Taking educated risks: part 3

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In the third of his four-part series, Matt Bromley asks what professional autonomy really looks like and how it links to outstanding practice. He then begins to define what risk-taking in the classroom actually means...

In parts one and two of this series (see further information for the link), I’ve referred to systems of collaboration as well as compliance and talked about the importance of collective rather than individual autonomy. Let’s now consider what form such collaboration might take in practice and what it might mean to have collective – not individual – autonomy...

As I said in the conclusion to part two, at the heart of any true profession are expectations and frameworks that are challenging and open enough for teachers to be able to innovate and inquire into their practice together.

Like medicine, teaching is an imperfect science, and it requires thinking professionals working together to maximise its effectiveness.

Professor Judith Little of the University of Berkeley devised a useful continuum of collaboration – from weaker to stronger forms – which comprised the following:

  1. Scanning and storytelling – exchanging ideas, anecdotes, and gossip.
  2. Help and assistance – usually when asked.
  3. Sharing – of materials and teaching strategies.
  4. Joint work – where teachers teach, plan or inquire into teaching together.

The quality of teaching in our schools will best be improved, then, by engaging in quality, collaborative professional development; CPD which is sustained over the long-term, which is focused on students’ learning, and which is continually and formatively evaluated.

Prof Little says that the most successful schools have four traits in common and I believe these four are key to turning teaching into a true profession. Moreover, I believe these four characteristics or behaviours are a perfect model for collective autonomy. If we want teaching to be a profession, we must act as professionals and this means:

1 Talking about learning

Meetings should be dedicated to talking about lessons, about students, and about teaching and learning in general.

2 Observing each other

Teachers should engage in a planned programme of peer observations and feedback. Observations should be followed by constructive, focused dialogue about how to improve and about how to share practice and celebrate each other’s skills and talents.

3 Planning together

Prof Little talks of teachers writing lesson plans together, teaching the same lessons, then discussing them. I do not favour detailed lesson plans (or indeed insist on lesson plans at all) because detailed plans tend to encourage rigidity and “teaching to the plan” – not the kind of teaching which responds to students’ needs (an idea I will explore further in part four of this series on July 7).

So, with this in mind, I’d suggest that “planning together” be interpreted as teachers talking to each other about their medium and long-term planning, about their marking and about their students’ work. Teachers should routinely scrutinise and moderate each other’s assessments, perhaps engaging in a process of peer review of each other’s markbooks and students’ work. Planning together might also take the form of “lesson study” or random controlled trials (RCTs).

4 Teaching each other

Meetings should be transformed into professional learning communities which provide opportunities for teachers to share best practice and to comment on what they’ve tried and what worked and what didn’t.

Collective autonomy

I believe activities like these will make us a profession and ensure we build a greater sense of collective autonomy. Activities like these will provide the scaffolding needed for the exercise of truly professional – as opposed to idiosyncratic – judgement. And activities like these will give teachers the freedom and responsibility they need in order to work within a shared framework.

Moreover, they will provide us with a set of common teaching practices under which all our students will achieve to a high level.

What is needed, then, is a “community of teachers ... to work together to ask questions, evaluate their impact, and decide on the optimal next steps”, to use the words of Professor John Hattie in Visible Learning for Teachers.

He begins that book with a medical analogy much like the one I used in this article. He refers to the doctors he’s witnessed first-hand “following scripts” and working with set procedures: “Throughout the treatment, the impact of (doctors’) interventions was monitored, changed, and led to the critical decisions.

“Teams (of doctors) worked to understand the consequences of treatments and evidence was the key to adaptive professional decision-making – all aiming to maximise the impact.”

To conclude the argument thus far, I believe that the level of autonomy afforded to teachers is dependent (to some extent, and notwithstanding their own professional experience and expertise) on where their school is along the path to excellence – schools need to tighten up the constraints on autonomy in order to be “good” but can loosen those constraints in order to become “outstanding”.

I also believe we need greater clarity around what, when schools do indeed loosen the constraints on autonomy, it really means to be an autonomous teacher.

Specifically, I think we need to stop thinking of autonomy in terms of individual, idiosyncratic habits of working alone and start thinking of autonomy in terms of collective autonomy, the kind of autonomy afforded to professionals in medicine and law and aviation.

Individual autonomy and professionalism are not synonymous. Indeed, to be a professional is to work as part of a profession not to work idiosyncratically and in isolation. But perhaps collective autonomy and professionalism can become synonymous.

Perhaps we could conflate the terms and start talking in terms of professional autonomy – and professional autonomy is about working with colleagues in a way that leads to greater consistency and coherence, in a way that leads to the same high standards of education being afforded to every student no matter their individual context.
Professional autonomy is about supporting and challenging one another to ensure we all improve by reflecting on feedback, by analysing our impact, by engaging in deliberate practice and by learning from our mistakes just as we expect our students to do. Now let me turn to the subject of risk-taking itself...


If the journey to good is about consistency and compliance but the journey to outstanding is about empowerment and autonomy, then what does the latter actually look like?

As I embark on the next leg of my college’s journey to outstanding and encourage my teaching staff to “take risks in the classroom”, promising them a focus on “pedagogy not paperwork” (see part 1), what exactly do I mean? What is risk-taking in education and why is it important? In order to answer these questions we need to consider a more fundamental question about the very nature of education itself...

We need to understand why, once we have built solid foundations made of consistency and compliance, we have to shake those foundations by challenging the orthodoxy of education – questioning why we’re teaching and what we’re teaching.

In my SecEd article on “transfer” (Transferring learning into new contexts, SecEd, September 2015: http://bit.ly/1QKrDnD), I posed the question: What is the purpose of education?

Is its purpose, I asked, to prepare young people for the world of work or is it to instil in them an appreciation of the arts and sciences? Is it to develop character traits – such as resilience and empathy – in order to increase a student’s employability, or is it to indoctrinate young people into our shared culture and history? Is education a means to an end, or learning for learning’s sake?

Thomas Gradgrind, the headmaster in Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times, famously said: “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

In my earlier article I said that, like Gradgrind, I believe that teaching facts is important but I didn’t believe we should teach “nothing but facts” because facts learned in isolation are of limited value. Rather, I said, we should teach facts and then teach our students how to apply those facts in a range of different contexts and make myriad connections between them.

Teaching students how to convey their learning from one context to another is, I said, the difference between educating someone and simply training them to perform a particular task over and over again. But now I would go even further in my definition of education...

I would still argue that education is about teaching students facts and teaching them how to apply those facts in a range of different contexts, as well as making connections between them. But now I would add that education is also about creating new connections. In other words, education is not just about passing on existing knowledge but it is also about creating new knowledge and forging understandings. WB Yeats put it best when he said that education was not about the “filling of a pail” but about “the lighting of a fire”.

Three domains

According to Gert Biesta in his book The Beautiful Risk of Education, there are (at least) three domains in which education can function and thus three domains in which educational purposes can be articulated.

One is the domain of qualification, which has to do with the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values and dispositions. The second is the domain of socialisation, which has to do with the ways in which, through education, we have become part of existing traditions and ways of doing and being. The third is the domain of subjectification, which has to do with the interest of education in the subjectivity or “subject-ness” of those we educate. It has to do with emancipation and freedom and with the responsibility that comes with freedom.

Education, so argues Biesta, is not just about the reproduction of what we already know or of what already exists, but is genuinely interested in the ways in which new beginnings and new beginners can come into the world, not just how we can get the world into our students.

And this is the crucial point: if we view education – as opposed to training – as a way of creating new knowledge, not just of “passing on” existing knowledge, and as a means of developing people who will in turn create new things, then we must move beyond compliance and encourage greater risk-taking and greater experimentation in education. Education cannot conform, it cannot inflexibly follow a prescription if it is to focus on how we help our students to engage with, and thus come into, the world.

In the fourth and final part of this article on risk-taking in education, I will continue this discussion on the purpose of education and argue that education must allow for risk-taking if it is to successfully perform all three of its purposes: qualification, socialisation and subjectification.

  • Matt Bromley is an education leader, writer, consultant, speaker and trainer. He is the author of several books for teachers including Leadership for Learning, How to Become a School Leader and The IQ Myth. His latest book, Teach, is available in paperback and ebook from www.booksforschool.eu. Visit www.bromleyeducation.co.uk or follow on Twitter at @mj_bromley

Previous articles

The final article in this series is due to be published on July 7, 2016. To read the previous articles and to see Matt Bromley’s other best practice articles for SecEd, go to http://bit.ly/1Uobmsl


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