CPD

Hidden CPD

There’s a lot of audit noise made about CPD. To prove anything you need to log hours spent, declare the aims and the outcomes of the activity, evidence the impact, and so on. All of which encourages a model of CPD, and therefore of learning, based around measurable input leading to evidenceable output. There’s nothing wrong with this, and lots of formal, planned CPD is valuable and valid. With the audit hungry culture of education which prizes evidence of performance over the performance itself, this kind of CPD all fits rather neatly.

So yes, do the formal training events, the workshops, the conferences, and so on. Absolutely. Let me be very clear on this: these things can be very very useful indeed. Get out there. Find time. (They can be abysmal, as well: my pet hate is the overpaid consultant – i.e. most of them – who talks at you for two hours about how you should be interacting with learners and active learning, or who bores you rigid with a bunch of stuff you already knew about stretch and challenge). 

However, today I would like to speak in praise of the CPD that dare not speak its name. There is no evidencing of impact, no formal reflection model, no performance managed process at all. The CPD I mean is responsive, tailored to meet individual teachers’ needs, practical, often quickly applicable, and so achieves high levels of teacher engagement with the process. If this were a teaching methodology it would be awesome.

It goes like this: teacher A comes into the staff room: 

  • Teacher A: “oh man, that was terrible, the students were totally flummoxed by that, and I need to revisit it again tomorrow. But I can’t do it the same way… Nightmare!”
  • Teacher B: “yeah, I know what you mean, I tried that and it went like that too. But then I tried [gives explanation] and it worked really well.”
  • Teacher C: “You know, maybe you could try it this other idea [explains]?”
  • Teacher A: “I tried that too, but this happened. Any ideas?”

This could continue for some time, by the end of which, teacher A has a bunch of practical ideas for the next class, and probably a few others, as do the other teachers involved in the process. Many of these ideas will be used, and learner experience is improved and teachers develop. 

The impact of this kind of CPD is pretty profound and immediate, but I think that if we were to try and performance manage the process, you would lose some of the benefit brought about by high levels of engagement. Creating online staff social networks, for example, and saying that you have to engage by posting a certain number of times a week may have an impact, but it doesn’t recreate the spontaneous giving and taking of the staff room conversation. Imposition of a system more or less automatically creates barriers, because it becomes a thing you have to do whether you feel so inclined or not. The very fact that the staff room discussion is self-monitored and self-managed, not to mention unrecorded, is part of what creates the engagement. Certainly online activities will only really be taken up by those who already engage: online chats via Twitter, for example, can be brilliant and informative, but these are on an opt-in basis, and engagement is unenforced.

Formal “open” workshops could go some way to creating a managed version of these: something like the community of enquiry approach where questions are posed by participants, before being categorised, democratically selected, and discussed. This could work, but still won’t quite capture the immediate practicality of the staff room discussion.

All of which is fine. Because, if you’ll forgive the pretentious metaphor, by pinning down the butterfly of learning, (and let’s not forget that CPD is learning) you preserve some aspect of its value, but much of that value is lost. I don’t want to have to log every developmental discussion, or be forced into a developmental discussion that I don’t want to have. Enough of my professional life is performance-managed into disengagement already, thanks. I value those spontaneous conversations above and beyond most other CPD interaction, and so I want to keep them that way.

I’ll close with an entirely true anecdote which I wanted to use somewhere here, but simply couldn’t find a place. It links to the notion of evidencing impact. I had an email from our staff development team last week saying I had an “outstanding reflection” on a training event, which confused me somewhat. After all, I hadn’t written one yet, so how could it be Outstanding? 

The Quiet One at the Back

I attended a staff development event on Friday. It was useful and interesting, so anyone waiting to see if I trip up and say something inappropriate about my employer will be sadly disappointed today. No, the training and the content were both fine. What was interesting, however, was a little thing I observed about behaviour. 

The organisers (Hi!) had arranged a seating plan to ensure that people weren’t sitting with the people they usually worked with. This is, of course, a staff development variation on a practice I use in class: making students move around and work with other people they may not otherwise engage with. Again, all for the good, really, an opportunity to explore new ideas, or to challenge your own ideas, further build networks and so on. Except for one crucial factor. I was sitting right at the front, bang in front of the screen and on display. 

I know, there does have to be a front, or at least a bit of the room which is most prominent and visible to the tutor. Trouble is, in a setting like that, I’m quite shy. Perhaps it’s a height thing: tall people sometimes do want to shrink themselves away from the spotlight. Certainly I don’t do meetings with confidence, particularly with people I don’t know too well, and I’m not a natural networker. Nerves will always get the better of me. Nope, all that that prominent positioning induced in me was a desire to retreat. And I did. It took me most of the morning before I genuinely relaxed enough to properly engage with anyone but my immediate neighbour (who I did know), but for the majority I just wanted to be able to shrink by 2 feet and not talk to anyone.

That still not the interesting thing, however. The actual genuine interesting thing was what it made me think about all those poor students I have roughly torn out of their comfort zone and forced to head across the room and talk to someone else. Or those students who may well be just happy sitting and listening and who I have forced to speak in the name of learning. Dammit, I thought, I am such a bastard. I hate being singled out or forced to talk to people I don’t know. Always have hated it. I usually sit at the back of the room not so I can muck about but so the teacher doesn’t notice me (there is a golden spot for this, and a spot to which I gravitate, but I’m damned if I’m letting you in on that secret) and therefore can avoid anything unpleasant like engaging in a class discussion. 

So what’s to be done with people like me? For one, don’t do whole group activities. Or minimise them, and allow plenty of timing and structure. Shy people may be mustering an argument and building up to saying something but never quite getting it out there because they don’t get the chance. They may just be seething in dread that they will be asked to participate. Either way, they won’t be listening. So use collaborative methods of whole class q&a, like getting everyone to answer questions on mini whiteboards or voting software, rather than ideas like the frankly vicious “pose, pause, pounce, bounce“. (Interestingly, I googled that and in the various to of guidance there were lots warnings about students shouting out, but nothing about supporting students who clam up. References talked about “if students don’t know the answer” but nobody suggested that students may not feel confident enough to answer. Teachers are such unsympathetic shits sometimes.) 

One thing I do do is use smaller groups, for discussion tasks. Smaller groups are easier to monitor and give feedback to, as well as being less challenging for quieter, shyer students. But I try and think about those groupings. Sometimes, a friendship grouping is perfectly fine, and if it causes no major issues in terms of behaviours or mixing of ability, then where’s the problem? (I’ve got to admit, my personal jury is currently out on mixing male and female students. I know that it’s a Good Thing to mix the sexes, but if it causes discomfort and resentment? I’m not saying I won’t, merely that I question whether it’s always essential. Mind you, it’s an easy fail during a lesson obs on e&d terms so it’s worth getting students to shift about regularly.) Mixing groupings based on various criteria is pretty much standard, to the extent that failure to mix is tantamount to Bad Pracice. 

Hmmm. I have an abiding memory of being asked to work with a very confident but less academically able student in one class at school and it was horrible for both of us. Certainly I doubt that any significant learning will happen. If you get a shy, perhaps better able student and sit him next to the loud, mouthy, slightly less able student in the well meaning hope that they will bring the best out in each other, you will probably find that it’s not the case. Either the shy student will simply retreat a bit more, probably not engage, and the overall output of that grouping will be rubbish, or they will do most of the work and the gobby one will get unearned kudos. So just don’t do it. Both parties will also hate you, your lesson and your subject. 

I know what you’re thinking: developing confidence is a useful life skill. You are absolutely right, of course. My own retreat into tongue-tied silence at meetings, workshops and conferences is a testament to that. But maybe, just maybe, big mouth super confident, networker types are not always ideal. Maybe, just maybe, these people are profoundly irritating in their relentless self-promotion and their selfish dominance of meetings and workshops with their own private agendas. Ye gods, if we were all like that it would be awful. But yes, some of us do need to develop that confidence. However the bullying “go on, pull yourself together, it’s good for you” mindset is not the way. Being dropped in the deep end may help some people swim, after all, but some of us simply drown. 

Dealing in Absolutes

I work with teachers as both initial trainees and as experienced teachers wanting support, and one of the things I encounter a lot in these contexts is the tendency, or perhaps need, that developing teachers have for a Correct Answer, and the challenges associated with this. Someone gets some feedback, and gets told that they should have done practice X, then they do practice X in a subsequent observation and then get told that they shouldn’t have done it, often with the same observer.

Take for example the fairly straightforward classroom task of giving instructions and giving students the relevant handout, say, for a gap fill task. Which one do you do first? Give the instructions then the handout, or give the handout before the instructions.

What about learning outcomes – is it always necessary to share them at the start of the lesson, and to reflect on them at the end of the lesson?

Does an ESOL reading task always have to include a gist task followed by a reading for detail task? Is it always necessary to ensure that you pre-teach vocabulary at the beginning of a receptive skills lesson?

Is a lesson always improved by the application of digital technology? Does it always mean higher levels of engagement and motivation? Are all learners excited by digital technology?

Do learners have to interact and discuss with each other to enable learning? Could they learn equally well with a single lecture delivered in an engaging and interesting way, interspersed with questions?

There are people out there who will have a strong opinion one way or the other, and argue in absolute terms to the exclusion of other possibilities. These are also people who like the idea of best practice, and that you can take a given practice and bundle it into neat nuggets for mass application. Even better if there is a piece of evidence for it somewhere, because then they can go “ah ha! Evidence based practice! I’ve got a study over here that we can prove, PROVE, I tell you, that this works all the time for everybody!”

I hate myself for that dig, because it sounds like the kind of comment that a certain type of stick in the mud teacher would make about evidence based practice. You know the type of teacher, right? The ones who argue that “it’s worked for me so far, so why change?” This is not me, I hope, although as my fortieth birthday approaches, I can feel a kind of conservatism creeping in around the edges of my professional, moral and political sensibilities. No, the dig, I think, is that even with the support of an evidence base, it is impossible to ever say to that any given practice works all the time for every learner, every teacher, and in every lesson. If there is a study that stands in favour, or even a cohort of studies that demonstrate that any given practice works, it still may not work in a particular lesson. That’s not to say it isn’t something worth exploring or using, only that you may find it doesn’t work. And if it doesn’t, then it’s worth exploring, of course, why not.

There are challenges here with the nature of the observation, particularly when it is in the setting of graded observation with high stakes consequences, and indeed this is one of the issues with this sort of observation. It creates a tension in the discussion that isn’t there for a peer developmental observation, for example. What often happens is that the feedback is assumed to be a universal statement of best practice, and the “just one lesson” element gets forgotten. But then who can blame a teacher for interpreting it in this ways when “just” that lesson that is going to dictate whether or not they have to go through weeks, possibly months of anxiety over whether they may or may not have a job to come back to. For whatever reason, however, when they forget this they also forget that in a subsequent observed lesson the exact same advice may be inappropriate. Yes, you should have given out the handout first, but next time I come observe you, I’m going to say the other way round, because that’s what would have worked better in that second lesson. What the teachers need to do, and what high stakes grading makes difficult, is reflect on what factors contributed to that particular thing not working, and evaluate it in relative terms.

This isn’t a carte blanche to reject all advice. Not at all. Teachers need to think properly and hard about what happened, and to analyse that in terms of what they do and what they want to do in the classroom. The lesson would have been improved with the suggested change, but it’s up to you to decide what that information means for you as a teacher. Acknowledge the feedback and the ideas that the other person has suggested, and take them on board. Do something with the ideas, even if it is to go off and critically research the thing they said and see if they are right. “Research” here could be googling it, doing a bit of simple action research (essentially try it and see if it works), or a more extensive piece of study: it’s up to you. Hell, go watch someone else do it, ask the observer if you could come see them do it, whatever. The act of reflection and of finding out for yourself is a great learning journey, and one which will bring about change to your practice, one way or the other.

This act of reflection and research is where improvement comes from. Good practice doesn’t exist in neat off the shelf “packs” and “toolkits”. This job is not a set of mechanised principles which anyone can apply and achieve the same results, else why bother with any kind of CPD activity? Why not just say “do this and lo! Learning will happen.” This is not a job of absolutes, of the application of single interventions to achieve specific outcomes (although the value and impact of different interventions is always worth exploring in terms of your own practice). Rather it is a job of grey areas and continuums, of degrees of value and variables. The only absolute is that everything we do, and every bit of feedback we receive, has to be evaluated carefully and honestly in terms of our own practice, our own settings and contexts, and against our own lessons.

You are not alone

It sometimes feels like you are very much on your own as a teacher. You know, even though you are teaching a whole bunch of people, there is a divide of sorts in the room between “you the teacher” and “them the students”. That divide is always going to be there because you have different roles and different responsibilities in that classroom space. So it can seem a bit of a lonely calling, even though this is, of course, one of the pleasures of the job. After all, significant chunks of the day you are left to do your own thing with little supervision and lots of freedom. Nevertheless, at pinch points, particular stressed times, you feel the need to be, well, not alone. Those times when that student is ranting at you about some random college diktat that you don’t really understand yourself; when that class of 16-18s is totally going off on one, spiralling irretrievably out of control; when the internet connection goes down in the middle of a class entirely predicated on the use of the web; when you walk into class and the students say “we did that yesterday with the other teacher”; when the meticulously planned activity for which you had such high hopes as a surefire winner takes three seconds and bombs horribly; or when that fateful email pops up in your inbox announcing the imminent arrival of graded observation. Right at those times, it feels like it is just you, and you alone.

It is also at these times that it is easiest to forget that teachers are part of a community. The cry is more often “What can Ido about this?” rather than “who can help me with this?”

There is the immediate community of your staff room, into which, if you are lucky, you can run during a class and someone will be able to give you that quick fix solution: some wise or merely convenient soul who says “try this” and who saves the day. Sometimes you mention that you are struggling with something or other, and you get enough ideas or suggestions to solve that problem ten times over. I get it that not all staff rooms are like this, and where this hasn’t been the case the community of teachers is weaker and the quality and confidence inevitably reduced. When we talk shop in social settings, this is all part of that community, sometimes sharing ideas, but more often than not simply a kind of communal psychic hug. Then there are the wider settings, Twitter, Facebook, all those things, social networks forming an extension of the staff room, up to and including the hugging. You can call it a PLN, but I call it hugs.

It’s not all lovey love-ins, mind you. I’ve worked with various people with whom I have had some fairly profound differences of opinion and approach, and this has been nothing but productive. We have had quite vocal arguments at times, but always with a sense of respect, knowing that however bonkers we think each other to be, we are all doing the best we can for out learners. My opinions and approaches have been challenged, as have theirs, and my practices, and I hope theirs, have developed for the better as a result. Challenge is important: it makes you question your practices, clarify them, or reject them. This is all good.

If we get it right our classroom practice is the tip of this huge iceberg of support. From our initial trainers to our current colleagues, to that random teacher from the other side of the world, they all inform our practices on a day to day basis. As a result, out teaching practice is an amalgam of our ideas and those of others. We are alone, yes, but we are all alone together.

You can put that last sentence on a cat poster if you like….

Things to remember for my next staff development event

In my career to date, I have been lucky, and unlucky, enough to deliver and attend quite a number of staff training events. Some have been good, some have been mediocre and some have been downright awful. And as much as I might like to have the whole lot replaced with nothing but systematised action research, I realise that this is not terribly possible and therefore it might be nice for me to reflect on what has made staff development events good, based on ones I have delivered and on ones I have attended.

So here goes.

1. Give them something useful

This should almost be a given, but in the rush to get across the latest policy information or Ofsted directive, it gets forgotten. Teachers are practical creatures and when they are giving up at least a little mental energy, and possibly their own time, they want something which is practical, and relates in a useful way to their teaching. Best bet for a quick win would be a classroom technique, resource or something along those lines: “You can use this tomorrow”.

2. Believe

Yeah, I know, tacky but true. The aforementioned quick win of a practical activity is a good way of winning teachers over, but being genuinely passionate about it is a big help. One of the reasons for some of my own weaker sessions is because I was mentally crossing my fingers behind my back while  doing it, or doing the training because of some higher directive and not really seeing the value in the message myself. If you don’t care for it, try to find someone who does, and get them to do the training, and then maybe they will engage you as well.

3. Presentation Software

The very worst of teacher development activity almost always involves PowerPoint. In capable hands, PowerPoint, or indeed any other presentation software, including Prezi, can be truly brilliant, but it can also be dire. My personal beef is not so much using the slides as a text, but cramming stacks of stuff onto a slide so it’s almost impossible to read. The trick to PowerPoint, by the way, is simply that less is more – go easy on the fancy effects and the bullet points. This follows through to the most extreme point: when it comes down to it, do you actually need any presentation at all, or are you just doing it because, you know, it’s a teacher training thing and, well, you should have PowerPoint? I’ve done successful development activity with a single slide with instructions on and that’s it, and with no slides at all.

4. Listen to people

You may have something to say. You may even be right (although you may merely have a point of view). But it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t listen, and listen properly to what people have to say about your subject. Other people have opinions and views about your subject and this should be acknowledged properly and honestly, and not in a bland “I hear what you are saying, but…” manner. That is bad manners, and horribly common. And, mea culpa, I have done this before. If it needs to be shelved, then do so with actual respect. And don’t use ofsted as an excuse, either.

5. Don’t assume they want to be there, (or that they don’t).

Teachers might, in theory, have some time off teaching to attend your event, but that doesn’t mean that they are going to be so pathetically grateful for this that they will sit through any old rubbish. If you have a training event and by the end of that event the teachers in the room are thinking “I wish I had been in class” then you have failed. Epically so. As a trainer, perhaps one who has been out of the day to day teaching loop for a while, you may have forgotten that teachers often do their jobs because they like doing them, and that actually instead of you talking at the front of the room for a couple of hours, they might want to actually be doing their jobs. So you owe it to them to be interesting, varied and motivating. Which sort of brings me to the last point.

6. “Do as I say and as I do.”

Ok, this is the big one. When teachers come to your session they want something useful, of course, but they also want to be interested. They are also teachers, whose job is to do to others what you are doing to them. So bloody do it well. Be a good teacher. The teachers you are training are learners, just like the adults and young people you might otherwise teach, so do all the good things that good teachers do. Use varied, active learning tasks, group work, discussions, pair work, discovery tasks, all of it. (Don’t use role play, mind you, if I am in the room, because I hate role play with a vengeance.)

When it comes to staff training, hypocrisy is the worst sin of all. Things like:

  • Talking for hours about the perils of talking too much (This is the classic one).
  • Discussing and presenting assessment for learning without actually assessing where your workshop attendees are and tailoring your content accordingly.
  • Running a workshop on planning where you clearly have no plan.
  • Using technology badly while telling people that they should be using technology effectively (cf. PowerPoint…)

It’s hard, I know, to deliver a session to 40 or so tired teachers and to engage them all. I really know this. Sometimes a development and training session leader seems to work on the assumption that “everyone has the day off, they are tired, so I’ll give them all a break from that active learning stuff.”

In short…

The best training sessions and workshops that I have attended (not many in the last few years) and that I have been involved in delivering have, then, included the following:

  • honesty and integrity
  • variety of interactions and tasks for attendees
  • stretch and challenge for all attendees
  • clarity of focus
  • usefulness / practical application

This looks remarkably like a brief checklist for a good lesson – which, in effect, a teacher development session should be. It’s just a shame, that so many trainers forget that, up to, and including, me. Certainly as I am about to go into a new year of CELTA and of various staff development events, then I definitely need to keep these at the top of my mind.

I Hate Training Days

You probably have training days in some form or another, if you are a teacher, and you probably spend several days of your academic year student free and attending various workshops and presentations about one thing or another. Now, let’s be perfectly honest, in your life, how many of these have genuinely stuck with you? How many of the workshops have been so strikingly informative that you can measure their impact in your day to day practice?

I am, of course, being deliberately provocative here, and definitely link baiting with the title of this post. After all, there has almost certainly been impact from your training events, and there has almost certainly been stuff, useful stuff, which has stuck with you. But I bet there’s of corporate PowerPoint presentations and workshops involving flip chart paper and post it notes.

Mea culpa. I have run these workshops. I have made PowerPoint presentations. I have given you post it notes. I have made you brainstorm ideas on flip chart sheets (and incidentally there is nothing wrong with the term brainstorm, so can we stop calling it “ideas storming” because that’s just a rubbish word). I have even, on one occasion, been left in charge of a half day session for some 40+ people, and I made such an excruciating balls up that I still wake up at night in a cold sweat. Despite this, however, I will probably continue to run workshops and deliver training events in some capacity for some time to come.

Generally, the process for setting up these events is in response to some external or top down driver: internal quality processes identify a gap, and the training day aims to fill that gap. I think there is a need for this kind of thing, and for procedural training and standardisation activities. After all, we need to know how to manage certain processes, and in the nicest possible way, very few individuals would actively go “ooh, I need to go off and learn about equality and diversity” without at least a little prompting. And yes I know you don’t need to do all that stuff, because you never do, but someone probably does.

This is always going to be part of the problem: “it doesn’t apply to me”. Anything based on generalised cross college data is never going to quite fit some people’s needs. But I’ll tell you what: having experienced giving teachers a choice in what they want to have at a staff training day, teachers can be pretty rubbish as well. In some corners of the FE world there exist people who, when confronted with the question “what do you want on training day?” would reply “I don’t know, you tell me.” before then going on to complain that the event didn’t meet their needs.

So here is my answer. It’s quite long, so you may want to pop off and get a cup of tea.

Got one? OK.

Let’s say that you have four days as standard across the whole institution dedicated to staff development days. One of those days is to be divided into two half days, and dedicated to procedural/systems training. This is as a norm. Make it five, if you like, with two days for procedural stuff. Just leave me with three. Two days and a half day if you must.

These three are divided as follows.

Day one, near the start of the year. Every teacher has to devise and submit a proposal for something they wish to research in their own practice. They are given a whole summer of notice for this, so they can think about it well in advance. They can come to the day with an idea, or they can be inspired on the day, but by the close of play, everyone has a reasonably good research question and a number of things to do to explore this. This should, being focussed on classroom practice, involve some sort of peer observation and support group. The support group is there to provide more research based support as much as peer observation, and to make a space for discussion and negotiation of the research aim.

Day two: sometime around January. It’s cold and dark so let’s have some nice warming cakes and mulled wine/hot chocolate at the meeting. By now, various bits of activity should be in place, maybe even finished, and certainly the research should be in the process of being peer observed, shared and discussed. The day would take the format of supported working groups, where everyone shares their findings in a non-critical and supportive context. Next steps are suggested, discussed and agreed. An outline for the final report is shared, to give focus to future activity.

Alternatively day two could be split into two half days, with one of the half days coming a little earlier and being an opportunity to get someone in to talk about some of the things that people are researching. There is, of course, clear expense involved here, so this would probably be impractical. However, it’s a thought.

Day three: Easter, or just after. Either that or at the very end of term. This is so that nobody is worrying about exams and stuff, and has a clear mind. This is the opportunity to share findings, disseminate ideas and practice, and generally look at each other’s work.

This is also supported as an ongoing thing through sections at staff meetings, and informal drop in sessions where anyone can come in and ask questions.

By way of protecting myself from a hundred “yeah but what about…” questions, the version in my head is much more carefully planned and supported, and there is a lot more detail to it than this, but that, essentially, is it. There would, of course, be barriers to such an idea ever taking off, not least of which is teaching staff themselves, some of whom may feel they need to be told stuff, and who still believe in the bonkers notion of the super-duper-expert teacher who can cascade their greatness to the masses. There may also be members of the managerial teams who are reluctant to relinquish such control over what is being done, especially in the face of inspections and the like which insist on knowing what is being done about which issue. However, I’d be willing to bet that a lot of the time would be spent researching stuff which would be applicable to all sorts of inspection-based development outcomes. As for the super duper cascading mega-teacher? They never existed anyway, just a load of clever self-marketers: there is greatness in all teachers. All we need is a better opportunity to find this and share it.

Imagine what the impact of having hundreds of people working on research could be. There would be interdepartmental cross over with themes and topics as well. Teachers with similar or related subjects could be encouraged to work together to support one another, and if the group was of three or four people, the research could be codified and formally written up, published and taken off to external conferences and events, raising the profile of the institution.

The other thing that this sort of activity promotes is a shift in the mind of the teachers. By becoming teacher-researchers they also become learners, potentially more open to new ideas and experimentation, to discovering things about their practices and their learners. Institutions become learning institutions at every level, from a Principal to an hourly paid tutor. None of that can be bad, can it?

Teaching is bread making

Recently I started baking my own bread. Partly because it’s cheaper than buying shop bought bread, but mostly because I love fresh baked bread. It’s a bit of a morning ritual: come down, mix dry stuff (500g ish of flour, couple of teaspoons of easy bake yeast, teaspoon or so of sugar or honey, three spoons of oil), boil kettle for coffee and to make suitably warm water (made up of roughly 200ml of cold, 100ml of boiling), stir it all up for a bit in the bowl until there’s a dough, then knead for ten minutes. Ish. Then start warming the oven up, and put bread in to rise in the (switched off but still warm) grill for 15 minutes (ish) then bung it into the oven on gas mark 7, or maybe 8 for a bit, then turn it down a couple of gas marks, for a bit longer, then take it out, tap it on the bottom to check it sounds hollow, leave to cool, play with children, eat warm bread with preferred topping. Golden syrup for me.

I learned this, more or less, off the side of a flour pack. Apart from all the “ish”. When I started I was very strict: ten minutes at gas mark 8, then fifteen at gas mark 6. 450g of flour if it was wholemeal, 500g if it was white. 7g of yeast. I even used to let it rise properly, knock it back, then let it rise again. But now, although I still use scales, I don’t need to check the quantities, I play with proportions of white and wholemeal flour (300g white and 200g wholemeal makes a nice loaf), use different oils (walnut oil with honey instead of sugar is particularly delicious), make different shapes (hedgehog looked more like road kill, but never mind), all sorts. Making bread now is a very comfortable, natural process. I know when it’s ready to put in the oven, I don’t panic if it hasn’t “doubled in size” when it rises, I know how to knead and that a warm wooden board makes for a better loaf than our cold granite worktops. And I’ve had good feedback: for one the bread rarely lasts long enough to go stale, and even my father in law, never one for effusive, meaningless praise, reported it as “very good.” Sometimes, of course, it goes wrong. And this is fine, a slightly deflated or burned loaf from time to time is a small price to pay for generally pretty decent bread.

I need to experiment more. I have reached a bread making plateau. I can make basic bread. I am confident in my bread making. So I need to explore other breads. I’d like to try sourdough, although I need more patience, but I could vary the flours a little. I could try adding other ingredients: nuts and seeds, of course, or raisins and extra sugar for a sweet loaf. I could try different cooking styles: bagels intrigue me, my attempts at soda bread have been hit and miss, although I can knock out a pretty delicious yoghurt flatbread.

So far, so bready. But I was thinking the other morning about how I developed as a teacher, and how there are parallels.

Like how your confidence, and your skill in teaching develops primarily through trial and error, and through accepting those errors. Interventions like direct instruction, training and coaching have only had a limited impact on my teaching practice, but getting it wrong, and knowing that it was wrong, has been the best teacher trainer I have had.

Like how a classroom is a mass of variables, all of which can pull together beautifully, or which can fall apart, and in either case there can be no apparent reason.

Like when I was a fairly new teacher, the first five years or so, I knew relatively little about the science of teaching: psychology, neuroscience, that sort of thing. I have a working knowledge of these, but I get the essential principles. Ditto bread making. I know the principles (i.e. yeast gets jiggy in the heat with the sugar thus creating gas which makes the bread rise, etc.)

And then I came across this:

“The ability to articulate what it is you have learned often arrives after you have learned to control and manipulate the situation, if at all. Indeed, the attempt to use conscious knowledge to guide learning frequently turns out to be counter productive. The effort to apply what you think is going on, or what you have been told is going on, can actively interfere with the ability of your brain to pick up useful but subtle aspects of the situation just through trial and error.”
(Guy Claxton & Bill Lucas, Is vocational education for the less able? in Bad Education: debunking myths in education, edited by Philip Adey & Justin Dillon)

Wow, I thought, this is exactly how I have learned to bake, and how I learned to teach. The worst loaves, and some of the worst lessons I have taught, have been where I have been consciously trying to apply some theory or some piece of knowledge, and certainly it got me thinking about how often I usually try to approach teaching a grammar point or some vocabulary unconsciously, focussing on meaning and form, but not directly teaching it.

My learning as a teacher hasn’t been simply “here is the theory, now go and make it practice” but rather a case of “here is the practice, now understand the theory behind it”. The theory came very much after the practice, and helped to shine something of a light on that practice. Some teacher training courses I know take the “practice then theory” approach (CELTA comes to mind) but my, admittedly limited, experience of PGCE type courses has been that they have been theory first, practice after. Not that there isn’t a role for the theory in teaching: I like a good bit of theory, it can shed light on and explain why something went well, or not. (and even more I like a bit of real evidence to back theory up. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again “because it’s good practice” doesn’t count: it’s reminiscent of Blake’s General Good.)

Really, the other thing I realised, or rather had confirmed, from all this is that learning to teach is very much a craft learning, rather than a purely theoretical learning, or a purely practical learning: there is theory which can help, but only when applied through the lens of real practice. Much like baking a loaf of bread.

Speaking of which, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get a loaf out of the oven.