A thoughtful teacher and leader of teachers responded to my post about the role of a teacher (part of a series about the role of evidence in making decisions about professional practice). Reid Smith asked:

Some of the difficulties I have when considering the degree to which teachers should have choice around their instruction revolve around the notion of who makes the choice and for what reason.

I believe that teachers, like practitioners in any profession, sit along a continuum of competency when it comes to making instructional decisions. Everybody has the capacity to improve, but we aren’t all expert yet, and we all have ancestral biases that affect our decisions. I feel uncomfortable leaving decisions solely in the hands of teachers who may or may not yet be competent enough to make good instructional decisions.

I have met some teachers who I would feel quite comfortable seeing on the the first day of the new year, saying hello and then checking in with them a couple of times during the year before the Christmas Party. I feel confident doing this because they have consistently shown the ability to make appropriate instructional decisions. They do so by examining the effectiveness of an instructional strategy, whether through the lens of educational research or demonstrated effectiveness in their context. They make decisions in line with the values and philosophies of the school they are in, maintaining a team approach to enable consistency across classes and years. They are always looking to improve the progress of students towards a particular goal. They are willing to measure that progress and change their practice, including adopting the practice of those more effective than them with that particular concept. They do this because they feel a moral obligation to make sure that they are as effective as possible. And they do this all the time.

Most of us, however, sit somewhere else along the continuum. We make good judgements around our instruction most, or half, or a quarter of the time. We need the support, and sometimes pressure, of others around us to make the changes we need to.

I don’t know what the mix is between those strategies and goals that are adopted by all in a department And those areas that are more open to variation based on the opinions of an individual. I do think some key questions need to be considered when we debate the sanctity, right or ability of a teacher to make the decisions in the classroom based on their professional opinion. Because our professional opinion is not necessarily a good one.

The questions I am considering are:

To what degree should individuals have autonomy given variations in quality of decision making?

To what degree should autonomy follow the contours of demonstrated expertise?

To what degree does a school, and the instruction within, need to be coherent?

To what degree would instruction need to be consistent to make a school coherent?

No answers yet, just questions!

I don’t have answers to Reid’s questions! I do think they’re very important, and I’d love to hear what other people think.

David Berliner’s work examining the development of expertise as a teacher might inform our discussion. I’ve written about it VERY briefly before on this blog, back when I first started my PhD. Pamela Grossman’s and Julie Gess-Newsome’s theoretical work regarding pedagogical content knowledge, building on the work of Lee Shulman, might also help.

Personally, it is the extremes I disagree with: excessive prescription, and excessive autonomy (and the use of the catch-cry “evidence-based” as justification for either!). I would no more accept a teacher making decisions completely independently, with no feedback or discussion or view outside of her or his own classroom, than I would that we prescribe that all teachers practice in exactly the same way.

Who decides?

Reid asks who makes the decisions (of professional practice), and for what reason. I argue against prescription of practice with the very same questions in mind. It is my belief that teachers are best placed to make decisions about practice. However, that is not to say that the teacher does not also have to justify their decisions. Alongside the capacity to make those decisions, comes the responsibility to make them to the best of one’s ability, to reflect upon them, to justify them to professional colleagues, and to change them in the face of new information and convincing argument.

Indeed, I think the discussions teachers have about practices and justifications for these are essential to ensuring high quality practice. These discussions serve to provide feedback to teachers, stimulate them to reflect on their decisions and the evidence, theories, and reasoning supporting them, and importantly, promote the development of expertise as a teacher.

What about teachers who, well, just don’t make good decisions?

(We also need to ask the question of who is making these judgments of other teachers, and what qualifies them to make those judgments. But that’s a rabbit hole for another time…)

Reid mentions that he has met teachers that he would not trust to make the right decisions for much of the time. I think we’ve all met one or two (or three or four) teachers, who, in our own judgment, make poor decisions. But they are the exception, rather than the norm. I’d rather focus on how we can best provide support and guidance to such teachers to develop better understandings and skills, than how we can “bring them into line” through prescription of practice. And, should they fail to demonstrate improvement in their decisions, given sufficient guidance, support, and time, then the question of whether or not they should be in the classroom at all needs to be asked.

Prescribing practice to all, on the basis of those few at the least developed side of the bell curve, will only serve to narrow the curve and lower the mean (to extend a statistical analogy that probably needs some work). When we develop policy to address this issue, we need to do so without sacrificing the flexibility needed for our competent, proficient, and expert teachers to do as they do best.

What about beginning and establishing teachers?

The category of teachers requiring guidance also includes novice teachers, at the beginning of their careers, who in my experience, are generally keen to gain experience, listen to advice, critically and constructively consider new information and ideas, and reflect on their decisions. That is what we have tried to prepare them to do in their initial teacher education (speaking for my own university program).

In an ideal world, every novice teacher and many an “advanced beginner” (as Berliner calls them) would have a mentor that visits and observes, makes suggestions, and guides them in their reflection. (I’d also suggest that all teachers new to any school also have a mentor for a term or two, regardless of their experience, as they develop the contextual knowledge needed for working effectively.)

Novices cannot advance without making a few mistakes, and most mistakes are of small consequence if the novice teacher is reflective and responsive and able to adapt their practice and make new decisions as they go.

Problems occur when a teacher, of any level of expertise, commits to a single practice and refuses to change or adapt it when it does not work. And how would that be different from prescription?

Berliner suggests that without giving teachers the rights and responsibilities for making decisions, about professional practice, we actually take away the necessary conditions for developing competence, proficiency, and expertise as a professional teacher. He says:

The novice and the advanced beginner, though intensely involved in the learning process, often fail to take full responsibility for their actions. This occurs because they are labeling and describing events, following rules, recognizing and classifying contexts, but not yet actively determining through personal agency what is happening. The acceptance of full personal responsibility for classroom instruction occurs when one develops a sense of personal agency, willfully choosing what to do.

Let’s not forget the established and experienced teachers

Established teachers (competent, proficient, and expert) could benefit from coaching, and there are others who can discuss the hows and whys of this with more expertise than I.

Both mentors and coaches, can guide our discussions without prescribing practice.

Answering the questions

To what degree should individuals have autonomy given variations in quality of decision making?

The question of what degree individuals should have autonomy is one to be discussed in every school, with all staff. I would argue against both high levels of prescription, and high levels of autonomy, and suggest each staff find somewhere in the middle that works for all (or most, if not all).

I would also very much argue against systemic policy that called for high levels of autonomy, or high levels of prescription.

To what degree should autonomy follow the contours of demonstrated expertise?

I would answer Reid’s second question with another: to what degree can teachers innovate, identifying new and potentially better practice, if they are restricted only to use prescribed practices? (There is a related discussion regarding the diversity of values across our society, and an argument that this needs to be reflected in the diversity of values of teachers.)

To what degree does a school, and the instruction within, need to be coherent?

To what degree would instruction need to be consistent to make a school coherent?

As for Reid’s last two questions: it is my experience that schools can provide consistent and coherent experiences for students without being prescriptive, but by establishing frameworks and guidelines suitable to the context, and a school staff culture of mutual trust and respect. This does not require prescription regarding practice.

For example, at Cherbourg State School, where I began my teaching career, Chris Sarra had coordinated with teachers, students, parents, and the school community to develop what he called the Stronger Smarter framework. This framework described values, systems, and high expectations that were appropriate in our unique context; a school (and community) culture arose that enabled our students as a whole to achieve scholastically at levels beyond any previously experienced by the community. I arrived when Cherbourg already had this framework already in place, but I had many opportunities to learn about, adapt to, and give feedback to improve the framework. At no point did this framework prescribe to me as a teacher the practices for teaching.


This series of posts, which Reid thoughtfully commented on (as did many others, thank you!) advocate for teachers, individually or collectively, to use research and data in decision-making, where and when it is appropriate, whilst arguing against the prescription of practice justified by the catch-cry of “evidence-based.” What I am really arguing for is room for teachers to argue, to be research literate, to be reflective, to recognise nuance, to share, to collaborate, to change, to grow, to be professional, to develop expertise: to be teachers, rather than vessels, robots, or algorithms.

If you believe another teachers’ practice to be wanting (or have questions about your own), there are better policies to address that than prescription of practice. My advice? Start with a discussion…