A History of Good Practice

The idea starts here, somewhere early in a person’s career. Some new innovation, let’s call it Terrific Radically Exciting Advanced Teaching Method, or TREAT, has just been announced in a journal, and is currently doing the rounds. For many different ideas, this is the end of it, and it becomes part of the repertoire of many teachers. Some teachers like it, some loathe it. It works in some cases, in others it doesn’t. Try it, see what you think, incorporate or abandon as you see fit.But TREAT is different. Not because It’s the magic bullet which makes learning happen. There is no magic bullet, or single approach which works better above all others. There are some principles, perhaps, which underlie many approaches and could be broadly drawn, although not in any complete or infallible way. But absolutely nothing, certainly in my experience, works every time for every group of learners. Somehow, however, TREAT gets the reputation of being a brilliant and vitally important approach – it gets written about, enthusiasts promote it, it develops a kind of religious following.

Three things happen. Some TREAT enthusiasts make their way into teacher training, managerial, and eventually inspectoral and consultancy roles. They publish articles, promote TREAT, feed this up to their superiors who see a good idea and embrace it themselves. TREAT becomes part of the standards against which teaching and learning is judged. TREAT is a sexy sounding idea which, in a word, sticks. Absence or inclusion of TREAT becomes a benchmark measure.

The second is quite simple: teachers move on. New practitioners, and new theorists, develop new ideas about teaching. Even as TREAT is making its way into the standards, teachers move on from TREAT. Chances are, the teaching majority have taken it on, absorbed those elements of it which work for them and their learners and left out the rest. There may be late adopters who will probably try it some day, and (and this is also part of the problem) that small but vocal minority of teachers who don’t feel they should change, probably haven’t done so for some time, and perhaps never will. It’s fair to say that some aspects may seep into their practice by some sort of professional osmosis (now there’s a concept) but by and large change is very very slow, if non-existent.

The third thing is this. Someone in a university might start to take an interest in TREAT and do a study. They investigate it carefully, control groups and all, asking the question: does the TREAT intervention have any greater impact on learning than any other. And they find that actually it doesn’t work either at all, or at least significantly better than any other approach. Perhaps someone else does another study and finds that in some cases it is actually detrimental to teaching and learning. (I don’t know, those academics, going round, studying stuff, applying rigorous standards of research and submitting everything to debate and peer review, what are they like?)

Either way, by now it is too late. It has become entrenched in curriculum standards, observation and teacher training assessment criteria, and in the minds of those making decisions about teaching and learning.

Those who write & enforce the criteria, the teacher trainers, the managers, the inspectors, can close institutions, sack a teacher or fail a trainee. And they’ve been doing TREAT for ages, so they must know what they are doing, right? And so TREAT, or absence of it, becomes a stick with which to beat people. “What, you don’t use TREAT? Then how do you get learners to learn?”

As a result, anyone (quite understandably) anxious to progress themselves and their institutions, buy into it completely. Non-adopters, those resistant to change, form up against this, declaring TREAT as ludicrous and not worth their time, and anyway, we don’t have time for all this development stuff. All of this forms a nasty methodological background against which professional battles are played out, with the vast majority of teachers operating in the middle of it, keeping their heads out of the firing line.

This is a long way of saying that ideas and innovations are not bad things. Neither are general standards. What is lacking, particularly in FE in the UK is the freedom to discuss and the opportunity to challenge those ideas and standards, or even to reject them, but only and this is important, on principled grounds. No hunches allowed. Unfortunately many potentially very positive innovations become a yardstick with which to measure teaching (and to beat people). By which time, of course, any innovation has long since ceased to be such.

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