Teachers thinking fast and slow

We need to keep the precious dialogue that has come from time off the treadmill

Teacher, Mossbourne Academy

In his bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman talks about our two selves, System 1 and System 2. Firstly, there is our intuitive self, that reacts automatically and quickly, with little control. Then there is our more rational, reasoning self, that takes time to work things out and think them through. Thinking about this distinction during lockdown has helped me to reflect on what I consider to be my two teacher selves: the classroom practitioner, always switched on and reacting second to second; and my more strategic self – training teachers, designing curriculum and generally considering pedagogy. Never before have these teacher selves seemed so distinct and dislocated.

I miss the fine art of teaching, the cut and thrust of the classroom. I miss the big stuff, like when students map Othello’s tragic demise. I miss the small stuff, like giving a Year 7 their first merit mark. But I’m also enjoying the greater space and time for conversation between teachers. It’s good to talk. The lockdown we are currently enduring and the additional time in a working day (I don’t have children), demand and afford opportunities for dialogue – opportunities I have been embracing.

No time to pause on the teaching treadmill

Schools have thousands of moving pieces, both literally and figuratively, and to enter one is to be suddenly bombarded with tasks and priorities that are often in tension with one another. We have a finite amount of time but a seemingly infinite amount of jobs to be completed, lessons to be taught and books to be marked. It might not be a universal, but in my experience teaching is the pail that can never be fully filled. And as such we prioritise. We focus on the immediate actions and are preoccupied by the next lesson, the next break, the next bell. The treadmill of teaching rarely allows us to pause and spend time doing more of the ‘slow thinking’ for which Kahneman advocates. However, as lockdown has stolen from us the joy of teaching, it has also offered us a once in a generation opportunity to reflect and think hard about what it is we intend to do when we return.

New thinking

Personally, this has manifested itself in several ways over the past few weeks. 

Firstly, the conversations with learning areas around curriculum design have been amongst the most fruitful and illuminating I have had. Having the opportunity to read, think and debate has enabled us to make decisions based on reason, unimpeded by the break-neck pace of the usual working week. Arguing about the various merits of classical allusions is what teachers should be doing more often! 

Secondly, through Zoom calls and email correspondence, I have been able to flesh out the backstory and competencies of our newly hired teachers, gaining insights that are already influencing the CPD we give now and pre-empting the September gaps. 

Finally, the re-modelling of NQT training I have done has pivoted towards reading and dialogue; teachers are spending more time thinking about their practice, reflecting on the lessons learnt (in the year halted so abruptly), and preparing for school once we are given the green light. The threads of emails and tangential detours have been genuinely illuminating and a much-needed intellectual stimulus when my social life has been cancelled. We’d all prefer to be in the classroom and applying strategies rather than reading about them, but in the current context it feels productive.

Becoming proactive instead of reactive

It’s not that the things mentioned above didn’t normally take place, but that minus the many time-consuming activities one would normally do (commute, detentions, duties, revision classes, teaching 20 hours a week!), we have been able to do them in a more thoughtful and rational way. The myopia of schooling so often leads teachers and leaders to be reactive as opposed to proactive. Although we are currently having to quickly react to a new way of working and day-to-day guidance, I hope we can also use the time we have wisely – to ensure what comes next is intentional and well considered, based on the best possible evidence, and stress-tested through dialogue and critique. We couldn’t prepare for the lockdown, but we can prepare for the re-opening.

 There will be a rush of initiatives, many already in motion, that have been designed with incomplete information. I would caution against this. We need to recognise that currently there are a lot of known unknowns: retention of knowledge, quality of home provision, divergence in experience and support, teachers new-in-post, anxiety levels and more. How can we gather information and assess some of these factors to inform our thinking and direct our planning? In March, talking about pandemic planning and imperfect options presented to those attempting to control a viral outbreak, Mike Ryan from the WHO stated that in his experience, “If you need to be right before you move, you will never win”. Ultimately, whatever action you take is bound to have its weaknesses but action must be taken to pre-empt disaster. There are parallels here for schools; the unprecedented nature of the crisis means we will have to execute imperfect plans. But let’s make our ‘bets’ the best informed they can be and let’s challenge each other to think about unintended consequence and trade-offs.

Retain the dialogue

So what would I like to see more of in the weeks ahead and when we finally do get back to our ‘new normal’? I’d like to talk more. Space within the day or week needs to be protected for teachers to collaborate and challenge orthodoxies. When we return to school, the desire to have all hands on deck and to address every educational gap might pull us further away from dialogue than ever. The endeavour to make up for lost time might once again distort our thinking and give way to our more instinctive selves. Let’s not forget the lessons from lockdown.

 Re-designing curriculums has been grasped as an opportunity to interrogate both the content of courses and the ways in which we teach them. The lockdown needs to stimulate similar debate and be seen for what it is: a tragic shock from which a new way of thinking can and must emerge. Concrete actions? I don’t have any yet – I’ll need some time to think…slowly.

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