Evaluating CPD: hard but not impossible

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At a time of shrinking budgets, there is a need for reliable formative and summative feedback about the efficacy of professional learning. It is not acceptable to assume that, however well intentioned or well received a school’s CPD programme is, it is necessarily right for it to continue. If it is not having an impact on student outcomes, whether in the narrowest sense of achievement or more broadly across other competencies, then it has, at the very least, to be called into question. It may well be that other forms of professional learning are more effective, or perhaps, as some would argue, that no CPD would have more impact, freeing up busy teachers to plan and mark better. If you have no way of knowing, then you may be wasting valuable time and resources on the wrong thing.

The problem is that whilst we may well agree that evaluating the impact of training on student outcomes is important, it is far from straightforward to measure this impact in a robust and efficient way. I know how hard it is because we have spent the past few years trying to figure out how to do evaluation better. I don’t think we have cracked it – far from it – but with the support of organisations like the fantastic Teacher Development Trust, we are getting closer to understanding what successful evaluation looks like and how to align our systems and practices so they are congruent with the content and aims of our professional learning.

There are a number of theoretical models for evaluating professional development, all of which have benefits and flaws. Kirkpatrick’s (1959, 1977, 1978) model from the world of business offers four types of evaluation. Despite its criticisms, such as the failure to consider the wider cultural factors of the organisation and assumptions about the causality between the levels, it provides a useful framework for thinking about what should go into effective evaluation. Likewise, although it runs counter to what we know about effective CPD, namely having a clear sense of intended outcomes, Scriven’s (1972) notion of goal-free evaluation also has its place, allowing within the evaluation process a place for identifying a range of impact outcomes, whether originally intended or not.

My favourite model for evaluating CPD, however, is Guskey’s (2000) hierarchy of five levels of impact. In this model the five levels are arranged hierarchically with each one increasing in complexity. The final two levels – including the last one which looks at the impact of professional learning on student outcomes – are the hardest to achieve, which no doubt explains why so many schools, including my own, have not done them terribly well. In many respects Guskey’s model bears similarities to Kirkpatrick’s framework, but crucially it adds a fifth level of evaluation, one that looks at the impact at an organisational level, which is useful for trying to make sure that the aims of a school’s CPD programmes are not undermined elsewhere by its culture or systems.

In the rest of this post, I will briefly outline each of the five levels in Guskey’s model and then explain what practices we are currently undertaking within each to improve the evaluation of our professional development. This is very much still a work in progress, so any feedback received would help us make further refinements moving forward.

  1. Reaction quality Evaluates how staff feel about the quality of their professional learning

In many respects, this area of evaluation is quite soft: basing evaluation on whether participants liked or disliked specific activities rather than objectively evaluating its impact on where it counts has been rightfully challenged as being weak. I do, think, however, that it is still important to include some element of staff qualitative feedback within the overall evaluation process, particularly if suggestions can be acted upon easily to increase buy-in.

To this end, we send out reaction quality surveys after every short form CPD session. It has only two sections. The first asks participants to evaluate the extent to which session objectives have been met, whilst the second invites more ‘goal free’ reaction feedback by asking about what was learned and what participants would like to see included or amended in future sessions.

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  1. Learning evaluationmeasures knowledge, skills and attitudes acquired through training

This aspect of evaluation is linked in with our appraisal process. I have already written about the changes to our appraisal this year, which have gone down well so far with enhancements to follow after feedback. Essentially, all teachers, classroom support staff and non-teaching staff identify two main goals: one that is a subject (or department/role) target orientated towards developing a specific aspect of pedagogy, practice or knowledge, whilst the second is a learning question, allowing for the enquiries into the more nebulous and complex aspects of improvement that lie at the heart of our daily practice.

The subject goal is supported by departments or teams during their fortnightly subject CPD time. For instance, a couple of science teachers seeking to improve their modelling might work together using IRIS lesson observation equipment, or a group of religious studies teachers might run seminars during department pedagogy time on the knowledge required to teach their new specifications. The enquiry question is supported by the wider CPD programme, the bulk of which takes places in learning communities that are selected during the appraisal process and aim to provide the necessary input and ongoing support.

The evaluation itself comes in two parts. The first is a professional audit, which we instigated for the first time last year and will be revisited in the summer term to see the extent to which knowledge has changed. The second part is built into the appraisal process, where through a combination of a learning journal, voluntary targeted observations and professional dialogue colleagues can demonstrate the new knowledge and insights they have acquired in their department training or through participation in their learning community.

The model is based upon a number of sources, including the helpful lesson study enquiry cycle put together by the Teacher Development Trust. Both interim appraisal and annual appraisals provide opportunities for meaningful discussions about individual development, as well as for the evaluation of individual and aggregated professional learning. This is not so much about holding individuals to account, but rather as a means of fostering an ethos of continual improvement and gaining insight of what training adds value and what doesn’t.

  1. Organisational evaluation – assesses the support and ethos of the organisation

This third level of evaluation in Guskey’s model represents the missing part of Kirkpatrick’s framework – evaluation of school ethos and support for CPD. As Guskey observes, it would be ridiculous for an individual teacher or group of teachers to receive high quality training that they understand in theory, agree with in principle but cannot put into practice because of ‘organizational practices that are incompatible with implementation efforts’.

The problem, however, with assessing the support and ethos across a whole school, and evaluating whether it is aligned with the objectives and content of the professional learning programme, is that it requires an objective, external voice – the ‘critical friend’ cited in recent reports into effective teaching and professional development. Fortunately, we are members of the Teacher Development Trust and one of the benefits of membership to their network is the regular external audit of CPD. Unlike other brands of external judgement, this one is supportive and helpful – both in the summative, but moreover in the formative sense. This post from TeacherToolkit provides a useful insight into one school’s experience of the TDT audit.

The audit is split into 7 categories with three levels of award for elements within these categories – Gold, Silver and Bronze. In assessing the overall quality of professional learning, it canvasses the views of all members of teaching and non-teaching staff. This is done via a pre-visit survey and then through extended interviews with a cross-section of staff during the day of the evaluation, which is peer reviewed with another member of the network. What I particularly like about the TDT audit is the way it provides rigorous external feedback into what is working and what requires improvement. There is no spurious judgement, but rather crucial feedback about what staff think about their own school’s CPD and a cool appraisal of whether of not its culture and practices enable new learning to be enacted.

  1. Behaviour evaluation – focuses on changes in behaviours as a result of training received

Professional development cannot really considered to have been successful if the day-to-day behaviours of teachers have not changed. As we all know, this usually takes a great deal of time. Even small changes in practice, such as trying to avoid talking whilst students are working can take a great deal of practice and feedback. Focused observations are a useful support in this process and can be requested by individuals who want to gain feedback on how their behaviours have changed and what they may wish to consider to change in the future. These observations are agreed at the outset and are purely developmental.

Perhaps the most reliable and useful source of ongoing evaluation into a teacher’s behaviorial change in the classroom is from the students’ themselves. Next year, we intend to introduce student evaluations, which again are not designed to catch staff out but rather to gain useful feedback for teachers with regards to the one or two identified areas of change that they have been deliberately working on, for either their subject goal or their learning question. It was too soon to introduce this year, particularly as we wanted to be careful about how we make sure that student evaluations are embraced not feared.

  1. Results evaluation assesses the impact of professional development on outcomes

At the outset of the appraisal in early October, teachers identify specific classes, groups of students and aspects of their classroom teaching or their students’ learning that they want to change as a consequence of their professional learning. This identification of outcomes is a structured and supported process, which not only looks back at previous examined and non-examined results, but also looks forward to future curriculum and timetable challenges. We no longer set arbitrary performance targets, but do seek to establish clearly-defined outcomes in relation to student learning. Again, the TDT resources have proven a very useful guide.

The intention for this year is to look closely at the impact of bespoke department and school-wide professional development on specified student outcomes. There may be some mileage in considering this in the aggregate too, but we are very much aware that much of the nuance is lost in such a process. It may be possible in the future to more closely align the goals of individual classroom contexts to those at department or whole school level, but this is very much something for the future. This is by no means a flawless approach, but it does get much closer to evaluating the thread between teacher growth and student achievement. David Weston, Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust, provides a different more immediate way of building evaluation into professional development with this wonderful worked example of a group of science teachers working on a common problem.

As I have already stressed, ours is still very much a work in progress. I do think, however, that we are much further along in understanding the importance of evaluation in relation to professional development, and what this might look like in practice.

Thanks for reading.


Bates (2004) ‘A critical analysis of evaluation practice: the Kirkpatrick model and the principle of beneficence’

Creemers B., L. Kyriakides and P. Antoniou (2013) Teacher Professional Development for Improving Quality of Teaching

Guskey, T (2000) Evaluating Professional Development

Scriven (1991) ‘Prose and Cons about Goal-Free Evaluation

* image adapted from: http://www.growthengineering.co.uk/why-public-recognition-motivates-us/


Can Checklists Improve Teacher Development?

Screenshot 2016-01-31 13.31.04I am lucky enough to observe lessons. I get to see the full gamut of age and experience, from trainees and NQTs to more experienced and senior colleagues. I am under no illusions that observing others teach is both a great privilege and a great responsibility – deciding upon what and how to feedback is, I think, one of the most difficult and challenging aspects of my role in leading on teaching and learning and professional development. If I’m honest, in the past I perhaps haven’t always got this right!

Any feedback I now give when I observe, which I don’t always offer if I don’t think I have anything constructive to add, I try to make tentative and suggestive – you might like to consider X or try Y, which may lead to Z. And so on. I try to be aware of my own biases and so instead pose questions to encourage teachers to think about different possibilities, and where alternatives (that are not always necessarily any better) may lead.

The purpose of these observations is to gauge the quality of teaching across the school. It is never about the individual teacher or the individual lesson, but rather about reaching some kind of understanding of the typical learning experience for students. Obviously, this is part of an overall picture, which is largely driven by summative overviews by heads of departments, subject specialists who work with their colleagues every day. There’s also triangulation against department-led learning reviews, something I wrote about here, and a cross reference with student outcome data over time, which is in itself problematic.

This post is not about using lesson observation for evaluation. The flaws in appraising teacher quality this way are widely recognised, though perhaps not always universally applied. This post is more about thinking through how observation can be used as a tool for highly targeted professional development. Whilst our long-term goal for observation is along the lines of the Leverage Coaching model outlined here by Harry Fletcher Wood – a subject-based approach in which colleagues focus on micro improvements to their subject pedagogy – there will still be a need for tightly focused observation protocols to support specific aspects of pedagogy.

For quite some time I have been fascinated by the idea of checklists as articulated by Atul Gawande, particularly how they might work to help improve teacher performance in the form I described earlier. I am not referring to the arbitrary tick-box guff that characterised the worst excesses of the Ofsted era, where schools worked backwards from outstanding criteria. This was about accountability and fear. What I am interested in is how simple checklists, of the kind used in the aviation and, more recently, medical professions can support targeted forms of individual development: professional learning that is built upon trust and transparency rather than on throttling growth.

Now, I realise there is a great deal of difference between the worlds of aviation and medicine and the world of education. Unlike passengers on a plane or patients in a hospital, students are not going to die as a result of our errors and mistakes. They may not always make the right kind of ‘progress’ or even particularly like our lessons, but they will always go home at the end of the day, and almost always that bit wiser, that bit more knowledgeable. Boredom, or missing out on a grade by a few UMS marks, is just not the same as having the wrong limb operated on or crash landing into the sea! We can always do our jobs better, but we do a pretty good job nonetheless.

But if we put aside the obvious life and death difference, we start to see that there are some important similarities between these professions. I am guessing that Harry’s new book on the subject of the application of checklists in education will make a much more elegant and informative argument than I can here, so for now all I want to say is that what links the pilot to the surgeon to the teacher is the way in which each of these jobs involves dealing with extreme complexity and that each professional must make hundreds of decisions every day, many of which are responsive and in the moment.

In my observations I see the myriad of decisions that teachers make each and every lesson. Where to stand? What to say? Who to ask a question? When to collect in homework? How to deal with a tricky situation? These are the just some of the many instructional and behavioural choices that we make all the time. Given the sheer complexity of the classroom, we are likely to make mistakes along the way – forget what we wanted to say, miss out part an important part of an explanation or do that thing we know always makes a situation worse.

Here are just some of the things that I have seen teachers do, many of which I frequently do myself, even though I consciously aware of their potentially negative impact:

  • Not giving a student time to respond to a question
  • Letting a student opt out of answering a question
  • Repeating back to a student the very answer they have just given
  • Not making it clear to students what they are required to do
  • Talking over students as they are trying to write / make / think
  • Reading every word from a PowerPoint slide
  • Putting far too much on a PowerPoint slide
  • Using a PowerPoint slide when there really is no need
  • Using complex vocabulary that students don’t understand
  • Using simplistic vocabulary that is not helping students to understand
  • Going to help students immediately after setting up a task
  • Spending time on a task when students don’t have the requisite knowledge
  • Having a one to one conversation with a student in front of the class
  • Using a coloured board pen that the students cannot actually read
  • Going through every answer when only one or two questions caused a problem

Could a series of well put together checklists help to guard against some of these simple mistakes, whether acting as prompts at the planning stage or as useful aid memoirs during the lesson when the complexity of the classroom leads us to make silly mistakes? My contention is that they probably can, and furthermore that a focused set of checklists for different aspects of teaching and classroom practice could provide well focused observation prompts for targeted coaching. It seems to me eminently possible that a school can agree upon some essential components of certain facets of great teaching – explanation, modelling, etc. – and use these to help develop staff.

It is with this intention that I have recently started working with a group of second year teachers. The plan is to work with them over a number of weeks to design some prototype checklists for possible use later on across the school. We will undertake some reading around key areas, and then meet as a group to share our insights, such as what makes for a great explanation, or what do we know is likely to work when modelling work with our students. From these discussions we will design draft checklists that we will then test in the field and refine as a consequence of our experiences.

Once we have a few of these checklists and we get a sense of whether they actually work, we will then seek to share them more widely across the school. Over time I think that this approach could help to raise understanding of effective pedagogy, as well as provide a useful, largely objective tool to aid teacher development. An individual can identify an area they would like to improve upon, and then use the checklist to pinpoint specific areas of feedback they would like to receive from a second pair of eyes. By narrowing down the focus to these targeted areas, the observer can make notes on specific aspects of the teacher’s actions or the learners’ behaviours. The checklist provides the common ground between the two, which can then be the driver for other forms of CPD and resourcing.

Below is a draft of our first focused observation checklist, which relates to effective teacher explanations. It unashamedly borrows from the relevant chapter of Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby’s great book, Making Every Lesson Count, as well other resources that have helped shape our school’s understanding of the ingredients for good explanations. I stress: this is not intended as a set of prescriptions, but rather as a set of prompts for building up levels of expertise in a given area of pedagogy. Nick Rose has designed similar tools to support teacher development here, again looking at what kind of observation protocols can help improve teacher development and mitigate against some of the issues surrounding observer bias and potentially overwhelming classroom complexity.

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Anyway, as ever, I am interested in any thoughts or feedback that I can use to improve upon this idea further. It is not the endpoint, but rather the beginning of what I think could be something our teachers find extremely helpful. I had intended to wait for the publication of Harry’s book before I posted, as I suspect that he will offer a range of excellent ideas that will force me to go back to the drawing board. Oh, well!

Thanks for reading.

What Makes Great Training? 10 ideas for developing subject knowledge and pedagogy

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The need to improve the quality of professional training for teachers is, I think, becoming increasingly well understood. In a time of shrinking budgets and teacher shortages, improving professional development has in some ways become as important about teacher recruitment and retention as improving student outcomes.

Recent publications have provided clarity to where leaders should target their efforts to improve in-school professional learning. The 2014 Sutton Trust report into Great Teaching, for instance, outlines the benefits on student outcomes of teachers who are well versed in their subject.

the most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach, and when teachers’ knowledge falls below a certain level it is a significant impediment to student;’ learning. As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teacher must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify common misconception.’

The need to focus school CPD on developing subject-pedagogy alongside more generic forms of training is also a feature of the more recent Teacher Development review, Developing Great Teaching:

the findings from this review indicate the importance of focussing on generic and subject specific pedagogy, so it will be important to consider how subject expertise in particular can be developed alongside more generic aspects as part of CPDL.

In many respects, it should not come as any great surprise that the greatest impact on student outcomes is likely to come from a teacher who knows their subject well and how to teach the nuances and challenges of it to different learners at different stages of their development. The heavy focus on developing ‘generic’ skills was wrong and imbalanced.

As with most things related to teacher development, however, just knowing about what to do can be a far cry from actually being able to put it into practice. I know a lot of teachers, myself included, who broadly understand how to improve aspects of pedagogy, such as giving explanations, honing questioning or improving modeling, but they are not always able to do so themselves. Implementing the how often proves more difficult than understanding the why.

In similar vein, I suspect some school leaders understand the need to focus CPD efforts on developing subject pedagogy, but have not yet figured out how to do it effectively. I know from my own experience how hard it is to make a more subject-specific model of professional learning work. Time is a significant factor, but so are levels of expertise, particularly, for example, amongst some heads of departments.

For years, I suspect that many subject leaders have not really been responsible for shaping the professional development of their teams. Just turning over that responsibility– particularly at a time of considerable change in exam syllabus and assessment – is unlikely to bring about any significant change in the quality of professional learning. This responsibility is significant, especially for less experienced colleagues or colleagues schooled in genericism.

Last September, we changed our curriculum, which meant we could enshrine two hours of professional development a week. The majority of that time – around 40+ hours – is dedicated to improving subject knowledge and subject pedagogy. Whilst this is fantastic, just making more time available was only ever a part of the answer to reversing the failings of the past. We want departments to be in a position to continually develop a better understanding of their subject’s unique demands, so we need to provide them with the tools and guidance to make this happen, which takes time and careful planning.

10 Ideas for improving subject knowledge and pedagogy

In this post I offer 10 ideas about the kinds of activities and resources that we have looked to try and introduce to help teachers and departments to develop their subject knowledge and subject pedagogy. It is not an exhaustive list, but I hope it gives a few pointers about where to start the process of developing subject-specific CPD, or where further improvements can be made for those already in a strong position, such as Durrington School in West Sussex.

  1. Presentations and seminars 

Giving presentations or running seminars on particular areas of strength is an excellent way of sharing the responsibility for developing subject knowledge across a department and, moreover, for improving the ability of individuals to present to adult learners. Some of our departments have developed their own subject knowledge audits to identify strengths and design seminar schedules across the course of the year. In some of these sessions there has bee pre reading, or post seminar activities, such as discussion groups or lesson and curriculum planning sessions. It is our intention to have audits for every subject, partly to pinpoint training needs, but also to help identify and, in turn, circulate expertise more easily, particularly across larger departments.

  1. Subject knowledge audits

Identifying the spread of knowledge in a department is an important step in planning for the development of individual teachers and making sure the needs of the students are successfully met. Subject audits also provide an excellent means of identifying existing areas of expertise, which can be harnessed for the benefit of others. Threshold concepts might be a good way to audit knowledge, but whatever methodology is used it is important that the subject knowledge requirements identified are genuine. In some subjects, like English, PGCE audits like this  or this can be quite vague and unhelpful. Rating degrees of confidence with teaching Victorian literature, for instance, is not the same as auditing the books I have read on the subject or posing questions that pinpoint the concepts or historical details I know. This kind of audit is, I would argue, much more helpful for identifying gaps in knowledge or for throwing up important misconceptions.

  1. Lesson Study

Whilst Lesson Study is often conducted by teachers from across a range of different subject areas, in many respects it makes more sense for three teachers from the same subject to get together to investigate a subject-specific research enquiry question. Peter Dudley, one of the architects of introducing this form of professional development activity into the country, certainly sees its benefits. Writing about the ‘learning points’ of groups working on pedagogical content knowledge, he notes how:

…LS group members are held [to account] by the level of detail required in their planning and analysis discussions ([which] forces even tiny difference of view about practice or content to become exposed.

Lesson Study: Professional Learning for Our Time

If you have not yet looked into lesson study, this document is a great introduction into the format and how to implement it into your school. The Teacher Development Trust and their Network of schools across the country provide considerable guidance and ongoing support with implementing Lesson Study as part of an annual membership. I really cannot recommend membership to the TDT enough.

  1. Wider reading

Conducting wider reading or research takes time. Reading books, articles, reports and websites or blogs should therefore be seen as an entirely legitimate and justifiable professional learning activity. It may be that time is required to read a set text, or research recent developments in a subject area. Departments could pay for membership of their professional body and, as a result, receive publications and journals containing valuable advice, links and networking opportunities. Academic and specialist journals are also available online and local universities often have subscriptions and electronic access to periodicals. I wonder how many departments meet to discuss the ideas in a chapter from a text book, or share their thoughts around a poem. These may seem like frivolous activities, but eat up a lot of teachers’ time outside of school, and collaborative discussions such as these can help fuel debate, identify student misconceptions and lead to a shared approach to explaining difficult concepts to children.

  1. Online courses

Online seminar courses and programmes offer an excellent way for teachers to connect with professional learning communities, including some of the most prestigious university departments and academics in the world. There are a number of different online courses, which are perfect for matching up subject specific needs with personalised learning programmes. Many of the courses are free and those that do charge are relatively inexpensive given the quantity and quality of the material provided. It would be entirely possible for both individuals and small groups of teachers to follow the same online programme, or listen and discuss a particular lecture. Mark Miller has written a good post about how he listens to a lot of wider reading on his way to work in the car.

  1. University links

As Michael Young illustrates so well in Knowledge and the Future School, It is important for subject disciplines to stay connected with their learned communities. It is these communities, namely university departments, subject associations and professional bodies, that link classroom practice to current university research and help make sure that teachers have access to cutting edge insights into their subjects and the ways in which they these can be taught. These connections can take different forms according to the nature of the subject, but in each case they help keep teachers abreast of current developments in their field, which, in turn, make sure that students’ learning is at the forefront of knowledge both past and present. It should be perfectly acceptable for teachers or members of a department to use department or INSET time to visit a university library and research information unavailable elsewhere.

  1. Visits, exhibitions and public lectures

Visits to exhibitions, galleries or museums are often the only way for teachers to develop aspects of their subject expertise, perhaps by seeing important works first hand or learning about how an idea, style or period is represented in different formats. Public lectures by leading academics or subject experts are also a useful means of enhancing professional knowledge. Whilst it is more economical and desirable for speakers to speak to entire departments, this is not always be possible to arrange. This post by Harry Fletcher-Wood goes into more detail about why these kinds of visits are an important part of staff development.

  1. School collaboration

The same principles of external and local collaboration should be encouraged across networks of local schools. It may well be the case that individuals or whole departments in nearby schools and sixth form colleges have specific expertise that can be utilised for the benefit of all. As with the harnessing of university expertise, local teacher knowledge and understanding can be purchased or shared as part of a reciprocal arrangement. This could take the form of developing subject knowledge, or sharing specific insights and approaches gained from individuals working closely with examination boards or subject associations. In some instances, particularly in small similar departments and faculties, it may be beneficial to pair up colleagues with similar training needs for collaborative work.

  1. Leverage coaching

If you are lucky enough to have lesson observation equipment like IRIS Connect, then you have a fantastic tool that can help you to develop a shared understand of effective subject pedagogy. There are two main applications of the lesson observation equipment that can make a difference in supporting a department’s work on developing their understanding of effective subject pedagogy. The first is to develop a bank of masterclass videos illustrating different pedagogical techniques, contextualised within the subject and produced by members of the department. The group facility on IRIS Connect is a fantastic way to discuss points of teaching and keeping examples for posterity, such as an optimal explanation of tragedy for use with future trainees. Lesson observation equipment, such as the Discovery Kit option of IRIS, provides the ideal means for subject-specific coaching: short leverage coaching sessions could be a regular feature of departmental time. These again from Harry Fletcher-Wood are a wonderful primer on the methodology.

  1. Subject specific external providers

There are a number of providers of subject-specific training courses and development opportunities. Below is a short list of some of the main providers of subject-specific training. Departments may wish to invite teachers who have been on external training to feedback to the rest of the department, or to colleagues who would benefit from the information or approaches shared. This acts as a further layer of professional development. Subject professional associations offer another potential way of finding out about high quality subject-specific professional development opportunities. Often the website or professional journals of these associations provide details of current courses on offer and discounts for members are available.

Some providers of subject specific knowledge and pedagogy:

  • SSAT


  • The Prince’s Teaching Institute


  • Science Learning Network


I have written elsewhere of the impact of reviewing student learning as whole department activity, either as part of a learning review or joint planning and assessment via a collaborative teaching cycle. Both of these are great subject-specific development activities, which I hope to write about again in the future.

Here is a useful link to a list of subject associations.

Thanks for reading.


Collaborative teaching cycles: from scrutinising learning to understanding learning

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I’m not really a big fan of the practice of book scrutiny.

What is book scrutiny?

Book scrutiny usually involves a head of department or key stage co-ordinator collecting a sample of students’ books from across the teachers of a year group and evaluating the quality of student progress against some form of rubric or checklist. The evaluator completes a summative analysis and, depending on time and school context, provides formative feedback to the teachers concerned. In some instances this might be a ‘well done, good job’, but at other times it may be more of a ‘this or that was missing’ or ‘ that was not completed in such and such a way’. In both cases, I am not sure little of any value is actually achieved.

I understand why schools use such an approach; until fairly recently we did too. Book scrutiny represents a way of ensuring equality of provision by identifying areas for improvement, such as marking or quality of activities. It sort of makes sense. The problem is that it doesn’t work, even in the most benign of school cultures. If we put aside for now the false premise that learning can be seen in books any more clearly than it can be seen in lessons, book scrutiny is still an epic fail because it doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do: namely to bring about high quality learning for all students. It might help to identify in department variation, but it is unlikely to do anything about it. Compliance alone rarely does.

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Book scrutiny carried out in this manner represents a process and accountability driven model of school development. All that has happened is that one dubious proxy of learning (lesson observation) has been replaced by another (book scrutiny). This top down, or rather, middle-down approach is more likely to lead to alienation and the creation of corrosive professional relationships, because the focus is on compliance to overt performance rather than on professional development through collaboration. In such a model teachers become isolated and collected wisdom and expertise is marginalised. Worse, understanding student learning or the issues of busy teachers is more of an afterthought.

Obviously, it is important for subject leaders to have an understanding of the quality of teaching and learning in their department. But any HOD worth his or her salt would probably already know this without the need to trawl through a set of books. Instead of checking learning in abstraction under a system of compliance, I would rather engender a process of collaboration and openness where the focus was directed solely towards improving student learning by looking at student learning. I would prefer a mechanism that facilitates teachers engaging with the messiness of the classroom experience: sharing ideas about what worked, what didn’t, what explanation was effective, what tasks were or were not successful.

From scrutinising learning to understanding learning

It is my contention that teaching and learning cycles may offer such a means of developing collaborative teacher inquiry – it is a model that lends itself to facilitating teachers working together, where the leader is within the process of understanding student learning, rather than sat outside evaluating it without the context or nuance necessary to see the bigger picture. As I will outline below, at the heart of this process is student learning, whether in the books themselves, or more likely the books in conjunction with discussions, reflections and questions of the teacher who was there at the heart of the process. This ethos of trust and sharing must surely be better than a purely compliance model.

The teaching sequence for independence has been well documented by David Didau, whose five part series on the phases building towards independence remain a must read. This is not really the place for discussing the nature of teaching cycles in and of themselves, but rather their use as a tool for the professional development of subject pedagogy. Suffice to say, at my school we have developed our own version of the teaching cycle and have been working with departments about what it might look like in their subject areas. There are a number of differences to David’s model, which I will try and write about in due course.

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For me, opportunities for meaningful professional collaboration arise at two distinct points of a teaching cycle: in the initial planning for learning phase and then again with a subsequent review of that learning (or performance) at the end. Both of these are strategic points where teachers can learn a lot from working together. The planning stage represents the chance to share likely misconceptions, discuss and refine effective and efficient explanations and to circulate wisdom or innovation. Reviewing the relative strength and weakness of different interpretations of a cycle within a department allows for new insights to be discussed, codified and stored for future use and for teachers and subject leaders to see different ways of teaching broadly similar objectives.

Central to both the planning and the review stage is, of course, actual student work. Over time we intend to build up stores of exemplar material that not only help to set and define what achievement looks like, but also provides a powerful lens through which to understand the processes that goes into the creation of it. This may be in the form of writing, or it may be a video clip of a performance or a model or artefact. Seeing what other teachers are achieving with their students is, I think, much more likely to lead to a rise in attainment than simply receiving ‘results’ of an abstract tick box exercise, irrespective of how deftly this may be handled. In this process of collaboration there is the chance for the teachers to explain the context, challenge each other and enter into a dialogue that gets a little closer to understanding ‘what works.’

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Next steps

We are lucky to be entering a phase of our school development where we have more time for on-going professional learning. From September we will have two hours of enshrined CPD each week – our school will close early on a Wednesday and all students will be off site during this time. These two-hour sessions will largely alternate between two different forms of Professional Growth – subject knowledge and pedagogy (department time) and inquiry and reflection (wider, bespoke CPD). We plan on having departments run at least one collaborative teaching and learning cycle for each year group they teach per year with subject pedagogy time. We will see how it goes this year and review the process next summer. Whilst I doubt it will be perfect, I think it has the potential to be a much more powerful form of active professional development than the static model of process and compliance inherent in the term ‘scrutiny’.

We’ll see.

Thanks for reading.

How do you explain a concept like Growth Mindset?


I have written before about my thoughts around Growth Mindset. Whilst I appreciate the valid concerns expressed by others about the dangers of overstatement and the need for coherent informed implementation, I very much believe that Dweck’s theories about learning and growth have an important role to play in educating young people – for now and for the future – and that her ideas can really help the students in our school to go from strength to strength.

After spending a considerable amount of time over the past few months with our staff thinking through the meaning and implication of Growth Mindset, I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of the adults in the building subscribe to the view that intelligence can be improved through a combination of hard work, clear feedback and spending time on the right kind of targeted activities. There is a recognition that genes play a part in bestowing certain advantages and dispositions and an appreciation that a range of other factors, such as opportunity and luck, also contribute to success. Yet there remains a clear commitment amongst staff to see intelligence as malleable and, to a certain extent, largely under our control. During the past few months it has been inspiring to see everyone from office staff to canteen staff engaging with Growth Mindset, and hearing about how they are think they can apply the thinking in a way that complements the whole school focus.

Sharing the same subtle messages with students, however, was always going to be a different proposition. Whilst our students are great, they tend to work hard only when they think it really matters, and they often leave hard work to the last possible minute. Many are masters of exam cramming, a tactic which often yields good results, but sometimes leads to superficial learning and a struggle at the next stage of learning. Our students are often reluctant to make mistakes and don’t tend to see the process of getting things wrong as a valuable learning experience. A bit of a culture of dependency has built up, which, perhaps on reflection, has come as a result of some the actions we have taken to raise the level of attainment.

Creating a Growth Mindset Culture

All this is essentially a lengthy prelude to detailing how we are going to approach the task of explaining Growth Mindset to students, along with its myriad of associations and implications. We want to make sure that we get this right and that the principles of Dweck’s research are not misinterpreted or simply seen by our students (and staff) as some kind of fad that is launched to a great fanfare and then duly forgotten. We see the central tenants of hard, effortful learning, risk taking and a determination to learn from mistakes as underpinning our culture and ethos for many years to come. If we get this right, Growth Mindset can be a prism through which we reflect upon every aspect of the way school is run, from designing the right kind of curriculum, to creating an environment and ethos that supports, not stifles, exponential growth.

Like others, we will turn to school assemblies as the first and most overt means of communicating our message. However, perhaps unlike others, we have designed a programme of themed assemblies spread over several months that slowly unpick the Growth Mindset philosophy in more depth. For example, after a longer first assembly to discuss the overarching ideas, there will be specific assembles around ideas of deliberate practice, the science of learning, the importance of learning from failure and even a session on desirable difficulties and reinforcing how and why learning is hard. Though by no means ‘the answer’, we feel that this approach, where we carefully explain the underlying thinking, is more likely to lead students to start thinking and acting differently in the classroom and at home.


As part of our desire to make the abstract as concrete and real as possible, we have produced a short explanatory animation. We think that this film, which you can see here, succinctly delineates the central themes of Growth Mindset – as we intend to interpret them – in a clear and engaging manner. It will also provide us with a valuable means to explain the future direction of the school to all our stakeholders, such as prospective parents and colleagues. The artwork generated may provide a useful and visually stimulating resource for reiterating the importance of the core messages, though this is another area we want to plan carefulluy before we end up creating something we may later regret.

Perhaps the most powerful means we have of making the principles of Growth Mindset as real to our students as possible comes from a project we carried out at the tail end of last term. Our Head of School, Nick House, came up with the idea of asking several of our outgoing year 11 students, as well a member of our support staff, to take part in a bit of an experiment with our Head of Art, Alex Paisley. We wanted to see the extent to which the principles of hard work, dedicated practice and informed feedback combined with extensive redrafting, à la Ron Berger, would work with our students in our school context. So over four days in a sealed off art room a group of individuals with next to no artistic ability were taught the art of portraiture. The group worked all day and were exposed to some of the ideas developed by Betty Edwards in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, who Dweck herself writes about in Mindset.


This video, produced by one of our sixth form media students, gives a flavour of the way the week panned out and contains a brilliant quote from one of the participants, Chris. In a short interview to camera he describes how you should ‘Never give up on what you’re doing. If you can’t do it get help and re-try again & again.’ Despite its rawness, Chris’s comment in many respects perfectly captures the message we are trying to foster as a school and instil amongst our staff and students: that learning is hard and those that persevere when the going gets tough are more likely to learn more deeply and make greater amounts of progress.

As you can see from the sample below, the results of our experiment were astonishing. There are four before and after self-portraits, all of which show remarkable progress over the four days. Two portraits are worth commenting on in more detail. The first is from Francois (image one), who was the only participant with any real prior artistic experience. His first attempt is clearly unfinished, a sign of how his desire to achieve perfection got in the way of his being able to complete the drawing. His second piece is bolder, much more competent and fully formed. Along the way, Francois struggled with the approach taken, which forced him to draw differently and initially the standard of his drawing deteriorated. However, he persevered and by the end of the project he flourished. The other notable drawing was the one completed by a member of our support staff (image four). What her drawing shows, and in turn what it will hopefully demonstrate to our students, is that adults can also transform their ability in a short space of time given the right circumstances and attitude.

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Don’t get me wrong, we are not saying that anyone can do anything or that hard work always pay off. That would be naïve. The experiment we conducted might have worked out differently, in which case we probably wouldn’t have showed it to our staff and I probably wouldn’t have written this post about it. But it did work and it suggested to us that we are on the right lines with our work around developing a Growth Mindset. It is certainly not the answer – there is no answer – but it will go a long way to helping our students get better. I’ll admit, certain aspects of Growth Mindset are simply common sense and what good schools should be doing anyway, but it seems to me that a lot of what is common sense has been kicked out of schools over the years of high stakes accountability and ever increasing demands to meet standards. If Growth Mindset is the means through which to claim back some of these lost values, then I think it is an idea very much worth pursuing.