There’s a whole industry that has built up around teaching which involves giving generic teaching advice and doing generic observations. In many cases the advice-giver or observer has very little knowledge of the specific subject or topic being taught by the teachers present, nor the best ways to teach it, but we assume that this doesn’t really matter.
I recently gave a talk at the ResearchED National Conference in London and used an analogy to try and illustrate why this may not be the right approach. My argument was that if we consider how a great chef learns to cook a particularly excellent steak then we can, perhaps surprisingly, reflect on why generic teacher development is insufficient to help teachers improve effectively.
When I cook steak I tend to mimic whichever recent television cooking show I’ve seen. The most recent, I believe, had Heston Blumenthal presenting, but I can’t entirely remember. He demonstrated taking the steak out of the fridge and letting it get to room temperature, heating the frying pan until it’s smoking, then turning the steak every 10 seconds before letting it rest for a couple of minutes.
I copy this. I have no idea why, except that Heston says so, and when Heston says so, it feels like a reasonably good idea to take his advice. He’s got three more Michelin Stars than I’m ever likely to get.
I don’t really understand why I do each step of the process and I don’t know how to vary it if the steak is different. I don’t know how to check if it’s going well. As a result, the cooked steak I get at the end of the process each time is fairly variable.
My husband doesn’t complain; in fact I have a sneaking suspicion that his cry of “Oh but you do it that special Heston way!” is merely a cover to ensure that I do the cooking. But that might just be cynicism.
The difference between me and a great chef is, of course, huge. First, a well-trained chef actually knows something about the meat they’re cooking. They study the different parts of a cow, how each cut of meat is different, how this affects cooking.
They can spot levels of “marbling” of fat, and feel what the steak is like. They also understand more clearly how the cooking process affects each type of meat.
Second, they are significantly more perceptive than I am. Great chefs do that clever thing where they tap the meat repeatedly during cooking and, somehow, ascertain how well cooked it is along the way. Honestly, if I tap the meat I can just about confirm how hot the outside is and that it feels like steak – but somehow great chefs use this technique to determine how well cooked it is inside.
They also have built up experience that combines their theoretical understanding of the steak with their experience of working alongside experts to build up their perception and skill. After much practice, they become really good at cooking steak. Yum. Unless you’re vegetarian, in which case I apologise.
I am so far away from this level of skill and understanding that it’s laughable. I would label myself, in comparison, “Cooking Inadequate”. I would love to be better at it. So let’s imagine that I take some approaches to improve myself that are reminiscent of teacher professional development.
First, I could ask someone to observe me cooking. This probably wouldn’t be from an expert steak chef, but just someone who has been judged as looking pretty good while they cook something else.
They might believe they understand what an “outstanding” chef looks like and then compare me to that. First, they could note that, while an outstanding chef wears special chef’s whites, I am wearing jeans and a “Kiss the Cook” apron. They also note that, unlike the outstanding chef, I don’t tap the meat as I cook it. They give me feedback to tell me to do both of those things so that I too can look outstanding.
I could do both of those things, and still, of course, be entirely inadequate, even though I look superficially a bit more outstanding. My steak would be rubbish too, of course.
So perhaps someone might send me on an inspirational one-day course, run by a cook who was judged outstanding. She might inspire me with tales of mouth-watering eating experiences, and present some great tips and tricks about how to improve my cooking. I would take lots of notes and come back home and put them in a folder.
The next time I cook steak I would be in a rush as usual and forget 95 per cent of the tips, and perhaps remember the one where she made a joke about how to use my tongs better.
So perhaps I come to the conclusion that one-day courses don’t work, and I’ll just use the experience in my own flat to Share Best Practice. I’ll spend 10 minutes asking each member of my family to stand up and share their steak-cooking tips, plus tit-bits that they’ve read on the internet.
Again, I’ll probably forget most of them but I may well feel inspired to give one of them a go. None of this actually helps me work alongside an expert in practice, nor understand why I’m doing any of these tips, so ultimately I remain a bit of a cooking failure. Many steaks are ruined.
Finally, the government may get upset with me and fund a Randomised Controlled Trial experiment where they separate 100 cooking failures randomly into two groups, and ask half of us to rest the steaks before we cook.
At the end of this we conclude that a good way to improve steak is to make everyone rest the steak for 30 minutes before cooking, and this gets added to the Good Advice Toolkit. Nobody ever tries to actually educate me in more detail about what I’m doing, nor to give me time to work alongside an expert. Nor do they suggest that I have professional autonomy over the decision to rest. It is now Good Practice and I must follow it.
Ultimately I end up as I started: copying whichever latest tips and tricks I’ve heard and hoping that this helps me cook better steak. This time, I’m now wearing silly clothes and mimicking some things that others have had success with, without ever being allowed to properly engage with the underlying thinking.
I hope the parallels to teacher development are clear. We really do need to aim for significantly greater depth in the way we support and develop teachers. By giving time for collaboration with relevant experts, engaging teachers with underlying theory, and giving teachers formative tools to judge their own progress, we can achieve much more.
You can find out more about what helps teachers grow in Developing Great Teaching, published by the Teacher Development Trust and carried out by Cordingley et. al.
- David Weston is the chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust and tweets under @informed_edu. He’s a governor at a primary and a secondary school and is a former secondary teacher. David is chair of the Department for Education’s Teacher Professional Development Expert Group. You can learn more about the group, the new Teacher Development Standard, and the current call for evidence at www.gov.uk/government/groups/teachers-professional...