I once tangled with a principal about anchor charts.

The superintendent was coming to visit and the superintendent liked anchor charts. So everyone needed to have anchor charts in their classroom. I spoke privately with the principal and tried to point out that making pedagogical decisions based on a superintendent’s visit wasn’t really in the best interests of my students. I further suggested that I, as the classroom teacher, was best positioned to decide if anchor charts were an effective instructional strategy.

The principal was unmoved. They were were in charge and I was to do what I was told. And was my day planning book up to date? Remember, all the learning expectations were to be in my day plans, and hand written, no copy and paste! 🙄

This kind of meddling drives teachers crazy. Someone far away who doesn’t know our classrooms, or our students, decides what will work best and we have to follow. How can someone removed from the daily realities of teaching know our classes better than we can? How can they prescribe strategies without even asking us?

Young teachers will be familiar with the early school year eye roll from experienced teachers. This is what happens when, often at the first PD Day, the year’s new initiative is presented. New teachers, shiny and eager to please, don’t understand the cynicism that there more experienced colleagues are showing to the exciting new strategy we’ll be employing this year. Don’t they want their students to do better?

What those new teachers don’t understand is that this is a process that happens every year. Someone far up the hierarchy went to a conference, or spoke with someone, and now we all have to try and make something new work. And it rarely does, because classrooms are like fingerprints. Each one different, an extension of the people creating it.

This was the culture in Ontario education from the 1990’s, but in 2010, with Growing Success we started to see a shift. The Ministry of Education acknowledged that:

“Successful implementation of policy depends on the professional judgement of educators”

An educators professional judgement was to be respected and was required for education policy to work. You’d think that would be the end of it and we’d all go off and make better schools, but not so fast.

Firstly education is a large slow moving ship and it takes a while to change course. Secondly there are many layers of bureaucracy between the ministry and the classroom, and all of those layers are full of administrators and educrats who may not agree with the ministry or may not be eager to empower classroom educators.

So recently some educators have employing a new weapon to resist meddling in the classroom: Scientific research.

They argue that for too long educators and students have been forced to dance to the educrats tune and this needs to stop. Only those instructional practices proven to be effective through scientific research should be used in the classroom. When teachers are faced with a new initiative they should ask if it’s been proven  through peer reviewed research. If not, then why are we using it?

The standard bearers for this approach are Research ED. Research Ed started in the UK and organizes conferences across the UK with the stated purpose of:

  • raising “research literacy” amongst educators
  • promoting collaboration around educational research
  • increasing awareness of biases in educators understanding
  • exploring what really works

The first Research Ed conference in Canada will be held Toronto on November 10th and 11th.

While this seems like a positive development I’m also watching it with a degree of scepticism. The core issue of this, for me, is about respecting teachers professional autonomy, and I worry that we are trading one boss for another. I recognize that a great deal of education research is flawed, making it more difficult for teachers to know what research to trust. Using research seems like an obvious, easy solution but the actual implementation is much more complex.

I want teachers to be recognized for what they are, the experts in their classrooms. Classrooms are incredibly complex environments with many interacting variables. Good instruction isn’t the simple implementation of what someone else has decided are the most effective practices. What doesn’t work in my class for me may work well for someone else in their classroom. There is as much art as science in good teaching.

If my principal had said I needed to use anchor charts because research proved it was effective, that’s a stronger argument. But it wouldn’t have addressed my main concern. Our judgement as teachers is the best tool we have about how to make our classrooms as effective as possible, and needs to be recognized and respected as such.