Teaching is cyclical. In education ideas come, then they go, then about twenty years later they come back into fashion again. The mistake is in swaying with the latest fashion. In changing what you to do please inspectors, or senior managers, or the Department for Education. That way madness lies. Better to stand still, doing what you believe in, because eventually the cycle will come back around and everyone will say: ‘you were doing the right thing all along!’
Teachers are a bit like magpies – nicking an idea here, a strategy there, chucking it all together in the classroom to see what happens. Hearing from their colleagues about something that is effective, and giving it a go themselves. Sharing their ideas through great sites such as pedagoo.org. Yes, there are key principles that will help your classroom to run smoothly and your children to learn effectively. This is the craft that we learn when we are training, and in our first few years on the job (and indeed, the craft that we never stop learning, so long as we teach). But there is no metaphorical magic bullet, no single solution that will magically make learning happen. Because teaching is a hugely complex operation – a mixture of craft, art form, science, psychology, creativity, emotion and logic, alongside many other things.
At the moment, the powers that be have decided that the magic bullet is making teaching an ‘evidence-based profession’. Ben Goldacre, who runs the Bad Science website, has written a paper for Michael Gove about improving the use of evidence in schools. There are some interesting ideas here – certainly teachers would have no problem with the notion of experimenting with different approaches, of becoming ‘teacher researchers’ within their own classrooms. (I’d hazard a guess that many of us take this approach already, just not in a formalised way.)
But there’s an important caveat: we’re not trying to cure our students or find a single medicine that works, as Dr Goldacre is his patients. We’re trying to turn our students into fully rounded, well educated, well behaved, creative, innovative, useful, properly skilled and morally upright members of society. We don’t start from the standpoint that there is something wrong with them that we need to solve (although most teachers will have come across some children for whom this might appear to be true). Most of us are not looking for a single cure, an educational medicine that works for all children, because we have enough experience to know it doesn’t exist.
Some would claim that it does, for instance the author of a very interesting blog I’ve been reading this week. The panacea here is good old fashioned teaching, direct instruction, filling up the child’s blank slate with knowledge rather than getting all fluffy and child centered about things (see, the cycle is turning!). Similarly synthetic phonics, or brain gym, or multiple intelligences, or VAK, or the creative curriculum, or whatever the latest ‘big idea’ might be. They all have something to offer, but none of them are the answer, simply because there isn’t one.
My best advice? Everything in moderation. A bit of direct teaching, a bit of group work, a bit of student choice, a bit of student directed learning, a bit of creativity, a bit of topic work, a bit of cross curricular learning, a bit of slogging away at the basics. Basically, a bit of all those great things that you know work for your children in your classroom in your school. Or, to put it another way, learn to trust in your own professional judgement.