Appraisal: down but maybe not quite out!

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So, it’s that time of the school year when teachers dust off their performance management paperwork, remind themselves of the targets set 12 months previously, and then cobble together some ‘evidence’ to meet them. In some schools this is a routine, perfunctory process, a bit time consuming and inconvenient, but nevertheless relatively benign; in others, however, it is still a bit time consuming and inconvenient, but with a lot more additional stress, with exam performance targets under close scrutiny and pay awards in the balance. In either case, the whole process is a monumental waste of time.

In recent weeks two very different responses to the future of annual appraisal have emerged. For some, the whole process is so flawed, broken and inefficient that the only logical cause of action is to get rid of it completely. Jack Marwood’s post on the subject is also instructive here. At the other end of the spectrum are those who also see the process as flawed, broken and inefficient but not necessarily terminally so. For these, a more humane, purposeful and impactful appraisal procedure is possible – one that balances the needs of the individual teacher with the needs of the students in the school. Whilst I can certainly see the appeal of jettisoning the behemoth that is performance management, I think there is still hope: that appraisal can be done better.

Appraisal and professional growth

This week we took our first significant step towards building a better appraisal model. We believe the changes that we have introduced will over time help to develop teachers and improve the quality of teaching and learning in the school. By taking out the deeply flawed and reductive measure of exam performance, and shifting the emphasis towards disciplined self-enquiry, we have begun to see teachers setting more meaningful, focused and impactful objectives for themselves. The fact that these identified goals are then married to provision from the school professional development programme is, we think, much more rigorous and much more likely to bring about change in the classroom.

Every teacher and classroom based staff member identifies two professional learning goals – one that relates to their subject pedagogy and framed as a target; the other more enquiry based and formed as a question. Both objectives are informed by reflection into current practice coupled with anticipation of future challenge. A number of tools have been created to guide this enquiry process, which include looking at the broad range of student outcome data (assessment, book learning, survey results) as well as more evaluative teacher reflection information. The introduction of a learning journal knits the whole process together, and is where all ongoing professional development activity will be recorded, whether it is wider reading, CPD session summaries, planning ideas or reflection notes. At the review stage we want the conversation to be about lessons learned around understanding teaching and learning, not crude interrogations of decontextualised numerical data.

Perhaps the other important change to the way we are developing appraisal is giving it the time and respect that it deserves. I have written before about our new Wednesday afternoon Professional Growth programme, where we have two hours enshrined CPD every week. This structure allows us the scope to invest in getting professional learning right. Last week we set aside some of our two hour training slot to afford staff time and space to think carefully about their development and what they need to focus on to improve and make a difference to the students that they teach or support. We also used took yesterday as INSET day so that the vast majority of staff could have a sustained period of time to discuss their professional learning – to look closely at what has gone before to better plan for what lies ahead.

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Subject pedagogy goal

This objective is very much focused on developing an aspect of the teaching craft. It is highly specific, both in terms of the actual aspect of pedagogy identified, but also in relation to the stated student outcomes that will follow as a result of any change in teacher behaviour. Last year we introduced lesson study into the school through the fantastic Teacher Development Trust. The process of setting an enquiry question at the heart of the lesson study model greatly informed the way we are framing subject pedagogy targets. We want to get much better at concentrating our efforts where they are most required and these kinds of focused goals do just that, as well help us to measure the impact of our professional development programme on student outcomes by evaluating the impact of individual training plans and looking at the cumulative effect of those plans across the whole school.

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Research and Enquiry Question

Unlike the subject pedagogy goal, which focuses more on improvements to the art of teaching, the enquiry question is geared towards reaching a better understanding of student learning. The school has three main focuses in relation to better understanding how students learn: metacognition, short and long-term memory and feedback. Enquiry questions are set in light of one of these three overarching themes and reflect the convergence of individual teacher need and whole school priority. The theme inherent in the question determines the learning community that the teacher is part for the rest of the year – an iterative process that begins with a research overview, wider reading and group discussion before moving towards collaborative planning and individual on-going enquiry supported by a lead learner. Accountability is not so much about providing a definitive answer to the question, but rather demonstrating a definitive sense that the question has prompted deeper understanding of the underlying issues and how they might be addressed.

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This is by no means a perfect model – far from it. It will obviously take a few years to refine the process, and we must make sure that we continue to provide the time necessary throughout the year for meaningful conversations about the impact of the professional learning on what happens in the classroom. Gone must go the days of meeting once a year to set crude performance targets that everyone forgets about until 12 months down the line. We are already thinking about affording the interim review the same status as the annual review by giving over another INSET day to evaluate progress and adjust development plans accordingly.

Appraisal directly linked to unreliable performance outcomes does not work – it breeds a culture of fear and inertia, when what we want is continual professional learning that leads to one or two informed intentional changes aimed where the need is the greatest. We hope our model is moving closer in this direction.

Thanks for reading.

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Where next for lesson observations: a tentative look to the future

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I have wanted to blog on the topic of lesson observations for a while, but for a combination of reasons I have been a little reticent. Like others, I have undergone quite shift in my own attitude towards being observed. I am actually embarrassed to admit that about 18 months ago I even made a bit of a fuss when it was first mooted that we were no longer going to grade lessons. I was in part voicing the concerns of my department who – believe it or not – did not want to dispense with receiving grades. But I was also speaking on my own behalf: I liked the challenge of being observed and proving myself as a good, or hopefully ‘outstanding’ teacher. I wanted to be validated. It’s all rather ridiculous, I know, and shamefully selfish too. Where’s the students?

Looking back, I can see just how much I had been indoctrinated by a system of grading, one that made people like me care about the number they received, and worse defined themselves as a result of it. Utterly silly. In fairness – although I did not see this at the time – part of my frustration was that whilst we were ditching grades, we were still feeding back to colleagues using Ofsted criteria. I just could not see the logic in using the language of Ofsted, which I always thought was ridiculously onerous and dubious in nature, but not mentioning the grade. The grade would surely be obvious if phrases like ‘rapid and sustained’ or ‘insufficient’ were mentioned. It also seemed deceitful to record grades, but keep teachers in the dark about them.

We have moved on since then and no longer record grades for individual lessons, though I suspect that like many schools there is still a great deal more that we need to do to improve. The overwhelming evidence, particularly the research of Professor Coe, Robert Bjork and the late Graham Nuttell (championed tenaciously by the likes of David Didau and Joe Kirby), presents a compelling challenge to the very efficacy and validity of lesson observations. If learning cannot be directly observed and students don’t learn in the ways that we think they do, how can one teacher have any credibility in casting judgement over another? And even if they do have some ground beneath their feet from which to make a judgement, it seems that very ground keeps moving – according to Professor Coe if your lesson is judged outstanding there is between a 51% to 78% chance a second observer would downgrade it. In our heart of hearts I think we already knew this to be true; it’s worrying it took research like Professor Coe’s to help us to articulate our concerns.

The other main reason why I have been reluctant to post on lesson observations is because I am unsure of what, if anything, should replace them. As certain as I am that it does not make any sense to grade individual or ‘typical’ lessons, I am as uncertain about whether there is still benefit in teachers observing each other and, if there is, what form that should take. The changes to Performance Management complicate this matter further, posing some tough questions for the role and function of lesson observations within the wider system of professional accountability. I very much like the alternatives I have read elsewhere, which involve triangulating a range of factors like examination results, work scrutiny and professional reputation. However, even these can be considered problematic: who is responsible for a class with repeated changes of teacher or a legacy of underachievement? Are field notes about an individual teacher’s professional standing prone to abuse in the hands of the less benign?

For what it’s worth, I believe that there is value in continuing with observations. I recently attended the National Teacher Enquiry Network Conference on Lesson Observation and am convinced that Lesson Study has a considerable role in the future direction that observations take within our schools. The model of teachers planning lessons collaboratively and then observing and evaluating the outcomes in relation to a select group of students seems eminently sensible and in a way self-evident. With learning such a complex business, why would schools not encourage their teachers to work together to understand its complexity and work together to design ways to enhance their teaching in order to respond to the challenges provided by their students and their context? How daft to waste valuable school resources evaluating lessons after they have occurred, rather than front-loading what are ultimately finite resources to the planning stage, when something can actually be done to better understand the learning process through the eyes of the learners.

Yet as much as I admire Lesson Study, and despite all the overwhelming evidence challenging the efficacy of lesson observations, I still think there is a place for observations. It would need to be a greatly reduced role, one that looked and felt different, and had a different tone and structure of interaction between the observer and the observed. One such model is the one outlined in Paul Bambrook-Santoyo’s excellent Leverage Leadership. I have blogged before about how the English department are piloting this approach, but in short, this model sees one teacher observing a colleague for about 20mins each week with a subsequent debriefing. The observations are pencilled in for the same times each week to ensure they become routine. No criteria are used. The ‘more experienced’ colleague simply makes a couple of notes about the things they see and the two teachers discuss these observations later in the debrief. Between them, they agree an area to work on in the next lesson, which the observer helps them to plan for or talk through.

After some initial reluctance, the teachers are enjoying working with colleagues on specific development areas each week – they feel supported and observations no longer carry that element of fear. Teachers are openly identifying their own weaknesses and working with their observation partner to try and resolve them. There are similarities to Lesson Study in the nature of collaboration and the admittance of a degree of uncertainty. I can see a way that this model could be scaled up across a school, where (similar to the Uncommon Schools approach used in Teach Like a Champion) performance outliers can be identified and specific aspects of their practice analysed in order to draw up a catalogue of professional expertise. These lead learners could form the bedrock of a list of options that teachers could be linked with in order to develop their practice, perhaps as part of the appraisal process. I intend to blog more about what this framework might look like in the coming months when I have had chance to hone my thinking further.

Beyond this, I think lesson observations also have a place in relation to supporting colleagues with improving their behaviour management. Whilst the process of learning is undeniably complex, I think that there is much greater clarity (and dare I say consensus) around how best to make learning more likely to occur. I guess I am thinking here, though not exclusively, of inexperienced colleagues – those teachers who in the first year or two of teaching can find it hard to control classes and manage disruptive behaviour. It might be impossible to evaluate the extent of learning within a lesson, but I think it is possible to judge whether conditions for learning have been established. I also think it’s possible to know what those conditions look like and how best to help a teacher to create them within his or her own environment. In short, I am suggesting that lesson observations, following the regular, supportive approach described above, could still have a place in helping teachers master the art of classroom management. Where we need to be honest, though, is that beyond these ‘rules’ for establishing presence, there are only ideas, intuitions and probabilities.

The only certainty of learning, it seems to me, is that it is hard to be certain about it. Let’s stop pretending that this is otherwise and admit what we don’t know in order to help us to know more.