‘Learning cannot flourish without the right conditions’
The last two years have seen tough, tough times in schools. For many, finding the time and processing capacity for high quality professional learning has been challenging. Yet, I’m convinced impactful and engaging professional learning has never been more important than now, for two reasons:
- Many of the teachers and leaders in schools that I have been working with, have commented on the gaps in prior knowledge and skills that children and young people have due to interruptions to schooling. As one teacher ruefully reflected, ‘we’ve got a great Yr2 curriculum that’s ideal for Yr2’s in 2019, but not 2022’. Not only that, teachers/leaders talk of the additional social and emotional needs that have manifested during the pandemic. With this mix, it is probably fair to say that children and young people need better versions of ‘us’ to ensure we can adapt to the additional complexity of teaching in 2022.
- Professional learning at its’ best, supports teachers to grow their self- and collective efficacy. Self-Efficacy, a term coined by Albert Bandura, is a powerful intrinsic motivator. Bandura writes, ‘among the types of thoughts that affect action, none is more central or pervasive than people’s judgement about their capabilities to deal effectively with different realities’. The increased self-efficacy that results from a teacher having mastery experiences in their own classroom, as they see their growing impact on learning, can last far longer than the short-term fixes that result from chocolate Fridays or the occasional aromatherapy twilight. Therefore part of sustaining teams through these difficult times is through impactful professional learning that supports teacher growth. Indeed, professional learning at its’ best can play a key role in reconnecting those who have become jaded about teaching.
So how do we adapt the design of professional learning in these Covid times to sustainably support teacher growth?
I want to draw upon one of the recent learning programmes that I have facilitated, Plus One Learning Cycles, to reflect on some of the key processes that underpinned its’ impact.
A reflection based upon fourteen years of supporting teacher development, is that processing capacity in schools has never before been as limited as it is currently. The additional protocols and procedures, staff absences, along with the ongoing uncertainty has taken its’ toll. Pre-Covid, schools were incredibly busy places, however Covid has layered an unwelcome additional processing demand on top. This needs to factored into the design of any professional learning programme in schools.
Whilst there has been much talk about cognitive load theory with respect to the learning of children and young people, we don’t always consider the importance of cognitive load for the learning of adults in schools.
‘Plus One’ Learning
With this in mind, there was a relentless focus on the power of ‘plus one’ with the teachers/teaching assistants taking part. This was especially challenging for those enthusiasts who found themselves wanting to take lots of ideas away.
Focussing on ‘plus one’:
- Minimises the potential for processing overload that comes with trying to implement too many changes at once
- Enables easier assessment of impact
- Simplifies the diagnostic if the adapted approach doesn’t succeed.
The teams spent time selecting their own ‘plus ones’. A key driver in their selection was, selecting ‘plus ones’ that they felt would make the biggest impact on learning in their classrooms.
Amongst the foci chosen included:
- Questioning and dialogue
- Modelling and explaining
- Moving learning from surface to deep
- Activating and assessing learner starting points
Their discussions in planning focussed on getting shared clarity on what? why? and how to? implement their team’s ‘plus one’.
Structured space for dialogue
Having time for dialogue about the planning of, and reflection about teaching, is of course important. However, this dialogue is enriched when those participating have a common framework to ensure there is a shared thinking process. The programme provided teachers/TAs with a dialogic framework to enable deep dialogue in the ‘plus one’ area of focus. This aided their planning and reflections on their teaching
For those focussing on improving their questioning and probing, these were the prompts:
Often some of the most powerful question prompts were those that pushed teachers to go back to reflect on the learning sequences they were planning to teach. After all, what is seen and heard in a lesson is a function of the depth of clarity about the plan. Here were the questions that structured this ongoing dialogue in weekly planning sessions:
Sources of Feedback
The structure of the programme also provided a framework for teachers to gather feedback on the impact of the changes they’d made to their teaching. This is so important as it avoids the risk of Inattentional blindness. It’s a term coined by Rock & Mack (1992) through their research. It refers to the failure to notice something completely visible due to a lack of attention. Common causes of this phenomenon include tiredness, stress, heavy cognitive load, habits that have become unthinking, and/or bias/preconceptions.
Given that those working in classrooms are at risk of suffering most of these causes too, gathering feedback from a range of sources is key. After all, it’s important that perception and reality are really close companions when seeking to develop performance through learning.
Furthermore, identifying the feedback sources in advance brings other advantages to the process. By agreeing what this feedback should look/sound like if the changes are successful, provides confidence-building formative assessment as teachers gather the feedback on their growing impact.
Sources of feedback teachers used in the programme included:
- The ways in which the deep dialogue through planning that they engaged in, had led to the adaptation of their teaching plans
- Examples of the resource and strategies that teachers and teaching assistants have either adapted or created.
- Feedback from teaching assistants who worked alongside the teachers about the changes they had noticed in teaching and the impact on learning.
Since teacher X has been clearer in their modelling using the visualiser, the children are working with more confidence and are collaborating productively. I’m not fire-fighting any more!Powerful TA comment in reflective presentation at the end of the programme
- Analysis of video recordings of their own teaching and the learning of children in their setting
- The quality and quantity of written work completed by the children in lessons before and after the changes to teaching
- Observations of what children said/did when they were engaged in learning
- Feedback from learners – while they may not be pedagogical experts, they are a useful source of feedback about e.g. whether teachers/TAs provide clarity through how their modelling and explaining, and through the feedback they provide
- Attainment data, where available
Reflecting on learning and growth
Structuring time for reflection both during the programme, as well as afterwards is key to ensuring that reflection moves beyond a narrative driven approach of ‘I did this…’ to examine:
- Cause-effect relationships between different aspects of planning and teaching e.g. “if questioning isn’t sufficiently probing, is that actually because we are introducing too much new content in one session?”
- The gains that had been made. Which children did they impact on most? Why did these changes positively impact on learning? How could these approaches be transferred to other lessons or subjects?
- The pains that occurred. Where they simply implementation problems that required more time to embed, or were adaptations required? Providing time to talk about ‘pains’ enabled teachers to openly discuss the aspects they were finding trickier to adapt or implement.
- The learning from the process that had been undertaken. In particular, how could aspects of the process be incorporated into dialogue in every team meeting and planning sessions? What are the things we need to stop doing that inhibit learning and growth? What have we learnt about ourselves as learners?
- What are the ‘plus ones’ that would be most productive to work on next?
At the conclusion of the programme each of the teachers, with valuable additional contributions from their teaching assistants, presented their own learning portfolio to the rest of the staff, governors, school and trust leaders. A true celebration of the power of collaborative learning, the development of shared language, and the importance of adults being learners about what they do.
Although it was nearly 6pm that evening when I left the school to drive 260 miles home, I was totally inspired by the passion of a group of teachers and TAs to grow their impact on the children in their care.