As the new school year approaches and over 30,000 new teachers begin their career in the classroom, Katie Ashford gives us the final part in her three part series.  Katie is an English teacher in a secondary school in London. These are her individual views.

The last two posts in this series have talked about some of the challenges new teachers face in their first term in the classroom. If we aren’t careful, we can end up spend grueling hours planning, fearing lessons with some of our most poorly behaved classes, and we punish ourselves for not being inspirational, transformational teachers within the first few weeks. I have painted a rather bleak picture, but in the last post of this series, I would like to offer a glimmer of hope.

Being a teacher is not all doom and gloom. There will be times during your first year when you will stare long and hard into the mirror and question your life choices, but those moments are rare and will be practically non-existent after the Easter holidays (I promise). Some days, however, you will leap out of bed and dance into school, humming and smiling at random people you don’t know on the train. Those days, when you look forward to going to work, are what make you luckier than most other folks (unfortunate souls who choose to sit in a grey office and stare at an overweight, balding man named Geoff all day long, for example) who could only dream of having such enthusiasm for their work.

But the problem is, as an inexperienced teacher, it’s all a bit hit and miss. You try out lots of things to see if they work, and are thrilled when they do, but are disheartened and feel like you’ve taken a step back when they don’t. Some lessons can leave you scratching your head wondering where it all went wrong: “it worked with 7 set 1- why on Earth didn’t it work with 8 set 2?!”- Throughout the year, this yo-yo between being highly competent and embarrassingly incapable is frustrating and de-motivating. Sadly, learning to be a teacher is not a linear process. The side steps and backward slips are often hard to move on from. They make you wish for time to speed up and for you to have been teaching for thirty years, but waiting that long for the solutions is not desirable.

Colleagues, books and training sessions are where we seek answers. Can’t get 9 set 6 to sit down? Ask your mentor to come in and have a look at how you manage their behaviour. Not sure how best to teach creative writing? Get on the Internet and let Amazon bring the answers to your doorstep. Need some tips on getting kids to concentrate? Ask an expert at the next CPD session. These are all sensible things to do in your first (and subsequent) years in teaching, and can provide great resources for improving your practice. But early on, in our desperation for answers and miracles, and in our desire to make our kids learn more and to be better engaged in lessons, we risk falling into a trap.

Educational Placebo

‘The Placebo Effect’ exists in education. How many times have you been told or read that differentiating by learning style will help your pupils to engage in their learning? Ever thought that injecting a dose of Brain Gym into your lesson will whip your kids up into a learning frenzy? Have you thought about planning an entire lesson around Bloom’s taxonomy or Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development’, hoping it will allow you to challenge pupils of all abilities? Of course you have. We all have. All of these ideas sound great: they are the Atkins diet of the classroom, the antioxidant- super-fruit of learning. They can be presented as sure-fire ways to get kids to make more progress and to enjoy your lessons more than they would enjoy shooting paintballs at the Headmaster’s face.

And herein lies the trap. When we are told that something has been ‘scientifically proven’ or that ‘experts’ have revealed a new panacea that will ‘revolutionise’ the way we teach, we have a tendency to fall for it. In our mad search for answers, we grab hold of anything that makes a promising claim, sometimes failing to sniff out the harsh, unpalatable reality: these ideas do not always work, and in some cases, can be detrimental to your teaching.

Some of the ideas that tend to float about are fairly intuitive and make sense- Bloom’s and Vygotsky, for example, are widely accepted to have value in educational discourse. Bloom’s might not help you to diffuse a riot in your classroom, but it is worthy of discussion, at least. However, some other theories- many of which are still widely promoted- have been shown to be defunct by more recent scientific trials and investigations. New theories and discoveries are being published all the time. Over the past ten years, cognitive scientists have built up a great body of evidence that has given us a much clearer insight into how the mind works. But this information has not yet seeped all the way through the teaching profession. As teachers aren’t exactly furnished with hour upon hour of free time to pour over dull and impenetrable academic literature, it can be very difficult for us to stay up to date with the very latest in scientific advances. To make matters worse, there are some (not all) institutions out there that haven’t done their homework either, meaning that they are disseminating ideas that are largely unfounded.

This leaves individual teachers- especially new ones- in a tricky situation. If a more experienced member of the teaching community- or a writer, an alleged ‘expert’ tells you that adopting a particular theory will improve your practice, it’s hard to ignore. Being inexperienced makes you more vulnerable to this, because you want to do well for your pupils and you know it would be inappropriate to question those more experienced than yourself. However, it’s not impossible to avoid falling into the trap of bad science. Here are a few things you can do to make sure you don’t end up wasting your time implementing bad theories in your classroom:

Think.

Does this sound legitimate? Could it just be a gimmick? Does this really sound like something that will work?

Think again.

Is this immediately applicable to classroom practice? What do you actually have to change in your classroom tomorrow? If you aren’t sure, it might need some more thought before you go in and try out the new idea.

Investigate.

This one does depend on time. If you do have a spare hour or two, it might be worth looking to see when a particular theory was written or what people have said about it since. How have others implemented this in their practice? Has it worked? Try to gain as much information about it as possible so that you are as well informed as you can be.

Keep up to date quickly.

There are a lot of people out there who are doing all the reading and thinking for us, and are writing about it in short articles. So if you only have half an hour a week spare, I would thoroughly recommend having a glance at some of these:

– Check out the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Toolkit: a very accessible list of what works and what doesn’t work, according to the latest research.

– Daniel T. Willingham, cognitive scientist, writes short articles here that are easy to read, interesting and useful.

– The insanely well-researched and frequently updated Pragmatic Education by Joe Kirby is a collection of concise articles about what works best and why.

– A balanced and thought provoking blogger with a range of practical tips for classroom practice: David Didau.

– Join Twitter: follow a few people (such as those listed above) and read their 140 character discussions, ask them questions, and follow links to lots more interesting articles.

Overall, the key thing to remember is that you need to have a critical eye when looking to science for the answers. We can’t always rely on science because sometimes it just isn’t very good! It can be incredibly misleading, and new teachers don’t have the time or energy to be led up the garden path. Getting to grips with what works in the classroom will inevitably take a while, and looking to the work and experience of others- whether it’s by colleagues, researchers or from books- is a useful tool for speeding up the process of learning what works. But as with any experimental endeavour, tread carefully. Make sure you don’t get seduced by a theory just because it sounds attractive and fun. Think carefully, be critical, and don’t be afraid to question something that might later turn out to be a gimmick.

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