Over the last 18 months, politics has become more emotive, polarised, and tribal than ever before. If you’re to believe social media, it would be easy to think the whole world divides neatly into two categories: you’re either a racist Brexiteer or a liberal Remoaner, a Corbynista, or a Blairite, a Globalist or a Nationalist. The days of moderate, reasoned debate with people with opposing views are long gone. This is highlighted by a piece of research that found that 51% of voters who voted in the referendum felt disgusted towards those who voted differently from them. It has stopped being about convincing others of your opinion and instead it’s about insisting that our “side” is right.
And it’s not just in politics. Increasingly debate about education is presented as binary choices: you’re either a traditionalist or a progressive, you can believe that the curriculum should be knowledge heavy or skill heavy, you believe learning should be teacher-centered or child-centered. Those debates aren’t new but recently we’ve gone further as we try and present how these two apparently opposing philosophies work in practice. There are no excuses, no PowerPoints, no worksheets, no textbooks, no teacher talk, and, in some cases, no talking at all. Silence is either golden or oppressive, your desks are either in rows or grouped like a science lab, and children should only be studying the classics or staring gormlessly at “Where’s Wally?” books. For someone who worked for seven years in the grey area, it’s maddening.
I’ve worked in schools that expected their teachers to have PowerPoint slides up for EVERY lesson. So you’d see teachers painstakingly creating slides to shoehorn into the lesson just so that box was ticked. More often than not these slides were a waste of the teachers’ valuable time and added nothing to the lesson. But that’s not to say I’d never use a PowerPoint or that it can’t be a useful resource.
I’ve also worked in schools where teachers are always expected to be working with a guided group. Sometimes this worked brilliantly and provided an opportunity to work intensively with a small number of pupils. However, there are plenty of examples that I can think of when the most useful place I could have been was at the front of the class. It wasn’t the guided groups that were the problem it was the fact that we had to ALWAYS be with a group that lead to it feeling restrictive.
I’ve also worked in schools that banned worksheets and others who expected them for every lesson. These schools all believed they were doing the right thing for the children. They could provide you with justifications and probably at least one piece of research to support their ideas. But ultimately when you insist a teacher always or never adopts a certain method or practice then you are ignoring the fact there is always an exception (and there IS always an exception.) It ignores the grey area.
My first ever headteacher once told me he believed that a school should be like a laboratory. Every teacher would work away in their classroom with their class on different projects and try new things and every once in a while a member of staff would stick their head out of the door and shout, “I’ve got something great – come and have a look.” We were free to teach how we wanted and it brought the best out of the staff. That school was, and remains to this day, outstanding by any measure.
For me, it’s the grey area where learning happens. The teacher who one day imparted knowledge from the front of the class to children sat in rows but later that week pushes the tables together for group work. The teacher who knows that worksheets and PowerPoints are neither a silver bullet nor the root of all evil and uses them as and when they judge to be beneficial. It’s the teacher who has high expectations and understands that “my dog ate my homework” is not an acceptable excuse but that doesn’t mean that there are no excuses. It’s the teacher who knows that silence is sometimes essential but a noisy, bustling classroom can be equally effective.
The problem with teaching in the grey area is that it’s complicated and messy. It’s a skill one hones over time which means sometimes getting it wrong but I believe, ultimately it creates a more skilled teacher than one who has never been encouraged to take risks or explore the possibilities. It takes a strong school leader to leave their teachers to teach how they see fit. My favorite headteachers to work for have always been the ones who have said, “as long as I see evidence that what you’re doing works – you’ll be left alone.” But it takes a bold and brave leader to do that because it means they won’t always know exactly what is happening in every classroom.
As with so many things in our society at once, the debate about education is becoming a needlessly polarised debate between two arbitrary and absolute camps. Learning means coming to terms with complexity and understanding that what holds in one situation doesn’t necessarily hold in another. Beware the absolutists on both sides- freeing people from that sort of rigid thinking is one reason we have an education system in the first place.