Professional Learning by @mrnickhart

With likely a range of often conflicting priorities, deciding what to work on is tricky.  Subject leaders will strive to keep their subject’s nose in front of the rest but ultimately, leaders must be able to zero in on what it is that the children need.  Once that is known, leaders can think about what teachers might need to do differently in order for those outcomes for children to be realised.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Nick Hart and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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The list of things that teachers (could) do day to day is endless so leaders must be able to judge, through experience or by leaning on research, which of those things are worth pursuing and which need to be jettisoned because they take up our time and mental effort for no significant impact.  Research such as that by Hattie is useful but are the interventions described in such research too broad?  For example, it is obvious that feedback can have a significant impact on learning but only if it’s done well.  Consider the difference between these scenarios:

  • training on implementing a new feedback policy
  • training on providing feedback on persuasive writing

Or these:

  • training on clear teacher explanations
  • training on explaining how to add fractions clearly

There is a difference between being research led and research informed.  Research should be considered in combination with the needs of children and teachers so that leaders get teachers thinking about effective ways to teach.

This would go some way to ensuring that teachers’ subject and pedagogical knowledge is developed, in line with the Sutton Trust report into what makes great teaching. It’s relatively straight-forward to ensure that the focus is on those things, however ensuring the impact is a lot trickier. It makes sense for leaders to have from the outset a very clear idea of what they want that impact to be. Phil Stock’s post on evaluating impact (based on  Guskey’s hierarchy of five levels of impact) is very useful here in terms of leaders planning what they want to happen as a result of professional learning and the rest of this post details how one might do that.

Intended impact on outcomes for children

The intended outcomes for children should be set out so that there is no misunderstanding of the standard to be achieved. Using resources like Rising Stars Assessment Bank for maths can help teachers to gather the types of questions that all children will be expected to answer.  The same can be done for a unit of work on reading – find or write the questions about a text or texts, including the quality of response that you’d expect in order to demonstrate age-related expectations.  Something similar can be done for writing.  Find or write a piece that would exemplify the standard that you’d expect from children.  Whatever the subject, leaders working with teachers to clarify what exactly children will be able to do and what their work will look like is the goal.

Individual questions would serve as criterion based assessment but for reading and maths, these questions could be compiled into an overall unit assessment and a target could be set for all children to achieve in the first phase of a unit of work. Gentile and Lalley, in Standards and Mastery Learning  discuss the idea that forgetting is the inevitable consequence of initial learning even if it is to a high standard of say 80%+ .  The problem is that for the most vulnerable children, who don’t achieve that initial mastery of the content to anywhere near that standard, forgetting happens more quickly and more completely.  If children don’t initially understand to a certain level, their learning over time is far less likely to stick and will make subsequent planned revision not revision at all but a new beginning.  Therefore, the expectation of the impact on children of any professional learning simply must be that all children achieve a good standard of initial understanding, whether that is judged as absolute through criterion-referenced assessment or by a percentage on a carefully designed test.

Now, of course, meeting the standard set on an assessment means nothing unless it is retained or built upon. This initial assessment would not be at the end of the unit of work but part way through.   I’d expect, on an end of unit test, higher percentages compared to those that children will have achieved on the initial assessment.  This is because that initial assessment will have served to tailor teaching to support those that require further instruction or practice.  And I’d expect that intervention to have worked.

To summarise, teachers and leaders first set the assessment and the standard to be achieved.  The unit of work is taught until all children can attain the standard, then the unit continues, deepening the understanding of all which is then checked upon at the end of the unit and beyond. The DfE’s Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development (July 2016) identifies the importance of continually evaluating the impact on outcomes for children of changes to practice and so assessments of what children have retained weeks and months after the unit of work are crucial – they ‘ll inform at further tweaks to teaching and professional learning.  When there are clear milestones for children’s achievement, the professional learning needs of teachers comes sharply into view.

Intended impact on teachers’ behaviour

Once it has been decided what the intended impact on outcomes for children is, attention needs to be turned what teachers will do in order for children to achieve those outcomes. Such behaviour changes may be desired at the planning stages of a unit of work, for example in the logical sequencing of concepts related to addition and subtraction over a series of lessons. The behaviour changes may be desired during teaching, for example explaining and modelling how to create suspense in a piece of writing. Finally, the behaviour changes could be desired after lessons, for example where teachers receive feedback on how children have done by looking at how they have solved addition and subtraction problems in order to amend the sequence of lessons.  Another example could be providing feedback on their writing to make it more persuasive either face to face or by writing comments in their books.  The key here is that behaviour change is specific to the unit of work.  Having said that, leaders must support teachers to think in increasingly principled ways so that over time, principles can be more independently applied to other units of work and subjects.  As such, intended changes to behaviour must be iterative and long-term, with opportunities to make connections between topics and subjects through coaching and shared planning.

For any behaviour change, teachers must see the outcome.  They must see someone doing the things that are expected of them.  This live or videoed teaching needs to be deconstructed and then summed up concisely which acts as success criteria for teachers. For example, in a unit of work on place value, desired teachers’ behaviours could include (and this is far from exhaustive; simply to illustrate the point):

  • Plan for scaffolds (and their removal) so that all children can partition and recombine numbers fluently and accurately.
  • Intervene on the day if a child shows significant misunderstanding of that day’s learning.
  • Use concrete manipulatives and pictorial representations to model and explain the concept of place value.
  • Co-construct with children success criteria appropriate to the type of leaning objective (open or closed).

Having such success criteria ensures that both leaders and teachers are clear of what is expected in order for the desired impact on children to be realised. It can also be used to focus practices like lesson study and coaching conversations, which are crucial to keep momentum going and embed change.

Intended impact on teachers’ knowledge

If leaders require teachers to develop certain practices, for many there will be a knowledge gap that inhibits such development. The DfE’s Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development identifies the importance of developing theory as well as practice. Subject and pedagogical knowledge, as well as knowledge of curriculum or task design are all vital for teachers to be able to refine aspects of their practice.   This could be as straightforward as analysing the types of questions that could be asked to get children thinking deeply about place value before teachers write their own which are appropriate to the year group that they teach. Or it could be ensuring that teachers understand and can articulate the underlying patterns of addition and subtraction in the maths unit coming up. It could even be knowing the texts that children will be using for reading and writing in depth in order for them to dedicate future thinking capacity to pedagogical concerns. By setting out the intended theoretical knowledge to be learned and by providing opportunities to gain that knowledge in ways that do not overly strain workload, leaders can set teachers up for successful changes to practice.

Organisational evaluation

For children to improve based on teachers’ developing subject and pedagogical knowledge, there must be great systems in place that allow such development to happen.  Leaders need to be very clear about what it is that they will do to ensure that teachers are supported to act on the advice being given.  Some examples include:

  • Making senior leaders or subject specialists available for shared planning
  • Providing access to a coach (and training for coaches)
  • Arranging for staff to access external training
  • Ensuring that observations are developmental
  • Planning professional learning using Kotter’s change model

These items become success criteria for leaders implementing long term change.  They can be self evaluated, of course, but external validation of school culture is valuable here.

Reaction quality

The final strand of planning for impact concerns how teachers perceive the professional learning in which they’ll engage. It goes without saying that we’d like teachers to find professional learning not just useful but transformative – a vehicle for improving outcomes for children, personal career development and increasing the school’s stock all at the same time.  One can only create the conditions in which another may become motivated and by taking into account what drives people, we can go along way to ensuring a thriving staff culture. Lawrence and Nohria’s 4-Drive model of employee motivation is very useful here, describing four underlying drives:

The drive to acquire and achieve

If staff are confident that the professional learning will lead to them acquiring knowledge, expertise and success, then they are more likely to feel motivated.  Professional learning then must appeal to this drive – spelling out the knowledge and status that can be achieved through the planned work and never underestimate the power of distributed leadership, carefully supported, of course.

The drive to bond and belong

The school’s vision is key in keeping everyone focused and pulling in the same direction and this can certainly be reinforced with a common school improvement aim as the focus of professional learning.  Finding ways to ensure supportive relationships is crucial.  Culture is the result of what we continuously say and do so leading by example in developing good working relationships will go some to making it the social norm.  Leaders must also look for and iron out any pockets of resistance that could threaten the desired culture.

The drive to comprehend and challenge

This refers to providing opportunities for staff to overcome challenges and in doing so grow.  Setting out each individual’s importance in the school and how they contribute to its success is an example. This is often a long game, with external judgments being made in exam years or in external inspections, so leaders must find quick wins to acknowledge the impact of teachers’ work on the development of the school.

The drive to define and defend

By drawing attention to the good that the professional learning will do not just for the children but in turn for the reputation of the school, we can create a fierce loyalty.  If we get our principles right an articulate what we stand for, this momentum can be very beneficial for implementing professional learning.

This is the job of the leader, striving for improvement in outcomes for children whilst developing staff and building a culture of success. Any professional learning has to have clear outcomes and its only then that they can be reliably evaluated and tweaked to inform the next iteration.

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