Sarah Watkins finds a thought-provoking book that pleasingly follows its own advice, sometimes to its own detriment
I’ve always felt like there is just too much stuff involved in the process of teaching and learning. I have always been the person to question it. Is there a point to this? How does this help move learning forward? During the latest lockdown, these questions once again whirled around my mind. Surely, we can do better. Surely that doesn’t have to mean doing more.
Back on Track. Fewer things, greater depth is a thought-provoking, non-judgmental look at just how complicated we have made the process of teaching and learning. Written during the pandemic, it looks at what we currently do in schools and how we can strip it back. As its author explains in the introduction, it “poses the idea of doing fewer things really well”.
There is no blame from Myatt. She understands that teachers’ and senior leaders’ intentions and actions come from a well-meaning place. However, she starts from the idea that there is much to improve. The result is a quick and accessible read that offers both the science behind Myatt’s thinking and practical ways to change things in schools and classrooms.
For me, one of the appealing features of this book is that it is broken down into short, purposeful chapters. As a busy classroom teacher, my mind is always full of ideas. I read many books on education, but I can sometimes falter because the content is too heavy or too scientific. Here, Myatt has taken her expertise and research and provided it in succinct, thought-provoking chunks. It is easily digestible for any tired-yet-committed teacher or leader trying to do the best for their children.
Myatt unpicks some of the many drivers schools have become beholden to
A chapter that particularly caught my eye was ‘The curse of content coverage’, a topic on which she has also blogged. I often feel that I go slower than other teachers, that my coverage is less or that I simply cannot keep up. In this chapter, Myatt explains that too often teachers go straight for the details when planning, often forgetting the bigger picture. This, she says, can lead to a bitty, fragmented curriculum. In order to help children to “know more, understand more and do more” she suggests looking at the big ideas, actually going back to the national curriculum and reading each subject’s purpose statements before diving straight into an off-the-peg unit of work that races through content.
A later chapter entitled ‘Concepts’ unpicks this further. When children are taught new material, Myatt argues we need children to link their learning through concepts. Have they met this idea before? How can they use this in the future? Myatt is really suggesting that unless we look at the big ideas across the school, we will fail to really capitalise on the opportunity to make learning purposeful. As someone who is guilty (for want of a better word) of only really understanding what is going on within my year group, this chapter really spurred me to action.
Each short chapter of the book is part of a wider section. Under the heading ‘School systems’ Myatt unpicks some of the many drivers schools have become beholden to – assessment, data, marking and feedback. Her message throughout is that more is not always better. For her, big picture assessment is better served through high-quality feedback conversations with pupils and parents than filling in spreadsheets with often meaningless progress data.
Myatt ends the book with a short, sharp look at each subject and an overview of its purpose as part of a curriculum whole. She concludes each one by listing a selection of well-researched resources and links that can help schools to build a curriculum to better suit their pupils’ needs.
Ironically perhaps, if Back on Track has a weakness it is that some of the topics are not covered in enough depth. However, for a quick, easy read, its concepts and ideas are far-reaching. And at a time when schools are stretched to their limits, a punchy reminder to do fewer things better is surely a message that will serve them well.