Hugh Reilly: Classroom cred is key – but do keep it real

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UNTIL last week, I had thought that the best way to improve education would be to round up the country’s worst-behaved pupils and send them on a five-year camping trip to the Falklands.

To avoid any ill-founded comparisons with the early 19th-century transportation of criminals to Van Diemen’s Land, this long, sharp, shock treatment could be dressed up as part of revitalised Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. Call it idle speculation, but my guess is that daily yomping across the barren moorland with 50kg rucksacks on their backs would give the learning-refuseniks reason to take a modicum of responsibility for their learning.

Of course, my solution is not realistic, not with Argentina’s claim over the Malvinas gaining more traction with its South American neighbours and, indeed, world opinion. Professor John Hattie has come up with an alternative, cost-free strategy to improve education. Under the banner of Visible Learning, he spent 15 years gathering data from 80 million students across the English-speaking world and discovered – I hope you are sitting down – that raising the quality of pupil-teacher interactions was the most effective intervention to improve education. (In an unrelated piece of scientific work, UK boffins found out that householders plagued with cold calls from “Steve” or “Mary” in marketing companies based on the Indian sub-continent became prone to slamming down the phone while screaming uncontrollably.)

Hattie cites teacher credibility with pupils as a key factor in enhancing education. Credibility does not mean being “down with the kids” by, for example, lobbing in the enticing titbit that you simply adore the new Lana Del Rey single, or judiciously letting slip that you have a tasteful dolphin tattoo on your coccyx.

Hattie states four factors central to Sir to building up the necessary classroom cred with disaffected yoof: trust, competence, dynamism and immediacy (the last one puzzled me too). Trust is obtained by letting students know you care about their progress. Of course Sir bloody cares – if the chalkie’s SQA results disappoint, he will be keelhauled by his line manager and presented with a timetable overflowing with “challenging” classes the following session. That’s why he is so eager to help kids on an individual basis, even the boy reeking with BO and the wee lassie with the perennially runny nose. The professor urges dominies to ask pupils about their home life and outside interests. Clearly, the man has never taught in a Glasgow school. In Drumchapel, I once inquired of a cherub what Christmas presents he was hoping for. “Ma real da is getting me an Xbox, ma maw’s boyfriend is giving me games fur it and wan o’ ma hauf brothers has bought me trainers.” This utterance caused me to freeze to the extent that I made a living statue on the Royal Mile look like a silver-painted man with a nervous tic.

Competence is vital. Hattie says a teacher seeking respectability should answer questions honestly. Teachers who tell students that they don’t know an answer run the risk of losing face and being labelled a dud. In my opinion, the advent of Google means that teachers, exhausted after being pestered by kids asking countless irrelevant questions, no longer feel the need to go for a lie-down and a bout of relaxing electro-convulsive-therapy.

Practitioners should be dynamic. Sadly, I’ve encountered burnt-out staff who could easily be mistaken for extras on Zombies: The Flesh Eaters’ Revenge. On the other hand, I’ve also worked with overly-eager young teachers whose passion hints at either undiagnosed bi-polarism or lunchtime sniffs of white powder in the jotter cupboard.

The final element to achieving credibility in the classroom is immediacy. As a student teacher, I was told to keep a degree of distance between myself and my pupils. Under no circumstances could your first name ever be revealed to the youngsters – it was on a strictly need-to-know basis only. The good professor wants teachers to reduce distance, using talk of “we” and “us”. Further, he wishes we teachers would make more eye contact with learners, a task most dominies find difficult, as the peepers of a pupil are usually staring at a smartphone and reading a text from one of their pals at the front of the class.

Thankfully, most teachers enjoy the respect of their pupils. Trust me.