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I'm A Teacher, Not A Mechanic!

Last year We heard from Dylan Wiliam, Paul Black and others about their concerns regarding Formative Assessment and how the implementation and introduction of their findings and recommendations into schools had stalled, and required revisiting. They noted that we were well over ten years from publication of their paper 'Inside the Black Box' but we still weren't there with delivery of FA. Why? Wiliam argued that their original work and ideas had been taken by others and almost corrupted as these were broken down into mere indicators for Heads, inspectors, observers and others to look for as confirmation that FA and it's strategies were in place in a school or classroom. Various providers of CPD to schools and teachers began running courses on the techniques and gimmicks teachers could use in the classroom to demonstrate their application of FA principles into their practice. So we were flooded with WALTS, WILFS, traffic lights, thumbs, lollipop sticks, three stars and a wish marking grids, personal learning plans, and all the rest. Companies made lots of money producing and selling these and other resources that would 'deliver formative assessment in your classroom!'

Trouble was,13 years later and FA strategies and principles were no longer there in many classrooms, or if they were they were not having the predicted impact. Their use had become very mechanistic and  formulaic. It would appear that many schools and teachers had looked on FA as another latest fad or 'thing' to do in school development and when the next 'thing', and the next, had come along FA had dropped off, or been pushed back, in the agenda. They had forgot, or never understood, that FA was about excellent teaching and learning practices, about promoting and developing the learners as active participants in the process, and about using assessment to support and develop this process. In essence it was about best practice in our core role and gave us evidenced strategies on how we could maintain and develop high standards of practice,  with positive and improved impacts for learners. It was never supposed to be seen as another 'thing' for teachers and schools to do, but something that needed to be understood and embedded in practice.

I don't know about you, but this is a pattern I can recognise in many well intentioned, researched and evidenced developments over many years. It's as though schools and teachers have been so swamped by so many such initiatives, and not given the time to really embed and understand them, that they, and others, have attempted to distill them into the lowest common denominator of simple linear steps to follow, just as you might when following a handbook on car maintenance.

I see the same threat to our own Scottish Curriculum for Excellence where schools and others seek to simplify what is a complex and messy process. Again companies are immediately producing a plethora of resources that are 'matched to CfE'. I have had a rep in my office telling me 'this is going to deliver Curriculum for Excellence!' My response was 'oh you think so!' Teachers deliver curriculums, resources can only support this.

I don't just blame us in schools for this happening, because I see this as a direct result of the constant pressure schools have been placed under to change, improve and develop. I support this process, but it needs to be done in a deep, meaningful, sustainable and managed way, and that needs quality time.Trouble is that every new Government, or minister, or director, inspector, or senior education officer, or, dare I say it, Headteacher, wants to make an impression and leave a mark. The result? Teachers and schools under a constant change agenda, that can become rapidly out of their control. Everybody busy but not achieving the impacts they desire because of the speed on which they move on to the next development.

 This also promotes a mechanistic approach to school development and improvement.

Anyone with any experience of teaching and learning knows that there is very little about the process that is linear. Learning is messy and complicated. So if you promote developments that are linear and expect linear progression you are bound for disappointment. Very good teachers know that all their learners are in different places in terms of their learning and understanding. They know that they will respond to different stimuli in different ways. They recognise that all sorts of factors outside of school, and their relationships with fellow learners will impact on their learning. They realise that at times they will plateau in their learning, and may need to retrace their steps. They understand that making mistakes is a crucial part of the process. They know that new learning needs further practice and needs to be consolidated in different contexts. They recognise that all of this takes time and cannot, and should not be, rushed. Teachers are fabulous at adjusting their teaching to take all of this into account.Exactly the same principles apply to school and teacher development.

If you insist on distilling complex change into simple steps to follow, without giving teachers and schools the necessary space and time to understand, embed and consolidate, then the impact of of whatever worthy development you are engaged in is going to be negligible or diminished. I don't want teachers who replicate things they have been told, or have seen, but have no understanding of why they are doing this and how it impacts on pupil learning. Teaching is complex, responsive and nuanced. We work with learners of all ages and all backgrounds. There is no one model of a pupil, as there is in car manufacture, every single one of them is different, and can be different every day. Our teaching practice needs to be responsive I've to all of this.

We also need to recognise that any new development worth engaging with will be equally complex and needs a flexibility in its implementation to recognise and deal with the differences in every school and their needs.

Be wary of those who present complex change as simple linear steps. This might be good if you are working on you car, but is hardly appropriate when dealing with changing people and practice.

I am a professional, not a car mechanic!

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