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The Venus Flytrap of teaching and professional development



This post was prompted by a number of articles, reports, tweets and conversations I have seen or had recently. All of these were around teacher professional development and teacher professionalism. Some were by, or about, respected academics, and others were by teachers, school leaders, or those with an interest in education. However, there was a common thread or tone amongst them all. This was the frustration felt by many that there is still a persistent gap (yet another!) between what we know has the best chance of working in our schools, based on sound evidence or  research, and the practice and attitudes which still persist in many schools and classrooms. 

Why the Venus Flytrap metaphor then? 

As you may well know, the Venus Flytrap is a carnivorous plant that tempts prey, in the form of small flies and insects, through its attractive appearance, smells and the offer of easy food for them. When the unsuspecting fly or insect goes to investigate and lands on the plants pad-like leaves, these close and trap them, to be slowly digested by their benign looking host. I caution, I am not a botanist, but the scenario is suitably gruesome for consideration, as well as publication on Halloween!

What I was detecting, amongst the articles, posts and conversations I mentioned, was the frustration of many of the participants, leading to some to suggest we should be just continue telling schools and teachers what to do, especially if we know 'what works.' Therein lies the trap.

One report told of staff from a university working with school leaders and a member of staff from different schools, providing these representatives with professional development, or training, in strategies to close gaps in attainment. These school representatives then went back to their schools to disseminate what they had learned amongst the rest of the staff. The strategies they were covering were absolutely sound, based on research and evidence, but I was concerned about the model being used, which could lead to teachers being told again 'this is what to do', perpetuating the model of 'teacher as technician.' 

I was involved in conversations yesterday at the GTCS (General Teaching Council For Scotland) where we were considering the professional standards, and in particular teacher professionalism. The group I was part of was focusing on  the leadership standards. Part of the feedback that the GTCS has had so far in consultations with the profession about the standards, and their possible revamp, is that many of the profession had indicated they would like more 'exemplification' of what the standards look like in practice. This immediately concerned me, and others, because our view was the more detail and exemplars we put into standards, then the more likely they become boxes to tick, or directions to follow, when in fact, how each person interprets and brings the standards to life in their practice should be shaped by each individual and their unique context. I do think though, that such a request was a reflection of  the mindsets and attitudes that have been created in teachers and school leaders because of the way the system has operated over many years. We have de-professionalised teachers and school leaders by top-down direction and the strength of hierarchies.

This was contrasted in the afternoon when professor Kate Wall from Strathclyde spoke to us about practitioner enquiry. This is professional development that is grounded in each individual's practice and context, and which is shaped by them and the learning of their learners. It is not done to them, but very much by them. Kate spoke of how enquiry gets practitioners to think of questions about what is going on in their classrooms, which can lead to difficult, or even no satisfactory, conclusions. But the process of reflecting and thinking is still a powerful one, which we all should develop as a professional disposition. One of the difficulties she faced when working with teaching staff, was not giving them the answers when they asked questions, but providing them with the time and space to  discover these themselves. She pointed out that the characteristics of any systematic enquiry are also the characteristics of good learning practices.

Anyone, who has worked in schools and taught for a length of time, comes to understand more and more the challenges posed by learning and teaching, and the shifting-sands of relationships and contexts. Skilled teachers are not merely technicians, they display high levels of reflection, adaptive expertise and professionalism based on a body of knowledge, understandings, professional development and growth. If we revert to the model of just telling them what to do, when to do it, and what to use, we are being lured into that trap of treating them as technicians, and seeing teaching and learning as a technical activity. It has to be recognised as more than this. Whilst I understand the frustrations of those that 'know' what works best, from years of research and study, on how it can take a long time for such knowledge and understanding to percolate into schools and classrooms, but they have to refrain from the trap that is more top-down direction, and telling.

Equally, the profession, individuals, teachers and school leaders, have to move from the position of saying 'just tell us what to do.' Such a position leaves us open to more fads and an ever shifting change agenda, set by others with little, or no, educational expertise or knowledge, all of which will continue to keep us very busy, but with little positive impact for learners, teachers or schools. Learning and teaching is complex, and those charged with delivering this have to understand that, as well as the impact of context and the myriad of other factors that are at play in any learning situation. Teachers, school leaders have to shape their own professional development. They should not have such professional development dictated and directed by others, but need to take control of this themselves, shaping it to meet their, their school's, and learners, needs.

I think that top down direction, and the viewing of teaching and professional development as technical activities, are the Venus Flytrap of education. We have to be wary of the allure of having others telling us what to do, taking the thinking, and responsibility, out of our profession, passing it to others. When we agree to do things that we know to be wrong, or harmful to learning, we are letting our learners and our profession down. After all, when things go wrong, it is never the ones who have told us what to do that shoulder the blame or responsibility, it is teachers and schools. 'I was just doing what I was told to do' is never an acceptable professional response. When we act and behave more professionally, then we can begin to shape our practice, our schools, and our systems, based on sound values, principles, ethics, knowledge and research, rather than letting it being configured by others with different agendas. Scotland's education system and the profession, like many others, is under attack by neo-liberal agendas, and we need to act even more professionally if we are to repel these and do our very best for all our learners.

Lets not act like flies, attracted by the smells and colours of quick and easy fixes. We need to look out for, then stay away from the traps that are being laid out before us. If we are not aware, or fail to heed warnings, we are responsible for the consequences!



Happy Halloween!

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