It’s not (just) what teachers know, it’s who teachers know

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.

3 thoughts on “It’s not (just) what teachers know, it’s who teachers know

  1. Anna Perry

    This really interests me. I live in Paris where we are subjected to ongoing wars between state schools and Catholic schools (which receive the vast majority of their funding from the state). Catholic schools outperform state schools very significantly and this is usually attributed to the fact that they can select their pupils according to their own criteria and their pupils are more socioeconomically advantaged than pupils in state schools. Be that as it may, and it doubtless has an effect, no one ever seems to point out what, to my mind, is the key selling point of Catholic schools over state schools: many Catholic schools are 3-18 schools, with year groups of 50 children in the lower years and 100 to 150 children in secondary. There is follow through and teachers know both pupils and their parents. These are not anonymous schools. Contrast with the highly anonymous state school system with four separate schools, Maternelle (3-6), Primary (6-11), Middle School (11-15) and Lycee (15-18). Some Middle Schools and Lycees have year groups of 300 pupils. Teacher turnover is high. These are anonymous places where no two children have the same pathway as classes are mixed up every year. Of course in such circumstances it is highly unlikely that teachers really know the pupils and even less likely that they know families.

    1. This is very interesting. I did not know about the set-up of Catholic schools in France. The small schools movement in the US eventually showed positive impacts in evaluations. Many of the newly set-up free schools in England are small, 4-18 schools. It’s an unusual model in this country but seems to work very well.

  2. Anna Perry

    I wish someone would investigate the impact of school model on performance in France. Long-standing national obsession with equality and equal chances has created a climate in which people believe deeply that children constantly changing educational establishment/class group/teachers with almost no personal control over how that happens is the only way to make things “fair”, on the basis that it creates random opportunity to encounter good teachers and undisrupted classes at least sometimes. Actually, it makes for horribly anonymous school experiences and fails to build community cohesion. No wonder people then look for community elsewhere (mosque etc).

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