#pgcetips: Don’t put off innovation

‘Watch the watch’ by tony_v

This is the second of my articles from the free #pgcetips ebook for trainee teachers.

“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”
Anthony Robbins

When I was completing my PGCE we had a number of guest lectures from an expert on synthetic phonics. The University, quite rightly, deemed this to be very important as none of us had been taught to read using this method, and were entirely unfamiliar with it. I was flabbergasted by the number of fellow students who expressed the opinion that this method of teaching backed up by scientific research was ‘a load of rubbish’. Their reason? They never learned to read using such a ‘convoluted’ method, and they had ‘turned out all right’.

At the time this surprised me, but I find it is actually quite a common reaction when people are faced with new ways of doing things in the classroom. It is a dangerous point of view because it shows an implicit assumption that the world we are educating children for is the same as the one we were educated for. It is not. I am a young teacher, but in the 15 years since I was at primary school I have gone from having one computer for 30 children in my class, to carrying in my pocket a computer 1000 times more powerful that is constantly connected to the Internet. That changes things. A lot.

A world of constant, instant connection both to others and to factual knowledge requires hugely different skills. A class of children educated for a world of the authoritative, but quickly outdated knowledge contained in printed books are not being prepared for navigating the immediate, but often dubiously reliable flow of information on the Internet. A class of children given no experience of publishing to a wide audience are liable to make some massive gaffes when they discover the freedom to do so as teenagers and vent ill-considered opinions to the entire world.  A class of children treated by their teacher as vessels to be filled with factual knowledge must feel short changed when they realise they can access all this knowledge and more with a few taps of the touchscreen in their pocket. My class have realised that already. They are 8.

Education needs to change, as it is quickly becoming irrelevant to the world that today’s children live in. As teachers, we may be stuck in the past but these children are not, and if we don’t keep up we will quickly become irrelevant too.

So, you may be wondering what a ‘mere’ PGCE student can do about all this. My answer is recognize that education needs to change to match this new world, and make that change now. You will come across many people that urge you to ‘concentrate on the basics’, to observe experienced teachers and mimic what they do, and to sort out your day to day practice before trying something different. To a certain extent this is true, there are a lot of basics to learn and a lot of great people to use as examples, but you needn’t be the same as them. After all, most of them trained in a time that is ancient history to the children they are teaching.

You will never be more eager to try things out, you will never be less jaded about experimenting, and you will never have the same spark to innovate as you do when you first start. You might not know some of the ‘basics’, the ways things have always been done, but that puts you in an excellent position to look at things in terms of what is most effective rather than what has become habit. You aren’t limited by the preconceptions that experienced teacher have, so you have the perfect opportunity to come up with new ideas. Seize it.

If things go wrong you have the luxury of being a beginner, you won’t be the first PGCE student to do a failure of a lesson, people will forgive you. If you make some colossal mistakes, then you will be out of there in a few weeks anyway and class teachers expect trainees to be less than perfect. Granted, you might need to rein yourself in a bit if you have an important observation coming up, or if your experimenting is losing you the respect of colleagues and pupils, but you will never have a better time to take some risks and try some new things.

If you think you can’t make a difference as an inexperienced teacher you are wrong. Whilst completing his PGCE Tim Handley, the editor of this book, started a blog of his ideas and reflections. By the time he had got his QTS certificate it had been viewed nearly 13,000 times. That is 13,000 expressions of interest in his innovative lesson ideas. By the end of my NQT year I had been invited to present at the headquarters of Internet giant Google, and advise my local authority on embedding technology in the classroom. You can make a difference, if you make a commitment to do so from the start.

Don’t put off innovation. If you go into a placement and decide to do everything in the same way that your experienced class teacher does then you are already stuck in someone else’s rut. If you put ideas aside and tell yourself you will innovate next year it will never happen. Your NQT year has many more pressures not to innovate, such as full responsibility for achievement and results. If you start as you mean to go on you will always be an innovative teacher, you will always be receptive to change and will always keep yourself relevant and meaningful to your pupils and the world they are growing up into.

Isn’t that what they deserve?

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6 thoughts on “#pgcetips: Don’t put off innovation”

  1. What a very perceptive article. All teachers should read this- especially dinosaurs like me who’ve been in the job since the early nineties. You’re right- education needs to be ever evolving- scary, yes a bit, but hugely exciting.

  2. I really like your ideas here, and I agree that it’s important to keep adjusting your ideas as you go, but I really have to disagree that printed books are “authoritative, but quickly outdated”.
    The need to evaluate for bias in printed books is just as important as when using the internet. The skills of looking for reliability, intent, purpose, audience need to be taught in relation for both.
    I really worry that modern students are not engaging with challenging printed texts. So many GCSE and A level students that I see while tutoring (specifically English Lit here, so other subjects may vary) are not used to reading whole texts. They look up information on the internet and find other students’ essays on the subject and other snippets of information. Very few of them have bothered to go to the library and look in the literary criticism section to find books on theory and criticism about the book they’re studying. Some have not even read the whole book that they’re writing about, just read an extract then looked up a summary of the plot on Wikipedia.
    There’s breadth of knowledge and then there’s depth of knowledge, and I think books offer a depth of knowledge that the internet can’t really match. I still think children are going to need the skills to use both books and the internet and it worries me to see the non-fiction sections of school libraries withering away in favour of research on the internet.

  3. A superb post Oliver!

    I loved your emphasis on the changing world and the need for education to change with it. However, the strongest message for me was encouraging PGCE students to innovate and to ingnore traditional preconceptions. I also think this post is relevant to existing teachers.

    @JamiePortman

  4. This is perfect advice, Oliver – I wish someone had given it to me 15 years ago when I did my PGCE! I remember being obsessed then with trying to replicate what the class teacher did – down to leaving the room in the middle of a lesson to see if the children would carry on with their work!

    As a deputy now I love the opportunity to try out new ideas and encourage others to do the same – however I can see it would have been a lot less pressure to do so as a student…

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