I’ve written before about the problems which arise when people overestimate the effects which teachers have on pupil outcomes. In a nutshell, there is little which anyone can identify in advance which will indicate that anyone will become an effective teacher; the outcomes of cohorts are rooted in the children and the school context, and are vary randomly over annual cycles; any individual established teacher, whilst necessary, does not affect children’s academic outcomes in a way which differs substantially from any other established teacher.
Others have picked up the baton, and it has been a pleasure to welcome voices such as Tom Rogers and Ben Newmark to this area of educational discourse.
I’m always on the quest for effective ways to communicate ideas about education, and this is the first in a series of posts which I’m writing which introduce analogies for your thoughts and consideration. Having been busy writing my book Databusting for Schools – due in June 2018 – as well as working as a freelance teacher, school development consultant and writer on education, I’m working on a new website which will accompany the book, which will go live in April 2018. In the meantime, I thought I’d revisit a few areas I’ve written about in the past as well as exploring some areas I haven’t written about before.
What effect do different fuel grades have on a car’s performance?
The purpose of a car is to move efficiently from one place to another. For most of us, we want to do that in comfort, with ease, minimal maintenance and expense, reasonable speed and, possibly most importantly, maximum safety. We care about what the car looks like, but for most non-car nerd people, the aspects mentioned are more important.
Most cars share largely similar designs, with largely similar systems of operation. There are slightly different categories of car, depending on the job the car is required to do, with some cars designed to travel short or long distances, on or off road, with maximum comfort or minimal cost. But, in general, anyone could get into any car and be able to achieve the basic aim of moving efficiently from one place to another.
None of this could happen without fuel, however. No fuel, no movement. But even the way in which the fuel works is largely dictated by the engine which is installed in the car. In petrol engines, fuel is drawn into cylinders, compressed and ignited. Most engines in the UK use a standard grade of fuel which has a compression ratio of 10 to 1. It is possible to buy fuel which has a higher octane level, and a 12 to 1 compression ratio.
Compression is useful, up to a point. Compressing fuel raises the temperature in the engine’s combustion chamber; the higher the temperature, the greater the power produced. Unfortunately, highly compressed fuel is more likely to ignite spontaneously rather than when sparked by the engine’s spark plugs. This is known as ‘knocking’, and is Not A Good Thing for engines; modern engines have sophisticated systems for avoiding knocking, should it happen.
So why sell different grades of fuel? Well, some cars are designed with a goal which isn’t simply to get from A to B – they are designed for extremely high velocity and acceleration, for driver entertainment, and for higher levels of power and excitement. These cars need higher octane fuel which delivers the power these drivers want.
So what happens if you put high octane fuel into an engine which isn’t designed to utilise it? Not a lot. The engine won’t try to compress it as much as a high-octane engine will, and the fuel will combust when the engine spark ignites it. No harm will result, but no advantage either.
Teachers are the fuel in any school.
Children need teachers. Their teachers should be trained and supported, of course, and it takes a few years for new teachers to get up to speed. The vast majority of academic studies into the outcomes of pupils suggest that, after three years or so, most teachers (as summarised by their measurable aspects such as academic record, level of training, years of experience, sex, cultural heritage, age and so on) have similar levels of what is generally termed 'effectiveness' - i.e. their children make the progress they should and get from A to B.
The engines within which teachers work – the systems within the schools they work, the context within which the school operates – and the design of the school systems in which they work – the external expectations set by governments and external bodies – are the main drivers of the school’s performance.
Changing the fuel – employing a teacher regarded as highly effective or somehow a great deal ‘better’ than a typical teacher – is unlikely to make a huge difference when compared to the structural design of the school. Employing nothing but ‘highly effective’ teachers will make little difference either, unless the whole school is set up to be a high performance sports car, which has its drawbacks and (because of external constraints) doesn't often achieve what it sets out to achieve.
And even then, driving a Ferrari Enzo through rush hour traffic will see no discernible difference in the core aspects of cars – in many cases, the comfort, ease of use, maintenance costs and safety will be worse in the high performance car, and a standard saloon would probably be a wiser choice. To get the benefits of a high performance car, you need specially designed tracks, high levels of support and an acceptance that sometimes, the car will crash and need to be repaired or written off.
Teaching is the fuel without which schools cannot make progress
We all want good teachers. But do we want ‘the best teachers’, whatever that means? There is a limit to what we can achieve as teachers, just as there is a limit to what fuel can do for a car. Even if you have high octane fuel, there is a limit to the effect it can have on a car’s performance. And high performance cars sacrifice comfort, costs and safety in a way which many people find unacceptable.
Imagine education as a multi-stage journey through a busy urban environment. The journey is broken up into several sections, each fuelled by slightly different brands of petrol. Some schools insist a particular brand of petrol is used, and a small number of schools insist on driving high-performance cars. Most simply require standard grade petrol, whatever brand, and drive a typical family car which differs little from the other cars on the road.
The roads, other traffic, weather conditions and so on vastly outweigh the fuel and car design. So take those things into account, and make sure that your car’s design, engine and fuel are appropriate for the journey you plan to take. Drive carefully, and you'll get there in one piece.
Like any analogy, this can be stretched or limited to some extent. Children can, in many ways, be said to driving their own cars, with their own engines. And schools can certainly make the journey smoother in any number of ways. And some cars find the journey easier than others. But the fuel is needed. And teachers fuel learning, even if the vast majority of the variations in individual journeys are out of their control.