The prophetic Steve Jobs said: It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.
What happens when we replace ‘smart people’ with ‘teachers’ is the recognition that we are still hiring teachers and largely telling them what to do. Unfortunately, this is the reality of the current industrial landscape – one that has prevailed since the early 20th century. As Richard Elmore said, maintaining a low-skill teaching profession was a way of paying teachers less and maintaining compliance. The thing about compliance is that it kills creativity.
Over the decades, employers and unions have vigorously defended this structure even down to how many hours teachers should spend face to face. Building a highly professional workforce is as Jobs said hiring teachers to tell us how they work best. It is about giving teachers permission to create the most optimal learning environments and opportunities for their students. As Ken Robinson reflects in his latest book Creative Schools, it is based on the fundamental belief: ‘the value of the individual, the right to self-determination.’
We have spent much of the last century working on the assumption that external accountability will drive internal accountability. It’s the cart pulling the horse, which has not only been counter-productive to school improvement but detrimental to improving student learning.
Giving teachers greater flexibility by allowing them to use their professional judgment day in and day out, is the first step to building a highly competent workforce. Michael Fullan et al has shown that individual responsibility for one’s own learning and that of every student in the school leads to a shared internal accountability. This sense of collective responsibility for improving student learning drives the work and feeds into a bigger loop of external accountability. This way, the horse pulls the cart.
If the best way to improve learning outcomes is to raise student motivation, expectations and engagement, then doesn’t it make sense to take the same approach when it comes to teachers’ work?