The task of teaching

The task of teaching is multi-faceted, complex and never neatly contained.  It continues long after the bells ring and the lessons finish. Most teachers work long into the night marking assessments, providing feedback and planning lessons. However, as we shift towards more evidence-based approaches, the goal is to become more effective to ensure we deliver value because working harder may not be working smarter.

The task of teaching cannot be reduced to simply producing effective and engaging lessons; it requires teachers to evaluate the impact of those lessons on each learner. To be able to use ask questions and use feedback wisely to move all learners forward wherever they are on the learning continuum.  If not, then how else do we track student or teacher progress?  We cannot take learning on face value.

It is astounding that many continue to view the use of feedback and data as a burden for teachers or worse, as an unnecessary task of teaching. The use of feedback, questioning and data is not a diversion from the work of teaching – it is integral to it. Second, there will always be those who are afraid of change and this strengthens the argument that we need to continually invest in the capacity and learning of teachers.  The goal is to ensure all teachers are able to evaluate where students are, give constructive feedback and provide the necessary support and structures to improve learning outcomes.

There are and will always be a minority of voices that are anti-intellectual as observed recently in a journal decrying the use of data.  All other professions seize the idea of obtaining data and feedback as critical to improving the work they do so why is it that some wish to see teaching locked into industrial thinking and processes?

Andy Hargreaves in his book Teaching in the Knowledge Society commented that ‘teaching is not a place for shrinking violets, for the overly sensitive….it’s a place for grown-ups, requiring grown up norms of how to work together.’

Grown up norms of how we work together as professionals includes grown up discussions of how we improve and extend the practice of teaching in today’s world.


10 thoughts on “The task of teaching

  1. Greg,

    Your last sentence is right on the money. We certainly need a wider conversation than what is going on at the moment in journals, policy documents, conferences and social media. Encouraging diversity of opinions seems particularly important. Lots of forums/platforms but largely very few ideas that resound about what is important in the life of a child or school. I am pretty sure it is not testing or assessment. In fact, this is a huge part of the reason our culture struggles to think about learning and teaching positively.

    I am not certain the journal you are talking about; which article? but the obsession with tracking, testing, assessment, spreadsheets and business models that permeate educational leadership probably needs a few challenges to keep us honest. Would it fair to say that much of this approach has de-motivated students and the teachers for no significant gain? The HSC, certainly the ATAR, assessment and exams regime, needs radical reform if it is to serve our state, nation and the individuals who endure it. Certainly, since the advent of outcomes – based education (and I was certainly part of the cheer squad) Australian educational rankings have plummeted. If we take a step back far enough from it all, what will researchers say in 100 years about schools in the first two decades of the 21 century? That we got it right? I don’t think so.

    What would you do about the HSC examinations, ATAR and assessment?

    1. Darcy, thanks for the comments. You asked what I would do about HSC and ATAR…the simple answer is get rid of them. They are an artefact of a world that doesn’t exist anymore and we need to be honest about that. As Dylan Wiliam says we have raised students to be hooked on grades rather than on the feedback to improve learning. Wiliam says assessment is valuable if it is used to adjust teaching and get students back on track.

      1. Thanks for your reply Greg,

        There is no other answer other than one you have given. The system must change.

        The review of the HSC – with STEM in mind – will likely be mere fiddling around the edges and the examinations continue on regardless with the industry – tutoring, textbooks, selective school tests, NAPLAN etc. – that lives off this system, thriving.

        Considering that legislation in NSW requires students are awarded A-E grades each semester, on a report that is published and distributed via paper, it is challenging to think that leaders are doing anything other that ‘talking the talk’when such fundamental reform is needed. It is hard to have ‘bottom-up’ innovation when such core aspects of the daily routine are not being refomed by politicians or senior figures in education but teachers are bidden to work on what is effectively ‘busy work’.

        None of the above should be an excuse that prevents innovative practice but the elephants in the rooms are so numerous it is hard not to be trampled.

        I am writing a post that posits what needs to be done but have grown a little tired of our edu systems being weighed down by the lack of ability to reform in line with societal change and expectation. More importantly, our lack of imagination when there is so much opportunity to do really stunningly, engaging lessons that are genuinely personalised offering students chances to steer their own vessels far more often.

        We also have a great need for traditional thinking that serves our civil society and engages students in authentic endeavour in their daily lives at school. Civics education, building personal resilience, cultural literacy and engaging in the life of a community are still fundamentally important to stop us fracturing along the faultlines of class, ethnicity, religion and geography.

        It is, dare I say it, an exciting time to be an educator, especially if we would talk about what really matters and stop running the same old ball up into the same old line, expecting to breakthrough with serious political will from all concerned.

        Maybe the students need to refuse to do the HSC anymore as it stands? That’s the only way I can see change happening as everyone at the top of our education and political systems has no vested interest in real change? This is a little to radical for me to consider but what would ensure change happened in a timely manner? Contributing to a consultation process? I don’t think so.


  2. Unfortunately it seems that working conditions have not changed to enable teachers to deliver the higher expectations required by the profession. The number of classes we are expected to teach per week has not changed in the 30 years I have been a classroom teacher. Shouldn’t we be reducing teaching loads by 20% to ensure there is more time for collaboration and planning and quality feedback to students? Or is the only solution for a teacher is to use more evenings, weekends and term break time to accomplish this?

    1. CC – I agree with you. The problem however for me is the way we define the work of teaching and it’s done under an industrial model as if teachers are factory workers. Your work is determined by hours, students numbers and not how we improve student learning. There are many reasons why we have the model but what is obvious is the model no longer works. Despite increased spending and more teachers in schools, we still haven’t cracked how we give teachers more time to collaborate and reflect on practice. Those best placed to do it are teachers themselves.

      1. I’m sorry Greg, but to be in your position and say “those best placed to do it are teachers themselves” is a cop-out. Teachers have no power to give themselves more collaboration time, to schedule reflection time, to change assessment, to adjust curricula or schemes of work – all is directed from above, and people like you are at the top of the tree (or close to).

        Even one of the main points of your articles – to consider data – raises the question of “when”. I would love to spend time considering data, so maybe I should stop teaching a period a day? Not correct work? Not write reports (which are rubbish, but I have no control over)? Not produce the next document management demands?

        In the system you control, why not do the things you advocate, then invite teachers and administrators from around the country to come and have a look?

      2. Thanks for comment. Let’s start with the last one first. We in fact have some excellent models on what I have been talking about. Everything I have written about you will see in many of our schools. Several have visitors from overseas and around the country. The central administration didn’t dictate how these schools were to shape the learning and teaching. We set one challenge and that was we would improve every child’s learning by having the best teachers in the classrooms. Diversity is norm and every child can improve learning. We provided enablers such as agile spaces and technology to support learning. Our teachers have taken up the challenge. These are not one size fits all examples. They reflect what we know about good learning and teaching. The learn from and with each other on what the next iteration looks like. I understand your frustration but you have described the quintessential industrial model of schooling. We need to take off teachers the things that don’t contribute to the core work. We have a data system in place and analysts that give teachers the insights that is intrinsic to improving their teaching and thus, student learning. My experience has been that if you give the teachers the responsibility, they will find the ways to do things differently. You only need to reflect on the current industrial model e.g curriculum framework – individual teacher takes it and interprets it based on what is best for each student.

  3. Well at the risk of offending a few it seems we may have misunderstood some central points here.
    – assessment is primarily for the teacher not the student unless the data is shared with the student so they can set their own learning goals. The teacher analyses the data to measure a number of things including their own effectiveness (e.g. on instruction which includes feedback) and what the next student learning points are.
    – teacher collaboration is more than just time. To collaboration requires time to learn sets of dispositions, skills and a willingness to face our ourselves (cameras in classrooms like mirrors reveal we need to learn more and that we as teachers make errors and they not judged bad unless we commit to making the same ones over and over).

    Like Andy says in his book “Professional learning communities in schools emphasize three key components: collaborative work and discussion among the school’s professionals; a strong and consistent focus on teaching and learning within that collaborative work; and gathering assessment and other data to inquire into and evaluate progress and problems over time.”

    In my experience as principal for over 20 years in protecting this within school hours collaborative time for teaching teams to meet against both individual teacher and union pressure to simply provide more planning time for individual teachers. This collaborative time was over and above industrial awards time. So no its simply not just about time.

    There is more to say on this but I need to reflect some more on Andy’s points before I write.

    1. Mark, thanks again for the insights. I think what it highlights is that teachers and leaders need to choose how to make valuable use of time. If we allow others to mandate how we use our time in schools, you get the continuous repetition of a failed model.

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