I have been talking to many teachers and school leaders recently about what information needs to be recorded, whether in a markbook or in a centralised system, for a teacher to teach effectively. The answer is, partly, that it depends on what information the teacher is able to hold in their head, without the need for taking notes! A primary school teacher who spends 25 hours a week with the same 30 children has a rather easier job here than the secondary school music teacher who sees over 300 students pass through their classroom each week.
I recently dropped in to see a school where the need for written documentation was about as low as it is possible for it to be: a one-form entry primary school, very low family mobility, stable teaching staff, a headteacher that can know all the students and their parents by name. We spoke for some time about what he thinks his teachers need to ‘know’ about students to do their job – the importance of nuanced views of what a child can already do, how difficult students are likely to find a new task they encounter and how best to engage the child in learning. We spoke about how he thinks teachers accumulate this information about their students over the course of a year, and what is lost when students move to a new class in September.
He then mentioned in passing that they had decided to keep a number of classes with the same teacher last September. ‘So powerful to start the year already knowing your students!’, he said. In reply, I told him about a recent US research study that backs up his intuition. American educators call the policy of keeping students with the same teacher for a second academic year looping – what a great phrase! The study (£) in elementary schools showed small academic gains from keeping students with the same teacher for a second year. It is important to note that the effect size here isn’t massive, but in education policy we are almost always in the business of marginal gains.
Of course, the popularity of looping rather depends on having a pool of consistently effective teachers. In my family, we often still talk about one person’s disastrous three-year ‘looping’ experience as an infant pupil with an ineffective teacher. Looping practice for up to eight years in Steiner (Waldorf) Schools is said to lead to parents removing their children en masse from one class if they aren’t happy with their teacher.
Studies on the benefits of looping serve to remind us about the importance of teachers knowing their classes. Secondary schools make an effort to loop in years 10 and 11, but perhaps they should seek to extend this looping back into the younger years too. Other practices, such as ensuring form tutors also get to teach their classes or minimising incidences of ‘split’ classes, would seem to be important too but are increasingly hard to achieve where tight budgets leave no flexibility in timetabling arrangements. More controversially, it highlights one difficulty with job share arrangements in primary schools, where the part-time teachers necessarily take longer to get to know their class at the start of the year.
Other commentators have rightly drawn parallels with another study where elementary school teachers specialised in (usually) two of maths, science, English or social science and taught these subjects across multiple classes. The effect of this subject specialism was to lower pupil achievement. The author reported that “… teacher specialization, if anything, decreases student achievement, decreases student attendance, and increases student behavioural problems.”
Now, this wasn’t proper subject specialism that included training to become specialists: headteachers at each school simply helped to identify who should be allocated to specialise in which subject. That said, I interpret this second study as showing that we might want to think again about the trade-offs between having teachers who are subject experts, able to benefit from both disciplinary expertise and repeating the same lessons, and teachers who are experts in the students they teach. It is inevitably hard to be an expert in both.
In England, our schooling careers are U-shaped with respect to whether teachers know us well or not. Our youngest and oldest students benefit from a few teachers who get to know them very well. By contrast, between the ages of 11 and 14, students troop between a dozen different teachers each week. Are we sure we always get the trade-offs right? For example, how did we decide it was optimal to have one generalist teacher for ten year-olds, followed by ten subject specialists for eleven year-olds? Did middle schools who chose to run a core part of each teaching day with the form teacher get something right? And whilst history teachers love not having to teach religious studies and physics teachers love not having to teach biology, how far should a school fractionalise a pupil’s timetable before it becomes damaging to their academic and pastoral experience? These are empirical questions that we cannot yet answer.
It is great that so much policy energy has been focused on a more sophisticated understanding of the curriculum, of what makes subject knowledge domains distinctive and of what this implies for subject-specialist pedagogy. We should harness this sophisticated understanding of the number of hours it would take to train a teacher to deliver a particular curriculum, to a particular age group, with resources we may or may not have provided for them, to think deeply about whether we’ve always got the trade-offs right between becoming specialists in subjects or specialists in children.