Saturday, 3 May 2014

Policies not straightjackets

I'm starting to lose track of the number of times I've heard or seen people say that they can't do or try something because it's out of line with their school or department policy. It really worries me when I hear that - it means they feel unable to innovate or experiment with something that could be an improvement.

Most often for me it's linked with RAG123, but I've seen it at other times in school, and all over the place on twitter too. It normally goes something like this:

  • Person A: "Why not try this (insert suggested alternative pedagogical approach here)?"
  • Person B: "That sounds great and I'd love to, but our policy for (same general area of pedagogy) means I can't try it."
Frustratingly this is usually where the discussion ends - the opportunity for person B to try something new that might improve their practice and improve outcomes for their students is squashed.

More specific examples I've actually seen/heard over the years include:
A: "For that lesson why not try using a big open ended question as your learning objective that all students work towards answering?"
B: "I can't because we're required to have 'must, should, could' learning objectives for all lessons"

A: "Could you re-arrange the tables in you room to help establish control with that difficult group? Perhaps break up the desks to break up the talking groups?"
B: "No because our department policy says we have to have the tables in groups to encourage group work."

A: "Why not try RAG123 marking?"
B: "I can't because our marking policy requires written formative comments only."

What are policies for anyway?
Policies should be there to provide a framework of good basic practice that all in a given organisation can use as a bare minimum to baseline their practice. However there is a difference between a framework to guide and a set of rules to be applied rigidly.

For example a policy that says that learning objectives must include suitable differentiation for the class being taught is substantially different to saying that all lessons are required to have Must, Should, Could learning objectives. One is  the essence of what we really want, the other is a single, rigid example of how this might be achieved. One allows the teacher to use their professional judgement to set objectives in a way that is appropriate for their relationship with that class and the material being taught; the other applies a blanket approach that assumes that every lesson by every teacher with every class is best set up in an identical fashion.

For me policies should set out a standard that is the bare minimum to ensure that the students get a good deal in that aspect. For example if a teacher is unsure of how often to mark their books the policy should clarify the minimum requirement, it should also detail what minimum information is needed in order for it to count as good marking.

However policies should never stifle innovation. Should never prevent the trial of something that could be even better. They also shouldn't dictate set structures that can't be deviated from under any circumstances - it should always be allowed to do it better than laid down in the policy!

Teachers as professionals should always have the option to deviate from the policy if it will produce better outcomes for their students in that particular situation (and if this becomes a consistent improvement then perhaps the policy should change to incorporate the deviation so that everyone benefits). However as professionals they should be both able and willing to justify a decision like this if questioned. Similarly if they have deviated from policy to try something that turns out to have not been so good then as professionals they should acknowledge this and return to the policy.

Consistency not uniformity
The bottom line is that policies should ensure a consistency in quality of experience, which mustn't be confused with a uniformity of experience. Quality in education is about high standards, high expectations and about professionals making informed decisions about how to get the best from the students in front of them. Quality is not about every teacher doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same way, if it was we could record model lessons and just play them to students, or just learn scripts to follow.

Uniformity and rigidity isn't the answer to the multi-faceted challenge that teaching presents; we can't always assume that one size fits all. Therefore policies should never be straightjackets. Policies should be guidelines and bare minimums, with innovation and improvement specifically allowed and encouraged.

Comments always welcome - I'd be interested to know your thoughts. :-)

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