Monday, 18 January 2010

High 'grit' not just high grades

Michael Gove was temporarily distracted from creating New Sweden this morning and spoke instead (on the Today programme) about education systems in Finland, South Korea and Singpore. Why? Because in those countries teaching is a "high prestige profession". Teachers in Finland, he explained, are chosen from the top 10 per cent of university graduates; in South Korea primary school teachers are chosen from the top 5 per cent of the population. The Conservatives now hope to make the teaching profession, in David Cameron's words, "brazenly elitist".

If elected the Tories will only allow those with a 2/2 degree or higher to become a teacher - a decision that was, it seems, based in part on the success of Teach First (for which applicants need at least a 2/1 degree to be accepted). As an alumnus of Teach First I was pleased to see Cameron describing it as "a fantastic programme" and pledging his support for its extension. However, what neither Gove nor Cameron mentioned in their respective media appearances was that although academic achievement is one element of the Teach First teacher selection criteria it is not the only (and, I would argue, definitely not the most important) reason for the success of Teach First's recruitment and selection process.

Teach First teachers are also required to demonstrate certain competencies, including resilience, leadership and planning and organising. A recent study from the US suggests that if the Tories are serious about improving teacher quality, politicians should be taking and interest in these character traits as well as academic achievement. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley describes the results of a study to find out what separates the very top Teach For America (the US version of Teach First) teachers from their TFA colleagues. It shows that, beyond academic success, the very best teachers tend to demonstrate high levels of 'grit' and perseverance, are "constantly re-evaluating what they are doing", set big goals and can demonstrate "leadership achievement." They are people who are able to put their mind to something and achieve what they set out to do.

Malcolm Gladwell came to similar conclusions in a 2008 New Yorker article. He wrote, "Educational-reform efforts typically start with a push for higher standards for teachers—that is, for the academic and cognitive requirements for entering the profession to be as stiff as possible. But after you’ve....seen how complex the elements of effective teaching are, this emphasis on book smarts suddenly seems peculiar."

I am glad that Michel Gove thinks it should be “difficult to become a teacher” as I support the aspiration to make teaching a high status profession but the test of suitability should not simply be academic. If the Tories are to make sure that their policy is not “peculiar” but effective they need to attract gritty, not just brainy, people into teaching.


  1. You're right. An academic brain alone doesn't make for good teaching - you only need to look at half of the lecturers and tutors at top universities.

    As in rugby though a good big'un beats a good littl'un. All other things being equal I believe strongly that students respond better to teachers who are passionate about the subject the are teaching. If someone has such a passion (and has excellent subject knowledge) they are unlikely to have done achieved less than a 2.2 at university.

    The second reason it makes sense is about the value of signalling. Irrespective of the relative importance of brains, to signal that teaching is a high status, competitive environment to work in may help change the environment that surrounds it and the environment in the staff room. In turn that will encourage high fliers who may otherwise feel they'd prefer to work in environments where they are driven by other teachers to continually up their game.

    Against all that the worry is that there are a large number of excellent teachers often teaching non traditional subjects who haven't been through the old school A-level and Uni path. It doesn't make sense to arbitrarily cut them out of the system without providing some way of helping them access teaching as a career through some kind of additional subject knowledge assessment in their subject area.

    Lastly in terms of supply and demand the Tory policy will work this year and next year but they may struggle to recruit sufficient teachers in the following year as the economy starts to provide more private sector graduate jobs.

  2. Jose-Juan Lopez-Portillo21 January 2010 at 00:57

    Do we have any statistics about what the current teachers got at university? Not many people get below a 2.2 degree anyway so I think that the policy will make very little difference either in terms of recruiting people or raising the standard and prestige of teachers. Unless I am wrong and statistics show that a high proportion of teachers achieved only a 3rd class degree, then the conclusion is that this is just another useful opportunity for the tories to say something that resonates with the electorate uncontroversially but sounds 'radical' and 'daring' because they can attach the soundbite 'brazenly elitist' to it.
    The nexus between the accelerating advances in access to information through technological progress combined with the increasing specialisation required in the workforce and the importance of effective personal presentation when seeking a job, should shift the debate to much more fundamental questions about the nature of education.

  3. Whilst the Conservatives' desire to make teaching a "high prestige profession" has to be applauded, I am deeply sceptical as to whether their proposals have any real substance.

    Introducing a 2:2 threshold requirement is the absolute minimum that needs to be done. On the assumption that the proportion of teachers who only acheive a 3rd class degree is extremely low, I doubt it will make a noticeable difference to the quality of applicants.

    Surely the most overlooked issue here is pay!? I admire anyone who aspires to do something worthy with their mind and career. That said, the thought of earning £26k p/a whilst living in London rules out teaching as a potential career for so many talented graduates...