The need for nuance – a bit of a wrench

There are over 24000 schools in the UK.

That’s an awful lot of schools.

Some are huge organisations serving thousands of children; some are tiny schools of barely more than a dozen pupils. Some are selective, teaching only those children who have already demonstrated a certain level of achievement, some are specialist settings serving children with multiple and complex needs. Some are serving communities with highly supportive families and rich community infrastructure; some are serving communities where children having food to eat and a bed to sleep in and a permanent address are a rarity.

Our schools serve children who range in age from the cusp of toddlerhood to the beginnings of legal adulthood. They serve all comers from all backgrounds and all experiences with varying degrees of prior educational experience, different languages and cultures and different perceptions about the importance or purpose of schooling.

We cannot therefore expect to approach the provision for this enormous range with conformity, prescription or any cast iron guarantees. The only thing we can be truly sure of is that there is a need for nuance.

However, there is often an abundance of loud pontification and nailing of colours to the educational mast across the sector. There is frequently an assumption that somehow some ways of teaching are more “right” than others and on occasions, the practice of others is actively sneered at or ridiculed or deliberately held up as poor practice. Active debate and discussion around what works and what does not work is a key part of professional behaviour. Educational professionals need to be hungry for improvement and tenacious in their quests to constantly refine and develop their practice. However, this professional discussion needs to come from a place of understanding, nuance and respect. Sadly, much of the debate and discussion within approaches comes from single standpoints; nuance is often absent, as is a deep understanding of the work of colleagues in other parts of the sector.

In the same way that a plumber may reach for a trusty wrench when working within their specific field; an electrician may not find as much use for that wrench, nor a plasterer or a decorator. This does not make the use of a wrench wrong, it just means that however brilliant and useful it may be for the plumber, it does not have the same transferable value to other areas of construction. This is the same in education. Because a particular approach or technique works with a certain age group or subject or part of the sector, this does not mean that there is direct congruence with wider practice across the sector. A wrench is useful for a specific job; it is a specific tool but trying to make everyone on that building site use a wrench in their specialist area will not make the job any more effective. Neither should the plumber decry the lack of use of the wrench by their other colleagues. The electrician is specialist in their area; the plasterer in theirs; the decorator in theirs. The tools and approaches that those other tradespeople employ are suited to their circumstances. The wrench isn’t the most effective tool for every job.

There is of course the need for practice to be underpinned by a knowledge of what works. Research can give us a helpful steer as to what might be a best bet in our classrooms but even the most detailed research findings were not crafted or carried out in our particular classrooms, with our children, in this age range, with these available resources, with this specific prior learning and experiences. There is a danger then that the propositional  knowledge provided by research eclipses not only the case and strategic knowledge of teachers but also common sense. It is easy to be seduced by neatly packaged research  findings, presented in a book or in a neat powerpoint delivered by a convincing trainer. However, we need to be mindful of the wrench. We need to be constantly aware of the context in which we teach. This does not mean a “get out of gaol free” card to ignore all research findings and to plough  our own multiple individual furrows, but to come out from under the sink, wrench in hand and ask:

  • What age group was studied within this research? Is is applicable to the age group I teach?
  • What subject was studied within this research? Is is applicable to the subject I teach?
  • Is this being presented or commented on by someone with direct experience and understanding of teaching children in this subject/ of this age and stage?
  • Where is the evidence that it works for my context?
  • Why is is better than what I am doing already?
  • What would happen if I didn’t do this?
  • If I start doing this, what do I need to stop doing? What would be the effect of stopping?
  • How does this meet the needs of my children and the resources I have available in my setting to action this?

There are many messages in teaching which purport to be complete truths but really aren’t because they lack nuance.

Let’s take the following statement: “Differentiation is bad and you should just teach to the top”

I hear this countless times and it makes me wince every time.

Yes, predetermined groupings which place glass ceilings on children and stymie their potential are indeed bad. So too is the idea that teachers must prepare three separate tasks or levels of work for a class for every lesson in some three way differentiation hamster wheel of nonsense.

It is an easy default to therefore say, “Teach to the top and scaffold – differentiation is bad. We shouldn’t artificially cap children’s potential through differentiation”

Well, let’s unpick that a little.

Let’s start with primary PE.

In classes I have taught before there have been children with a wide range of needs. In one particular mainstream primary class I taught, I had two children who had less than 10% vision. In this same class I also had a child with a condition where one leg was longer than the other and thus he needed a caliper with which he was just starting to use and become confident with. Also within this class was a child with a severe lung condition which meant they could not exercise for any extended period of time. I also had 3 children who had been signed for local premier league football club youth squads, a swimmer who was competing at national level, a competitive gymnast and 25 other children varying in ability. To then say, “Differentiation is bad, teach to the top” in this context is not only wrong but potentially damaging. In this case, I had to structure my PE lessons with specific and different tasks for different groups to enable them to access the lesson safely, appropriately and to all make progress.

It is the same with classes I have taught where in the same mixed age year 5/6 class I had children who were working at the level of a 3 or 4 year old in terms of their development and understanding, alongside children who were ready to sit GCSE Maths. To apply sweeping statements such as “Differentiation is bad, teach to the top” is again not only wrong but potentially damaging. The learning that the bulk of the class were doing actively conflicted with what the children who were operating at an age 3 or 4 year old needed. There was no point me trying to scaffold down aspects of year 6 algebra for children working at age 3 equivalent to access as they were still working on securing one to one correspondence for counting. You could argue that counting is a pre requisite for algebra and that that is exactly what I was doing but these children would still be working on one to one correspondence when we moved onto data and statistics or calculation so it was not scaffolding, it was an alternative differentiated approach carefully matched to their needs and based on a secure assessment of their understanding.

It is these kinds of false truths which are declared to be some kind of set of teaching commandments which lack the flexibility of thinking and careful caveating which demonstrate a truer understanding of how children really learn. Not all children’s needs are the same and  not all school or teachers’ contexts are the same so making statements about what is right for all is an odd standpoint from which to come at learning development, as it does not take into account the full picture.

A recent documentary on the success of the Subway sandwich chain outlined that the reason it has become the biggest and most successful sandwich chain in the world is the personalisation aspect. It offers a range of personalisation options at every stage: the bread, the filling, the salad, the sauce. All options are available to each individual customer and each is able to personalise it to their own particular requirements. This is a little like teaching needs to be. It needs to be a little less McDonald’s in that you get the same thing in the same box whether you are in Los Angeles or London or Lisbon and a little more Subway. Consistency is reassuring and it is easier to talk about but nuance and personalisation is ultimately more satisfying and meets the needs of the individual classroom context much more effectively.

We therefore need to be aware of the wider range of teaching approaches and options available but we then need to select and construct these in a combination most suited to our setting and our children.

The need for nuance and subsequent personalisation then is a current much needed balm for the educational discursive soul. The fixation by a minority on eschewing the need for nuance and championing the narrowest of causes needs to be gently countered by firm but focused discussion on analysing relevance to age, stage and subject. 

This straightjacketing or single narrative is also being played out in many of the national programmes. The need for nuance has been overlooked which leads to situations such as ECTs needing to take part in time consuming training through the ECF which is often irrelevant to their stage or context – for example ECT colleagues working in EYFS for whom great swathes of the training takes no account of the fact they do not follow the national curriculum but at the same time, makes no reference to the statutory EYFS documentation and approaches. The assessments and input for many of the NPQs are not adapted for phase and so colleagues in primary are attempting to tackle assignments or take part in training around assessment and data with a sole secondary data focus. There is an argument for a need to understand the whole sector and not to focus solely on the here and now, but this argument is a little blunt when time pressed ECTs and new leaders are asked to learn things which are not only irrelevant for the moment but often for the entire phase in which they have chosen to work.

There are no silver bullets in teaching. Yes, there are some best bets which will work in many contexts but just like any bet, the ball isn’t always going to land on red and you’re going to at some point lose your chips.

Instead of purporting to have found the answers to all teaching ills which have implied direct congruence in all of our 24000+ settings, we potentially need to share what is working within our settings and ask colleagues working in other parts of the sector what works for them. Finding the areas of common ground will serve to illuminate what works for all far more effectively than insisting on conformity or forced transferability.

Before we comment on approaches in other contexts or make suggestions about what other colleagues should be doing, we also need to ask ourselves how much we know about that area of the sector. What is our own direct experience and expertise in this phase or stage? What experience am I drawing from to draw this conclusion or give this advice or opinion? What do I know about best practice in this age/phase/subject?

There is so much to learn from colleagues across the sector and  from  research but we need to be mindful of the needs and  approaches which serve our children in our contexts most effectively. We need to lean on the experts who have direct expertise and experience not just knowledge and we need to have the confidence to know just when to use our own wrenches and not insist that everyone downs their own individual tools and does likewise.

There are no silver bullets in education but there are lots of people firing edu shots.

I’m off for a sandwich.

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