Room for improvement, or what I’m working on this year


I’d like to think I am a better teacher than I was say 10 or even 5 years ago. I’d like to think that every year I continue to improve. I’m sure that’s not always the case, and that some years I stagnate. I’m ok with that if my overall trajectory is up, which I think (and hope) it is. As I came to realise some years ago, after a certain point it takes a lot of time and conscious effort to make significant improvements to your practice. It’s bit by bit rather than wholesale.

Having a lighter timetable than some probably helps my development in the classroom. Not because I have an abundance of time to pontificate – I really don’t – but because teaching fewer classes makes it easier to retain a clearer focus on the change to my practice I am making and the impact it is having on my students. I have more bandwidth to make sense of my classroom.

I deliberately refer to change in the singular. Isolating just one variable in teaching, consciously honing it in light of feedback, is hard enough, let along managing multiple changes at once. I’m envious of those who seem able to pick up a new idea and run with it immediately. I prefer to see if the thing I’m working on really is making a difference, and to give it the time and space it needs to work. I also find it difficult to turn successes into habitual practice.

I’ve written before about our approach to professional learning, and the way that we set ourselves classroom-based targets at appraisal – one an overt craft goal; the other an inquiry question. We’ve moved this process on quite a bit since that blog, but the essence of our approach remains the same. We identify one pedagogical goal to work on with an instructional coach, and one question about an aspect of student learning that we undertake through disciplined inquiry.

This year my pedagogical goal is to improve my modelling of sentence structures to aid students’ analytical writing. It may seem odd that I’ve chosen to focus on what you’d think would be bread and butter for an English teacher. What makes it even more perplexing is that I’ve written on this topic before and spoken about developing sentence structures at conferences!

The thing is: whilst I think I’m much better at teaching students to write good sentences and helping them turn their good sentences into good paragraphs, I still don’t think I’m quite good enough. There is still a lot more I can do to help my students set up their ideas, move between their points and introduce and engage with judicious secondary material.

There are doubtless other things I could be working on, but I want to stick with the modelling and deconstruction of sentence structures. Too often we set ourselves improvement targets – whether formally or more personally – and we move to something new before we have truly honed the change or habituliased it into a daily routine. The emphasis is for breadth, not depth.

So, this year I am keeping the main thing the main thing. I am going to build on the gains I’ve already made in this area and make a conscious effort to identity a couple of techniques that I can add to my armoury every time I teach writing. Small little sustainable moves that will have a big impact on my students’ writing, and that I can perhaps share with my colleagues when I am ‘sure’ that they work.

I want to write about my efforts on this blog and to share any successes or failures. I may not get around to doing this, of course, but the intent is there.  And after all, it’s the thought that counts. I will call blogs relating to this focus ‘Developing Great Writing’, so you can choose to read about them or not if you want.

Wish me luck.

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.