The debate in the staffroom

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Back in the early 2000s, I was the head of science at a government school in London. I didn’t read education research at that time. Instead, it came to us through a series of national strategies that were mediated by local advisors.

From my 2017 perspective, I can see that some of the early stuff was pretty benign. It was focused on assessment for learning and largely consisted of techniques for eliciting evidence of student understanding. This was before assessment for learning had morphed into the monster it later became with lots of marking edicts and grids to fill in.

However, over time this focus shifted. Eventually, a series of guides was produced known as ‘Pedagogy and Practice’ that purported to be a synthesis of the best available evidence. Notoriously, one of these guides promoted the use of learning styles. 

As a science teacher, from my training onwards, I was also made aware of constructivist ideas about teaching science, even if I did not know them by this label. I was simply told that learning through discovery, inducing cognitive conflict and so on where based in the best available research. This was a source of guilt because I couldn’t make these practices work very well and I assumed that the fault lay with me.

I don’t recall any debates about pedagogy in the staffroom. There were varying levels of enthusiasm about new ideas but the harshest criticisms usually came from teachers questioning the practicality of what was being proposed. I don’t recall anyone questioning the validity of these ideas; that this was what we would want to do in an ideal world.

This is because it’s hard to debate a topic you know little about. Think of all those classroom debates throughout the years that have been conducted in the absence of knowledge. They’re not very edifying. Like our students or anybody else, teachers don’t question things that they have no reason to question. Fundamentally, we don’t know what we don’t know.

I’m one of the lucky ones. Firstly, I moved to a school that really valued research evidence. Then I started to connect on Twitter and heard about ideas I had never encountered in schools. It was a serendipitous mix of discovery learning and reading. It was highly inefficient.

That’s why I say we should not leave the fate of other teachers to chance. Let’s make sure that they at least know there is a debate and that there are alternative views about teaching.

Perhaps you could be part of that. If so, why not begin by printing out an article and leaving it on one of the tables in your staffroom? This one would make a good start.


6 thoughts on “The debate in the staffroom

  1. I’ve said this before. We take need to take the discussion off Twitter and into the staff-rooms. We need posters we can print out and go up on the notice board that succinctly summarise issues. Two examples I can think of are straight away are, the evidence against Learning Styles, and the latest comments by OFSTED against marking. These things will take years to filter through to the staffroom otherwise.

  2. Greg,
    Would it make sense to start with the classroom management ideas? These offer the promise of a quick and very detectable improvement in teacher and student experience.

  3. Thanks for the call to action, Greg. It offers hope for me to spread the word and I’m tempted to do it, though, in my mind’s eye I imagined the scenario and started to doubt its effectiveness.

    Placing an article or two on the tables in the staff-room and leaving them seems to me like putting up a puzzle on the wall of a classroom and expecting the pupils’ natural curiosity to motion them to discover and engage with it – particularly in the status quo of

    ‘when we’re in this classroom, we pay attention to the teacher/work – not to random wall decor’


    ‘we go to the staff room to offload, catch-up, and connect with others that have similar issues to us – not to read the follow-up documents from our in-school CPD (often the document I see littered in the staff room, which will most likely be conflated with any new materials laid down)’.

    Maybe I’m making a mistake with the comparison and being somewhat behaviorist in my thinking, but it does seem somewhat passive and in danger of being overlooked.

    Though, I appreciate the hope, the chance, the opportunity to plant the seed of a tree I believe in in someone’s mind. So I will start to do it. I’m too low in the hierarchy to have much influence otherwise. Thanks.

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