Change for Change's Sake: How Excessive Reform Creates Instability in Education

A common complaint from struggling teachers and those that choose to leave the profession is that the endless government initiatives and constant reforms are happening far too frequently. While I acknowledge that continual improvement is important, I maintain that excessive change is a hindrance to good teaching.

There are three factors that contribute to the current situation. Firstly, any change is seen as good, so that change happens for change’s sake, although I doubt this is exclusive to teaching. There are also too many government officials trying to make their mark on education and make a legacy for themselves, none more so than Michael Gove.

Finally, and I see this as the most important problem, is that everyone thinks they know what constitutes good teaching, their only qualification being that they were once a student. I’ve written in more detail about this problem here: The Six Worst Assumptions Other People Have About Teaching

Excessive reform means that more teachers are working in unfamiliar ways, which will decrease confidence and decrease the quality of teaching. While I value adaptability and recognise that living with uncertainty is an essential skill, there has to be a balance. Most of the teachers need to be confident they know what they are doing most of the time, and the high amount of procedural questions appearing online is proof that they don’t.

Constant change also decreases expertise. There are less teachers who have experience simply because the current way of working has not been around long enough for anyone to get experienced in it. It effectively renders experience obsolete, because new teachers have been working in that way for just as long as the more experienced teachers. Similarly, continual improvement requires continual retraining, which is time consuming and expensive.

Endless reorganisation has the effect of reducing serious reform to the state of a superficial trend or fad. Teachers know that whatever initiatives come into play will be replaced by another one so quickly that there is no point treating them as important or getting deeply involved with them. Most new schemes are taken on board by teachers on a lip service basis only.

Equally, many teachers will be able to tell you about the cyclical nature of these reforms. The way people learn and the way their brains work will never change, and neither will the majority of your subject matter. So why does the teaching and learning attached to this need to be in a constant state of flux? The current scrapping of GCSEs is a fine example – apparently O-levels were better after all.

Finally, all this change fosters a climate of instability and chaos in institutions that are often the only stable influence in young people’s lives. Think about the negative effect of having a constant stream of different short term teachers has on students, and this has much the same impact.

Where do you think the balance lies between improvement and chaos? What are your opinions on current reforms and their durability? Please comment below. 


Pelham said...

I tend to view most top-down, enforced 'change' in the profession as largely unnecessary, and usually counterproductive. There's a natural pace to change inherent in teaching-- new ideas are discussed, new technology opens up new opportunities for communicating knowledge, and (independent thought! Horror of horrors!) sometimes WE even come up with some new ideas of our own.

A lot of change seems driven by a philosophy that anything that remains solid, steadfast, or immutable is to be avoided at all costs. The dread that some old codger in the classroom may have 'cracked it', and is actually enjoying running their teaching as a well-oiled machine, without the 'help' of their betters, is anathema.

The other aspect of change is the fact that so many changes are simply not driven by the needs of the classroom. Take Controlled Assessment: I seriously doubt that this 'innovation' was extensively trialled in 'real-world' classroom teaching. Oh, I am sure that our friends the Exam Boards got a few compliant schools to 'trial' a few experimental stabs (Oh the honour! Oh the fantastic entry on SMT's CV's!), but I cannot accept that any teacher worth their salt wouldn't have told them it was a time-consuming, unworkable monster. The alternative explanation is that this system was insitigated by bureaucrats that consciously hate teachers and children.

In my wilder moments of fantasy, I imagine our profession rising up as one to spearhead a campaign of 'Stuff It-- Let Us Teach For Once'. In the meantime, I can only point you to the gentler hope that tens of thousands of us are actually getting on with our jobs, ignoring advice,'forgetting' to respond to the latest innovations until they are (all-too-quickly) forgotten, and actually making a difference some kid's life.

The Edudicator said...

I've been looking for a campaign title, I really like that one!

Yeah like I say you get wisened to it all and just make it look like you've taken on board the new initiatives, then get on with actually teaching when no one is looking.

Anonymous said...

Writing as someone who retired from teaching a year ago after 31 years in the profession, I can honestly say that it was never the same from one year to the next. The trouble with people in power is that they all think they know about education because they once went to a school. It was bad enough to try to keep up with the changes in technology without having to cope with opinionated politicians on one side or union officials generally on the other side.
When I started in the classroom it was chalkboards film strips and 16mm projectors. Then whiteboards and videos. Then interactive boards, DVD's, web casts etc. Let alone having to learn to use Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Access together with a slew of other educational software.

I cannot dislike the march of progress in technology, but there are certain fixed verities about the job,IMO,

1) The teacher should know more about the subject than the pupils (not generally true in IT!).
2) It is the teacher's job to transfer this knowledge to the pupils in an effective way. This does not mean entertaining the pupils, but does involve challenging them.
3) Pupils need to be regularly assessed to test both the effectiveness of the teacher and the level of knowledge of the students.

In my opinion, teachers should be largely left alone to do this job in the way that they are comfortable with AND that is seen to be effective.

Teachers who do not prove themselves to be effective should be asked to leave the profession. Pupils by and large do not get a second chance at education, and a poor teacher can mar the complete life of an otherwise promising pupil.

The bane of the last few years of my work was having to devise lesson plans timed to the nearest minute, with all of the skills covered in a hierarchical list. Experienced teachers all knew we were wasting time on this - lessons don't go like that but there was no convincing the SMT who presumably had half an eye on OFSTED.

I wish I was more optimistic about the future......but I'm afraid that I am not.

Anonymous said...

The Edudicator said...

I love that secret teacher post!

Teaching is unique in that it has so many people who are just stakeholders, like politicians and parents, but who try to run the show. And the system that's in place allows them to do so.

I'm surprised that you've mentioned there are teachers who should be asked to leave. I know you mean if they've not managed to devise their own effective way of teaching, but there's currently 'witch hunt' style performance management in place that is already too harsh.

I also found it ridiculous that I had to document everything I did in a day in 2-3 min intervals.

Anonymous said...

"they all think they know about education because they once went to a school"

Biggest. Problem. Going.

The Edudicator said...


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