Teach them the moves

Years ago I saw a ‘documentary’ about a lottery winner spending his millions trying to be a pop star. He hired vocal coaches, stylists, songwriters and promoters and then a camera crew followed him to film the ensuing car crash.  

It was all very sad – although the camera never caught any specific instances I felt like the professionals he’d hired were laughing at him behind his back – something knowing and unpleasant lurked in their sychophantic eyes and smiles. It was a salutary lesson on how much money can’t buy. He seemed unhappy throughout – I suspect he knew he was on a hiding to nothing but was so committed it was harder to pull out than to keep going.

The most uncomfortable part was a bit when he was working with a choreographer, trying to work out a dance routine to go on the video for his single. What he really wanted were specific steps – or ‘some moves’ as he described them.

The choreographer did not want to do this. He said it didn’t work like that and – in a particularly excruciating sequence – tried to get the newly minted millionaire to ‘feel the music’, ‘move with the beat’ and ‘improvise.’

I wish I could see unsee it.

I think the choreographer got this wrong. I hope it was that and not just cruelty. I imagine because he was a skilled dancer himself and used to working with experts he hadn’t understood how impossible this was for his novice student.

Teacher training and development, particularly of early years teachers, should give teachers ‘moves’ – specific things that lead to order and calm even if the reasons behind these things are not understood by those deploying them to begin with. Examples of this might be Doug Lemov’s ‘be seen looking’ or ‘cold calling.’ It might mean a trainee teacher using Wrexler’s ‘because, but, so’ even if they don’t really know why this is often effective.

I can hear the howls of indignation. I am tempted to join in myself. Isn’t this the epitome of cargo cultism? Aren’t I specifically advocating for brainless implementation and the damage it continues to do to schools and learning?

I quite agree this is unsatisfactory and if it were the end point it would be unforgivably so.

Teachers who implement strategies without knowing the reasons for them will never see the full benefit. Their pupils will not learn as quickly as they should. The history of education in England from Blooms to WALT and WILF, from Growth Mindset to metacognitive strategies, is littered with the green-bin rubbish of reasonable ideas pulled uncritically from the gardens they grew in.

Action without thought would be totally unacceptable for any teacher if there was a better alternative. But in many contexts I am not sure there is. Teachers are increasingly trained on the job and even those who have had PGCEs or excellent initial teacher training of other types can’t be expected to understand the reasons behind everything teachers do all at once. It takes time and will take longer if they are at all at sea in their classrooms not knowing what on earth to do because nobody has told them how to start a lesson off or the best way to ask children questions. This is something – incidentally – that was well understood by Florence Nightingale who had little time for germ theory. Her point was that whether or not it was true it did not add anything to the work of her nurses. They knew keeping things clean reduced infection and – for the situation they were in – that was quite enough.

In an ideal world – of course – training would allow lots of time for the sort of thinking that gives meaning to action.

But we do not live in this ideal world and we gain nothing by pretending we do. Those responsible for teacher development must be realists and must not allow teachers to face a class with nothing in their armoury.

I may be accused of erecting a straw man. I really hope I have but I am pretty sure I haven’t. I acutely remember standing in front of a class watching them talk and talk and talk, desperate hot and prickly, absolutely no idea as to how to stop them, dreading teaching the group once the timetable rolled back onto them again. This went on for years with some classes because while I got lots of training on thinky things like assessment for learning I got precious little on specific things I should do in a lesson. Most of what I did learn I picked up watching others and then trial and error.

It does not have to be this way. Nobody must be the tragic millionaire swaying awkwardly in front of a mocking audience. While it is important teachers understand the purpose behind what works they shouldn’t be left all alone before they do. By all means, use strategies such the ones identified and explained in this excellent blog post by Adam Boxer to make the transition between doing and understanding faster, but don’t expect novice teachers to develop this understanding quickly all at once.

And until they do for goodness sake teach them the moves.

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