Watching the speedo

I teach the school band on a friday after school. I have done for about 20 years. It started out as an antidote to the stifling ‘orchestra’ that was causing children to give up their music lessons. The orchestra focussed on very simple arrangements of chamber music, welcomed mainly violinists, and at a push some woodwind. Brass could get lost and join a ‘wind band’ somewhere. It haemorrhaged members and I picked them up. All comers were welcome if they knew which way up the instrument was. We’ve always had a rhythm section with drummer, bass, guitars, keyboards and then a random assortment of instruments, including, at times, djembes, steel pans, saxophones. Every year we lose our ‘seasoned’ players to secondary school. We play 2 or three gigs a year and we’re pretty good for a primary school! I think we’re the only one of our kind in the county.

So what’s this all about? Well I was thinking about it this Friday. I have no external objectives; I have no classroom observations by ‘senior leaders’; I have no written plans; I don’t have to fill in any boxes or record progress; I don’t have to give a percentage of pupils ‘developing, meeting or exceeding’; I have no ‘accountability’ in that regard, whatsoever. In short, I can drive it myself without having to check to see if I’m doing it right according to some outside observer or objective. And yet, AMAZINGLY, we go from a rag tag bunch at the beginning of each year and by the end of the summer we’re playing rock and pop and a bit of jazz as a group. I’d claim that the ‘progress’ of each pupil is massively enhanced by the expectations of playing with the band. In other words I don’t need any external encouragement or censure. I do not need to demonstrate anything to anyone and I still work hard to get quality out of my students. Which is what I’d do in the classroom, too, if I could, without having to ‘check the speedo’ all the time to see if I’m following some external, arbitrary set of conventions and directives.

Not unrelated to this is a growing feeling that nobody has come up with anything useful since teaching began. I’ve been immersed in educational research for the past 5 years and the more I find out, the more I see that there is nothing conclusive at all. Pet theories abound, citing ‘impact weightings’ but on closer inspection, the evidence disappears in a puff of unreliable smokescreen. We’ve had a variety of memes inexpertly thrust at us through local ‘experts’, including, off the top of my head, AfL, exploratory learning, child-centred learning, reverse planning, the creative curriculum, back to basics, real books, key words, phonics, Building Learning Power, hydration, learning styles, literacy and numeracy ‘hours’, mixed ability, ability grouping, interventions… ok I realise that’s a completely mixed bag, but when I pick out anything meaningful from any of that, I’m left with the realisation that there was nothing revolutionary there. Anything useful was practised decades ago by my own teachers all through my education and I’m doubtful that the rest of the profession was full of crap teachers for the want of some external directive and earth-shattering research finding.

Teachers are so drilled into doing what they’re told, that we’re now tying ourselves up in knots to please whoever we perceive is going to judge us, by whatever measure, be it our own school leaders, OFSTED or some imaginary ‘them’ that is telling us we now have to do ‘this’. It’s stultifying. I’ve watched many new practitioners over the years and their journey has two paths – lose all initiative and become another stressed-out drone, or leave. The latter have often been those with the most to offer.

Lately I’ve gone back to my own basics: teach by showing how or what; let the pupils do it themselves; modify, practise, move on. It seems to work. I don’t know about the research evidence.


4 thoughts on “Watching the speedo

  1. I think that if we did a massive survey of what works and doesn’t it would end up the same!! It’s ridiculous that we have to put in place measures so that everyone conforms to the same type of teaching despite the fact that it has never proven to be successful anywhere.

  2. Juliet,
    Thoughts provoked for number of words, this is probably the best blog post I have ever read. I am new to a school since Christmas and after a couple of beers for the first time with some of the staff last night, it is clear to me how drone like some have become and yet are aching to do great things with their teaching and wider talents (musical or otherwise). For the life of me I can’t remember who wrote it but I am reminded of this: Imagine there was no SLT, OFSTED, league tables, DfE mandates or presures to conform by using ‘best practices’. What would you do in your classroom to inspire a love of learning? Do that anyway.
    Thank you.
    Gareth Denman

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