Seeing Bridget Clay was the first action of the first day of this year’s #EducationFest. Whilst some slots during the Festival posed a next to impossible choice, this one was easy. Bridget Clay it would be.
I’ve long since been interested in the work of the Teacher Development Trust and have heard David Weston speak at several events. Their work resonates with me and my role and so what better place for me to begin the two days of my packed Festival experience?
Culture eats strategy for breakfast
This is why one approach to CPD that works well in one context, won’t work in another. A culture of ‘professional learning’ is far more crucial for long-lasting culture than ‘doing CPD’.
A vital component of this culture formation and development is explicitly connecting CPD to the needs of students; it should, after all, be inextricably linked if it’s to have long lasting impact but it also supports a culture of professional learning. In a culture where CPD is for the staff and for their learning then it will more quickly drop off their ‘to do list’ and it will feel as though it’s on a to do list to begin with- this is not where we want learning to be. We should be working towards a culture of professional learning where staff see that the actions they engage with can have real payoff for their students; their confidence grows from this and they can see and feel themselves becoming better practitioners.
In a school or college culture where there is a significant drive for consistency and drastic improvement (for instance- although not exclusively- where Ofsted have made a judgement of ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’), staff feel less confident to experiment and innovate. Professional learning is clearly affected as a result as they place less worth on it and this is certain to have an effect on the quality of students’ learning as a result over time.
What leads to a high quality teacher environment where students are making good progress?
- A shared vision
- Relationships and trust
- Evidencing and monitoring
Useful questions to reflect on- Staff view of professional learning
- Do your colleagues value professional learning? Does it sit separately to their normal job and not at the heart of what they’re doing?
- Do your colleagues understand what high quality professional learning is? Are they checking impact for themselves? Are they discerning?
Useful questions to reflect on- Leadership plan for professional learning
- Is adequate and suitable time and space provided for professional learning to take place? Has workload been considered so that it doesn’t encroach?
- Is it iterative throughout the year?
- Is the time for professional learning preserved? ie. timetabled learning spaces for staff are completely protected and are not replaced by anything else. We need to demonstrate the importance we place on this time and space for them to engage in their learning.
- Whilst it’s important to generate ongoing learning opportunities for staff to engage in their learning with colleagues, we must not forget the part that external expertise may have to play in this iterative approach.
It’s the (not so) small things
All leaders should consider the following points as aspects of developing a professional learning culture-
Tea and toast can help the development of a culture for professional learning. There’s little evidence to indicate how effective it makes the learning taking place (action research project anyone) but its incorporation sends an important message- we value you enough to feed you. We value this space for you to learn and we encourage you to spend time in this space.
Staffrooms are important and recent years have seen us lose them. I can testify to offices rather than staffrooms in colleges for years now and staff in schools are spending more and more time in their classrooms and far less in the staffroom. They’re important for wellbeing as relationships and downtime are essential throughout the school day but they also aid collaboration as well as conversation about practice. It is here that a culture of professional learning can formulate naturally and informally; developing the kind of honesty and trust that makes more formal forms of CPD run much more smoothly.
Modelling professional learning is a significant action for leaders to take. We know this already from Vivian Robinson’s work, citing that the single most effective activity a leader can participate in (above Planning, coordinating and evaluating teaching and the curriculum, Establishing goals and expectations, Strategic resourcing, and Ensuring an orderly and supportive environment) is Promoting and participating in teacher learning and development (Robinson, V, 2005). As part of this modelling, are leaders modelling vulnerability? I’ve heard Professor Robert Coe refer to this as ‘reciprocal vulnerability’. Being vulnerable is a central part of learning and if leaders are able to model their vulnerability then staff are encouraged to so the same. In doing this, they’ll be sharing their own learning journey- what aspect of their role are they looking to develop, how are they going about this and what misconceptions have they already begun to address and feel challenged by? I believe this to be about sharing the facts and detail of the journey but also the feeling- learning is often uncomfortable and it’s important not to just run around how great learning is- sometimes it’s damn difficult.
Engaging with evidence and not basing all of our decisions and approaches on it but certainly using it as one aspect of being informed. Through this, and explicit sharing of this approach with staff, we’ll be modelling for them how we’d like them to engage in more evidence-informed practice. I once heard Dr Gary Jones speak about evidence-informed decision making for leaders where he spoke of the need to use multiple sources of evidence so as not to lead by bias too heavily.
If staff can see leaders operating in this way- regularly questioning things, challenging themselves and each other and being open to checking the evidence- then it helps them to do the dame; aware that we don’t have all the answers and we need to work hard to challenge our thinking. On the other hand, how damaging might it be to a culture of professional learning to make decisions they think is right, relying on nothing but gut and actively dismissing all evidence to the contrary? So- when making decisions, think about how you’re using an evidence-informed model AND consider how you’ll be making this process more transparent to staff in order to generate a culture of professional learning.
Assessing teachers is a particularly significant of the professional learning culture of a school or college but it’s difficult to do reliably, so what’s the answer? What’s the purpose of teachers being assessed? It should lead to continual adaptation, refinement and improvement if it’s effective. Most schools and colleges now understand that high stakes observations don’t lead to development and have removed grading but what next? How can we get to the point of our staff requesting an observation to support their learning- stating, ‘I’m trying this out in order to see if it will impact x students in y way- could you come in to provide another perspective of how it’s going?’ How does it become ‘done with’ rather than ‘done to’, even if we have moved away from ‘done in’?
The myths about performance management need to be understood by leaders attempting to generate a culture of professional learning. It is often an annual process with humongous targets and numerical outcomes. This clearly doesn’t aid development. Imagine sitting with a student at the start of the year and setting 5/6 large targets for them to work towards. Leave them for 4 months and then have a review- how’s it going? Well, they likely won’t remember what the targets are and will find it difficult if not impossible to identify progress towards them as they had no measures to check against. This is no different for any of us. We need narrower targets, clearly linked to students (not necessarily numbers) and receive regular feedback. This leads to longer lasting impact and higher engagement in learning as staff know what they’re working towards and how they’ll know they’ve got somewhere… or not- and not is ok too as this generates learning also. How about something more experimental that will develop a love for learning as well as have impact on students? I’m currently concerned about these students for x reason, I’m going to improve the quality and quantity of work they’re producing. The how will change as the experiment takes place and the teacher engages with various modes of learning to inform their practice. Reviews of these are always future focussed with the intention to build on the learning that has taken place.
CPD has become more about fixing problems.
This is not helpful for the development of a culture of professional learning, in fact, it’s actively damaging. We need to focus on a more optimistic model for development centred around effectively meeting the needs of the students in front of us.
No-one asserts the concept of ‘every teacher can improve better than Dylan Wiliam–
‘Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.’
“I think the only way that we can improve teacher quality is to create a culture of continuous improvement. That is given lip service in many districts, but nobody is really facing up to what it really means in practice. You see, I think that every teacher needs to get better. In many districts they target help at the teachers who “need support”, who need help, who are having difficulties.
Every teacher fails on a daily basis. If you are not failing you are just not paying attention. Because we fail all the time.
Many of you will walk out of this room absolutely convinced I said stuff I know I didn’t say. As teachers we fail all the time. We teach these brilliant lessons. We take in the notebooks and look at what the kids have written and we wonder what planet they were on when we were teaching the stuff.
Our daily experience as a teacher is a failure. Which makes it the best job in the world. Because you never get any good at it. At one time, André Previn was the best paid film-score composer in Hollywood and one day he just walked out of his office and quit. People said ‘why did you quit this amazing job?’ And he said – because I wasn’t scared any more. Every day he was going into his office knowing his job held no challenge for him.
This is something you are never going to have to worry about. This job you’re doing is so hard that one lifetime isn’t enough to master it. So every single one of you needs to accept the commitment to carry on improving our practice until we retire or die. That is the deal.” (Wiliam, D, 2014)
Plan for Culture
So often, when planning CPD, we dive straight into the end point we want to reach; professional learning communities, peer observations, reflecting on videoed practice together, lesson study…
We need to plan far more effectively to build the right kind of culture for this to take place first.
If we want to get to lesson study for instance- what might we need to do first to build the level of trust required for it to be a success?
- Sharing practice on display boards for a period of time
- 15 minute lunchtime forums for the sharing of practice
- Tip of the week to test out in practice
- Paired peer observations and/or walkthroughs
- Journal clubs to engage with evidence
Doing some or all of these things incrementally might help to build a firmer foundation for effective professional learning to take place than just diving straight into the end point.
- We want to get to here
- Are we ready for that?
- What might we need to do to build up to it and get staff ready to engage?
I have always been committed to ensuring that my learning turns into action that can influence the staff and students I work with. Bridget’s session has most certainly confirmed some ideas for me and introduced a new emphasis for the coming year. I have shared some of her messages with our Senior Leadership team and now also our middle managers. Whilst I’ll inevitably be incorporating as much of my learning into many aspects of my job, I have highlighted, in particular, the need for our leaders to model their professional learning more and I’ve been less mulling this over.