This much I know…about John Tomsett’s book on teaching

I am 28 years old, I have been teaching for five years and this much I know about John Tomsett’s book on teaching.

John Tomsett is the headteacher of a large comprehensive school in York. He has been blogging about his experiences on teaching and school leadership for a number of years, leading to him drawing together his thoughts in this book This Much I Know about Love Over Fear: Creating a culture of truly great teaching. Tomsett states his intended audience to be school leaders, but as a classroom teacher myself (albeit with possible leadership aspirations) I found the book truly remarkable and inspiring.

Tomsett stresses the importance of cultures and values. He points out that the single most important factor to all teachers improving their practice is the school culture (p29). This struck a chord with me personally as I have always believed that if you put the correct cultures in place, the rest will follow. Previously I had perhaps looked at the need for a strong culture from a pupil perspective, but it is of course equally important to teachers. We must feel that we can improve, that we will be critically but constructively guided and, most importantly, that we want to improve.

In emphasising a focus on school culture, Tomsett is not naive and readily identifies the potential risks. Two risks in particular stand out: firstly, the risk that you don’t appear to be following the Ofsted model, which many would see as a precarious approach in the current political climate and secondly, that such an approach takes time and therefore the patience of stakeholders, neither of which seem to be abundant in said political climate.

To create a culture for truly great teaching, Tomsett talks about getting the conditions for growth right. This is something he has borrowed from Ken Robinson, who talks about taking an ‘agricultural model of education’ rather than a factory model (p90 and 188). Tomsett discusses the prevalence of fear in many aspects of the educational community at the moment, but recognises that fear destroys workplace culture like nothing else (p89). A key part of a positive school culture is about teachers’ relationships with students and that by improving those relationships, you improve teaching and learning (p97).

Instead of a climate of fear, Tomsett has tried to create a culture of reflective practice. To do this he explains that in his school, they make the subtle but incredibly powerful distinction that the emphasis needs to be on teaching and not on teachers – it is not about the person, but what they are doing (p12). This depersonalises all conversations about improvement and avoids people taking offence. In another point which perhaps goes against the prevailing wind in education at the moment, Tomsett discusses how comment-only feedback is recognised as a powerful tool for students and goes on to question why this is not the case for teachers.

Tomsett recognises that a school’s greatest resource is teachers and that teachers greatest resource is time. Therefore he makes sure that professional development is a part of all of his staff’s routine, but that it is worthwhile and not onerous. All of his school’s CPD is in-house, co-ordinated by one of his leadership team whose title is ‘Head of Research’. Tomsett sees the value of research but realises that it must be tailored to his school and staff, so established a role focused on doing just that. He also says that staff must come first, before students, as a well motivated staff is better for students.

Tomsett is clearly a very driven individual and the autobiographical elements of the book give you an appreciation of why. Thanks to his own working class background which Tomsett describes in the book, he is clearly morally driven as a teacher and school leader, with a full appreciation of the role of schools in social mobility. I think my favourite, mantra-like quote in the whole book is ‘a good education allows you to choose your path in life, and I don’t want one single student of mine to ever wonder what they’ve missed because they haven’t had a choice’ (p4). He goes on to say that to be any good at teaching it has to matter to you ‘in your chest’ (p36). This reminded me of the leaving speech of a colleague a few years ago who said that when you realise that your heart is no longer in the classroom, with the kids, then it is time to go because to stay would be unfair to the children.

John Tomsett has written a wonderful book in which he also discusses Dweck’s growth mindset, lesson planning and literacy. It is a wonderful read for anybody involved in education, far beyond current school leaders. Once I had read the book on a transatlantic flight, I leant it to a colleague in America who has worked as a school counsellor for over two decades. She found it an enlightened read, which had so much in common with the very best practice that she had heard about from the best school systems in the USA.

It is one of my favourite books on education. It will have a place on my bookshelf for the rest of my career, except when I am lending it to more colleagues!

Progress

I have been meaning to commit some thoughts to paper on the theme of progress for some time. In part because of time and in part, I think, because of the nature of the theme, that post has not come until now. It has also come with the realisation that it will probably be a series of posts reflecting my ongoing reading and reflection on progress. I approach the topic of progress with an awareness of a number of perspectives, definitions and uses of the word. I will look at those uses first in this post as a starting point for what I hope will be a series of useful posts in finding my own way around the idea of progress.

To take uses of progress first, I think there are three of which I am reasonably aware: progress in the sense of progressive politics, progress in the wider definition of societal development and then the narrow usage of the word in the context of educational attainment. As a result of my work as a teacher and my involvement in politics, I would argue that education should focus on progress in terms of wider societal development rather than the current bastardisation of the word progress that we allow ourselves to be hamstrung by in schools.

Now please don’t mistake be, educational attainment is important of course because education is, in its loosest sense, a journey. Whatever the aims, curriculum or experience, it is essential that a person should finish their education having in some meaningful way changed from how they began. I don’t think our current notion of progress in education is actually helping people make progress in the wider sense of self-improvement or socialisation. In a sense, these two usages of progress are actually at odds with each other.

I would argue that the progress we currently associate with educational attainment is closely associated with criticisms around the reductivist approach to education whereby we obsess with pupils exam performance so much that we forget more fundamental questions about what we are teaching and why. Somehow educators have become quite happy to allow somebody else to make these decisions for them. We allow ourselves as teachers, and therefore allow the pupils in our care, to be participants in a system not of our own design and therefore is it any wonder why we see so many problems in education?

Whilst some could, with some fairness, argue that levels and grades bare some correlation to how good a scientist, mathematician or geographer you are, I think they would find it difficult to argue that those levels and grades are entirely representative of what it means to be an educated person, either in a specific subject or as a whole. Indeed in the case of the latter, the educated whole, I think that there are range of reasons why there is a dangerous lack of holistic thinking in education.

If we were to start with the whole person and to think about what we want them to be able to do by the end of their (formal) education, we need to think about what we teach and those decisions should all be deeply justified. You might argue that this already happens; for instance in the design of the National Curriculum. Now if for a moment we ignore who designs the National Curriculum, we need to question the justification for the decisions involved with the National Curriculum, or any other curriculum for that matter.

Perhaps the curriculum is justified on the grounds of economic competitiveness. Perhaps it is justified on some notion of what is traditionally held to be an educated person. But perhaps it is designed purely to fit other aspects of the educational system. Do we retain a subject-based approach simply because that is how the system currently works? Why do we divide our curriculum into key stages and exam syallabi? Do we, by retaining some of these aspects of the system, lose site of the full range of possibilities for our education system?

Similarly I came across an interesting ideas from Debra Kidd who questions one of the key principles of our current system whereby pupils are expected to progress in a linear fashion and at a similar pace to everybody else. As a result, whilst there is much rhetoric about raising standards or ‘narrowing the gap’, we implicitly accept that not everybody will gain the same education. Now this is not arguing against specialisation, it is challenging how and when pupils specialise. It is also, more importantly, questioning whether we are teaching the right things, in the right way, for the right reasons and, most importantly, ensuring that everybody enjoys the same educational ‘core’.

I would argue that the way we slavishly focus on how many pupils make a certain amount of progress gets in the way of thinking about educating people in a progressive way so that they can contribute to humanity’s progress (which is so much more than economic growth). Howard Gardner’s most recent work includes a plea for education to refocus on truth, beauty and goodness. This puts as much of an emphasis on self-discovery as on discovery of the world around you. Importantly, whilst building knowledge, it also gives learners a sense of what knowledge is, how it is made and how we must challenge it. To this extent, there is some common territory with Michael Young’s work on powerful knowledge. In both cases the definition of an educated person is firmly in mind at the start, rather than starting with the current system and seeing what we can tweak.

So education as an end in itself, with an acknowledgement that such an education should contribute to social progress. Of course, meaningful work (which isn’t necessarily the same as financially rewarding work) is an important aspect of a good life and a strong economy should work in synergy with a good society. With this in mind, there is little surprise that Howard Gardner’s other major research is around the topic of ‘good work’. A progressive education should also foster a sense of community, a desire to contribute to society, an appreciation of creativity, culture, science and identity and also an awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship. If we believe that these things are important for all people, then we also need to think again about whether our educational system can lead to everybody fully benefitting from such an education.

As I said at the start, these thoughts are in a formative phase and I hope to read and reflect further.