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.

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.

ResearchED Brighton: inside out not bottom up

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I have been to several ResearchEd events, but I have to say that I thought yesterday’s conference in Brighton was the best one, at least in terms of the amount and quality of ideas I took away with me. The high standard of the speakers certainly helped, as did the deliberate decision to make the event more intimate. It really did make a difference to be able to ask questions of the speakers and to share reflections during breaks. Once again, a big well done and thank you to Tom Bennnet and Hélène Galdin-O’Shea, and to the university of Brighton hosts for offering up such a splendid and amenable venue.

If previous ResearchED events have been characterised by a bottom up approach to the use of research in schools, today seemed to be more about working from inside out – a slightly nuanced adjustment to the metaphor of grassroots teacher professional development that I think better captures the way in which inquiry – in all its different guises – helps to grow the individual and, in turn, develop the organisation. However you frame the metaphor of what’s going in educational circles at the moment, these events sure do beat the stale training days in expensive hotels of yesteryear.

The keynote session was delivered by the charismatic figure of Daniel Muijs. His very pertinent presentation was about the extent to which it is possible to reliably measure teacher effectiveness. Drawing upon a range of international research, including some of his own as well the large-scale study into measuring teacher effectiveness conducted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mujis outlined the complex issues surrounding evaluating the performance of teachers. It was very clear that whilst for every measure there are advantages to be had, these often come at a considerable cost and lead to many significant undesirable consequences.

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Whilst the negative effects of using lesson observation for summative judgements are legion, Muijs did outline some of the ways in which it is possible to make them more effective, particularly if you are willing to invest the time, care and resource necessary to develop a coherent framework, such as the Charlotte Danielson model, and to train observers adequately on how to use it effectively. Even then, for observation to meet adequate standards of reliability and validity somewhere between 6-12 observations per teacher per year are required. I doubt there are many schools up and down the country willing or able to invest that much resource into observing every member of staff throughout the course of the year. The conclusion was that whilst some kind of balance of measures is probably best, this is still far, far from being perfect.

I was glad I stayed in the main hall for the next session, even though that meant missing out on what I later heard was an excellent session by Becky Allen on avoiding some of the pitfalls of testing, tracking and targets. In the main lecture hall Louise Bamfield and Paul Foster introduced the Research Rich Schools Website, a result of an initiative from the National College for Teaching and Leadership, which commissioned a group of teaching school alliances to develop a framework research and development tool in collaboration with the RSA. I haven’t had chance to properly investigate the site yet, but it promises to be an excellent resource, not only for designated Research Leads, but more broadly for teachers and organisations interested in developing their engagement with research and inquiry a stage further. The different levels of emerging, expanding and embedding seem helpful for supporting schools who are at different phases of development.

The next session was led by Andy Tharby on the ways in which his school, Durrington, have formed a partnership with Brighton University to support their teachers in running robust small-scale research projects. Originally the talk was to be co-presented by Brian Marsh, the school’s ‘critical friend’ from the university and from what I gathered a great bloke and fantastic storyteller. Unfortunately, Brian had to pull out at the last minute, but Andy carried on undeterred. Perhaps I am a little biased – I rate Andy’s blog and think he is excellent company – but it was really interesting to learn how his school are building up their engagement with research by matching it at different levels to teacher interest and expertise. Whilst he admits it is still in its embryonic stage, the many benefits of having a professional researcher to support, challenge and guide classroom teachers in conducting their own classroom inquiry were clear.

I don’t usually think of educational conferences in terms of their comedy value, but James Mannion’s presentation was a hoot! A combination of his own humourus and engaging style and the benefits of a smaller, more interactive audience, made this session both informative and enjoyable. James has spent the past 6 months or so working on developing an efficient and meaningful way to bridge the gap between educational research and classroom practice. He believes that ‘all teachers should systematically be engaged with professional inquiry’ and has developed a platform for this happen. The Praxis pilot platform, ‘launched’ at the previous Research Leads conference in Cambridge, provides an excellent online space for teacher to upload their own research inquiries, where they can then be shared and critiqued by others.

What I particularly like about James’s project is the way in which he has thought extremely carefully about how to make the whole process as efficient and as user-friendly as possible. There is an inquiry planner which follows a helpful format for thinking about and organising small-scale research.

  • Title
  • Context
  • Research Question(s)
  • Brief literature review
  • Avenue of inquiry
  • Research methods (how are you going to collect data? )
  • Findings / analysis
  • Conclusions
  • Evaluation

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Whilst I am not fully convinced about the overall aim of getting all teachers to be systematically engaged with professional inquiry (perhaps I simply need to know more about the terms of this statement), I find the sentiment behind it laudable and the effort expended on the project nothing short of remarkable. I can already think of several ways of incorporating James’s platform into the professional inquiry options on offer at my school. James will probably disagree, but I do see value in having a continuum of research options available for classroom teachers to engage with as part of their professional development. For James the word Praxis, as defined by Freire as ‘reflection and action upon the world, in order to transform it’ has much less baggage in educational circles than concepts like Lesson Study, practitioner-led research and disciplined inquiry. I am not so sure, and as Nick Rose pointed out, if anything it contains more of a trace of Marxist ideology. Anyway, for some, the small-scale teacher friendly Praxis model will be great, for others, models implied by the terms ‘disciplined inquiry’ and ‘lesson study may be more appropriate. Perhaps it is all semantics.

My day ended with Nick Rose’s wonderful session on different research tools he has developed to better facilitate teacher inquiry. In his role as research lead and leader of the coaching programme at his school, Nick has produced a number of excellent resources to better support the coaching process and help teachers to better understand what is going on in their classrooms. Some of these tools, all of which Nick stressed were for formative purposes only, included a classroom climate log, the use of student surveys and structured prompts to encourage focused self reflection on targeted areas of professional development.

For me, Nick’s session provided a lovely counterpoint to the findings about lesson observation made in Daniel Muij’s keynote, namely with regards to the different possibilities afforded to the profession from using observation as a formative practitioner tool rather than a high stakes judgement mechanism. I liked many of structured observation protocols Nick has developed on the back of Rob Coe’s work in relation to ‘thinking hard’ about subject content and poor proxies for learning. It was clear how these teaching and learning behaviours could be used as more proximate indicators of learning than the ones more commonly associated with Ofsted framework, particularly within a supportive coaching framework.

Those of you familiar with Nick’s fantastic blog, Evidence into Practice, will already know that Nick is an astute and incredibly meticulous thinker. His real life presentation style is equally impressive and I came out of his session with my head bursting with ideas. I can’t remember being so intellectually stretched by the complexity and range of ideas on offer in a session before, so when Nick announced at the end that ‘he has only just got started with this work’, I joined with everyone else in spontaneous laughter. Has there ever been such an example of ironic self-deprecation before? Probably not.

This was a wonderful day with wonderful people.

Thank you to all at ResearchED.