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Open classroom; open society

In Berlin in 1945 a soldier planted the Soviet flag on top of the Reichstag signalling the victory of one totalitarian state over another. That year also saw the publication of Karl Popper’s ‘Open Society and Its Enemies’, a thorough and brilliant repudiation of totalitarianism. This was a substantial work published in two volumes and, for those who don’t have the time to read it, there is a helpful chapter-by-chapter summary on Wikipedia. Shortly after the publication of Popper’s seminal book, he took up a post at the LSE where one of his students, George Soros, studied philosophy. Soros had fled Hungary as the Communist Party, and the Red Army, were busy extinguishing democracy. Having experienced totalitarianism first hand, Soros was enthusiastic about Popper’s arguments for open society in which critical thinking could flourish. His extraordinary success in the financial markets in subsequent decades enabled him to fund the network of Open Society Foundations (OSF) which have provided financial support to programmes that foster human rights and democratic ways of life.


Open Society Foundations


Soros wrote a Foreword for Popper’s book when it was re-published as a single volume; in it he talked about how OSF had funded education programmes to foster critical thinking.  My own endeavour in relation to teacher leadership benefitted from such funding.  In 2009 for example we were able launch the International Teacher Leadership (ITL) initiative which centred on the Western Balkans where Open Society organisations wanted to promote liberal democracy in the post Yugoslavian era. We presented an outline of our approach at a gathering of colleagues from NGOs and universities in Belgrade, the discussion arising highlighted aspects of the rationale which we had not previously emphasised. Our new friends saw that enabling teachers to have a voice, exercise leadership and collaborate to improve practice would promote the values of liberal democracy and build capacity for critical thinking. The approach would enable teachers to build dialogue with each other about their practice. Later, the Soros Foundation in Kazakhstan funded and organised the translation into Russian of one of our books, Transforming Education Through Teacher Leadership.  They subsequently funded the Teacher Leadership in Kazakhstan initiative. Like the Western Balkans, the Central Asian republics were still in the process of becoming independent, modern countries in which there was enthusiasm for developing more democratic forms of education, decision making and governance. Colleagues from Moldova participated in the ITL initiative. One teacher, Theodora Maican, presented the story of her project at one of our events in Bucharest. She had developed a series of lessons to boost children’s creativity and had then drawn her colleagues into a collaboration in which they observed her teach and then invited her to observe them teaching. They would then have a group discussion to share what they were learning about teaching creativity. A vignette about this project appeared in the ITL final report. Our partners in Moldova were in no doubt that teacher-led developments such as this were contributing to the building of a more open society in this post-Soviet country.



Back to the bad old days?


In the light of the above, it is perhaps not surprising that I was shocked when a school principal recently told me that it was not possible for him to go into classrooms in his school. Apparently, a visit from the principal would precipitate a union dispute. This seemed to me to be a throw-back to the 1970s. It reminded of an unfortunate experience I had as a newly appointed head of department in a secondary school in 1979 in Margate, Kent. It had been a hasty appointment following the unexpected departure of the incumbent Head of History. The headteacher, newly appointed himself, asked me to step in. I felt honoured and agreed immediately. I asked for some guidance as to my duties. There was no ready-made documentation, so he just rattled off a list of the more obvious tasks which included carrying out classroom observations and writing reports on a probationary teacher who had just started as a history teacher at the school.


A couple of weeks later, I spoke to the young probationer at the morning briefing; since I had a free period that coincided with his lesson with a Year 2 class that morning I would be along to observe.  I scribbled a few notes as I watched and arranged to see my colleague at lunchtime to give him some feedback. The process seemed unproblematic to me, so I was surprised when I was confronted by a rather fearsome character who was both Deputy Headteacher and Union Representative. It seems that the probationer in question had been recruited as a union member even before he had arrived at the school and at the morning break, he had talked about my visit to his classroom. The Deputy confronted me in the corridor with something like: “What the hell do you think you are doing invading the classroom of one of my members? I’ll oblige you to keep your nose out!”. 


I told the Head about this dramatic outburst. He was equally surprised since it had been normal practice in his previous school and, in any case, how could I be expected to write a report on the probationer’s competence without having seen him teach?  He met with the Deputy to discuss this. It seems that the practice of classroom observations for any purpose at all had never been established in the school and there hadn’t been any newly appointed teachers in living memory, so the issue had never come up before. They came to an agreement on the understanding that a protocol for such observations would be drawn up. The Head asked me to draft it for him which I was glad to do. The Deputy later apologised to me on the grounds that he didn’t know that I was just following the Head’s instructions.

Opening up practice


As I developed my own professionality, the value of the open classroom became increasingly important to me. My interest in it was fuelled by my reading of Lawrence Stenhouse’s book, Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development in which he talked about the idea of the teacher as researcher (Stenhouse, 1975). I was immediately persuaded that as teachers we need to be able to analyse and reflect on what we do in the classroom and observing each other seemed an obvious way to facilitate this. I also experimented with asking students to adopt the role of observer, sometimes this would be by standing outside a group activity and noting how problems were solved through discussion. Sometimes it would be to observe my teaching. I wanted the students to become more aware of the teaching and learning process as an aid to their ‘meta-learning’, a term which used to mean ‘learning about learning’ but these days has been commandeered by the discourse on machine learning.  This dovetailed well with the growth in my own pedagogical awareness.


Later on, I was seconded to a university to teach on the PGCE course, the initial teacher preparation programme. When the students went to schools for their teacher practice, I arranged to teach a few lessons in their schools so that the student-teachers could observe me. The principle that observation should be mutual was important to me. I also brought the video camera into our university-based sessions so we could experiment with it as a tool for looking at how we teach. It enabled us to look carefully at the use of the voice, body posture, movement around the classroom, interaction with the pupils and much else. We had a lot of fun with this and it became normal to look at our practice as an actor might.



The Acting-Up Project


A particularly memorable project was one in which I collaborated with an experienced drama teacher in a local secondary school – we called it ‘The Acting-Up Project’. The school operated a streaming approach which meant that the drama teacher had a bottom set class of 14 year olds. They were said to be behaviourally challenging and had negative disposition towards learning and schooling. She asked this group of students to work with her over several weeks to develop a short play about a teacher who struggles to control a class of 14 year old pupils. They were experts in this of course and relished the challenge.  When their play was ready, they came to meet my group of student-teachers in the university’s TV studio.  Once we had all been introduced to each other, the drama class performed their play while the student-teachers watched from the side-lines. Their drama teacher was in role as the novice teacher struggling to assert her authority. The drama students were in role as bottom set students determined to get the better of the teacher. The role of teacher was shaped by the pupils who directed their teacher in how to play a failing teacher.


After the performance, the student teachers and the pupils formed small groups to discuss the issues that had just been played out in front of them. Then back to the studio and the pupils were asked to perform again but this time, any PGCE student could shout ‘freeze’.  The action was suspended so that the PGCE student could suggest a different behaviour for the ‘teacher’. She would discuss this with the pupils before they went back into role to play out what might be a better strategy. This happened several times and each time the pupils tried to respond in ways which they thought would be authentic. The final stage in the process was where the PGCE students were invited to try out the role of ‘teacher’ and again, the pupils were asked to respond authentically. I even had a go myself. All of this was captured by a TV crew and edited to make a short film.



Accountability in the ascendancy


All this was a long time ago of course and a lot has changed in the interim. In the 1990s new public management thinking fuelled the growth in performance management strategies across public services and, for teachers, classroom observation became a key part of the staff appraisal process. In some situations, ‘teacher evaluation’ is linked to performance related pay. All this has been contentious of course and teacher unions have become involved in discussion about protocols and safeguards. Learning walks in which senior leaders pop into classrooms to see how things are going have also become pretty normal.  They are usually regarded as informal and non-threatening although this is not always the case, especially if there is an inspection coming up or an individual teacher feels that their reputation is at stake. In England and Wales at least, we have seen the inspection regime change the nature of classroom observation. Even though Ofsted abandoned the practice of grading individual teachers, I suspect that the impact of this judgemental approach is still being felt.


I can’t help feeling nostalgic for the days when there was still the possibility of opening-up our classrooms and being able to engage in dialogue with colleagues about how we teach – a mutual experience in which everyone could offer each other critical friendship.  Perhaps I am being too pessimistic. Perhaps teaching online during the pandemic has got us all used to doing our thing on camera. Maybe non-judgmental mutual observation for the purposes of reflection, dialogue and pedagogical improvement is still alive and well in some schools. If so, I would love to hear about it.


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