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Spoiler alert. We don’t exactly know. We will be hosting a conversation find out more, and it will be framed something like this. There is a tension in the evidence that for the majority of us, increased autonomy correlates with increased job satisfaction and well-being. The more we have control over our own work, the happier we are in our work.

RSA Academies is committed to the importance of creativity in teaching and learning. Our schools have committed to develop confident and creative pupils through an education rich in the arts, design, creative and cultural activities. For pupils to develop their creativity, teachers need to be able to teach in ways that encourage the innovation, independence and risk taking which are fundamental to being creative. There is an argument then that teachers should be creative themselves, to be able to innovate, to have some autonomy in their classrooms and to take some risks in how they teach.

There is however, a widely reported problem with the workload in teaching, which in turn correlates to the challenge of retaining experienced teaching staff as well as the recently qualified.

So far we can conclude that the way teacher creativity interacts with job satisfaction and retention is unlikely to be straightforward. One could argue that giving teachers ready to use materials and specific instructions about how to use them would reduce the job of lesson planning. Not exactly creative, and perhaps not exactly motivating for most teachers, but given the pressures on teachers is this sometimes a helpful shortcut?

So the question is where and how do you give autonomy to maximise teacher motivation and retention, whilst at the same time improving outcomes for pupils. Here are three factors worth considering.

Is context everything?

In this conversation there is merit in considering the problem at an individual level; that if for that teacher and that topic off the shelf materials represent the best way of teaching and learning then it has value and we must understand it in context. Dylan Wiliam said that in education, “what works?” is rarely the right question, because everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere, and is why in education, the right question is, “under what conditions does this work?”. The take-away here is that the conversation needs to understand the context in which successful approaches work, and then we need to work to understand how successes might be applicable in other contexts and therefore replicable elsewhere.

What about quality?

Given the reams of terrible teaching resources that are easily available on line and the question of how you might quality assure off the shelf resources, here is an intriguing idea to broaden the conversation.

“It is not for government to produce curriculum resources for schools; Policy Exchange believes that confidence is likely to be higher in the quality of the materials designed by high-status institutions such as museums, the Royal Societies, high-performing multi-academy trusts or respected academic publishers.”

In quoting this I don’t mean so much the reference to Royal Societies (though do take a look at the RSA Pupil Design Awards if you are minded whilst we are at this juncture), but instead to highlight the potential offered by a greater involvement of arts and cultural organisations to this end.  To name one institution to make the point, the British Museum’s offer to schools (though I have not used it personally) appears well worth considering, being based on their unique collection of objects, it is well conceived, cross curricular and age appropriate.

Is it a power play?

The Behavioural Insights Team recently published A Practical Guide for Parents, Teachers and School Leaders and notes teacher motivation as an important predictor of student success, and demonstrates that motivation tends to decline over time. It suggests that, “one way that school leaders can motivate their teachers is to give them more control over what they do”.  This might suggest that autonomy is achieved through the choice of being able to use pre-prepared materials vs having to create your own, in short having the power to decide where and when to use your creativity.

It could be argued that the relationship between a happy teacher and their student is key to success rather than the method of teaching. In reality, of course you could see it being a balance of both, but where does the balance sit?

These three factors are part of our thinking so far in how teacher creativity and autonomy relates to motivation and retention, we are also planning to ask:

  • In what ways have teachers exercised their creativity in their teaching; what have schools done to encourage this and what are the benefits and possible negative consequences?
  • What is the evidence of impact on teachers’ workload, job satisfaction, well-being and possibly retention?
  • In what circumstances is teacher autonomy desirable and when is detailed prescription more appropriate?
  • What are the implications for how schools should develop teachers’ creativity whilst maintaining high expectations of pupil outcomes across the school?

In the spirit of how we co-design and develop projects working with teachers and pupils, what do you think? What other questions should we be asking? Who should be answering them? Would you like to be part of a bigger conversation?


Georgina Chatfield is Programme Manager for RSA Academies



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