On letting ourselves be specialists

Last Sunday I was back in teacher mode again. I was not a teacher of history, however, but a teacher of winter walking. On a university hillwalking club trip, I took a group up y Gribin on Glyder Fawr, a simple ‘Grade 1’ scramble (think easy rock climb), though it was banked out in snow and plastered in ice making it a rather harder challenge than normal. I had with me several experienced walkers, though several novices, some of whom had never been in the snow or used an ice axe before. As we headed up, I taught a novice as we went how to kick steps, hold an ice axe and arrest a slip. It was a fantastic day out, not least because I could see, as we descended from the summit, that the novice was kicking good steps, holding her axe in the uphill hand and moving with increasing confidence over the steep ground.

Why was I able to teach this? I did not have a syllabus or mark-scheme to hand. I was not preparing anyone for an exam. I had not even agreed with the novice what the success criteria would be (don’t die?). As we climbed this route, however, I was constantly watching, spotting little mistakes (axe in wrong hand, not kicking in deep enough, leaning over onto the axe) and I kept giving little pointers on how to improve. I had internalised ‘the domain’ – the thing that I wanted to teach – and, as I had no tests or mark-schemes to worry about, all the feedback was directed towards the domain.

I have had exactly the same experience as a pupil in recent years. I took up the violin a couple of years ago and I have had two teachers in that time. Both were excellent violinists and they constantly modelled for me what the ‘gold standard’ was. They did not play Grade 1 pieces of music at the standard required to pass (or even get a distinction) at Grade 1; they played the pieces as well as they possibly could. They constantly corrected me (my posture, my intonation, my grip on the bow, and a million other things), but they did so not by reference to a mark-scheme or progression model, but rather by what they thought I needed to do to get better at playing a particular piece at that particular moment.

The contrast with school teaching could not be more stark. Schools are packed full of examination mark-schemes, ‘pupil-friendly’ progress ladders and similar attempts to break down progression into small, manageable steps. The idea, of course, is that once someone has reached one step, they can move to the next. One problem is, of course, that progression is rarely this straightforward. I wrote in my last blog post how an attempt to create a simple progress model for history went horribly wrong in the 1990s and 2000s. A further problem, however, (and one that Daisy Christodoulou has recently raised) is that a reliance on stage-by-stage progression models leads teachers to teach to the test, and not to the domain. In the eyes of pupils (and possibly even of teachers) the test becomes the gold standard.

It is for this reason that I think we need to rely on our specialisms when teaching pupils. I have read quite a lot of history. I studied the subject at school up to the age of 18, had three years at Cambridge reading nothing but history (and going into quite a lot of depth on particular periods) and have spent the last eight years reading books and articles about the periods I teach (I like to think of history teachers as historians specialising in breadth). I have sought out experts in particular fields to bounce ideas off of them, and have managed, as much as possible, to tailor my CPD towards making me a better historian. Particularly during my undergraduate studies, but subsequently as well, I have thus had recognised experts in their field show me what the current ‘gold standard’ is. I shall continue to learn this over my life, but I would like to think that I have a fairly good sense of what ‘good history’ looks like.

And this is what I call upon when I give feedback to pupils. When a pupil hands me a piece of work, I almost never say ‘to get the next grade you need to…’ This is teaching to the test. Instead, I would say ‘this could be improved by…’ This is a subtle distinction, but an important one. Although it resulted in a number of arguments, I always resisted ‘pupil-friendly’ grids of levels stuck into books. The feedback I give on pupil work is not based on some grid that I want them to work their way through: it’s based on what I understand to be ‘good history’. Sometimes this might match-up with a mark-scheme, but sometimes it does not. In giving feedback, I think we as teachers should (in quite an Aristotelian sense) be directing ourselves towards the ‘gold-standard’ within our particular domain. We need to let our specialism shine through.

‘Letting yourself be a specialist’ is probably the most important bit of advice that can be given when it comes to giving feedback to pupils. I like formative feedback and I think it is absolutely right that pupils get told specifically what they could do to get better at a subject. I do not think, however, that criteria-based mark schemes are the best resource we can draw on for that feedback. Rather, we should be drawing on our own subject specialism. Our mark-schemes are shackles, yet ones we do not necessarily see as such. Let’s not base our teaching on these: let’s instead think about what it means to be good winter walkers, violinists or historians, and instead concentrate our feedback on that.

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