An Easter of reading raises some old truisms:

  1. That most teachers do not ‘improve’ after 3-5 years. 
  2. That most ineffective teachers ‘catch up’ to expert teachers after 10 years or so. 
  3. That these statements are made in terms of impact on external performance measures.

In response to these claims, I wonder this:

  1. That most teachers treat the job as just a job. That is fine and necessary and indeed desirable to keep an essential workforce in fine fettle. Once a teacher is good enough to cover a specification and operate a manageable workflow, any further improvement becomes vocational rather than professional – we are in the territory of nourishing the spirit rather than affecting external performance measures.
  2. That in terms of guiding students to achieve in exams, especially at KS4, most experienced teachers can really only affect the students a grade or so either side. However, there is a world of difference in how a student really understands a subject. If I am to be frank, my secondary education and even my degree left me without a sufficient historical framework to understand literary criticism. I possessed the philosophical ideas but lacked the historical framework to recognise trends and tensions in literature. Everything was starkly decontextualised – exciting for an undergraduate, but ultimately ruinous for a learner

This did not make me a poor classroom teacher necessary. I spent many years focuses on classroom craft, managing a classroom and developing a sense of how to inspire thinking, not just action. But it was not until I began to read more widely and to develop my historical framework that I understood the texts I taught. Therefore, I write this post to me, or to those like me, who are enjoying the plaudits in their teaching but feel that there is something more. Below is a list of books I would recommend, and some narrative of how to read them. Enjoy!

To what extent can a teacher be a lifelong learner and how can current pedagogical practice impact his or her classroom?

The key to pedagogy is to be critical about what you use and how you use it, and to be aware that what worked before may not work again. I have always enjoyed reading about pedagogy, taking part in TeachMeets and subject body conferences throughout my career. My MA in International Education drives my current learning with a distinct focus on cultural capital, metacognition and the international context. You are also reading an educational blog for ten years where I reflect on my own practice, providing resources and continually refining what I do. Over 14 years I have focused on different aspects of practice and feel now that my experience is both broad and deep.

One current interest I have is how cultural capital can help to foster genuine, skills-based improvement in students. Bernstein, Bourdieu and Young all stress the need to teach situated content linked to cultural capital. I have found some students can see life as remarkably transactional, perhaps a result of growing up in an increasingly neoliberalist environment. Teaching cultural capital impacts my classroom organically by using learning opportunities in the classroom to demonstrate and encourage principle-driven living. In doing so, we avoid the risk of learner profile terms becoming buzz words and interculturally show students other ways to be. Simply telling teachers to develop generic thinking verbs is mindless at best and disheartening at worst – it misrepresents any learning process that I recognise.

Another interest I have is in metacognition. Research suggests this exists on three levels: using generic assessment for learning skills; knowing subject-specific strategies; and finally knowing the right time to use those strategies. Working with our elite sports coaches, I am investigating pedagogy that encourages students to internalise the right time to use metacognitive strategies. Primarily this involves creating scenarios (on the sports field or in the classroom) whereby a handicap is introduced with the ambition that the students will internalise the desire to use that handicap at the right time in the future.

In terms of understanding the landscape of teaching in 2018, three books that must be read together are Daisy’s Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education, Tom Bennett’s Teacher Proof and David Didau’s What if Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong?. While all are contentious, they encourage teachers to reflect critically on their practice and question the status quo of the debate between progressive vs versus traditional teaching. Such a debate needs to be had (and has been had, extensively…). But it also needs to be nuanced and somewhat depoliticised. I like to think that I am remarkably neutral and can take the best of all sides to improve my craft.

To explore traditional methods of teaching I recommend The Michaela School book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teacher. I read this as a successor to Martin Robinson’s Trivium in that both promote the teaching of a historical framework and the prioritising of students consolidating knowledge. Whilst they are at times quite political and not entirely directed at an international demographic, the desire to get students excited in the heart of texts – rather than the tasks they do – is an idea I agree with. Their stress on revisiting lessons and ideas is also essential. I use revisiting questions regularly, having delivered CPD on this practice, and integrated it into our lessons to inspection acclaim.

In response to the side of progressive teaching, I also enjoyed David Kolb’s Experiential Learning. I explored project-based learning in Beijing fairly extensively, considering the extent to which students should be directed and focused while attempting independent and extended project-based learning. There is also debate on the extent to which students’ enjoyment of lessons leads to examination success: schools survive on results, but students are better learners if they see lessons as prompts for wider thinking. Structuring a curriculum based on an exam risks actually creating worse exam results. I see Dan Willingham’s cognitive studies in Why Don’t Students Like School? as a great argument for project-based learning and structuring a curriculum beyond an exam.

Moving beyond this debate, I think two essential books that summarise the metastudies of educational research are Geoff Petty’s Evidence Based Teaching and Tom Hattie’s Visible Learning. Again, both these texts need to be taken critically and have been employed with agendas in the past. Attempting to measure the direct impact of variables in the social sciences is somewhat questionable, but pedagogy (when applied specifically) impacts a classroom. Both texts talk about the importance of applying a range of pedagogy in a specific fashion, be it whole-class instruction or project-based learning. Too often I think if teachers believe that if they have experienced an idea in some format, they know that idea entirely. They fail to see the hedge or nuance in a different application, feeling ‘I’ve done this CPD before!’. Therefore, I hope my classroom demonstrates I have enough experience to know the right time to use the right pedagogy, usually with a rhythm of inspirational whole-class instruction leading to meaningful and focused project-based learning. Resonating with Dan Willingham, both these books also raise considerations of working memory management: again I encourage chunking of key knowledge, Cornell Note prompts for meaningful lesson recapping, and the responding to hinge questions in lessons to allow learning to thrive organically where possible. These are also practical pedagogies that can integrated continuous, not sparking then waning with the tides of time.

The most practical book I have read and enacted is Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence. This was famous in Yorkshire in 2008. Encouraging students to take pride in work through redrafting and public performance raises the classroom into a higher state of purpose. Gallery critiques and the sharing of work and ideas within the class online are a fundamental part of my practice and directly impact how students frame the importance of their work.

In terms of my own subject-knowledge, I have read diligently and educated myself throughout my 14 years since graduating. I believe in reading and talking regularly and am the member of several bookclubs. I have found Sutherland’s A History of Literature, Poplawski’s Literature in Context and Grombrich’s A Little History of the World essential for my education. These texts allowed me to recognise the limits of my early education and to instead create a cogent historical and cultural framework upon which to explore the range of humanities, of Politics, Psychology, Sociology, Philosophy, History, Geography and more. I see literature as being the node for all these subjects and literature teachers as needing to possess a broad knowledge of all these subjects. Therefore, this has made my classroom a place where many interesting cultural diversions and connections are encouraged and that we should recognise how current trends and world problems have roots in our past.

Finally, for my students, I believe David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction and John Mullan’s How Novels Work are great for introducing narrative theory in a situated fashion. John Leonard’s The Poetry Handbook presents the history and sound of poetry while Neil Bowen’s essays on poetry and plays from Peripeteia Press are inspirationally erudite. All are on my KS5 list for students and staff and all have a positive impact, especially for the most able students.