Who Should We Follow? Grades vs Grandeur.

This week someone published a ‘who to follow’ list on Twitter.  These sort of things pop up all the time, but this list got a lot of attention. Interestingly, the curator of the list published an accompanying blog explaining the criteria he used to select those on the list and the thing that I noticed was missing – the thing that always seems to be missing in so much debate at school-level around education – was anything to do with impact on children.  And although I recognise that there are many different areas in which schools and teachers might have an impact on children – pastoral support, emotional wellbeing, relationships to name a few – what I am talking about is outcomes. Examination results.

This short blog is not meant in any way to be a criticism of the person who published that list.  He has simply expressed his opinion on who ‘the best’ people to follow are and, very helpfully, spent some time putting into a format that means it can be really easily shared by ‘leaders who want their staff to engage with edutwitter’.  Good for him. It’s a great resource and I think anything that does help get more teachers using twitter, which I agree is the ‘best staffroom in the world’ and certainly has provided me with the best CPD I have ever had in the last few years can only be a good thing.  It is just that his criteria for inclusion on the list prompted this blog, which I have been thinking about for a while.

There is so much debate on Twitter about which is the ‘best’ way to both teach children and run schools.  In recent weeks this has included at best polite debate and at worst the trading of insults around flipped learning, the reading of ‘classic’ literature, the use of direct instruction, silent corridors and isolation rooms.  ‘But research’ seems to be a common refrain – ‘my way is right because research says it is’, ‘your way is wrong because research says it has no impact’ – but this ‘research’ seldom appears linked in any way to actual, hardcore examination results. I have a copy of a recent researchED magazine in front of me and in all the articles claiming to tell us how we should be teaching according to ‘research’, examination outcomes are mentioned only once (PISA test results in Portugal).  And all these individuals on Twitter, arguing the case for why their way is the best – I never see them talk about impact.  No one says ‘we started using flipped learning at my school 2 years ago and our results are now above national average’, or ‘since implementing silent corridors, the atmosphere they create have been a big contributor to our now-positive P8 score’.

Do we, as a professional community, think enough about the credibility of the people whose ‘opinions’ are shared the most widely?  I attend a number of CPD events and conferences  – many of the big weekend ones – and am sometimes troubled by the – sometimes thousands – of teachers listening to someone tell them what they should be doing in their classrooms whose missives simply are not having a clear impact in their classroom or their school.  I have, this year, been told how to teach by someone who leads T&L in a school whose T&L was rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted a few months ago. I have been told how to use research to plan a coherent curriculum by a leader whose school has had a negative progress 8 score for the last two years.  I have been given tips on engaging my students in English Literature by someone whose school achieves English results quite far below national average year after year.

Another debate that popped up on Twitter last week was about education consultants.  It centred around whether people who are no longer teaching have a valid ‘voice’ in conversations about teaching and how useful they can really be to schools if they are not practising themselves.  I scrolled through the comments about it, interested in people who claim that those who don’t teach are not credible, and wondered whether they have any criteria for what makes the current practitioners whose opinions they retweet and books they laud ‘credible’. Is simply being a classroom teacher enough? The debate compared healthcare consultants and educational consultants, and I wondered whether, in medicine, there is any kind of platform on which surgeons, for example, can, share their ideas on how to perform an operation regardless of whether their own patients are dying on their operating tables or going on to lead healthy lives.  I wondered whether it would be encouraged – nay allowed – for newly-qualified surgeons to attend conferences and listen to someone give them tips on how to be a brilliant surgeon whose patients’ survival rate was horrifyingly low.  There is something quite frightening about this scenario, and yet in teaching, despite all our handwringing about the way in which we are not treated as a ‘profession’, we allow this to happen.  We merrily hit ‘retweet’, spreading someone’s opinion or idea, but we have no idea whether that person’s teaching methods are having a positive or negative impact on the life-changing examination outcomes of the students in their care. We scribble notes as the latest edutwitter wonderkid tells us how it should be done at a conference without asking whether their way is leading to any kind of improvement in examination results at their schools or in their classrooms. Now of course, we’ll never be as impact-focused as medicine, because medicine is an empirical science where you can isolate individual inputs to check their impact on outputs, whereas education is much more messy, but nonetheless, the fact is that we seem to be the only profession which lauds personalities and ideas and opinions without really paying a huge amount of attention to whether the person expressing them has had any kind of success as a teacher or leader.

Have we become far too attracted to those who shout the loudest about how brilliant their schools or teaching methods are and, for all our posturing about ‘research’, stopped really engaging in the impact these peoples’ ideas, opinions and methods have?  I have written blogs about assessment methods and the leadership of curriculum change at my school which resulted in a number of readers requesting a visit, but every year when I proudly tweet about the fact my school –  an academy in a grammar school area with predominantly white, working class children – has achieved GCSE results in the top 2% nationally, no-one asks to visit.  As a profession, we seem more interested in the big, attention-grabbing ideas than we are in what the schools who are achieving the best results for their students are doing to make this happen.  I bet that if most teachers who are engaged in ‘edutwitter’ were asked which three schools they would like to visit, they would choose the schools whose leaders are the biggest, perhaps most controversial, tweeters. Would they go away and have a look at which schools’ achieve the best GCSE results in their subject? Or the schools whose gap between PP an non-PP students’ attainment is the smallest?  Or the non-selective schools whose HPA students make the most progress?  I am not sure they would.

Perhaps, in a sector where accountability for examination results is so high, what we are seeing on edutwitter is teachers and leaders carving out a space in which they can talk about their practice outside of the obsession with league tables, but I think we have to remember that, even if we don’t like the data monster, even if we feel that what happens in our schools is about so much more than P8 scores, examination results do matter. They matter because examination results is what our students need to – in the vast majority of cases – go on to have good lives.  Yes – Twitter is ‘the best staffroom in the world’, but to continue that analogy, think about the people who talk the most, or talk the loudest in yours. Are they always the people most worth listening to? Perhaps, as professionals, we need to start to be a little more discerning about who we are giving the biggest platforms to and ask ourselves whether the opinions those people are selling us – be it through their blogs, books, conferences or 280 characters – is having a real, tangible impact on the people who matter the most in all this – their students.

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