CPD and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

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‘Time is the school in which we learn, / Time is the fire in which we burn.’

Delmore Schwartz

CPD and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Thermodynamics is the study of heat and energy. Its laws describe how energy moves around within a system. The first law describes how energy can never be created or destroyed, only transformed from one form to another. The second law concerns inefficiency, degeneration and decay, and it expresses the idea that without external energy closed systems naturally progress from order to disorder or entropy.

Schools are complex systems, with interacting or interdependent components that come together to form an integrated whole. As with all other systems, schools need external energies sources to help them thrive and to prevent the steady onset of entropy. This post outlines how we are hoping to keep our school system vibrant by harnessing the external energies of educational research and enquiry. We think it will enliven our professional development programme and complement the excellent training that already takes place within our school.

Professional Capital

We want an environment where teachers and classroom support staff think about, discuss and reflect on student learning in an informed way. Whilst I favour a stronger evidence-base as a means of establishing this kind of ethos, I realise it is unrealistic (and probably undesirable) to expect all staff to be actively engaged in undertaking research. John Tomsett and Alex Quigley at Huntington, pioneers in the use of evidence in schools, are clear about this point. John Tomsett refers to the fictional figure of Masie Tubbs, a full time teacher and parent who consistently achieves outstanding outcomes but does not really have the time to read articles, engage in action research or use social media for professional development.

For teachers like Masie, there are a number of different ways to arrive at a better understanding of ‘what works’. We are therefore building a programme of professional development (or Professional Growth as we will be calling it) that draws upon a range of different sources, and aims to be as relevant to every individual teacher’s needs and circumstances as possible. There are options to be engaged in professional growth activities at different levels of enquiry. From the more research-led participation of Lesson Study through our membership of the National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN), to looking at the research findings of others via the support of our recently appointed Lead Learners (see below). The good practice that already exists within the school will be spread through Master Class seminars organised by our Teacher Coaches, and other sessions run by teachers with specialist knowledge and experience.

Our Professional Growth model thus combines the best of what already exists within the building with the latest impetus and thinking from elsewhere, albeit largely distilled research at this stage. The internal energy supply is our existing teachers (teachers like Masie), whose insights and observations have demonstrably led students to successful outcomes year in and year out. At present the incoming external energy source will largely be orientated around the consumption of educational research and theory, but as we build a culture of deeper enquiry and reflection, this will hopefully lead to greater knowledge creation. In this sense the structure of our Professional Growth look inwards and outwards: it builds upon what we already do well, but it also seeks to learn from outside what we can do to be even better.

Professional Growth Wednesdays

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Professional Development that is structured into blocks does not really work. Whilst there are occasions when whole a whole school INSET might be beneficial or necessary, such as for the coming together of staff around a core theme or message, ideally PD should be embedded within the fabric of the working week. Professional development cannot be seen as a bolt on to the ‘real work’, with extra activities that people do and or have done to them long forgotten or discarded once the day is over. After several years flirting with different modes of delivering staff training – twilight sessions, action research and day workshops – it has become abundantly clear that for meaningful personal growth to occur our teachers must have the time, resource and support necessary to enable them to engage, refine and critique their practice on a regular basis.

From September we are therefore collapsing our meeting cycle and making every Wednesday afternoon a time for some form of Professional Growth. We operate a two-week timetable and each week will alternate between department INSET time (to be designed by departments to work on areas such as subject knowledge, joint planning etc.) and a personal choice from a menu of Professional Growth activities (sessions run by teachers for teachers). In the first half term back every member of staff will plan their own training diet, which will include some time for independent reading and reflection. Whilst this is still not enough time, it is a step in the right direction.

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Teacher Coaches and Lead Learners

 

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For a while now I have been wrestling with the extent to which I think our profession can and should be guided by evidence. I am personally convinced that the new dawn of educational research we appear to be entering into is the best thing to happen to education since I have been a teacher. It feels exciting and the right way for our profession to bring about sustained improvement. Yet, I am also aware that in many respects we just don’t know the true impact that a research-led approach to school improvement will have on student outcomes and that properly scrutinising first hand findings is an acquired skill that many teachers do not currently possess. Studies likes that being conducted by Huntington School and the EEF should hopefully provide us with both some of the answers as well as the tools to deliver them effectively, but in the meantime it seems we just don’t know. My intuition (which is increasingly becoming a dirty word) tells me that we should be aiming to be a more informed profession, but regardless of what studies reveal, I would think that given the complexity and range of variation within our profession there will always be a place for listening to experience and heeding to common sense.

This all means that I think there are a number of judgements, particularly on the behaviours of teachers in classrooms, which can and should continue to be made for the benefit of others. A study is not necessary for me to make a case for using a seating plan, or to advise an NQT against talking over their students. Get a group of experienced teachers in a room and I think they would all pretty much agree on the same or similar methods to create an environment conducive to learning. Now whether this then leads to learning is perhaps an entirely different matter, which is why I think it is helpful, at least as a starting point, to think of behaviours for learning and behaviours of learning: in the former the focus is on the actions and behaviours of the teachers, whilst in the latter the attention turns more to the learner. For the past few years our Teacher Coaches have worked very successfully with colleagues on enhancing key aspects of how they manage their classrooms better and create the conditions in which learning is more likely to occur, such as organising space, time, positioning and the use of resources. Going forward, our Coaches will continue to share insights like these, either on a one to one basis with those who request it, or through Master Class seminars that form part of our Professional Growth menu. There may be scope here in the future for the kind of practice sessions advocated by Doug Lemov in his taxonomy of teaching techniques Teach Like a Champion.

Lead Learners are somewhat different to Teacher Coaches. Whereas Coaches focus more on the behaviours of the teacher and deal more with the ‘certainties’ of classroom management and instruction, Lead Learners will focus more on the behaviours of the students and to the messier, harder to discern (and even harder to evaluate) process of learning. As with the Coaching model, the different insights into learning will be arranged into a common framework, which will be used to direct the work of the Lead Learners and give structure and coherence to their research activities. These areas can be seen as different lines of enquiry that each Lead Learner pursues in an effort to build up levels of expertise. I will blog about these frameworks in due course.

The insights into learning that each Lead Learner gleans – from a combination of wider reading and active enquiry via Lesson Study – will also be shared with staff as part of the Professional Growth programme. Through a variety of digestible formats, such as presentations, short distilled research overviews or shorts and one-to-one support, our staff will be able to benefit from the insights and findings of others. These formats will act as an ever-involving resource for teachers to enable them to better understand the impact of their teaching on their students’ learning, and to make informed adjustments to their teaching.

Working Minds

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The core objective of ensuring quality ongoing professional development is more likely to be met if teachers themselves are responsible for leading and shaping the majority of the training. The division of teacher support and training into Teacher Coaches (behaviours for learning) and Lead Learners (behaviours of learning) is a significant step towards establishing a CPD programme designed by teachers for teachers. This bottom up impetus will be further enhanced by the development of a Working Minds Group – a kind of think tank or executive body that meets each term to share experiences on the ground and to work collaboratively to plan and deliver training that meets the needs of both teachers and support staff.

The Working Minds Group will comprise the Teacher Coaches and Lead Learners, as well as the SLT member responsible for Teaching and Learning. In addition, the Group will include a number of enthusiastic volunteers keen to make a significant contribution to the development of staff training and, in turn, the school itself. I think it is important that there is at least one non-teacher as part of this group. As well as having significant responsibility for shaping the school’s Professional Growth programme, the Group will also have a considerable voice on the implementation of Growth Mindset principles. Such an approach will hopefully ensure that a culture of learning will gain a bigger and more sustainable buy-in from staff and that Growth Mindset will not become yet another fad, but an intrinsic part of the way that members of our school system approach their learning, whether as a pupil, a member of the site staff, school office or a classroom teacher. At least, that is the hope!

Time is a fire

The second law of thermodynamics is ultimately an expression of a sad, painful truth: that since our universe (indeed all universes) is in itself a closed system, there will come a time – millions and millions of years from now – when it too will run out of energy. This law gives us a lens through which to understand the fragility of time, an understanding so beautifully captured in the Delmore Schwartz’s couplet I used as a preface to this post. And so, if time really is ‘the fire in which we burn’, we need to make sure that the precious time we have available to us at home and at work really is ‘the school in which we learn’.

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Lesson observations: what can you really do in 20 minutes?

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There seems to common agreement amongst teachers – at least the ones on Twitter I follow and whose blogs I read – that 20 minute lesson observations are not really long enough to properly evaluate teachers’ performance, and that performance rather than progress is all that can be measured of pupils in such a short time. I certainly think this is true, and that Ofsted make some pretty big (often inaccurate) calls about the quality of teaching and learning they see in these short bursts.

There was a time when hordes of inspectors would descend on schools and observe hundreds of whole lessons. Then came the era of ‘light touch’ inspections, which appeared to make judgments before arrival, much to the benefit of the kind of schools in leafy suburbs that Ofsted now has in its sights. Perhaps the rationale for the current 20 minute time frame was born out of a desire to forge a practical bridge between too much and too little attention to what’s going on in classrooms.

So whilst many of us agree that 20 minutes is not enough time to properly evaluate teachers’ effectiveness or to properly measure students’ learning, is it sufficient time to do anything else?

The answer depends on what you want to gain from an observation programme, whether you are more interested in knowing where your teachers currently are, or helping them get to where you want them to be. Sadly, as Joe Kirby’s recent blog suggests (http://wp.me/p31zUY-au), the focus in many schools is still on the former, on evaluation and monitoring rather than on development. As an end rather than a means. Whilst I’m sure most senior teams have the desire to develop their staff, because of the Ofsted model they try to emulate with its language of criteria and gradings, these intentions are often lost. The emphasis can feel more geared to what the observer gains from the experience than the observed – what summative information is gleaned on behalf of the institution, as opposed to what formative field notes are gathered for the benefit of the individual. Observations become performances with all the attendant nausea and deflation which that brings before and after each act.

All teachers can and should benefit from being observed, as well as observing others. There are an integral part of our professionalism and a key aspect of how we continue to develop both individually and collectively. Observations should form the core of a school CPD programme, working in step with coaching initiatives and INSET to support staff improvement, whatever the rank, experience and level of proficiency. Many schools have already moved, or are in the process of moving towards, a developmental model of observation, doing away with planned observations in favour of more informal visits and abandoning gradings in order to focus on working with individuals on specific areas for their improvement. These schools recognise how grades and generic targets muddy the water of the feedback process and get in the way of talking about specific teaching techniques and processes that teachers can and should begin working on immediately.

And this is where I think those 20 minutes can really come into play. Short, highly focused observation slots, used frequently, can provide an ideal amount of time to enable teachers to work together on specific areas of their development, and to facilitate the kind of deliberate practice strategies that Doug Lemov promotes in Practice Perfect. Time is very much at a premium in schools, but surely there is enough of it available to create a culture where teachers are happy to drop into each other’s lessons with the aim of working on their strengths and addressing their weakness, where they are safe in the knowledge they are not being judged on their performance on any given day, but on being properly supported in their continual professional development over time. Models of observation – regardless of their length – which set big, sweeping targets for improvement (or group teachers together based upon perceptions of shared need) do not really work. They ignore the individual and the targets they set are as redundant as the feedback given to students in books that is not read, acted upon or followed up. As much as we acknowledge how important it is for students to act immediately on feedback, the same principle also applies to teachers. Shorter, more frequent observations might enable specific techniques to be isolated and practised. These are not so much observations as coaching opportunities.

Next year, I intend to experiment with an observation model that draws upon these principles, at first within the English department and then, if successful, across the wider school. The first part of the plan involves using a series of learning walks each term, spread over a range of days, times and classes to get as accurate and fair an overview of the department as possible. These will be undertaken by post-holders and fed back through a short anonymous report, which may sound like the model of evaluation I’m arguing against, but when I tried it last year (see below) it worked really well. Teachers liked getting an informative, balanced summary of their department and the narrative approach meant that areas for improvement could be properly explained and understood. The other, more important, purpose of these learning walks is to identify individual training needs and work out who is most suited to provide the necessary support.

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The second part of plan is to give each teacher a series of dedicated development days across the year – ideally in blocks of one or two weeks per teacher per term. During these periods the intention is for each teacher to be given the sustained support required to properly work on the areas of development identified in the learning walks. A series of 20 minute observation slots over the course of a week or two will hopefully enable teachers to hone specific skills and techniques through repeated practice and immediate feedback. I hope these development windows will also provide the chance for teachers to observe each other, to discuss meaningful class progress with postholders, to go on learning walks themselves and receive additional coaching if appropriate. All these training opportunities will dovetail and mostly take place in 20 or so minute segments. Well, that’s the idea.

For observations to be of any lasting value they need to focus on development, rather than evaluation. They need to stop trying to replicate or second-guess the way that Ofsted do things. The changes that Ofsted make to their own practice should warn against the folly of this strategy. For while the warm glow of ‘outstanding’ can feel nice for the few, it’s as ultimately destructive to individuals and the profession as a whole as receiving ‘satisfactory’ or ‘requires improvement’. Applying labels to teachers from within creates divisions and is a diversion from the business of development. 20 minutes can be time better spent creating a new paradigm that builds professional capital, rather than perpetuating one that stifles it.

What blogging has done for teacher CPD

In this, my first blog, I thought I would reflect on how I came to blogging, and in this and later blogs consider some of the ways I see the sharing of ideas and approaches will help inform my practice, and the practice of the teachers in my department.

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In ten years of teaching I have seen a great deal of change in the educational landscape, perhaps no more so than of late under the stewardship of the current Secretary of State for Education.

Probably the most significant change, however, is the advent of teachers using social media exchange ideas, views and resources. The proliferation of thoughtful bloggers and Twitter users like @HuntingEnglish, @Learningspy and @realGeoffBarton (all of whom I admire greatly) has probably done more for the CPD of those teachers lucky enough to follow them than any other kind of more traditional INSET. Indeed, in the 10 months or so that I have actively been reading blogs and Twitter feeds, I have learnt a great deal that I might otherwise have missed – from current ideas about good practice to educational research and policy.

I remember how things were very different. In my NQT year, rather unfortunately, my inspiring Head of Department left on maternity leave at Christmas and was not replaced. In a school with challenging behaviour and generally low standards of achievement I was left to my own devices, teaching two year 11 groups without any real accountability or guidance. It was pretty much a case of picking up a set of books you liked and teaching them to the kids. No target grades, no expected progress and intervention still very much an abstract noun.

Fortunately, I think I did ok, and in a perverse kind of way I actually thrived on the autonomy. I enjoyed the sense of responsibility in the midst of adversity, and the ‘in at the deep end approach’ definitely helped me to get to grips with managing poor behaviour and understanding how to design effective lessons. The rest of English team were very supportive, even if there was no distinct leadership. To be honest, I am not too sure how well I would have taken to being coached, or how responsive I would have been to other people’s input into my teaching. It’s shameful, I admit, but nevertheless true. 

Much of my flippant attitude was probably shaped by my experiences of CPD, or what often used to pass for INSET at that time: a senior teacher (or worse, an outside speaker) who would proselytize to the staff on any one or more of the following: literacy across the curriculum, behaviour management, Ofsted preparation, mind-mapping, restorative justice, using interactive whiteboards effectively (remember them?), literacy across the curriculum, emotional Intelligence, multiple intelligence and literacy across the curriculum. In short, the planned professional training that I received was poor, and any progress that I made in my teaching was more to do with supportive colleagues, fantastic kids and perhaps my own reflective nature – never feeling like I had done enough!

 

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Now, I’m not saying that there is anything inherently wrong with all or any of the above INSET topics; most of these areas are important drivers of effective learning and pastoral care in any school.

If they are done properly, that is.

I think the problem, or rather my retrospective reading of it, lay in the approach taken, one which I suspect was replicated elsewhere up and down the country – a speaker with an air of knowledge, but more often than not none of the actual substance – who would run through endless slides with lots of pseudo research and pithy quotes. I realise now that many (though perhaps not all) of these speakers were also more often than not passing off material that was not their own: ideas, resources and strategies that they had garnered from external courses, or perhaps filtered down through documentation passed on from central government via the LEA.

I remember on one occasion entering an Assistant Head’s office and being overwhelmed by the amount of folders ranged across the shelves, thick white ones with the yellow and blue insignia to denote the National Strategy. It seemed to me that senior teachers had access to all the information – research, good practice, strategies and resources – whilst us inexperienced teachers, or those without responsibility, were left to receive new ideas and initiatives second hand. We were like worshippers before the Reformation: listening compliantly to the interpretation (and selection) of God’s word from a clergy seemingly much better versed in Latin than us.

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SLT and middle leaders were thus the gatekeepers of educational knowledge, whether through their professional experience gleaned from current research, policy findings, Ofsted Survey reports (or whatever they were called then) and good practice. Ordinary class teachers were left out of the conversation, and quite often dictated to, rather than part of the dialogue. A lot of CPD was therefore predicated on the sometimes too narrow range of teachers’ own experiences, or worse on unverifiable and disputable research.

With the advent of blogging and Twitter all that has changed. Teachers – whether those training to be teachers, or others far longer in the tooth – now have access to a wealth of information that can help them improve their understanding and practice of teaching. Teachers, of all ranges of responsibility and levels of experience, are part of the conversation, shaping ideas and often building consensus derived from people who actually know what their talking about: who are teaching in classrooms and working with students on a day to day basis. There is clearly a place for the ‘expert’, and the senior teacher who draws from his or her own experiences to bring an aspect of teaching and learning into sharper focus. This is fine, but it can’t be all.

Blogging and Twitter have forced a seismic change in the way in which schools deliver INSET. The ability for professionals to challenge received wisdom, to get to the source of what they are told and interpret the Word for themselves has signalled the death knell for the day-long INSET day, and the being spoken at approach that was once the norm. Action research groups, innovative Twilight sessions and new ways in which teachers can meet and share (such as Teachmeet) have led to a much-needed overhaul into how we develop ourselves as a profession. It is now much harder for senior leadership teams to be complacent about teacher development, or to trust in the tried and trusted approaches of the past. And rightly so, since professional capital (a phrase borrowed from Andy Hargreaves) is the key driver to raising standards of teaching and learning in education today.

With social media there is no hierarchy. An NQT can freely exchange views with a senior leader, which can only be a good thing for everyone.

Even when there is disagreement, this still seems to me to be extremely productive in helping us reflect on our beliefs and what we do when we teach young people. That is surely the ultimate goal for all of us.