Improve the quality of reading instruction or just buy a load of iPads?

Once upon a time I was an Assistant Headteacher in London with ambitions to become a Deputy Headteacher. Time and again, I was given the same advice: At interview I needed to able to talk about a project that I had initiated and led through to completion.

You can see the logic. Nobody wants to hire a Deputy Headteacher who can’t get things done. But when the completion of a project becomes the goal, irrespective of what that project is, we will suffer from the law of unintended consequences. Aspiring leaders will choose projects on the basis that they can be completed and within a realistic time-scale. This does not impugn these teachers’ motives because such biases are often unconscious.

Imagine, for instance, that you work in a primary school with fairly poor reading results. Do you choose the task of improving the quality of reading instruction or do you buy a load of iPads installed with reading apps?

To do the former is hard. If you read the research then you may conclude that you need to move your team of teachers away from phonics-lite balanced literacy and towards a more systematic phonics programme. Yet this will meet with deep ideological objections and a probable lack of capacity. You may have to deal with people telling you that standardised reading tests don’t measure kindness. You may have to deal with teachers who don’t know the difference between a grapheme and a phoneme.

In order to keep everyone on board, rather than leading the discussion, school leaders have a tendency to reduce deep philosophical divisions to interchangeable modes of teaching: a bit of constructivism here, a bit of explicit instruction there.

So you will need to break the mould. You can’t fudge this one.

On the other hand, iPads offer an easy win. You can buy them, hand them to the staff, give them a bit of training and you’ve completed your project. We don’t tend to evaluate impact in education so you probably won’t even have to do that. You can always talk vaguely about the perceived benefits.

The imperative for school leaders to lead their own projects therefore does not create incentives to choose the right projects to lead.

In fact, encouraging school leaders to initiate and complete their own projects is bad for school culture. What we need within a school is coherence – everyone working towards their part in the overarching plan. I would even suggest that coherence is more important than the precise details of the plan itself. Think of this as a ‘smooth’ culture.

In contrast, a culture of personal projects is ‘spiky’. It sets us off in different directions, lurching here and there without foundation and creating unnecessary and redundant work for teachers.

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7 thoughts on “Improve the quality of reading instruction or just buy a load of iPads?

  1. As you know Greg, exactly the sort of “intervention” you describe here was enacted across the nation in 2009. With zero proper planning and, needless to say, zero evaluation. And, incidentally, zero benefit to the students. But emphatically not zero cost to the public.

  2. “when the completion of a project becomes the goal, irrespective of what that project is, we will suffer from the law of unintended consequences” This is a major issue in education. A teacher wishes to move up the ladder and is therefore obliged to set up and implement something within an agreed timescale. The impact of the project is rarely mentioned and if it is, it is assumed that a survey of students (Hawthorne effect!) saying how helpful it was is sufficient!
    Thanks for this post!

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