When should we force alignment in teacher practice?

In my last post, I made an argument that diversity of teacher instruction should be allowed to flourish in a wide variety of circumstances in schools. This is a short post to balance that perspective and give three circumstances where consistency and alignment are a good idea.

The first two circumstances are obvious. If we have good scientific evidence that a particular programme or approach is more effective than others, then teachers should be required to use it. For example, I think nearly all literacy experts would agree that English reading instruction should include synthetic phonics (and many, but not all, agree it should be systematic, first and fast instruction). That said, it is surprising how few areas of the curriculum have been scientifically researched to the point where we have good evidence about how to teach them (in our forthcoming book we tell the story of spelling research). This means we are left with more vague ‘scientific’ advice about instruction, such as requiring opportunities to retrieve past learning but without exact specification as to how this should happen.

The second obvious circumstance where teachers should align practice is in any situation where we need pupils to develop automated routines that support efficient learning. For example, in secondary schools where pupils might have a dozen different teachers, consistency of routines for getting into the classroom, starting the lesson, behaviour management, recording homework, and so on, will all contribute to maximising time on task in lessons. If a secondary school allows its teachers to pursue their own behavioural routines, they shouldn’t be surprised if pupils cannot internalise and follow them consistently.

I think there is a third circumstance where we should consider national curriculum alignment (something we seem to do less of than other countries). I think we should introduce national alignment for a set of curriculum areas where the benefits of alignment are great and where it would be acceptable because they aren’t ideologically loaded and/or teachers don’t have a great attachment to a particular approach (at least in the longer term). I’d pitch handwriting and taught cursive script as one area like this.

At the moment, primary teachers are likely to need to switch how they teach handwriting (and therefore how they write in class) several times in their career. Each school makes a different decision about when to introduce pre-cursive and cursive scripts. According to Teacher Tapp surveys, 43% teach pre-cursive from the start, with the rest starting with a printed script. We can’t train new teachers in a method of handwriting instruction because we don’t know what they will be required to teach. Moreover, teachers must adopt new methods and change their written resources each time they move schools and each time a school gets a new head with a different idea about how handwriting should be taught. We can’t let teachers teach handwriting any way they choose because within-school alignment is essential. So, why not just make one national decision so that we can train teachers to use a handwriting script in a consistent way throughout their careers? (And, controversially, I’d pitch for a beautiful script like the French one you can see on this Teacher’s TV video!)

Now, ideally, this would be an example of a situation where evidence-based education should help us. Surely there should be an experimental intervention that demonstrates the most effective approach to teaching handwriting? If there is I’d like to see it (the experimental evidence I’ve found so far is pretty inconclusive). However, even if it were not possible to use a scientific approach to demonstrate the most effective instructional approach, we should consider the benefits of choosing one nation-wide approach that teachers can be trained in and use throughout their career.

It was hard to write this post without giving an example of an instructional area where we could consider national alignment, and so I hope this post doesn’t mean I have to get into a turf war about handwriting because it isn’t the point of the post!

This post also isn’t a claim that standardisation is costless – there are trade-offs, of course (see earlier post for the advantages of diversity). It’s just a pitch that we should standardise the instruction of some areas where teachers are happy to accept the long-term gains of standardisation and where we are prepared to forego further innovation and experimentation through the flourishing of diverse instructional methods.

The Next Big Thing in School Improvement, written with Matt Evans and Ben White, will be published by John Catt on 22nd October.

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