Dr Nicholas Capstick
Sharing our true colours
(or hide the chameleon)
In an age of uncertainty in which the future of the current HMCI is never sure, where one wonders if the latest speech from the Secretary of State will be his last and where Ofsted schedules are revised, changed or additional guidance issued on a daily basis it is not surprising that too many lessons have slipped into chameleon mode drawing from the neutral pallet of safety rather than with the invigorating vibrancy of innovation and development. This however, is against a backdrop which calls for us to be self-reforming, in charge of our own destiny as suggested by a certain Mr Gove for some time now. The quotes below taken from a number of speeches identify his passion for us to be masters and mistresses of our own destiny.
• “…the best people to be driving change in our education system and setting higher standards than ever before should be teachers….”
• “…teachers should be in charge that lies behind our structural reform programme in education….”
• “…It’s teachers – at every level – who are shaping the future…”
• “…The future of education is being written, right now, by teachers…”
And do you know what, I largely agree with him, not about everything I grant you but certainly about this, we should grab the reins and become the reformers and modernisers of our profession. Others have done it with a much bolder voice than ours.
Take the Modernist art movement with all of its colour, challenge and new ways of looking at things, a good example is Hans Hofmann’s oil on canvas painting ‘The Gate’, 1959–60.( Hans_Hofmann’s_painting_’The_Gate’,_1959–60.jpg.). This is a painting full of life, large bold blocks of colour, inviting to the eye and making a statement which engages the viewer and draws them in.
But uncertainty of course brings a definite reluctance to take risks, push boundaries and be innovative or even provocative but it also stifles creativity and puts a glass ceiling over ingenuity for fear of it not being acceptable. The spectre of Ofsted and its ever-changing rules and nuances of what is and what might be good or outstanding in a lesson is bound to encourage colleagues to err on the side of caution. It hovers like a “Death Eater” from a Harry Potter novel waiting to swoop and devour us all, or does it? Does the Chief Inspector of Schools really double as the notorious Lord Voldemort and do his faithful followers really have dark marks burned into their arms as a sign of loyalty to him? Or is it all in our minds? What is true however is that we are seeing blended education of the worst type, a Tapioca of pedagogy which will always keep us full but will rarely excite and never intrigue the palate and one which might ultimately make us reject the menu itself.
Surely there is a different path that we should be collectively treading, maybe one which is not as vibrant as the one Dorothy took in the Wizard of Oz but one which school leaders and educators alike should be shouting from the rooftops about, one which beckons to the underpinning truths of what has always been good teaching and good learning.
We need to revisit what used to make “Outstanding lessons”, outstanding. In my opinion and maybe looking through rose tinted spectacles I think it was because of a few very colourful truths, the core multihued ingredients of good teaching and learning.
o The vibrant red of the “Invitation to Learn” – It is all too easy to forget the amateur status of our pupils in juxtaposition to the professional status of the teacher. We get paid to be here – they don’t; we chose to be here in this very setting every day – they don’t, they are sent to us and only rarely would choose to come on a voluntary basis; we decide on the learning for the day – they don’t; and so on it goes. The fact is that the onus to make our lessons engaging, to capture the pupil’s spirit and to make learning compelling is on our shoulders as teachers. We have no right to expect our pupils and students to engage because we say they should or the curriculum dictates that they must. Therefore our invitation to learn, our opening gambit and our follow through of exciting challenging activities in lessons which entice learning from our pupils must be our first step. I know it’s obvious but all too often because of either a lack of training or real understanding of how children learn our NQTs and RQTs have been fed on a smorgasbord of target setting and target getting and all at a cost to creativity and understanding the science of teaching and learning. Data and understanding the sub level relationship between parts of the curriculum are important but so is our understanding of the physiology of learning, what makes us want to learn, what makes our blood pump faster when learning, what makes us have a heightened awareness of our own abilities, all of this knowledge is lacking in some of the new breed of teaching staff. Does asking a child what level they are on tell you if they are aware of how and why they learning in a particular way?
o The contrasting but invigorating slate grey of “Success at the edge of failure” – The first time a marathon runner completes a marathon it’s the exhilaration of completion that they feel not the muscle fatigue of completing twenty-six plus miles of staggering endurance. Being taken to the edge of failure, the precipice which suggests we will not complete what we need to complete and then overcoming it takes effort and courage but the rewards, mainly found in our own psyche, are unimaginable. This is what real progress looks like in a lesson, taking a child to the edge of their learning but making sure they have the tools to extend even further. This is what makes the “best of the best” in every walk of life so good at what they do. They trust their trainer, observe strict dietary rules, and train for short bursts of energetic input and sustained, tenacious spells of endurance. They enjoy overcoming the challenges which prevent them getting too close to the edge of failure; they touch the grey but never the black of disaster.
o The dangerous yellow of “Risk Taking”—There used to be a time when we were not afraid to learn from our mistakes, we embraced a little bit of failure and had time to reflect, freedom to understand the frisson of the emotional thrill to innovate. We knew nobody would die if the lesson was known to have heard its last rights. This is where true professional reflection and improvement took place but more importantly curriculum innovation and practitioner led development thrived. An unacceptable lesson did not sound the death knoll of one’s career and was used to learn from and move forward, now an informal support plan beckons and the potential of a capability proceeding hangs large over the head of the teacher found to be lacking. Where are our informal learning communities, the time we used to have in staff rooms to chat about what we did that day, the opportunity to rejoice in our daily successes in the classroom and to laugh at our failures with colleagues? This is where CPD agendas used to start, where school improvement plans were germinated, where real curriculum rejuvenation began. It wasn’t measured by the latest constricts contained within a government paper or a new agenda created by Ofsted, it was organic and in the best schools where truly stunning education took place.
o The robust challenge to the green of “Negative Habits of Mind” – I can’t juggle, I’ve never been able to juggle no matter how hard I try and now I don’t want to even attempt to juggle because you know what? I can’t juggle. My fear and loathing of juggling has grown from my belief in my abject failure of being able to juggle at an early age and is not different to the child who says they can’t do Maths or Literacy. You start by trying to do something and you fail at it, not your fault but you tell yourself you can’t do it. You try again and because it hasn’t been fully deconstructed into its component parts you still can’t do it and, you know what, you believe for a second time you can’t do it. After the third time of failure you believe that not only can’t you do it but you will never be able to do it so there’s no point trying, the belief system begins. Over time there’s no point even attempting to do that which you cannot do because you have formed a habit of mind that you’ll never be able to do it. You become comfortable with your failure and this comfort turns to challenge or even aggression later on when asked or even more infuriating, you are told you can do it.
o Why is it so different for children and their learning? All too often in a lesson when a child “just doesn’t get it” we repeat the same old rubbish, the same style and use the same resources as we used the first time. Surely practice makes perfect? Surely if the rest can get it why not them? What makes us think a child willingly enjoys not understanding or taking their learning forward in a lesson?
o The gentle blue of “Staying Calm- a lost art in education” – Yoga should be compulsory for anyone engaged in any aspect of the educative process, from the Minister to the caretaker and from the Principal of a school to the Mid-day supervisor of children. It’s less harmful than drugs, tobacco or alcohol and it will undoubtedly help all of our arthritic leg joints caused by too many knee jerk reactions. The teaching profession is bruised, it has “swivel neck disorder” caused by continually doing owl like impressions when looking for the next thing coming. For as long as it has to keep looking over its shoulder to see what’s being thrown at it next from all directions it will continue to stumble into the immoveable objects of confusion, insincerity, uncertainty, change and fear. All of these are good in small doses, measured amounts which challenge, stimulate and even make us reflect personally if not publicly on our own practice but we are all too often in survive not thrive mode. The adrenalin rush which should be focussing on quality improvement is clearly set only on quality assurance, assuring we meet this target or that, assuring we are above this standard or that, assuring we sit here in the league tables rather than there. High value “Quality Improvement” of course needs to encapsulate benchmarking but it must also embrace the culture, vision but more importantly the values which bring about sustainable and life invigorating change in our school system.
o And finally the beautiful rainbow that is “ Collaboration In Education” – Having said all of the above I am not ashamed to say I really like a great many of the opportunities offered to us to collaborate with each other in the schools and education sector. Multi Academy Trusts, federations and collaborations offer us the opportunity to get together with likeminded souls and to move the education debate forward within our immediate school community. The opportunity for Head Teachers and Principals to network within a small group which is large enough to stimulate debate and energise a locality is immensely exciting prospect. Or for curriculum leaders to unpick what is working in our schools and what needs fixing could be truly thrilling but also for NQTs to be able to cluster together to share their successes and gently exorcise their classroom hiccups must appeal enormously.
There has been a reduction in a Local Authority’s capacity to offer local support interventions thereby creating a vacuum in some of the helpful systems we used to enjoy. When combined with a significant move away from central Government to administer or govern from the top the opportunity to embrace the “School led systems of reform”, advocated by the DfE, and based within a locality or regions has never been greater.
The non-geographical or Local Authority boundaries enjoyed by Teaching Schools Alliances also offer a great opening for schools to collaborate “sans frontier” and this is something which should be grasped and not ignored.
All of this comes at a price; the small cost of putting aside any rivalries, personalities and preciousness about who we are or what we have achieved in order to build a shared prescience of collaboration, a combined will of school improvement and a collective vision underpinned by values which will bring about a more collegiate way of working.
Until however we stop looking over our shoulders, start to embrace all that is good in sharing and celebrating the joys of our profession but more importantly until we take the time to be an educational Meerkat which sits on its hind quarters for a while, reviews the landscape, sees the dangers but also embraces the opportunity to enjoy the sunshine we are destined to continue to be compelled to draw from the muted palette of mediocrity at best or the pallid insipidness of magnolia tones.
It’s not too far off from my birthday in April, I’d like a Waikiki Blue Hawaiian shirt please, no, make it red. Why not!