Why? Why? Why?

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On an education forum I frequent, teachers regularly complain about their school marking policy that demands them to mark student books, say every 2 lessons and how impossible it is to manage the workload.
The remaining thread is people sharing ideas on how to manage the load. There is no discernment as to whether these strategies meet the rationale behind the policy. They are just ways to ‘show’ the policy is being followed.

This worries me.

Are schools focussing too much on the ‘what & how’, instead of on the ‘why’?

Teachers around the country are desperately trying to ‘do’ what they’ve been told that in some cases the desired impact of the actions are lost. The value in that process has gone and they might as well not bother. We need to keep asking ourselves ‘why?’. And if the answer is ‘because I’ve been told to’ or ‘it’s for Ofsted’ then we are in trouble. (Some argue that if the answer is ‘because it’s for an exam’ we’re also in trouble, I don’t agree; as long as it’s not the ONLY answer. We’re doing what is needed for the students.)

An example

In the case above it was about giving students time to reflect & improve their work (Schools have given this a variety of terms e.g Close the gap, DIRT). The purpose of this is to give students time to think more deeply about what they’ve written/created, take on board and feedback, and then improve it showing they have understood the feedback. In a short period of time, if done well, it can allow a student to make a ‘jump’ in knowledge/skills from where they were before it was marked to post marking. However this has been lost in policies that state “Students must be given 15 minutes to improve their work every 3rd lesson” or suchlike. So all some teachers think (whilst being highly pressurised from leadership) is, “I must do this every 3 lessons regardless of whether it is appropriate, needed or practical.”

“I don’t have time”

Another comment was ‘I don’t have time to do this, I have so much to teach them’. Whilst teachers are generally anxious about content delivery this completely misses the value of the process. It doesn’t occur to the teacher that this may lead to deeper learning than ‘more content’. In these cases, there is no discernment about the right conditions for the student to complete this process. It is policy driven, not learning driven. And it is unnecessary pressure from leadership that leads to this. If there are genuine issues, leaders should be open to discussion and willing to look at individual subjects and what is best for them. No blanket policies.

Lesson observations

This is also apparent in lesson observations. We often focus on the ‘what and how’. Feedback is focussed on what happened during the period of time instead of drilling down on why the teacher did or didn’t do X. Think how powerful it would be for lesson feedback ( I want to ditch this term, see my blog on it here ) to focus around the rationale of why the teacher did X and Y and to unpick this than about the ‘what and the how’ of the lesson. This kind of feedback gets the teacher and the observer thinking about why they do things and opens up possibilities of using evidence & research to improve.

Of course, all of this assumes that those that make the policies and expectations have a balanced, well evidenced rationale behind what they expect teachers to do. Some leaders don’t seem to grasp this. They have in their heads or been told by a consultant or inspector a way of doing things. They don’t seem to have the ability to critique it before throwing it as staff in a policy and then using it as a stick to beat with.

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If any strategy is to be successful, leaders have a responsibility to share the rationale & aims of a policy with staff as much as how they want it to be carried out. Leaders need to be prepared to be challenged on it. Be prepared to change or ditch it if evidence shows it isn’t working. Putting pressure on staff to do things a particular way will not only limit teacher autonomy but in some cases the desired effect will be reversed making it pointless and resented by teachers & students.

So, does your school focus on the ‘Why?’ enough?

Check out your policies
Is the ‘why’ clear? Or is it lost in the waffle?
Was it created alongside staff or just given to them?
Does it cater for all subjects? If not would individual subject policies be more appropriate?
Is it based on evidence that shows this system works?
If not, how long will you trial it before reviewing if it is achieving the desired effect?
Are you brave enough to ditch it, if it clearly isn’t working?

Check your observations

Does your lesson observation proforma just focus on the ‘what and how?’

What questions should an observer be asking the teacher?

What ‘whys?’ are needed to be asked to understand what was happening?

How can those ‘whys?’ be used to help the teacher to develop?

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5 thoughts on “Why? Why? Why?

  1. This hits a very important nail right on the head. There is a huge risk that we are all becoming jobsworths – we do it because that’s what they system says, not because it is valid in any greater sense. Until we are prepared to discuss the real reasons, this is only going to het worse, and as you say, strict adherence to procedures for their own sake seems to be the order of the day.

  2. Pingback: Edssential » Why? Why? Why?

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