What makes a good teacher?

A difficult question, you might say; the answers being many and varied.  Teachers could debate this back and forth endlessly highlighting the different priorities and emphasies that the individual puts into their practice from individualising work, establishing teacher/pupil dialogue, leading pupils towards independant higher order thinking skills etc.  However I am certain, that you will not find many state sector teachers who agree with Katherine Birbalsingh’s views on the topic.

In her article published on 31st January, 2011, Birbalsingh argues that teachers are frustrated by the ’parrot-like approach dicatated by ofsted’.  I won’t argue that many a teacher would quibble with some of the ofsted criteria for good and outstanding learning.  But what’s her alternative? 

This hinges on her view of public school education.  She believes that if state teachers were allowed (as if we would want to) teach like public school teachers i.e. archaic chalk and talk knowledge based teaching, then all would be well in education.  She gilds this suggestion in the premise that public school teachers are given freedom to teach in this way, but the reality is that the gap in attainment between the public and private sector does not come down to style of teaching but a range of factors which crudely put equate to money and the opportunities wealth affords.

I spent my secondary school years at one of the few remaining grammar schools, a half-way house between the state comps and the wealthy public schools, where private sector aspirations rubbed shoulders with liberal thinking and teaching.  I had History teachers who were fully paid up members of the chalk and talk brigade and Maths teachers who barely said a word but made us search for answers ourselves.  I learnt in both environments.  Good teaching is not determined by style but by outcome

I have chosen to teach everyday of my career in state primary and secondary schools because I believe that education, above all else, should be inclusive.  Any move towards public school idealogy undermines this.  Birbalsingh seems to have a confused her own views with the views of most teachers.  For her, ‘Equal opportunities’ may have come to mean ‘sameness’, he may also believe that the pursuit of equal ops. is discreet from that of excellence but I believe that the majority of teachers, I among them, would argue that true equal opportunities is excellence.  The academic few should be given the opportunity to engage with large amounts of knowledge whilst the artistic amongst us should be challenged to explore and think independently.  Good teaching allows all learners the space to grow in their own intelligences through the practice of higher order thinking skills.

What about the arguement against skills based learning in favour of knowledge based?  I would ask, why should children be taught the capitols of Europe before the skills to access an atlas, or better yet the Internet?  Why is an encyclopegic knowledge of the Prime Ministers of Britain more valid than the ability to manage your time?  It what environment is the knowledge that a non-finite clause is so called going to be more valuable than the ability to use one in spoken English?  Get real.  Good teaching moves learners on a journey from dependance through inter-dependance to independance, knowledge based teaching cannot do this.

If Birbalsingh is so against the use of technology in education I would ask her who is going to teach the techno-native children of today the skills to live, work and prosper in an ever-advancing, computer driven world?  Engaging with pupils in a relevant way cannot be achieved without the use of the all-pervaiding tools of today and tommorow’s world.  Good teaching makes the world accessible.

You may have gathered that I disagree, on the whole, with Katherine Birbalsingh.  You’re right.  I do.

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