What does a good education at school look like?
I think it’s essential to look at this question through the paradigm of what is necessary to a good education and what is sufficient.
Briefly, a necessary condition must be met for a good education, and sufficient conditions guarantee that a good education has been had. My argument here is that Education has been too focused on sufficient conditions, and as a result of this many necessary conditions to a good education are not being met. A good education cannot be had without the foundation of necessary conditions.
My view is that we must look to the necessary conditions and only once these are in place should we layer the sufficient conditions on top of these foundations.
So, what are the necessary conditions of a good education and what are the barriers to them being met? My subject is secondary maths, and this is the lens through which I will be answering the question.
1. Behaviour should be respectful and conducive to learning. The responsibility for behaviour lies with the students and the school as a whole. It is not the responsibility of the classroom teacher.
1b. (added 20-2-16) Homework should be easy to set and mark, ideally with a computer system that automatically marks the work and records the areas of strength and weakness of the students. Ideally, a whole school policy that picks up those students who don’t do their homework would be in place.
2. Explanations. Teachers should carefully and clearly explain the curriculum to the students. The use of a good set of textbooks would help with this.
3. Hard work and practise. There is no royal road to geometry, and there is no easy way to learn. The responsibility for doing well ultimately rests on the shoulders of the students.
4. Teaching should be responsive. I think that all teachers engage in responsive teaching (a phrase coined by Dylan Wiliam) by which I mean they respond to whether students are learning what is being taught or not and change what they’re doing accordingly. It may be possible to find teachers that don’t but I think they’d be extremely rare. Clearly this can be done to variable levels of success but I think that teachers simply being allowed to exercise their professional judgement in their classes is a necessary condition of a good education.
5. Exam preparation. By this I mean the awareness that students are working towards a high stakes GCSE and referencing this in teaching. The use of past papers and mock exams is, I think, necessary to a good education.
There it is, 5 perhaps obvious necessities to a good education. What are the barriers to this happening?
1. The responsibility for good behaviour is often left with the classroom teacher. Teachers are told to plan ‘engaging’ lessons and to try to have good relationships with students who exhibit bad behaviour. This results in teachers planning for ‘engagement’ and pandering to the troublemakers as opposed to planning for learning and teaching to the top.
2. Teachers have been inculcated into the erroneous belief that they should minimise teacher talk and students should learn by doing and realising things for themselves . Teaching by telling has got a bad reputation even though it is probably the best way for students to learn at school.
3. The responsibility for students doing well is not often enough put on the students themselves. Too often, teachers are blamed for what is simply students not being prepared to graft to do well.
4. Teachers are put off making their own judgements about how to respond to their classes by tick box exercises such as confused whole-school AfL diktats that act as a proxy for teacher judgements.
5. ‘Teaching to the test’ is maligned as being a last resort when other teaching hasn’t worked as opposed to being an integral teaching process. Tests are disparaged as being damaging to students as opposed to a useful learning tool.
So there we go. Let’s start with the necessary conditions for a good education.