Average Teaching: Not a Matter of Mediocrity

I've written before about problems with the way politicians look at education, and the way that measures of educational success affect behaviour. But a story last month got me thinking about this again.

Dominic Cummings, an adviser to UK Education Minister Michael Gove, wrote a paper outlining his views on the state of education. The piece, which inevitably got out to the press, was so inflammatory that some have speculated that it was deliberately leaked, either to test the water on controversial views or to make upcoming education policies look reasonable by comparison. Cummings's dismissive attitude, stating that children's performance is more about genetics than teaching, inevitably riled both teachers and left-wing commentators. And whether he's right or not (I think not, but like him, I'm just offering opinion), he ignored the fact that society must still find a role for everyone, and use education to prepare them for that. But there was something else that bothered me more than this easily ignored Guardian goading.

It was talk of mediocrity.

One view expressed by Cummings was that most teaching is mediocre, that by not living up to top standards of excellence most teachers are failing. To which I say two things - try teaching, and learn about averages.

To expand on my first point, Mr Cummings seems detached from the reality of teaching. No teacher can provide excellent lessons all the time. They have to deal with behaviour as well as performance. They get tired out from administration and marking. Many are faced with unruly classes or poor support. Not meeting the ideal standards set by government is not necessarily the sign of a failing teacher. Saying such crushingly demoralising things about the profession is the sign of a failing politician.

But equally importantly, there's the reality of what excellent, average and bad performance means. When we're looking at the whole spread of teaching, most teachers will be in the middle - what might neutrally be called average, disdainfully called mediocre, or positively exhalted as doing a decent job. In a situation like this, where performance is judged relative to others doing the same job, not everyone can be classed as excellent. If teaching gets better then the average standard of teaching gets better, and just as many teachers find themselves classed as average. It's not a bad thing.

Politicians seem to expect almost everyone to do better than average. It's not limited to teachers. Quite aside from applying this rhetoric to other professions, they apply it to pupils, setting exam targets that are above average performance and then acting shocked when half of pupils don't achieve them. These politicians clearly failed the lesson about what average means.

Not every teacher is going to be one of the best, but that's OK. The best give the rest of us something to aspire to, and as long as that makes us keep improving then it's a good thing. Those who are doing a decent job should never be dismissed as mediocre.

Mr Cummings is leaving his role in education. I am sure he will be deeply missed. Personally, I would not class this final performance as highly as average.

Andrew Knighton

About Andrew Knighton

I'm a writer and ex-teacher. You can find more of my writing on education at: http://www.degreediary.com/bloggers/27 I also have a blog on reading and writing: https://andrewknighton.wordpress.com/

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