Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Let's fix this together: sharing practical wisdom in the ITT behaviour report

The other day I was filming a behaviour management training video. Our cunning strategy was to use talented students on a BTEC drama course to help demonstrate the practical ways that students and teachers can interact. They were terrific, and one of them made a comment that cut to the heart of a problem we have in teaching. ‘But don’t you get this kind of stuff before you become a teacher?’ she said. And the honest answer I had to give was, ‘Er...sometimes. Some of it.’

The missing jigsaw piece

After many months of debate, interview, advice, consultation and collaboration, the report into behaviour management in ITT was launched. I’m so proud of the finished product. The working party were all agreed that we needed to write something succinct, practical and targeted at the needs of teachers at the beginning of their careers. There is still a disappointing deficit in behaviour management training in the UK (and abroad- I haven’t found any Shangri-Las in this sector). Too many teachers still enter the infancy of their careers with little structured support in running a classroom. Now this strikes me as a catastrophic omission in a role which requires such a substantial element of encouraging and directing the activities of others. This is no bolt-on, to be stapled onto teacher training; this is one leg of a tripod which along with pedagogy and subject knowledge, are essential for secure, efficient and productive teaching.

I’ll stress: there are many good ITT providers who do well in this area, in both HE and SCITT routes; but there’s a quilt of good and less good practice, and it’s impossible to say that a robust training in this area is a guaranteed entitlement. One problem is that many providers still see behaviour management as something that will be picked up in placement schools, and their role is only to provide a short outline to the topic. The main problem with this approach is that it leaves the trainee at the mercy of their placement school’s capacities. And learning how to run a room isn't something you pick up by mere repetition, any more than you learn who to play piano by standing next to one. As many people have pointed out, Malcolm Gladwell's '10,000 hour rule to expertise' is mistaken. True mastery is only acquired through structured, deliberate learning, not proximity.


So we decided that there were two substantial areas of behaviour management training that needed to be addressed: content, and training methodology

1. Content. It was obvious that some strategies used to run rooms work in some contexts but not in others; that some strategies work very well for many or most children, and some strategies were more boutique. The obvious recommendation to make is that teachers need to be exposed to a broad cocktail of possible strategies along with their suggested uses. The teacher then has the option of selecting which arrow in their quiver to employ, instead of wondering what one is needed from scratch. This sidesteps any accusation that teachers are trained in a stupidly one-size-fits-all strategy. At present, many teachers are at the mercy of the strategies their few mentors might provide. This broadens their range.

We broke the behaviour curriculum content into a pleasingly alliterative triptych: routines, responses, and relationships. Routines are the best way to create structure in the classroom, create communal expectations of behaviour, and build habits. The great thing about routines is that once internalised, they reduce the cognitive load on the agent, who acts instinctively rather than processing it consciously. Responses, because once behaviour breaks down, it’s essential to know how to respond and restore calm. And Relationships, because understanding one’s own state as well the students’ is a powerful way to understand how to deal with classes, from SEND awareness, to appreciating how the human mind learns, remembers, focuses, as well as handling stress and processing an emotionally draining job.

2. Methodology. Just as important as being formally instructed in a range of strategies was the way in which new teachers were trained in them. At one extreme, we see some courses deliver a forty five minute lecture to anxious rows of trainees, then a wave from the dock as their ship leaves port. They might as well be shot from a clown’s cannon into a bear cage. But even in courses where behaviour training was intended to be accrued from the classroom, it was often akin to the expectation of osmosis. We wouldn’t expect someone to learn how to drive from the Highway Code manual, nor would we pass them the driver's wheel while caning it at 100 mph against the traffic on the M1.

Please don't panic, but can anyone on board fly a plane?

So we focused on methods that aspired to the maximised, structured understanding of the practical matter of running a room: coaching; role plays; filmed teaching immersed in reflective conversations, feedback, and incremental improvements. This currently is an enormously fertile field for improvement. By physically enacting the movements and methods of good teachers, new colleagues learn the micro-behaviours of their profession in a low stakes, high value environment. We even nodded aspirationally to those courses that provided structured environments like this prior to the beginning of the school training year (eg Summer schools, where candidates could practice role playing common scenarios with one another). It’s amazing how much these techniques help with the practice of teaching.

The situations we encounter as teachers are varied and complex; but they are not infinite, and most of them can be anticipated and placed in a taxonomy (eg lateness, children cussing one another); why not prepare teachers for these situations so that their response is practiced rather than created ad hoc? Routines, and language scripts can be of immense help in reducing the cognitive load of a high-pressure emotionally challenging and intellectually taxing role such as teaching.

Practical magic

We found other things that made good sense: tutors, mentors and trainees in behaviour management should, as much as possible, have demonstrated and fairly recent classroom experience. This was in order to reduce as much as possible the curious situation that sometimes occurs when such matters are trained by someone who themselves may not have optimal skills in this area, or believes that an academic qualification alone entitles them to train others. Classroom management has an enormous practical and experiential component. No carpenter would learn their trade by studying at the feet of a dendrologist alone (although such people may still have valuable lessons to impart in other areas related to this field). We also emphasised that students should be taught these techniques throughout their course, threaded through everything else, as well as discretely, and that skills in this area should be formally assessed and examined by the production of eg a digital portfolio of filmed lessons.

This raised a few eyebrows, but we supported it because it provided evidence that training had actually happened for one thing (avoiding the ‘here’s a hand out on behaviour, now you’re trained’ problem) plus it built a portfolio that was actually useful- the sessions could be reviewed and reflected upon. Any data protection issues could be sensibly decided in advance of the course, and recording is now a cheap and practical possibility for everyone in this age of phone cameras.

You're not even a real teacher *kisses teeth*

The ministerial response was very positive (‘this is a recommendation with which we strongly agree, and we would encourage all providers to ensure that their programmes are structured accordingly’). While they stopped short of making our recommendations mandatory (which was itself one of our recommendations- we strongly believe that what we’ve put together is a clear, sensible and flexible model for all providers, to interpret in their own contexts), we expect it to be promoted in other ways:

‘Our recent White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, published in March 2016, set out plans to develop a new set of quality criteria that will in future be applied when training places are being allocated to providers. We will therefore consider how best the new framework of content can be used to inform those criteria, with a view to ensuring that all providers who are allocated training places are clearly demonstrating the quality of content in their courses. Further detail of how we intend to apply the new criteria to the allocation of ITT places from 2017/18 onwards will be published shortly.’
Nick Gibb, writing in Initial Teacher Training:Written statement - HCWS83 

There is more than one lever in education, and if- as we hope- the above commitment is carried through, then we would be proud and delighted to see these recommendations absorbed into mainstream practice in ITT.

Improving behaviour management training is one of the biggest opportunities we have for transforming education, the professional experience of teaching, and the life chances of children. The beauty of this is that there are experts in behaviour in every school; all we seek to do is unify and disseminate the best of what we already know about running a room. That’s why I’m perfectly happy for some people to say that much of what lies in this report is uncontroversial; that’s exactly right. It shouldn’t be. But so many teachers aren't even getting these basics imparted to them in a structured, conscious, habitual way. And many teachers couldn't consciously express what it is they do well, because it's often such an intuitive process.

It’s time to end that anomaly. Teachers deserve a guarantee that before, during and after they pass through the ITT hatchery, they will be exposed to the very best training in managing and optimising the behaviour available. It’s one of the biggest fears of trainee teachers; it puts people off applying; it’s one of the most commonly cited reasons for leaving the profession; it’s one of the chief training needs according to Head Teachers.

We hope that this report will help to support the ITT sector in building their own programs of excellence. And incidentally it was a huge pleasure putting this together; the responses from the sectors were fantastic- hundreds of people, institutions and groups readily supplied evidence and experience to our discussions. It reminds me, if I needed it, that teaching is still one of the best sectors in our public space. Let's make it even better.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Long Live the Queen: why Spielman is the best choice for the next HMCI

Amanda Spielman, yesterday

An advisory vote was taken recently where an expected outcome was surprisingly rejected. Not Brexit, but the Education Select Committee’s recent decision not to approve Amanda Spielman’s appointment as HMCI. I think that’s unfortunate, mainly because I think Spielman is exactly what the education sector needs right now.

Ofsted’s role with schools isn’t to tell teachers how to teach. That misapprehension has rightly been binned in the last 5 or 6 years. Indeed, one of the principal achievements of Wilshaw’s reign on the Iron Throne was to dislocate the infamous ‘preferred teaching style’ of Ofsted that was never formally enshrined but still existed in the gaps between statutes (which is why it took so long to identify and eradicate; it needed a campaign of whistle-blowing through the similarly informal forum of social media to expose it. No mechanism existed within its own structure to collate these concerns, much less address them.) There’s precedent for an HMCI not having taught in schools- Stewart Sutherland was a lecturer for example- but that misses the point.

Spielman is one of the most qualified people I know to run a hydra like Ofsted. I’d probably agree that the inspectorate covers too broad a remit, and should be split in some way, but the suggestion that Spielman is less capable than previous incumbents is unsustainable. Her CV reads like Genghis Khan’s to-do list: start-up impossibly successful academy chain transforming the lives of thousands of children? Check. Chair Ofqual through some of its most challenging times? Check. What am I missing here? Where in her resume does it say anything other than ‘runs enormous educational organisations like an army of ninjas’?

Could you just reach into your ribcage and tear out your heart please?

The strangest charge against her is ‘lacks passion.’ For a start, passion is demonstrated by action, not wept in a monologue across an interview bench. It bleeds out of everything she’s done. I’m forever telling my sixth formers to can that weasel word from their personal statements to UCAS, because it’s an empty claim to make. Poor old Emily Davison; how on earth will we ever know she was passionate about women’s suffrage? I mean, she threw herself in front of King George V’s horse, but she never mentioned she felt ‘passionately’ about it so we’ll never know, I guess. Maybe candidates should thump the tables a little more, or roar at Head Teachers’ conferences in Brighton College.

I’ve met Spielman on many occasions; she’s spoken at several researchED conferences. She knows an extraordinary amount about the realities of schools, the gauntlet of disadvantage and opportunity that they represent, and possesses one of the five best minds in UK education. And I believe she understands exactly what kind of inspectorate my profession now needs. Not one that will attempt to be the arbiter of what good teaching is- that should be a conversation the teaching profession drives for itself, in partnership with other communities like ITT, research, and professional bodies. Ofsted can get the Hell out of that frankly. The biggest problem we had with Ofsted was that it crashed into the profession’s own sense of agency and self-analysis. Never mind what we thought, you better second-guess what the inspector wants otherwise *draws finger across throat*.

Spielman has already drawn attention to the perverse disruption of the observer effect. (‘In science, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner.’) She’s also spoken about the possibly of jettisoning the Outstanding judgement, on the grounds that Ofsted’s role might not be to define excellence (which perversely might have the effect of codifying, mortifying and therefore ossifying its generation). This is an HMCI-in-waiting who really appears to understand that the next phase in its development is a gear shift away from being a GREAT BIG SCARY BEAR towards something more supportive.

And as for the claim that she may struggle building bridges with the sector, well, irony was just found at the bottom of Loch Lomond, with iron bars in its pockets. I’m watching my social media streams right now and can barely see anything other than support for Spielman, and wonder that her capacities could possibly be overlooked. I’ve never met a more popular choice. Anyone who claims that ‘the profession doesn’t trust her’ hasn’t been talking to the fairly large part of the profession I engage with. Perhaps some of the disapproval has come about because she’s perceived as being on the ‘wrong team’ in education, someone who won’t rock the boat. Well, anyone who thinks Spielman is some kind of Secretary of State poodle, doesn’t know her very well at all. She’s fiercely independent. And remember that Wilshaw was brought in as a Goveian ubermensch, but as the years passed he stirred on the slab and reminded everyone that while the HMCI role may appear to be a grace-and-favour appointment, it can be more akin to animating Frankenstein’s monster.

Oh God not the buck

Cersei Lannister, Queen of Kings Landing
Finally, there was concern that she claimed the buck didn’t stop with Ofsted. Of course it doesn’t. Anyone who thinks that responsibility for any event can be easily reduced to something so simple as a single ‘buck’ shouldn’t criticise anyone clever enough to understand that responsibility is diffuse. Schools, for example, need to take personal ownership over some of their actions too. If you want Ofsted to continue to be the universal arbiter of all standards, fine: believe in mono bucks and get Wilshaw’s big brother. If you want partnerships and autonomy, then defy that.

In case I’m not being clear enough, I think Spielman would be a terrific HMCI; I think she’s exactly the right shape for the role as it stands now; the time for Pale Riders is passed. I hope the Select Committee, wise as it is, reconsiders its support. These are turbulent times; we need stability, professional administration of governance, and someone who will navigate calmly and sensibly through emergent challenges such as the roles of MATs and RSCs. And we need it yesterday.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

No hands up: remembering to count my blessings on the fingers you can

They say you don’t miss what you have ’til it’s gone. Last Monday morning, I lost the use of my hands. The full Double-Skywalker. At 6am I woke with my organic alarm clock baby Benjamin, and could barely lift him from his crib. Over breakfast we competed for who dropped most porridge. By noon I couldn’t fasten a button; by two I wasn’t capable of turning a key or a driving wheel without every crumb of my concentration. By three I was in hospital undergoing tests, bloods, X-Rays and ECGs; I could touch my nose but not scratch it; I could walk a straight line but not draw one. By six I could no longer sign my name, and when they released me at seven I only made it back in the car by treating my hands as spades rather than a prehensile Swiss Army knife.

Before that I’d gone far enough up the tree to meet the NHS end-of-level boss consultant, who puzzled over my symptoms before ordering a MRI. When I asked what diagnoses they were considering, they didn’t sugar coat it. 
‘MS, possibly; or muscular dystrophy. Maybe a stroke.’ 

I know- good times, right? I’m almost carelessly optimistic, but there is an abyss in such moments from which it is quite impossible to entirely extricate oneself. I’m 44 and have three people at home I would not bear to see hurt in any way. Nothing at that point offered any kind of positive angle; there was little to make the most of there. From a day where I was expecting to plan some lessons and pick up my kids, I was now considering the best ways to spare my family any further hardship. They sent me home with a caution to return if things got worse. 

Next day they got worse. I could barely hold a tissue, and I had to be driven to hospital this time, where they brought the MRI forward to the next day. By now I couldn’t pick up my ten month old boy without using my arms like chopsticks. With a lot of time on my hands but no hands with which to spend it, I was glad of social media, and big screen buttons I could tap with a claw, as I could no longer use a keyboard. I had to shower like a bear standing in a stream, and I slept that night in dread.

Thursday I checked in early for the MRI. If you’ve never been for one then I can only describe it as the worst theme park ride ever. On House it looks like a bed in a 25th century travel Lodge. In reality it involved headphones, a neck and face brace to keep you still so you feel locked in, before you were loaded into the white plastic chamber like a flesh bullet into an enormous six-gun. ‘Would you like some music?’ asked the radiographer. ‘We have Youtube.’ I declined, on the grounds that if things went badly I would not only end up in a wheelchair, but I’d ruin a perfectly loved song in the process. 

An hour and a half inside a tubular coffin listening to what I can only describe as the Philip Glass and Brian Eno having a knife-fight in the BBC sound effects cabinet; as Koyaanisqatsi raged around me ninety minutes crawled by, and the machine clattered and crackled and I clenched my teeth in case my crowns flew out, no matter what the radiographer said. My mind wandered to a childhood certainty that I had swallowed a five pence piece that never saw daylight. I wondered if it would tear itself through my navel like Geiger’s homunculus. 

Another three hours waiting for a neuro consult to tell me if I needed to get ramps installed, and how long I had before they made an inspirational movie out of my life. I’m joking, but then, I was shaking. 

Finally, the neurologist, who asked me to sit down in what I’m sure was a gesture of civility, but to me foreshadowed nothing but doom. He passed me a piece of paper:

MRI Head
MRI Spine whole
The brain is normal
The spinal cord is normal with no cord compression

‘All clear,’ Mr Bennett. ‘How do you feel?’ How did I feel? Like I’d just been handed my whole future back; like a piano hit the spot next to me on the pavement; like the luckiest son of a bitch ever. I felt alive. Alive, when I thought I was staring down the barrel of a gun for the next twenty years, withering before my family’s eyes. 

He couldn’t say what caused it- a virus possibly, or an electrolyte imbalance, but whatever it was, it was lifting, and had started to recede that morning slightly. In the hospital cafe I tried to dent a can in my grip; I still couldn’t, but I could hold it. I could hold it. 

By now I can type again, although my fingers feel like someone tied a roll of pound coins to each knuckle. My signature looks like my wife made my kid sign a father’s day card. I can shave again. I got my hands back.

Few things grieve us more by their absence than by the loss of something simultaneously vital and monotonously reliable; the metronome of your heart; a parent; a place to sleep, a stable job. We take so much for granted, and it’s no revelation to say that our health is overlooked every second until it starts to elude us. Until this week, the question of the United Kingdom’s place in Europe, or even it’s own constituent parts, was of no concern to me; now it feels like a trunk full of rubies hanging over a smelting pit. 

I returned to work today for the first time in almost a week, a wall of catching up circling around me like sandbags, things to be done, emails teeming and squawking to be released and fed. None of that mattered, at least for that moment, at least until I forgot what I had almost lost again and life got in the way of appreciating life’s bounty. I think that is one of the great pivotal lenses of adulthood: the ability to appreciate what you have at every point, which is one of the palpable lessons that being in the moment attempts to teach us. As children, we know only the baselines of our own culture and privilege. I never understood what my parents gave me until I tried to give it to someone else, for example. Sometimes we have to lose something, or risk losing it, to value it. It’s a hard lesson to teach students but we must, or they’ll squander riches they assume are indestructible and eternal, like freedom of speech, or the right to travel, or learning. 

Ask any pilgrim how it feels to find a shower and a bed after three weeks on the road to Santiago. 

That’s how I feel today. I feel grateful. And, I feel alive. 

As a token of that gratitude, I made an offering to the Gods of Hubris via this website, and if you were so inclined feel free to do so too. You will have your own pilgrimage.