If you ever hang around my blog long enough you may come across a long list of ‘educational books which you may enjoy’. I read a lot of these: primarily because I enjoy reading about the teaching experiences of others, but also because I like to keep abreast of new strategies, new techniques, new research. I am, some may say, a teaching geek; and I’m not ashamed to admit it. As a professional, I believe it is my duty to keep up to date with research and change my practice accordingly. There is, however, a problem with that.
Teaching is, to all intents and purposes, a situational undertaking; we make hundreds of decisions during our day, many of them instinctive, based on years of experience; many of them based on school policy or moral values; many of them borne of the professional development we undertake as part of our every day duties. Being a teacher means your day is, as Thomas Newkirk says: one of ‘virtually constant decision-making’. (Newkirk, 2009) So where does academic reading fit in then?
We can be an obstinate lot, we teachers, can’t we? We have our own theories about ‘what works’ in our classrooms and, while I would hope that we are all open to new ideas, we are wary of new research from academics who may seem to be somewhat distant from the classroom. And, no matter how well a theory has been researched, no matter how well promoted a new strategy has been, it is the teacher who has to ensure its success. So researchers and academics do not create theories and tell us ‘what works’. We are the ones to make it happen and we are the ones to blame if it doesn’t. There is something about that that doesn’t quite sit well with me.
‘A teaching method that is effective in the voluntary and supported environment of a research study is not likely to be as effective in a textbook-driven, mandated system with less expert support and less buy in from teachers.’ (Newkirk, 2009)
Having thirty teenagers in front of you, day in, day out, is a complex business. Thirty different personalities, thirty different moods, thirty different lives. Spinning plates doesn’t even begin to paint an accurate picture. So the additional pressure of test driving – and that is what it is – new theories can be fraught with danger. Imposing strategies which have worked elsewhere is almost a guarantee of disaster if the teacher is not involved in the process. Imposing new ideas on classrooms merely absolves the teacher of responsibility if it goes wrong.
‘Whenever teachers and students feel disempowered and subservient, they both react by adopting a stance common to those who feel powerless and put upon: they try to get through their assigned tasks, get by them, get them over with.’ (Fried, 2005)
Teachers are not being childish and stubborn if we don’t bow down to the great God research. We merely want to be involved in the process. Great opportunities pass us by when that new initiative is passed on to us at the next in-service day. Give us time to work with colleagues, time to gear that strategy towards those thirty kids in front of us; time to make it work. If that happens, I’ll do it, you know. I’ll definitely do it.
Newkirk, Thomas, (2009) Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones (Heinemann, New Hampshire)
Fried, Robert L, (2005), The Game of School, (Jossey-Bass, san Francisco)