I like to blog. The act of articulating the way I see things is like tidying up my mental bedroom. It does to my conscious mind what sleep does to my subconscious, sorting through the mind-junk and putting thoughts in order.
Articulation requires discipline. It instills order. It forces you to decide what ideas have value. To be coherent we must string together valuable ideas in ways that make sense to us, in the hope they will make sense to others.
When we speak or write down our thoughts, we are opening a window to the architecture of our thinking. We expose how we see the world. It makes us vulnerable.
This blog is about articulation as an essential competent of any attempt to improve teaching practice. Articulation is important because to change what teachers do we must challenge what they think about what they do. It is only through articulation that we can hope to understand what teachers think, what they believe and how they see the world. Only then can we challenge them to see things differently, and in doing so change what they choose to do.
But first a caveat. There is a danger when we talk about improving teachers’ practice that we assume their effectiveness is merely a product of how good they are at teaching. This is far from true, and efforts to improve practice will fall short if the teachers’ impact is hindered by the context within which they work.
Our effectiveness as teachers is highly dependent on a range of factors largely outside of our control. These include the ethos of the school in which we teach, behavioural norms for pupils, the imposed curriculum and assessment model, the prevailing political head-wind and the availability of a reliable evidence-base concerning effective learning.
It is worth reminding ourselves, before we expend effort on improving teaching, to ensure that the conditions for teaching are as good as they can be, else our efforts are in vain. With that said, let’s return to my proposition.
Teachers have a mental model around their professional practice. This model will inform the everyday decisions they make about how to teach. As well as affecting practice, the model will evolve as a result of what happens when they teach. Our experiences shape how we see things, which in turn affects what we do.
The mental model for novice teachers may be disorganised or chaotic. There may be a looser connection between what the teacher thinks and what they do. They will often, particularly during training, try out new things which help them bring order to their thoughts.
Expert teachers will have developed a complex and rich schema. Their model will have grown through direct experience of what happens when they teach in certain ways. They will have a default, tried and tested, position. This will provide a starting point, but the expert teacher will have a repertoire which they will draw upon when their default position proves ineffective. Teaching will, perhaps, feel instinctive; the reasons for their actions hidden from their conscious minds. Their knowledge will be tacit, possibly rarely called to question or subject to conscious scrutiny.
For the experienced but ineffective teacher, a default position will also exist. However, their mental model is faulty and their ability to interpret the signals that practice is ineffective is weak. Indeed, it may be the weakness in interpreting negative feedback that has resulted in the persistence of a faulty model. Like the expert, the ineffective teacher will rarely consciously examine their beliefs and assumptions, and is perhaps even less likely to do so less they expose to themselves the flaws in their thinking.
The descriptions above are clearly simplifications and stereotypes of what real teachers are like. However, they will help me illustrate my point which is that, for any teacher, to develop practice one must engender a change in the mental model. For the novice there is a need to build the model and bring coherence. The ineffective teacher must somehow confront the deficiencies in their thinking. The expert teacher, sure in their tried and tested practices, must question whether their default position has become comfortable for them but not necessarily the best for the pupils they teach.
What I am suggesting is that professional learning is not about questioning what we do, but why we do it.
When we ask ‘why?’ we begin to expose what others believe, assume and think about their practice. We begin to see the strength of their mental model; it’s robustness and validity. We also begin to see the inconsistencies, the gaps, the questionable assumptions and prejudices which inform their action.
Professional learning begins with asking each other to articulate the way we think about teaching.
Once articulated, we can provide both affirmation and challenge. Where our thinking stands up to scrutiny we can move forward with renewed confidence. Where it doesn’t, we have the opportunity to learn.
So, I’ve set out my case for the role of articulation in professional learning. I want to say at this point that I’m not entirely sure that I’m right about everything I’ve said. In fact, I would go further. I am almost certain that I am, at least to some degree, wrong.
That’s exactly the point really. I’m articulating this in order to expose the flaws in my argument. It is helping me ‘tidy my mental bedroom’ on the matter. If you are reading this then I am open to your challenge.
However, there is another reason I am setting out these thoughts.
I think school leaders have lost their way in the British education system (not all of them, but many that I come in to contact with). I think there is confusion. The confusion seems to be around how to hold teachers to account for improving their practice.
Underpinning many dubious practices now happening in schools, there is a tendency to diminish what teachers do down to a set of operational actions, which can be observed and corrected. There is a degree of arrogance whereby those in charge seem quite certain that they know what effective teaching is, or at least they know better than those they lead.
The result of the above is a set of accountability practices which focus on what teachers do, rather than why they do it. They seek to ‘correct’ weak practice, or strengthen standards by insisting on adherence to routines, systems and rules.
I know of many teachers who have fallen in line with such practices, against their better judgement. The practices they are made to adopt conflict with their instincts on what is likely to be effective. They find themselves frustrated and without a voice.
Now it may be that these teachers are wrong. It may be that the practices they are made to adopt do actually lead to improved outcomes. However, in changing their behaviours without changing their beliefs the school is fundamentally undermining the teacher’s agency, morale and job satisfaction.
Once we stop trying to change what teachers do and focus on changing what teachers think about what they do, we will achieve sustainable improvements in teaching standards. This is only achievable through challenging professional dialogue which exposes our knowledge, beliefs and assumptions and holds these up to scrutiny.
If I am right, then all attempts at accountability and professional learning should involve a dialogue with the teacher.
To expose ourselves to this level of scrutiny we need to trust our school leaders, not feel threatened by them.