Who should we invite into our schools to speak to teachers?

Staff development is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. Schools have limited time and money available and so there is a moral duty to try to ensure we don’t waste it. Even with the best of intentions, this can be tricky and so I offer a few factors that you might want to consider.

Who?

Does the speaker have a relevant academic qualification in the area that she intends to speak about? I wouldn’t suggest this is essential but it is worth considering. I am often critical of education academics but at least they generally recognise the complexity of schools and are less likely to make bold, unsupported pronouncements.

Does the speaker have teaching experience? This is not necessary if she is there to merely inform teachers about psychological principles or what the research shows in a particular area. But if the intention is to promote an initiative that impacts on teaching then it’s helpful to have someone with experience of classrooms.

I would be extremely cautious about a presenter who perhaps has a business background, lacks both teaching experience and research credentials and yet is prepared to make strong statements about teaching methods. The fact that she has worked with other schools in the past is, I’m afraid, no recommendation. Which brings me to my next point.

Where is the evidence?

You should always ask your speaker for the evidence that supports the ideas she intends to discuss. If you are referred to a list of testimonials – “We were delighted at the learning that took place when WhizzBang Solutions visited our school…” – then I would avoid.

Similarly, I would be wary of what we might call ‘argument from success’. Just because someone has run a successful school, it doesn’t mean that she knows why it was successful. Many factors vary from school to school and the ones that a successful leader might point to aren’t necessarily the ones that made the difference.

Ideally, you want evidence that is independent of the speaker but is directly related to the ideas being proposed. That’s a lot to ask for but it can be achieved. Think of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) programmes. These have been thoroughly researched many times and so you can draw on supporting evidence from outside any particular program.

Why do I stress the need for a direct relation between the evidence and the ideas? Isn’t this need obvious?

Unfortunately, education is full of non-sequiturs. Advocates extrapolate conclusions that aren’t supported by the evidence. For instance, research showing that children remember discussions of controversial issues in a social studies program does not support the idea that we need to promote more discussion of open ended maths problems. Instead, you would need studies of maths classrooms; studies that demonstrated improved outcomes for this approach. Even then, we should be cautious – any educational intervention tends to produce a positive outcome because it raises teachers’ and students’ expectations.

The worst kind of evidence that is routinely used to promote teaching methods is evidence relating to the job market of the future. Firstly, any such predictions are highly uncertain – nobody has a crystal ball. Secondly, even if we could identify that a particular attribute will be more sought after in the future, we still need direct evidence that the teaching methods that the presenter proposes will improve our students’ acquisition of it.

Reimagining  

It is important that we get the right people into schools to talk to teachers. We probably need to reimagine the process a little. Rather than picturing the guru on the mountain passing wisdom to the masses, a better metaphor might be the senate committee hearing where experts are brought in to provide their evidence for us to consider.

[I suppose it’s worth preempting a possible criticism of this post. Yes, I have stated that we should look at a speaker’s background and yes, elsewhere, I have stated that ideas are more important than background. This is because making a decision on who to invite into your school is an entirely different question to deciding upon the best way to refute somebody’s argument]

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