CEO’s Blog: Front and centre: “The Sage on the Stage”

Welcome to the 2019/20 academic year to you all.  At John Taylor Multi-Academy Trust we particularly welcome Church Gresley Infant and Nursery School to our family, our tenth primary phase partner.  As with a new school to the Trust, I also welcome all colleagues, children and families that have become part of the JTMAT community this year.  I am excited about what you will bring to us, and what you will share alongside us. 

The content of this Blog was prompted when hearing feedback from colleagues – both within JTMAT and beyond – on tests and examinations that our children and young people sat in the summer of 2019.  A consistent theme was how new test requirements, new syllabi and specifications, all demanded from the teacher a considerable level of specialist subject knowledge – arguably more so than the tests and examinations sat, say, ten years ago.  Comments such as “this used to be covered in the second year of a degree, and now it’s in the A Level” have been forthcoming with such regularity as to make them more than mere personal opinion or anecdote.  From compulsory and lengthy essay questions through to synoptic papers based on more subject material than previously, the imperative for the teacher to be highly knowledgeable is clear.

Perhaps by way of reinforcement, we know that the new Ofsted inspection framework will promote a “deep dive” into curriculum content at subject level, whereby a triangulation will take place between lessons observed, work produced, and the planning from the teachers that has underpinned it.  For those colleagues who have undertaken the planning, delivery, and assessment the justifications for their choices will inevitably be framed in their understanding of the subject area being considered. 

To many readers, all of the above may appear very obvious: Teachers know “stuff”, and can do things, that children cannot – and it is therefore their role to impart to the children the knowledge and skills they possess.  However, in my opinion there was a “corruption” of this message for a number of years that created a misconception that somehow this wasn’t so important. 

You may well be familiar with the now-clichéd expression that the teacher of the future will be the “guide from the side” and not the “sage on the stage.”  This sentiment, often appropriated by technologists, suggests that in the Information Age the role of the teacher is little more than a curator: to navigate the child through the myriad of YouTube sites, Internet pages and web packages in order that they learn what they need to know.

In an attempt to find the origin of this cliché, I (ironically) looked online for the earliest reference I could find to it.  Stumbling upon an article by an American educationalist from California State University from 1993, Alison King implores teachers to move beyond mere ‘lecturing’ to embrace ‘active learning’, which she defines as high level questioning, problem-setting, peer work and hypothesis generation.  Her article was far from a prediction that specialist knowledge would be any less important.  Those of us who’ve taught know that in order to ask meaningful questions that move learning forward, one has to have command of the subject being studied.  Technology has its place as a tool for learning of course, but it was not envisaged as a substitute for the expertise and knowledge of the teacher by King.  In a previous blog (May 2018), I wrote about my cynicism for ‘one-size-fits-all’ technology in schools, in which expensive hardware is shoe-horned into lessons irrespective of whether the learning lends itself to it or not.

This week saw an announcement regarding the starting salary for teachers being raised.  Recently we have seen the advent of the Chartered College of Teaching (of which I am a Fellow).  Both of these, together with many other instances, are ways in which we can show the value that the teacher brings to learning.  We underestimate the impact of great teachers, whose knowledge is as considerable as their joy of working with children, at our peril.  At John Taylor MAT, it’s my privilege to work alongside so many.

To conclude, teachers don’t all need to be a Confucius – and nor can we be.  But teachers can and should be proud of their academic credentials and the credibility it affords them when teaching.  There is still room in schools for a “sage on the stage”!

Thanks for reading.

Mike