a name. This is not mere ‘branding’. It helps create a common language for teachers (and observers!) to share when dissecting the details of an activity. It’s a shorthand, a professional terminology, that describes the things that teachers do.

Humility and a growth mindset are the necessary conditions for learning from others. The one thing that Doug Lemov knows about TLAC is that at least some of it is wrong. You will hear him say so continuously for the simple reason that there are always limits to the empirical approach. It may well be that something has been observed in a lesson, but misunderstood by the observer. Or a top technique was just completely missed by the observers and the effect was ascribed to the wrong ’cause’. One example that was given to us was the extent to which teachers who wrote TLAC initially underestimated the sheer variety of ways and importance of checking for understanding that was used by the teachers they observed. The humility inherent in the approach is also evident in the way they are very keen to learn from other professions where relevant.

Short video clips are helpful to analyse because they allow us to unpick our own teaching. At the Uncommon Schools training I attended, the video clips were not presented as something to be copied unquestioningly. We were encouraged to approach them critically. There were four ways that we engaged critically with all the video clips that were presented to us:

  • The Picasso analogy. Doug Lemov compared how teachers should practise to how artists develop by first imitating the greats before developing their own style. The analogy has two important messages: first, that it is possible to learn from copying other teachers and secondly, that to be really good, you have to make them your own.
  • Comparing the same technique in different settings. For every technique that TLAC has identified and encouraged us to isolate and practise, we were shown two, sometimes three, clips of teachers using it in very different settings (e.g. questioning to stretch and challenge students aged 5 vs 17 years old. The Grade 1 teacher invited a student up to give an answer to the whole class, then in a sing-song voice encouraged the class to ask a follow up question that asked for evidence for their opinion to stretch the student – “how do you know?”. It was calm, focused, and empowering for the student who volunteered to give an answer because they were quasi-teaching their colleagues. In the Grade 12 class, the teacher stretched his student by deliberately remaining silent while they spoke, giving a small follow-on signal to encourage them to develop their answer, rewarding it with a simple, but powerful, “well said” at the end, before asking another student to add to this. It demonstrated high expectations, how students could learn from each other, and the importance of giving students time to articulate their thoughts in complete sentences). This comparison carries two important messages also: first, that each teacher tailors the technique depending on their own personality, and secondly, that the particular class context may require a modification of the technique to suit the students.
  • Practising the techniques ourselves within our own subject area. We scripted our own versions of various techniques and practised them on each other and gave ourselves feedback. This had one important message: first, although the principles behind some of the techniques may be fundamental (e.g. giving students wait time to respond to questions), some may need to vary by subject (e.g. helping students construct analytic sentences).
  • Planning how we would introduce a technique to our students. We were encouraged to come up with a ‘roll out’ speech (of no more than, say, half a minute) to explain a given technique to our students. We scripted it, practised it on each other, and refined it in the light of feedback from our peers. The two important messages here were: first, scripting an instruction, then practising it, is very helpful. It was evident when an American turn of phrase (e.g. “good job”) rang false in my RP. A teacher of primary school who I worked with took a very different tone to a Head of Sixth Form also present, for example. Secondly, it is crucial that your students are respectfully treated – you should explain to them in advance what you will do so they don’t feel that you’re trying to catch them out, and you should explain the reasons why you would employ this technique as well. Here’s an example of Colleen Driggs doing a ‘roll out’ speech for the technique ‘Cold Call‘.

2. My response to some criticisms and concerns

I will now explicitly address a few common criticisms and concerns that I encountered in this particular Twitter debate over the last couple of days about the approach Uncommon Schools take to teaching and learning:

“[the children] are being drilled, not taught.” + “Don’t think much learning is involved.” + “this is training, not teaching”

I think this is misunderstanding the nature of the short video clips that are being observed. A video clip that focuses on how a teacher establishes a routine to get students to sit still and listen is obviously not going to demonstrate a lot of probing questioning, discussion, or thinking on the students’ part. Secondly, I query why drills are a bad thing. As a languages teacher, I know that frequent, low-stakes tests and drills are crucial for automating core language skills. Speak to most maths, music, drama and sport teachers and they’ll tell you the same, I’m sure. There is an implicit assumption made by critics in this line of argument that drills are bad, which they need to explain fully and justify with evidence as currently I’d suggest the opposite is the case. (And I’m not saying that all that students should be doing is learning by rote, being drilled on disconnected ‘pub quiz’-style facts etc.). Thirdly, it could be that the drills being referred to in the criticisms of the videos are behaviour drills and routines. The whole purpose behind routines and behaviour drills is to increase time for learning. Here’s where data can be helpful (!) – if you establish a routine that helps students pack up their bags in unison, stand behind their chairs in silence, and leave in a calm orderly manner, you might be able to allow two minutes more time at the end of your lesson to study. Add that up across the school day, and across the school year, and you save hours. A criticism of this on the grounds that it is ‘behaviourist’ and Pavlovian conditioning is very simplistic. It ignores the huge benefit that routines have as a safety net and time-saver.

This is the result of a broken system.

In some ways, I agree with this. Social inequality is huge, and the education sector picks up a significant part of this burden. Uncommon Schools serve disproportionately disenfranchised and poor communities and are getting them fantastic academic results. They can’t solve all of society’s problems, but they seem to be doing a good job of what they can have an influence over: their students’ attainment and progression.

However, I suspect I am being faux naive with my interpretation of this criticism. Implicit within it may in fact be the assumption that the school ethos is damaging, the teaching techniques draconian, and the students suffering. I refer back to Harry’s blogs as they contain more data on which to base a judgement than a 1 minute video clip of a teacher asking students to fold their arms and sit still.

“The teachers don’t own the practice – they are parroting it.” + “there is a lack of humanity [in the teachers].”

I hope my description of the training above helps demonstrate that this is not the case, nor is this the intention. At the training, I sat with very human teachers, of a whole range of ages and levels of experience (not always the same thing!), who were able to adopt the Uncommon Schools approach without turning into a bird and losing their humanity.

3. How did I feel to train like a champion?

There is a romantic ideal about teaching that I hold. It’s the part of me that loves The History Boys, that reflects fondly on the witty repartee when I was a form tutor, that believes that education is exciting for its unpredictability and variety. There is nothing in the TLAC or Uncommon Schools approach that forbids idiosyncratic personality, as far as I can see. In the UK school where I have taught which fully embraces this approach, teachers joke with students, nurture them, ensure that all can participate fairly, and invest huge time and energy into supporting learners with SEN and those who have EAL. They meet with parents often, and run fantastic enrichment for the children. Part of the reason they are able to do so much is because bad behaviour is so quickly and efficiently dealt with through in-class and whole-school routines, and a consistency in TLAC techniques (individually adapted and applied!) helps with this. Some TLAC techniques have a strong focus on behaviour management, it’s true. Done well, this helps create a safe environment in which to teach and learn. My skeptical nature may baulk at a few isolated video clips, but is appeased and reassured that we are not meant to parrot them, or start teaching in an American accent! TLAC appeals to my optimistic nature because it believes all teachers can be taught to improve, and suggests a way this can be done.


4. Challenge to the critics

Find something in this approach, or in Harry’s blogs on the same topic, that you agree with (yes, even in isolation), and write about it.

If you have actually read this far, thank you – it’s a waffler. Next post: supershort.