A really popular activity in many schools is to issue advice or conduct training around common ideas that all teachers use.
It might be about asking great questions, how to give good feedback or how to differentiate. This seems to make sense; there is no question that great teachers use these ideas with skill, so it would seem to follow that we should get everyone else to do the same. Except this doesn’t work very well.
The more we tell colleagues about the best generic ways to ask questions, the more they are likely to focus generically on their own practice and try and “perform it right”, rather than focusing on the learning of students.
Even more worryingly, giving teachers generic “good practices” to mimic does not seem to translate well in to how effectively those practices are used within specific subjects. It is quite a leap from hearing about good types of questions to coming up with the right ways to apply that technique to trigonometry, the water cycle, To Kill A Mockingbird or French verbs.
Scientific studies of the impact of professional development bear this idea out. Generic, wide-ranging courses about “outstanding teaching” don’t seem to translate into benefit for pupils, even if it makes these teachers easier to judge as outstanding when observed.
This last point is key: it is a lot easier to train teachers to appear to be outstanding than it is to make genuine, deep differences that help students to learn better.
Don’t worry if this all feels a bit familiar. In the last couple of decades we have all been working in a culture that has shifted the focus towards observable and generic pedagogy and away from the bits that really matter. If your school has “gone generic” then you are with the majority and have merely been doing what has become orthodox and accepted.
The great news is that we really can do a lot better. Individual teachers and leaders can make use of existing opportunities rather than having to wait for whole system change.
We can shift the focus so that small amounts of generic pedagogy are accompanied by lots of time to translate these findings in to subject-specific teaching. This is much more likely to result in improved attainment, progress and motivation for students, and more likely to engage and enthuse teachers.
Transforming training sessions
Here is a detailed example of how a very typical generic training session might be transformed into an effective subject-specific professional development opportunity. One particular approach is given here, although it is only intended as an example rather than as a “perfect” guide.
Starting point: a 60-minute session led by a senior leader who is sharing good practice about feedback. We can improve this type of session and maximise its impact in a number of different ways.
First, all colleagues attending the session should be given dedicated meeting time before the session to prepare the ground. In subject teams, departments or faculties, colleagues should be asked to have a discussion on what makes effective feedback in their subject and pass this on to the training facilitator.
This helps to engage colleagues with the topic and start recalling key ideas, plus initiate a professional dialogue within their team that will be a foundation for future work.
Ask teams to identify one or two key topics that students struggle with across the team and identify one or two specific students who are examples of those who are having difficulty. It would be helpful if they could bring to the training session some examples of these students’ work where they have demonstrated the difficulties they have. This preparation helps to focus future thinking and gives support to evaluating the impact of the ideas on specific areas or practice and specific students.
At the session, sit colleagues in subject teams (allocating support staff to the departments they work with most commonly) and start by feeding back a summary of what they have given as current beliefs around effective feedback, noting differences and similarities. Handled sensitively, this acknowledges and engages with the audience’s different starting points and existing expertise.
Now move into the main presentation, communicating the evidence on what seems to make effective feedback across all subjects and what impact it can have on students.
It is important to link new ideas to the impact they can have on young people (which often motivates) rather than focus on turning teachers into better “performers” who can jump through the “outstanding” hoop (which often demotivates).
Summarise the theory of why this is likely to be effective and work with the audience to determine how teachers will know if the feedback they are giving is effective or not.
Engagement with the theoretical underpinning is key so that practitioners develop a mental model that allows them to generate future effective practice on the fly.
The second element, focusing on how they can judge success, helps develops the subject teams’ ability to evaluate their progress and provide supportive feedback to each other.
Now give time for subject teams to work together to translate some of the ideas they have heard into subject-specific examples, focusing on the topics they have pre-selected and keeping the exemplar students in mind.
Ask teams to look at the work they have brought along and consider how the feedback ideas they have heard could be applied. This activity starts to translate abstract and theoretical ideas into practical, relevant and concrete thinking. This is important so that the complexities of applying apparently simple ideas can be embraced from the start.
Ask the teams to plan a lesson for the students in question, which will address the key difficulty that has been noted, and try and work in the big ideas around effective feedback. Ask them to predict the way that the focus students will behave, think, feel and perform at each point in the lesson.
This activity continues the translation of theoretical ideas into concrete ones. It also encourages teachers to engage in what they know about how these specific students learn and the prediction element engages curiosity as well as focusing minds on the impact of practice, rather than merely whether the practice is being performed correctly.
Finish the session by asking groups to summarise and share their ideas. Give time in the following weeks for each department to carry out the planned lesson and make a video recording of it to share back with the whole team. If possible, release other members of the team to observe in the classroom.
Identify a teacher (or perhaps consultant) with particular expertise in the subject pedagogy to work with the team to view the video, review what has been seen and how it compares to predictions – and to reflect on the success and plan for a second lesson.
Collect summaries of findings from each team and circulate them. Identify where teams are having difficulty with this style of collaboration and working and offer further support as necessary.
Let teams engage with a second iteration of the planning and review and then come together for a second whole-staff session to feed-back and share ideas. Summarise key findings and ask teams to engage with a further round of planning, prediction and review.
This could be either with a further iteration of the pre-selected topic and students, or alternatively looking to apply the idea to a new topic and new set of students.
These activities help to engage teachers in a sustained process of translating theoretical ideas into practical plans and experience, developing their skill in observing and improving how students react to teaching activities. It also deeply embeds the generic ideas into subject-specific planning and practice.
This is not meant to be a “perfect” example, but provides an illustration of how we can move away from one-size-fits-all pedagogy to empowering teachers to understand and embed ideas into their own classrooms. It avoids any focus on how teachers are apparently “performing” the chosen idea and also gets away from any link to supposedly “outstanding” teaching.
Many of the approaches described above are drawn from the ideas of Lesson Study. You can find out more about this and other ideas to improve professional development through the Teacher Development Trust’s National Teacher Enquiry Network.
David Weston is the chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective professional development in schools and colleges. He is a former secondary teacher and is a governor at a primary and a secondary school. Visit www.teacherdevelopmenttrust.org