Some big questions about CPD and learning this term and beyond

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
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What has been the impact of coronavirus on staff professional development in your school? What are the questions you and your teachers should now be asking? Fiona Aubrey-Smith gives us some food for thought

I spoke recently with one teacher who described with some frustration how CPD has come to a standstill in her school. What she described will be familiar to many – the demands of remote teaching, Covid-19 regulations and the associated workload impact, staff shortages and closing the gaps for children who have missed chunks of their education all mean that our attention has been very much on operational matters.

But a few minutes later we were talking about how those same demands had shifted teachers’ thinking about teaching and learning interactions – going back to basics and focusing on the quality of probing questions to find out where children are, what they really know and can do:

  • Why do you think that is happening?
  • Tell me what you know about.
  • Show me what you know about.
  • How did you know that?
  • How does X compare with what you know about Y?

This has been a recurring theme in my many conversations with teachers and leaders – the relentless need to tackle operational matters has had an unexpected silver lining, which is the opportunity to focus on the very basics of teaching and learning:

  • What do children come to our lessons already able to do?
  • How does that differ across the range of children in our classes?
  • What are their next steps?
  • What can we do to help them get there?

More important than ever is the principle that we cannot make assumptions about groups of children or individual children – many of whom have been affected in very different ways by the pandemic and lockdown.

So, as a profession, we have I hope been taking the time to really listen to young people and watch what they do and how they respond so that we have a very precise understanding of what their personal next steps are.

This lack of predictability could be argued to be a good thing – it forces us to really analyse what is in front of us, rather than relying on assumptions about what normally happens.

I have written previously about a profound interview I had with a student prior to the start of term in September, where he shared his sadness at going back to school after lockdown because – as he saw it – the teacher stopped him learning and he found remote education much more engaging (Aubrey-Smith, 2020).

He had absolutely loved remote schooling because he could look at what was expected of him for the day, undertake it at his own pace and connect with others as and when he felt he needed to. He had felt motivated and independent.

It is important to note that this was not a child who was a previous high-attainer nor were they a child you would have considered particularly independent. Lockdown and remote schooling had fundamentally changed his view of learning and in general school.

Of course, this is not the case for all students, but in this giant educational experiment that Covid has forced upon us, we can learn more about what learning now means for each unique person. The most important thing to bear in mind is that it is not necessarily the obvious students who have been affected, either positively or negatively.

Coming back to CPD

The point of all this is that the impact of Covid has affected the way that we think about CPD. The models of attending face-to-face training have been shifting for some time, but recent changes in practice have also shifted our thinking about what we need to learn, who might be best placed to help us learn it, and how and when we undertake that learning.

We need tools that help turn those big questions into simple, practical actions. There have been some brilliant examples of big ideas turned into reality through simple actions over the last few months. For example, the brilliant Learning Projects shared by the Robin Hood Trust, which were used by so many other schools across the country.

These were created by staff who really thought through what children’s experiences would be during that period of remote schooling – with whole-school projects adapted to meet the specific needs of children in each year group. It was a simple idea but it made a huge difference to families with children of different ages all trying to work out how to learn at home.

By facilitating siblings and in some cases neighbours and extended families in taking part in those learning projects together, they created a transformational opportunity for children’s learning to go beyond the old fixed idea of school (9am-3pm, directed by teacher, at a desk in a building). It set out not just a new normal, but a better normal. One where the focus is on learning, not on schooling.

So, with the current landscape and its operational demands unlikely to change for the foreseeable, we need to think about how we support our teams through meaningful and relevant CPD. Starting with some big questions…

  • What has remote schooling taught us about what our role as the school could be now and in the future? What skills do we therefore need?
  • How has remote schooling affected the way that our students think about schooling, about their learning, about our teaching? What skills do we therefore need?
  • What expertise do we already have in our school? How can we capture that? How can we share it across our staff? How can we talk about it – as professionals – within current practical limitations?
  • What expertise do we need to bring in to help our professional learning? How can we access that? How will we unpack what it means for our staff, our students and our learning provision?
  • Fiona Aubrey-Smith is a former school leader and now Doctoral researcher and consultant. She sits on several educational charity boards and facilitates a number of national networks. She writes regularly for SecEd's sister magazine Headteacher Update:

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