On Teaching

It is common knowledge that education is important, but it is less commonly known that it is the single largest area of human expenditure world-wide, worth something like $5.5 trillion per annum of which about half is spent on pre-university education. That this is so despite the fact that it has almost no robust measures of output and effectiveness or even any clear understanding of what it is aiming to achieve, is remarkable to say the least.

That there is money to be made from education is in no doubt: chains of schools are being created across the globe that charge substantial amounts for education of no directly-measurable quality and aim to make substantial profits from it. This is not the place for that argument; my purpose is different.

Look at the website of almost any school and you will find, either there on the home page or not more than one level below it, some sort of assertion to the effect that “this school aims to make the most of every child, to enable them to discover and maximise their potential in whatever area of human endeavour they are interested”. Shortly after this you will be taken to pictures of happy, smiling children, shown pictures of science laboratories, swimming-pools, gymnasia, and probably treated to some kind of potted summary of recent examination results and university entrance statistics.

What you will almost certainly not find is any kind of serious discussion of how the school proposes to “make the most of every child”, or any detailed description of the qualities of teaching that will make the education on offer effective.

This marketing procedure amounts to an exercise in misdirection – the technique conjurors use to direct the attention of their gullible audiences to the things that do not matter while they are engaged in their wizardry elsewhere – in that it directs the attention of potential parents and students to precisely the things that will not make a difference to them during their time at the school. Because the best-kept secret in education, a secret that is in practice not a secret at all but with which we all collude with the pretence that it is not even the case, is that quality of teaching is the only thing that really matters in a school. We can focus the attention of potential clients on laboratories and libraries and computers and swimming-pools, but they will make absolutely no difference to any student unless there is a human being – preferably a well-integrated army of such human beings – to make the connection between facilities and buildings and location and the things that really make the difference: human engagement, interaction and inspiration.

Quality of teaching is the only thing that really matters in a school.

It follows that the recruitment, professional development and retention of outstanding staff who are great teachers, who deliver quality teaching day-in, day-out for years, is the single most important thing that any school does. Why, then, do these matters so often receive such minimal attention? Heads often delegate recruitment to HR departments or deputies; professional development is often a reaction to necessity rather than a matter of integrated strategic policy; staff retention is assumed but staff are neither nurtured nor cared for. Yet if quality of teaching is the only thing that really matters in a school, all these things are more important than anything else the school does. Schools are in a double sense in the business of raising human capital: raising children to enable them to become mature, responsible, confident adults equipped to do what life will demand of them; raising staff who are ready with the intellectual hunger, inspirational enthusiasm and generosity of time and talent needed to achieve what their younger charges require.

The single thing that best defines and most effectively measures quality of teaching is the personal engagement between staff and students. Enthusiasm is infectious; generosity is contagious. Intellectual hunger comes from an insatiable need for new understanding that is as persistent and lifelong as the need for food. Without it, a teacher is not learning, and when a teacher is not learning, that teacher is not teaching.

The single thing that best defines and most effectively measures quality of teaching is the personal engagement between staff and students.

Schools that claim to “make the most of every child” who do not also aspire to “make the most of every teacher” – and in fact this should be “make the most of every member of staff” – are guilty either of naivety or hypocrisy, because it is not possible to make the most of one without making the most of the other.

There are two things that monitor and measure the effectiveness of education better than any others, and certainly better than examinations: the quality of reflection and the quality of tuition (which I am using here in a semi-technical sense that will shortly be explained).

John Dewey wrote in his Experience and Education (1938) that what turns experience into education, what turns mere experience into education, is reflection, the quality by means of which we make the experience our own and build it into our subsequent outlook on life. Without reflection, experience remains mere experience, just something that happens but not something that enables us to learn and grow.

Reflection converts mere experience into educational experience.

By tuition we mean not teaching itself, but the kind of close pastoral adult-student relationship that arises from small-scale engagement in tutorials where a small number of students meet with one or, better, a small number of staff. These sessions facilitate reflection by enabling students to think creatively about what they have experienced. Tuition ensures that, in a sense, there can be no bad experiences, no unprofitable or worthless experiences, because even an experience of failure where some proposed project does not materialise or does not come off well or does not come off at all can still be the stuff of reflection as we learn what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how to do better in future. Done successfully, tuition therefore inculcates an invaluable life-skill: it teaches us how to make the most of any and every situation we will ever encounter; it enables us to see that rather than having “a bad day” we are just having a day which requires us to learn lessons we have not learnt before in ways we have not mastered before.

Tuition converts every experience into a learning-experience by enabling reflection.

But because the skills required in both reflection and tuition are not generally natural, both need to be acquired, and it is the responsibility of schools to provide the means that will enable staff to become strong tutors in order that as tutors they can enable students to reflect (and there is no reason why tuition should only be offered by professional teachers; it can be offered by any suitably-minded member of staff). Where neither reflection nor tuition are strong, there you have what is almost certainly a failing school, however strong its results may be.

It follows that the place where schools succeed or fail is in the way they embrace professional development, because they are most unlikely to be able to recruit staff who already have these skills; all they can do is hope to recruit staff who are ready, willing and able to acquire them when provided with the opportunity.


One thought on “On Teaching

  1. Nice post. Inspiration and reflection are so important in learning. And, you’re right, time needs to be allocated to teachers to reflect and become inspired human beings themselves. Can you please recommend any texts that elaborate these ideas in more detail?

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