The future of flexible learning requires flexible working

A couple of weeks ago in the UK, the clocks changed. Most people in the UK rejoice at the October clock change as they get an extra hour in bed on a Sunday morning. Personally I rejoiced as it meant I could get an extra hour of work done on the Sunday morning. I appreciate that this makes me sound either very sad, or an egotistical workaholic – but one of the beauties of my work is that I have the ability to work flexibly, and can therefore choose what hours I work. I regularly get up early and do a couple of hours of work before breakfast, even at weekends, but then I take time off during the day which is much more useful to me and my family life. The key here though is about choice. Most weeks I take at least one half day ‘off’ sometimes more, and I try not to work too much during school holidays, so have about 12 weeks holiday a year – yes my income is reduced significantly as a result, but that is all part of the choice process that comes with flexible learning. As part of my work I support many clients both within the UK and globally – and subsequently, I regularly have to work at unusual times to account for global time variations, again this is part of the flexibility that my work requires and I enjoy.

Image of someone working on a computer outside on a bench with a cup of coffeeSo – coming back to the title of this post. We have identified for many years the advantages that flexible learning brings to the learners, but we don’t appear to have caught up yet, that to truly support flexible learning, requires better flexible working from the teachers. I regularly speak with senior managers in organisations about things such as blended learning, and often discuss options such as providing tuition outside of normal working hours – but I am often given the excuse that ‘Teachers won’t want to work weekends or evenings’. This is clearly nonsense, as any teacher or former teacher (like myself) will tell you, that they have to work weekends and evenings anyway to keep up with the planning and marking, as part of their job. Some teachers would welcome the option to work outside of normal hours to formalise the work they are doing anyway at those times.

What the real problem is, that many parts of education are still stuck in the factory/office mentality of working 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. There is also an inherent and sad distrust, that if teachers were given more flexibility, they would somehow abuse this and not do the work (which is again nonsense) if they are not on the premises where they can be checked up on, these two issues are genuine barriers to organisations taking flexible learning seriously.

So – what do I propose? If a teacher is being expected to support a significant numbers of learners that are studying flexibly (by whichever means), I think that teacher should have one day a week where they have the option to not come into work on that day. In other words, the timetable is constructed such that, that teacher has no timetabled classes on that day, giving them the freedom to come in and work in the office, or stay at home and work, or do something totally different, and then work flexibly in the evening or at the weekend. I wouldn’t have any sort of ‘clocking in’ system – I would simply trust the teachers (who by default is already doing more hours in a week than they are paid for), for them to use their professional judgement, as to what needs doing, how much needs doing and by when.

If we take this model further – if an organisation sets up genuine hot-desking in an office (and I have worked at a college that has done this successfully) – you can get away with significantly smaller and more cost effective staff rooms, as you don’t need to provide a desk for every single person, only for that desk to be unused for about 70% of the week whilst they are teaching. Rather than sticking desktop computers onto the desks; you provide teachers with laptops, and have docking stations on the desks so they can use a proper mouse, keyboard and monitor when there. Get rid of the landline phones, and replace these with mobile phones for teachers (which I have blogged about previously – https://davefoord.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/if-you-are-serious-about-blended-learning-give-teachers-a-mobile-phone/)

This does require a major culture shift within organisations, and going back to the issue of choice, some teachers won’t want increased flexibility, which is fine, but for those that do – then now is the time to explore this way of working. If done well it will reduce costs, improve quality, keep teachers happier (which should reduce turn over rate of staff), and should increase the satisfaction of the learners.


Image Source: https://pixabay.com/en/laptop-notebook-work-keyboard-2443739/

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2 Responses

  1. I agree, Dave, that the very sensible and long overdue suggestions you are making require a culture change, but I believe that the necessary cultural shift is more of an issue for senior managers than for the teachers themselves. There is certainly a need for managers (in your words) to “simply trust the teachers” and to allow teachers to “use their professional judgement, as to what needs doing, how much needs doing and by when”. Yet throughout the second half of my career as an educator I saw consistent and significant ongoing reductions in both trust and in the scope for teachers to exercise professional judgement. So what you are suggesting really is like trying to turn a fast-moving supertanker – not easy.

    But I actually think the problem goes deeper than this. Technology now means that teachers and learners no longer need to be constrained within the physical boundaries of a school or college but that effective learning can happen outside these boundaries – and this is the issue your post was addressing. But I believe it is not just a question of physical boundaries. Technology also means that learning can now take place outside the INSTITUTIONAL boundaries of a school or college. The Internet means that there is now no reason, other than tradition, why teachers and potential students should not just link up directly without the need for any institutional framework or senior management team. The ‘School of Everything’ was a very good example of this, as is the ‘Find a Yoga Class Near You’ tool on the British Wheel of Yoga website. And to those who might say that we need institutions in order to maintain high standards of teaching I say “Poppycock!” I have come across some dreadfully bad teachers within institutions, but (and I accept this is merely anecdotal) all the institutionally independent teacher with whom I have learnt in recent years – through private arrangements for tuition from jazz piano to bread baking – have been very good. Developing and guaranteeing high professional standards can be done outside of a conventional college or school through teaching guilds. The Wheel of Yoga is an example of this, but clearly the guild idea needs considerable development.

    So I suggest that the reason top managers in colleges are reluctant to embrace more flexible approaches to teaching is because they realise (at some level) that this could threaten their power, their command-and-control of teachers and learners, their ever increasing salaries, and indeed their increasingly irrelevant jobs as compliance-mongers. We must ask ourselves: how do these managers actually improve the learning experiences and wellbeing of students? Your post seems to imply that they are doing the opposite – and I agree.

    Keep up the good work, Dave, and my best wishes from the land of retirement:-)

  2. Thanks for replying Terry, and glad that we agree about many of the issues – and as you say, it isn’t just about trusting teachers more – we have to firstly stop the current de-professionalisation that is taking place within education (certainly with FE).

    I do however disagree with you that managers are deliberately getting this ‘wrong’ as part of self preservation – I think there is a mixture of fear amongst managers, being pulled in too many different directions (certainly middle managers), and a small does of inability – but I don’t think it is deliberate – but then again, I am not due to retire for another 20+ years so maybe I am being careful with what I am saying.

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