This article was written for Autus Books and was first published in May 2016. You can read the original version here. You can more of my articles for Autus Books here or visit Autus’s Book Blog at www.solutionsforschool.co.uk.
This is part one of a two-part article.
There’s a famous and possibly apocryphal story that Alan Bennett was asked to rename the film adaptation of his stage play The Madness of George III to The Madness of King George for fear that American audiences wouldn’t go to see it because they’d assume they’d missed the first two films in the trilogy.
Teach 2 is a sequel of sorts but it’s not essential you’ve read the first book. You won’t find any exciting cliff-hangers being resolved in the pages of this book, or unravel any twisted plot-lines within the well-worn folds of its dust-jacket.
Instead, Teach 2 says some of the things I forgot to say in Teach as well as some of the things I’ve learnt since writing the first book because – and isn’t this just the best thing about life – every day is a school day. And if I ever need proof of that, I watch an episode of University Challenge. Just when I think I know it all, I sit through half an hour of Jeremy Paxman (seemingly speaking a foreign language) and I realise that I’m a complete and utter moron.
Teach was about the science of learning and whilst I stand by everything I said in that book I have come to regret not laying down some foundations first. For example, I didn’t make clear that before we can talk about cognitive science in any meaningful way, we need to address the rules and routines of an effective classroom.
So Teach 2 takes us right back to basics, to the building blocks that make great teachers and great teaching.
Just in case you are one of the few tight-fisted unintellectual ingrates who didn’t buy Teach and yet can’t be bothered to purchase it now (don’t worry, my kids can survive another year without shoes) then here is a short synopsis (not that you deserve it)…
The Bayesian Method – we’re better together
In Teach I began by recounting the story of the American submarine, the USS Scorpion, which was declared lost on 5 June 1968 and all its ninety-nine crewmen presumed dead. Although an immediate search was initiated, it was without success because, with a potential search area stretching out thousands of square miles, it was like finding a needle in a haystack. Accordingly, the USS Scorpion was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 30 June.
Later that year, however, another search led by John Craven (no, not the one from Newsround; the Chief Scientist of the US Navy’s Special Projects Division) employed rather different methods to try to find the vessel. Dr Craven polled a wide array of specialists in various fields for their thoughts of where the sub might be. Their guesses were then pooled into a single average guess. This method draws on the Bayesian theory that was first deployed during the search for a hydrogen bomb lost off the coast of Palomares, Spain, in January 1966. Not one of the experts’ guesses was right but the average of all their guesses was surprisingly accurate and led the recovery team to within just 183 metres of the lost sub.
In Teach I said that I believed in the Bayesian method of improving teaching and learning…
In other words, I confessed that I did not possess a panacea, I did not have an elixir, a pill which once popped would proffer outstanding teaching and learning every time, and I didn’t expect any of my readers to know the secret to outstanding teaching and learning either. However – like Craven’s team of experts – together, I believed we would find all the answers. In short – and I wanted this to be the motto of my book – I said that, as a teaching profession, we were better together.
The Pareto Principle – keeping the main thing, the main thing
The Nineteenth Century philosopher William James famously said that “the art of being wise is knowing what to overlook” and in Teach I advocated we should do just that. In other words, we should focus on the most important aspects of teaching and learning – the real drivers of change – and take small but sustainable steps forward. We should not adopt a different focus each week, whereby one initiative erases all memory of the last. Nor should we employ a ‘one size fits all’ approach that assumes that all aspects of our schools and colleges share the same strengths and weaknesses. Instead, we should ensure a personalised, common sense approach to improvement planning.
In Teach I also explained that economists have an 80/20 rule which they call “the law of the vital few” which is also known as the Pareto Principle – named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who observed in 1906 that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. Joseph Juran developed the principle by observing that 20% of the pea-pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas. From this, we get the popular belief that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In business, for example, it is believed that 80% of sales come from 20% of customers.
It follows, therefore, that to achieve great teaching and learning in our schools and colleges we should focus on improving the 20% of things that create the most value. We’ll get stronger results if we spend our time practising the most important things and even if we already do the most important things well, there is real value in practising them further because the value of practice increases once the thing being practised has been mastered. In Practice Perfect Doug Lemov et al say that to keep practising something once we’ve already mastered it is to develop automaticity, fluidity, and creativity.
There’s another advantage to focusing on the main thing. As Ben Levin – the former Deputy Director of Education in Ontario – says, “One of the challenges in education is that the pizzazz is around having the seemingly new idea, whereas the real work is in making it happen… Having a great new idea is less important to success than getting ordinary things done correctly and efficiently”. The main thing has to be about what works in the classroom because, as Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam say in their book Inside the Black Box, “Standards are raised only by changes which are put into direct effect by teachers and students in classrooms”.
The Big 3 – learning from the evidence
In deciding what the ‘main thing’ is, I believe in evidence-based practice. I believe we should use evidence gleaned from our own observations and from wide-ranging discussions with colleagues, as well as from quality external sources. In Teach I argued that there are three aspects of formative assessment in particular which I believe hold the key to unlocking the secret of great teaching. I called these three strategies the ‘Big 3’ and they were:
- Questioning, and
These three strategies underpinned Teach because I was certain – and still am for that matter – that they are in the 20% of drivers, they are ‘the main things’ that if improved will lead to great teaching and learning.
In part two of this article I will continue my synopsis of Teach and summarise what I believe outstanding teaching and learning looks like in practice…
Part Two coming soon