Great Teachers are Made, Not Born

It’s very popular in schools today to talk about ‘lifelong learning’ and its desirability in our pupils. We are meant to take approaches in teaching and learning that help students to develop the skills, the desire and the willingness to take responsibility for their own learning. We want them to see learning as a “pull” process, not a “push” process. We don’t want children to passively wait for us to put knowledge in to them – to do school TO them. Instead, we want their curiosity, their willingness to take knowledge from wherever they think is appropriate, based upon the skill of discernment towards sources.

Who need to be the ‘lead lifelong learners’? The teachers. As education leaders we need to be very clear – this is unlikely to just simply happen by chance, certainly on the levels and frequency we need to influence children directly or indirectly. So, ways to get teachers on a long term journey of learning and to get it outwardly visible to children should be critical parts of our focus. Commitment to invest time in learning is almost always an additional commitment over and above the standard work that a teacher does (teaching time load etc.), not something you’re going to pay people extra for and not something you can really chastise a teacher for not doing. So, it’s critical that these teachers be;
a) engaged with their work,
b) motivated and positive in their outlook,
c) believing that investing effort in their own learning will be acknowledged and recognised by the school/ organisation,
d) seeing commitment to learning as one of the factors applied when considering who gets promoted/ leadership opportunities, and
e) inspired by a positive mission and vision for what the school seeks to achieve that makes them feel confident that commitment to more learning is a reasonable expectation.

The Economist published an interesting article last year entitled – How to Make a Good Teacher: What Matters in Schools is Teachers. Fortunately, Teaching Can be Taught
(Click on the link above to read the article)

It concerned me that the article failed to give due importance to these leadership related factors or the link between teachers learning and striving to improve and the need for children to develop as lifelong learners.

Other concerns were that the article so easily accepts a starting assumption that ‘grades and scores’ achieved by children are the measure of effective teaching. In such circumstances, we shouldn’t be at all surprised that many teachers become motivated to teach to the tests. If others are going to judge them on the basis of children’s test results, then they will do what it takes to have the children produce the highest possible test results.

There was one issue that the article gets right. This is an acknowledgement that within any school, overall good or poor, there will be pockets of excellence and pockets of mediocrity. Thus, for a parent or a pupil there is a degree of chance in whether they are the recipients of great teaching or not depending on which teacher teaches them, however good the school overall. I continue to feel that other industries and especially service industries would not consider this to be an acceptable compromise – that the experience of different customers can be so very different in standards depending on the individual they interact with. I believe that education has to continue to shift to acceptance that schools and leadership have the right to determine standard expectations – to define what are the ‘givens’ and to expect that teachers will commit to strive to achieve that level of standardisation as a minimum.

Next, the commitment to support the teacher’s learning and skills development to achieve those standard minimums should belong to both the school and the teacher. I get concerned at the frequency in schools and teacher culture where there is a perception that the only party paying (financially or in time) for teachers’ attendance at training or learning events, or conferences, should always be at the cost of the school.

The article touches upon the issue that is often discussed – how are the ‘best’ candidates attracted in to the profession of teaching? This is ironic as it really goes against the title and key directions of the article. If we believe that teaching can be learned and teachers are developed rather than born, then where the candidates come from should be less of an issue. This reminds me of a personal experience. When I was at Shri Ram, we took the management contract to manage a school in the Maldives under a public-private partnership with the Maldives government, known as Ghyasuddin International School. When i went to visit, i met many teachers already working in the school whose own education may have not gone much beyond higher secondary. They were very nervous and apprehensive that the new management would simply replace them with imported teachers from India. I set out to strongly get across to them that if they were willing to put in the effort, commitment and flexibility to learn what we wanted them to learn to teach to the standards that we were looking for, they had no reason to fear.

I recently met the Principal of that school and was very happy to learn that so many of those teachers are still in the school, having been transformed in their teaching and standards through a shared and common commitment to invest time and effort in learning.

My final thought on the article – I agree wholeheartedly with the writer’s belief that openness to feedback is a key part of what enables a teacher to grow, to learn and raise their game continuously. Of course, it goes without saying that you can never be too good – every teacher must believe that there is always something in their skills toolkit that they can make better.

Leadership For Teacher Learning

The ‘growth mindset’ of Stanford professor Carol Dweck is as important for teachers as it is for pupils, if we are to have schools that achieve effective learning for all students.

Dr Dylan Wiliams is a British educator who has become a renowned authority on strategic formative assessment. I was very glad to come across this webinar he did this week for Learning Sciences International. It's based on a new book he's just published.

He shares some fascinating research. What i particularly liked was that he challenges and questions some of the assumptions that have been drawn from past research and offers some alternative explanations. As he highlights, this is particularly important in terms of how leaders in education interpret research, draw conclusions and decide what to do in their schools as a result.

Unfortunately, I found that there were too many occasions when the visuals of the webinar weren't matching with what was being said. Fortunately, I was separately able to find a copy of the presentation slides, so that it's possible to see them independently from the audio. They can be found here:

Dylan Williams Center - leadership For Teacher Learning Slides

There are many points he raises. One I found interesting was the suggestion that, so far, there really are no effective ways to be able to tell who are the great teachers and who are not. This is a big issue when we know that the quality of teachers has a big impact for children. I liked his idea that if a teacher doesn't talk in terms of believing that they can gt better then this should be seen as a warning sign. Teachers who are committed to their own continuous improvement offer the best chance for raising educational standards. Teachers who believe they are as good as they can get (fixed mindset) are a risk in the classroom.

I was especially interested in his findings about formative assessment and also the research on comparing the costs of particular initiatives, the quality of evidence in favour of the intervention and the size of benefit it achieved.

The five processes of formative assessment was really valuable;

a) Clarifying, sharing and understanding learning intentions,
b) Eliciting evidence of prior learning,
c) Providing (motivating) feedback that moves learners forward,
d) Activating students as learning resources for each other (peer learning),
e) Activating students as owners of their own learning

I think that Wiliam's conclusions are spot on when he suggests that if teachers are to be growing and improving practice continually, there is an onus on both the teachers themselves and their leaders to create the climate and environment for this to happen. He also suggests some useful signs that progress is being made.

I would urge all teachers and education leaders who are regular readers of this blog to invest the time to watch the webinar. I think you'll find it time well spent.