Thursday, September 08, 2011

Teachers have been led down the wrong path these past decades - time to control their own journey.

Teachers have been led down the wrong  path ( assembly line)  of a modern economic technocratic business model of teaching - all about measurement, comparison and standardisation.Nothing to do with the true purpose of education of developing the diverse talents of all students. Like workers in Henry Ford's factories teachers seem unaware of the effects of this standardisation approach.

Since the mid eighties education,along with every other aspect of our life, has been under the influence of a 'market forces' approach to life - an approach based on placing economic needs above equally important wider issues of the common good. Only things that can be measured are felt worthwhile. Competition and individual enterprise were to be the driving force of this brave new world. Life was seen as a form of 'economic Darwinism'.

To justify this approach politicians spread the myth that education is in crisis and that new ideas were needed to ensure students are 'produced' that can  contribute to the needs of the economy -an economy based on the philosophy of 'market forces' - a society based on competition - all to do with winners and losers.

The answer was to blame the teachers for failing students and, at the same time, seeing teachers as the solution to the problem. Unfortunately the issues on disparity of opportunities between students were ignored. The answer is  to impose on teachers  ways to improve student achievement  -and more importantly  in ways that technocrats could measure - reading, writing and mathematics. Hence National Standards. That New Zealand has been one of the top performing countries for these area since the 70s is happily ignored  as is the fact that the countries that were these ideas  are being implemented ( the UK and the US) are well  behind New Zealand  in international 'league tables'.

The imposed accountability model being imposed on schools have their roots in the discipline of economics rather than education. Education has been reduced to metrics, standardised teaching through 'best practices', endless testing and aggregated data to assess 'added value'.

Unfortunately this approach fails to capture the complex factors that go into teaching and learning and misses encouraging creativity, innovation and the tapping of the diverse talents of students. One measurement fits all it seems - students being sorted out into degrees of doubtful standards. An educational 'Procrustean bed'.

The economists like to see it alas improving 'human capital' of the teachers. Outside experts set about to improving schools, their vision not clouded by the reality that teachers face. 'Selected' teachers are then employed on contract , after being hurriedly trained,  to deliver schools imposed solutions. The idea of seeing principal as an 'instructional leader' has seen them turn from educators to monitors, evaluators, data collectors.This  obsession on accountability focused on  narrow literacy and numeracy targets is to the detriment of the wider curriculum. Such principals have become part of the problem.

What is being forgotten in all this is missing  any understanding about how teachers gain their individual expertise. Technocrats  work on the basis that it is a simple matter of transmission backed up by heavy handed compliance requirements ( as with the enforcing of approved targets in School Charters) . Finally  school are brought into line by  the power of the education Review Office who have their orders to ensure schools are complying.

All this has little to do with education. And it is worrying the number of school that go along with it all unaware of the consequences. It seems to be an example of 'creeping Eichmanism' - they feel they have no choice but to do what they are told. Some schools happily act as 'Judas Sheep' encouraging others to follow the wrong path - some don't  even realize they are on the wrong path

This current ideology of imposed school reform may look efficient but it is  dangerous to the development of teacher expertise and in turn to wider student creativity. Obviously it is important to improve the human capital of teachers  but it ought not to be the focus for school reform as it places pressure on individual teachers.Equally obviously every effort needs to be made to improve principal capability but once again it is not the real answer.

In reality teachers build up their expertise  through their relationships with other teachers - some call this 'social capital'. When one considers why some teachers are more effective than others it is not about training or qualifications it is more about where they go to get their knowledge? Where do they go when they have a problem? Where do they go to sound out their ideas? Who do they confide in? The answers to these questions are important. Where relationships in a school are characterised by high trust and frequent interactions this is when students are found to do their best.

In successful schools research is showing  teachers seek advice of each other - not outside 'experts' or their principals. Often teachers feel vulnerable in expressing their worries to outside 'experts' and principals. 'Social capital' is is a significant factor in both teacher and, in turn, their students' success. If teachers are isolated then their knowledge base suffers. Teachers who collaborate share a wide range of views and strategies for each other to pick up on in a non threatening environment. It is all too easy to get stuck if a teacher works alone, or doesn't feel comfortable in asking for help. With strong 'social capital ' ( sharing and collaborating) even teachers who might once have struggled improve. This is the power of a positive learning culture  and establishing this is possibly the key role of team leaders and principals. Buddying new teachers with trusted mentors is part of this approach as long as it is kept informal - this is the power of peer to peer learning.

It is worth considering how principals hinder or assist the developments of 'socil capital'. It seems that 'social capital' is improved when principals collaborate and share with other principals rather than trying to be instructional leaders.  They are best when they are developing 'external social capital' and acting in their schools as facilitators Surveillance cultures and heavy handed compliance add little to teacher capability.

All this shows that the current emphasis on imposing training to improve individual teacher capability is counterproductive. It would be better of those outside of the school  involved themselves in ways to encourage collaboration and sharing.

It also indicates the importance of the power of teachers sharing ideas with each other as a source of individual teacher growth. Talking other teachers is integral to teacher and , in turn, student success. A culture based on positive relationships is vital. Any effort by authority's to blame teachers for student failure is counterproductive.

And it shows that principals need to get out and share ideas with other principals, their parents and the wider community.

In my experience it has only been when teachers are sharing idea ( being their own experts) that real educational advances are made -and better still if this involves sharing expertise between schools.

Current  top down and compliance approaches by the Ministry, including most of all the ideology of standardised teaching/testing, is counterproductive.

Creative teachers have aways known this.

Let's ditch the 'you can have any colour as long as it is black' Henry Ford and his modern day followers and get back to  valuing diversity, creativity and the wise ideals of John Dewey.

Lets value the collective wisdom of creative  teachers.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Bruce for still having the energy to fly the flag for teachers - no one seems to listen to teachers these days.It seems they only exist to 'deliver' what distant 'experts' deem important.

Alison said...

A great post Bruce. Everything you say is very true and I could give so many examples. As Anonymous says - Thanks for hanging in there for us - the teachers!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks anon and Alison. Everything is so hard for teachers to get together to act as a force for creative change - even in their own schools.

Heidi said...

Great to see these ideas clarified so thoughtfully.I see social capital as the ordinary teacher's best defense as the black clouds of National Standards, National testing, and performance pay descend upon us.