The problem I have with teachers

I have been reading a fascinating book this week by Ben Goldacre called “I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That”. It is a collection of his articles written in the early 2010s, arguing why we need more factual and evidence based decision making and media. One of these articles was a 2011 paper for the UK government about how education could and should be more evidence based. It really gave me pause for thought and made me consider the problem I have with teachers.

When you meet someone at a party and they tell you what they do, there are often stereotypical reactions. When I used to tell people I was a banker, I would gird my loins for being told that all the ills of the economy were due to my greed. When I told then I worked in IT, I would often see their eyes glaze over. Now, when I tell them I am retired, they look at me as if I am mad, and try to find the reason I “can’t” get a job. In return, when someone tells me they are a teacher, I can almost feel the atmosphere chill, as they prepare to defend themselves against jibes about their lengthy holidays or inability to do a real job. Personally I have huge admiration for teachers. Indeed, for many years I wanted to be one myself. Helping children grow to well rounded, well educated adults must be one of the best things a person can do. But…

The defensiveness I mentioned goes a lot further than responding to dinner party comments. I am not sure why, but I find teachers, possibly more than any other profession, are unwilling to accept criticism, or suggestion of how things could be done better. I am even nervous to write about it because I know teacher friends will already have their hackles rising. Ben Goldacre is a doctor and draws analogies from his own profession, where up to the 1970s, consultants would reject evidence as attacking their professionalism, judgement and brilliance.

Surely teachers, as with any other profession, should not choose teaching methods because “that is the way it has always worked”, or “that is how I like to do it and I am the expert” or “that is the latest fad I have heard about”. There should be proper systematic randomised controlled research which would tell us factually what works and what does not. I have spoken to teachers who reject this idea as something being done to them. But there is no reason for that. In medicine the research is owned by the profession, supported by statisticians. It could be the same for education.

The good news is that in the US, and more recently the UK, education policy does seem to be going in the right direction here. A 2017 £75m investment in the Teaching and Innovation Fund to support evidence based education may help. But teacher defensiveness along the lines of “But every child is different, every class is different” is common. As an example read the article “Education research is great but never forget teaching is a complex art form” by Thomas Rogers. These are just the kinds of arguments that used to be heard in medicine, or indeed in my old profession of IT, and have largely been debunked.

I admire teachers. I admire their professionalism, their work ethic, their talent. I sympathise with the way they are lectured by politicians, journalists and me. Now is the time for them to take ownership for evidence based education, even if it means slaying a few sacred cows.

What do you think?