Enactment: turning what we know into what we do

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This week a wonderful distillation into the science of learning put together by the Deans for Impact programme has been shared across Twitter. It is fantastic and concise summation of a series of cognitive principles, along with some pretty direct and helpful guidance about the application of these principles in the classroom.

It really is a pretty fantastic little read – incredibly helpful and extremely practical, so much so that both David Didau and Nick Rose write short pieces extolling its virtues to their followers. David even went so far as to demand his readers ‘Do please read and share as widely as possible’ as ‘this document ought to be distributed to every teacher in the UK.’

I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment and for a brief moment I thought about getting the paper copied it and put into every teacher’s and classroom support staff member’s pigeon hole come Monday morning. It certainly is tempting. The problem, however, is that this would probably be a waste of time and money – unlikely to make any real difference.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for getting the findings of research findings into the hands of busy teachers in as easy and accessible manner as possible. Many schools do this very well. At Durrington Andy Tharby puts up research summaries in the toilets, and Alex Quiqley at Huntington emails out what is essential fairly complex revision strategy guidance in helpful digestible formats.

I very much like easy wins like these, and I try to do them myself in my own school, though probably not quite so well as those mentioned above. Whether they actually make any difference, however, I am not so sure about. I doubt it. As many better than me have expressed on numerous occasions before, there is a big difference between knowing about something and doing something about it: between understanding and familirisation to faithful enactment.

This failure to translate knowledge into practice usually boils down to lack of time and inadequate training. You need enough quality professional development to properly understand what is worth trying to implement in your classroom, and enough time and ongoing support from knowledgable colleagues to properly reflect upon its success and to refine the approach if necessary. These are ultimately some of the major themes from the Teacher Development Trust’s recent report into effective forms of professional learning.

I’m lucky that this year we have taken the decision to close our school early on a Wednesday afternoon and to have two hours of dedicated professional learning per week. This will certainly help with the time issue and has created a framework in which we can build purposeful and iterative development activities. There is much that we are doing on these afternoons, which I hope to blog about in the coming weeks and months. Suffice to say for now that we have built a programme that should provide the time and ongoing training that will make informed changes to teaching and learning, such as those summarised in the Deans for Impact report, much more likely.

But even though I believe our professional learning activities will make a big difference towards successful enactment of research findings, I suspect that this may still not be enough. To this end, we have developed two approaches that we think will help to support the standard and impact of professional learning, and help to make sure that more of what we know about the science of learning translates into classroom practice. They obviously wont guarantee enacted change, but perhaps they will act as more of a helpful nudge than a photocopied report from a largely unknown American organisation placed with the best of intentions in staff pigeonholes.

The first of these approaches is an agreed set principles of learning, which we have made the basis of the way that we talk about teaching and learning across the school, whether in staff training sessions, meetings or, more generally, in one to one conversations about learning. We call them, rather unimaginatively, our principles of learning, and their existence has really given us a shared understanding of what we want our teaching to be considering when they plan their lessons and how we want them to shape the learning experiences of our students.

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The second approach is more of a steer, and has proven to be a really useful tool for key stage co-ordinaters and head of department in their planning. In light of the sheer volume of curriculum changes, we took the decision to introduce a medium scheme of work template common to all subjects and key stages. This is not so much about determining what or how teachers teach their lessons, but rather a way of helping departments to make sure that our agreed principles of learning – such as the benefits of spacing, or the needs to use regular low stakes assessment – are part of the fabric of their enacted curriculum: that all students benefit from what we know about the science of learning.

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Obviously, our principles of learning and standardised medium term planning templates will not guarantee that teachers are introducing desirable difficulties into their teaching, presenting students with multiple interactions with new learning or even providing all students with powerful foundational knowledge. But together with high quality professional learning (more on this to come) and more time to think, plan, reflect and collaborate, we hope that teachers will think a little more carefully about what and how they will teach and that our students will learn in ways that are more likely to make a difference to their long term understanding.

Anyway, that’s the hope!

Thanks for reading.

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3 thoughts on “Enactment: turning what we know into what we do

  1. Lots to think about Phil, thanks. I really like the simplicity of your principles although something worries me about standardised planning templates. But then, I guess it’s not what you do it’s the way that you do it.

    On distributing the report, I agree it’s unlikely to make real changes to most people’s practice, certainly not in the short term, but as email to staff is so cheap & easy, it doesn’t seem like a particularly risky gamble. After all, reading about these things has made a big difference to you and me. Maybe we should have higher expectations of what teachers are capable of understanding and enacting?

    • Thanks for your comment, David. I agree that there is no harm in distributing the report via email, which is exactly what I intend to do, despite the provocation in my post. I also think high expectations are important too. I guess I was just making a broader point about the problem of thinking that things will change just because I have made something available, which in itself is very accessible.

      The standardised planning template is only really intended for long term planning and to be a help to departments rather than act as a hindrance. It has been developed in collaboration with middle leaders and, funnily enough, is born out of a problem in the past with giving departments high levels of professional leeway – what has been produced has been of varying quality and not really helped to ensure a rigorous curriculum which embeds what we know about learning. Feedback from almost all quarters has been extremely positive; I think, like form is in a good poem, some coherent structure can actually lead to something really powerful and interesting, in this case the increased likelihood of an enacted set of principles.

      At some point I would like to have a chat or exchange with you about your thoughts around ensuring high quality teaching and learning across the school. I am sure we are pretty much on the same page with regards to all the usual suspects to avoid (graded lesson obs, too little time made available for development, generic or irrelevant CPD, absurd tick box checklists on unsustainable low impact marking policies and too much accountability on exam performance, etc) but even when these things are addressed in a clear, professional manner, there is still the chance of high levels of variable teacher quality.

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