Pure Magic

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Spring Term 1 2023

Geoff Barton says we're in danger of losing the extraordinary magic of great teachers and fascinated young learners by replacing teaching resources with off-the-shelf models prescribed by government.

Some years ago, probably in that era we now call BC – Before Covid – I recall an Ofsted inspection that was memorable for one unexpected moment. 

It was that phase of Ofsted’s evolution when school and college leaders were being asked to demonstrate to Ofsted our strengths in self-evaluation. 

I always thought the underlying principles of this approach were good: “You know your school best,” the subtext went, “so show us how well you know its strengths and weaknesses. Then show us how you are translating your institutional self-knowledge into actions that will further improve outcomes for children and young people.” 

That, at least, is what I recall of the intention of that particular inspection framework. 

So, on the first day of inspection, the lead inspector said to me: “Could you take me to a lesson that you might expect to be outstanding?” 

“Of course,” I said, with that Captain Mainwaring gap between what my words were saying and my eyes were telling. 

So off we headed to the science department where a fresh-faced, crisp-shirted new head of physics had already established something of a reputation for wowing his students. 

We went into the lab, knocking dutifully to check that Stewart was happy for us to watch 20 minutes or so of the lesson. What was striking was that Stewart just nodded while continuing with his sentence. He wasn’t going to interrupt his flow for something as peripheral as a lesson observation. And what was more striking was that the young people in the lesson – a group of 18 or so Year 13 students – didn’t look up at my visitor or me. 

They were too enthralled by the teacher’s words. 

As I recall, Stewart was setting them a challenge of some kind. By tackling a problem in pairs, he was expecting them to unearth and explain a law of physics. He could have told them it. He could have done the demonstration. But he wanted them to learn the concept for themselves. He wanted them to learn through a process of collaborative problem-solving. 

The inspector looked at me with a genuine tear in his eye. “Geoff,” he said, “this is pure magic.” 

I’ve never forgotten that phrasing – “pure magic”. We were witnessing something that it’s easy to gush sentimentally about – the extraordinary sorcery of great teachers and fascinated young learners. And we should hold on to that. 

Whitehall knows best? 
We’re now going through an era when some people in Whitehall think they should prescribe what effective behaviour looks like (silent corridors, zero tolerance), or think that a bank of off-the-shelf videos and downloadable resources is all teachers need, or think they know better than people working in the field what effective initial teacher training looks like. We’re deep in an age of managerialism and ‘Whitehall knows best’. 

And even for those of us who have been around the block for a few years, it can be easy for our confidence, in what seems to work in the classroom, to be easily undermined, often by people who live in the Twitter-verse and pontificate based on limited actual experience of classroom life. 

That’s why I’m such a fan of Graham Nuthall. He was a university researcher, never a classroom teacher. He devoted his life to watching teachers teach in order to unlock something deeper – how learners learn. And, reassuringly, he wrote about the process of teaching and learning in a tone that was far less assertive than some of those Twitter clich├ęs. Here’s a flavour from his compelling book, The Hidden Lives of Learners: 

“In my experience, teaching is about sensitivity and adaptation. It is about adjusting to the here-and-now circumstances of particular students. It is about taking moment-by-moment decisions as a lesson or activity progresses. Things that interest some students do not interest others. Things that work one day may not work the next day. … As a teacher you must make adaptations. You must.” 

I can’t tell you how reassuring I find this. After 33 years or so of teaching, I never failed to be fascinated and sometimes unnerved by that paragraph. Because in all my years, I would sometimes find that the lessons I had prepared the most would fall woefully flat; those thought through in the car on the way to school would unexpectedly click with and motivate students in a way I hadn’t expected. 

All of which is a reminder, of course, that teachers are more than unthinking automatons who simply ‘deliver’ a curriculum according to someone else’s template. 

Rebuilding trust 
And that’s why our challenge to government – whether it’s those currently in power, or those aligning policies ready for their turn in office – must be about reasserting the distinctive professionalism of teachers and leaders. It’s about rebuilding trust. 

Since the great promise of the freedoms that would follow academisation, too often what we’ve seen hasn’t been about acts of liberation but rather a centralising command-and-control mode from Westminster. 

The kind of curriculum we might choose to run has been constrained by the denigration of certain courses and qualifications – especially those vocational offerings that can prove such a stepping stone to some young people. We’ve seen a cynical use of accountability measures to try to drive the suite of courses offered in schools – EBacc being the key example. 

We’ve seen rushed reform of initial teacher training with its underlying assumptions about who knows best how trainee teachers should be prepared. 

We’ve had the Oak National Academy with its swaggering sense of entitlement to become the nation’s provider of resources that could quite happily, and less expensively, be provided by subject associations and publishers. 

So, yes, with a general election on the horizon, this is about trust in the teaching profession and its leaders. It’s about regaining our professional confidence to say what Graham Nuthall teaches us – that great teaching is far, far more complex and nuanced than some would have us believe. 

And more of our children and young people should have their own experience of that great teaching. More of them should see pure magic in action 

Geoff Barton
ASCL General Secretary

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