Sunday, 23 June 2019

System No - Why we need to stop complicating teaching and schools?

Look at parents’ evening. I’d say that the process of parents’ evening is a very polished system of interactions for teachers. They will adapt or subtly change depending on the context, but more or less the process is the exact same one. Greet. Praise. Discuss progress. Identify ways to improve. Good bye. That process is them repeated thirty times, or if you are subject like Art, then you do three hundred times in one night.

If we treated parents’ evening like we teach lessons, then we’d have thirty different ways to run the session. For parent A, I have constructed a crossword. For parent B, I thought I’d tell them a story. For parent C, I have used the media of art to comment on their child’s behaviour. For parent D, I use silence. For that one process, I could, if I did it like teaching, have hundreds of approaches and systems for dealing with parents. But, I don’t. I have the one process and I adapt that process for the context with the parents. I don’t plan thirty different ways. I just do one.

Schools love a system. That love stealing systems and adding systems to existing systems. I have worked in several schools and they’ve all been obsessed with their systems. A system for marking. A system for behaviour. A system for data. They love stealing systems that other schools use. They love using systems that Ofsted seem to prefer. Yesterday, I spoke to someone who informed me that their school have three systems to deal with behaviour.

I love a system. I love a systematic approach. I park in the same spot every day and I live life according to little systems. The system, rational or irrational, helps make my life easier and how I cope with a difficult and demanding job. If I can’t park in my spot, my little system is out of kilter. But, we have hundreds of systems we live by. A system for dressing. A system for locking the house. A system for food shopping. We use systems to make life easier and remove the cognitive strain on our brains. If I follow a process I use to lock the house, then I am confident that my house is secure. Therefore, I don’t need to think about that part of my life during my day.

In schools, people often get the blame, when it is often the system’s fault. Systems are hard to hold accountable, but people are usually the face of systems. It is usually ‘who’s to blame?’ instead of ‘what’s to blame?’. In fact, we observe teachers on a personal level for lesson observations. We don’t refer to a teacher’s systems.

Let’s go back to parents’ evening. What if rethought the way we taught in terms of a system? What if we had a clear system for teaching poetry? What if we taught each poem we teach in a clear systematic way? What if my colleagues taught poetry in the same way? What if as a school we taught poetry in the same way? It’s up to us to decide the process, but we could uniformly follow the same process. You just adapted the process subtly to the poem.

We have an obsession with variety. There are four billion – I’ve counted them – ways to teach a poem. Our problem is that we might have a week of teaching of poetry for a week (hypothetical idea rather than reality). That could be 25 different systems for teaching a poem. Let’s look at the start of those lessons:

1: YouTube video

2: Drama

3: Eating a sweet

$: Puzzle

6: An image

I could go on. There would be 25 different approaches and 25 different processes to teach a poem. This was certainly the problem before when engagement was a huge emphasis in education. You’d be working on planning complex and intricate lessons to enforce fun on students. The system for teaching a poem doesn’t become a clear process, but actually 25 different systems. Is it any wonder student teachers find teaching difficult? We aren’t teaching them the best system; we are teaching them the best hundred systems. We are expecting a novice to decide which one is the best system in this context and then judging them on it. Well, I am sorry your lesson wasn’t good because you used process 2 when you should have used process 99? What do you mean you haven’t learnt that one yet?

Why don’t we teach student teachers one approach and get them to refine and adapt that process?

My daughters had an awful experience in school with Maths, because of a school’s policy of teaching them several different and varying processes to complete long division. Instead of becoming an expert of one, they became novices in several to the point they had difficulty in deciding which system to use when faced with the problem. The school made them novices rather than experts in Maths. That is the danger we have in schools. We should be the problem solvers and not the problem makers. We should have this as our philosophy. Are we giving students too many systems to learn?

Hey, if I am using hundred different systems for approaching a poem, I am teaching students a hundred different ways to do things. Am I making problems or am I solving problems?

There is a conflict in education. Team Creativity. Team Uniform. They have battled over grammar, reading, writing and several things in the past. At the moment, Team Creativity are probably reaching for the smelling salts and lit a scented a lavender candle to combat my cold, grey, soulless heart. By definition, the texts we deal are creative and soul enriching, but I will probably the big (well short) bad meanie weanie  for suggesting that we look at making it about one process that ensures consistency, harmony and cognitive ease for students [and teachers] in a systematic and routine approach when teaching these texts. Why don’t we have one system for teaching a poem that we refine subtly and complexly? Why don’t we use that system to build and support learning? Why don’t we work on that system to make it the best? Why do we insist on using hundreds of approaches to teach on thing?

If we had one system for teaching poetry, we’d save teachers planning. We’d support them in their teaching. We’d say that you can save your energy and effort for making sure the experience is the best one in the classroom. They’d focus much more on the learning instead of worrying if the Youtube video will work or if the chocolate has melted in their bag for Period 5. We’d support the teachers and the students with cognitive processes and cognitive overload. We’d be basically reducing planning and organisation.

Team Creativity will think that I am crushing creativity. Here’s my answer to that argument. How do artists, poets and writers get their ideas? They pick up ideas from life around them. They don’t pick it up from enforced creativity meetings. They don’t meet with their managers and do some blue sky thinking around a table. They find their ideas hidden on a bus. Down the back of sofa. They find inspiration in the gaps of life. Not in a creative lesson. In fact, the texts themselves teach creativity. They reveal it. They show it. So, can you tell the man with the sniper rifle to stop pointing the red dot at me Team Creativity?

We changed the system for writing in KS3. We used the 200 Word Challenge to systematically teach writing. We weekly teach a different writing style, vocabulary, sentence structure with a very clear repetitive structure. Students know it. Teachers know it. It has reduced our planning and stress, but at the same time it has made students write more in lessons and write more creativity. Creativity and Uniformity can hold hands sometimes.

This term is an important one. There is somebody somewhere in your school tapping away at a laptop with their PowerPoint slide for INSET in September. They are physically typing stress and increasing stress for teachers. They are planning a new system. A new system that teachers are going to have to learn in September and process and internalise. Then, the students are going to learn that system.  

This term should be about tweaking the systems in place and changing them subtly. Or, reducing the cognitive overload for teachers. I go back to the parents’ evening example, because it is the best to highlight my point. A single process repeated again with slight changes and subtle amendments. Teaching is hard and it is harder if we are not working to simplify the process.

Thanks for reading,


1 comment:

  1. I've just bought your book electronically. I am also relieved to discover that compliacting is just a typo and not another new thing I haven't heard of!


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