“Is our teaching maximising its’ impact on the learning of children? If not, how can we refine what we are doing? In these stretched times, carving the time to pause and ask ourselves these questions is more important than ever. By doing so, we can maximise the growth of the children that we teach, and also ourselves.“
The habit of reflection represents a key element of the culture of a learning focussed team.
Without slow reflection, we potentially are condemned to miss opportunities to identify:
- Actions or processes which are ineffective or too time-consuming, that need changing or stopping altogether
- Key actions that we can take that would help us to grow further
- Feedback that we don’t normally notice, which may disconfirm our perception of the world
- The growth we are making both individually and collectively. Growth that if we identified it, would grow our self- and collective efficacy
The thoughts below came to me as I reflected on the thoughtful and energising presentation event at Northway Primary School in Liverpool last month. This was the culmination of ‘Plus One Learning Cycles‘ professional learning programme that staff at the school had participated in. Teachers and teaching assistants presented their learning from the programme to their peers and leaders. They reflected on the new approaches they’d embedded and, importantly the impact of these changes on the learning of their classes.
Not only were staff inspired by the presentations of their peers (often individuals in other teams who they didn’t collaborate with regularly) they were also able to:
- Pinpoint strategies in these presentations that they could adapt for their own classroom. After all these were strategies that were working for colleagues who are teaching similar children in the same building
- Appreciate the impact of new approaches on children who they’d previously taught themselves
Given that more than twenty teachers and teaching assistants presented – we were there for nearly three hours – the screenshots below are just a representative sample of the depth of the reflections. It was one of those occasions, where the collective energy of the cathedral builders could be felt strongly.
The reflection framework that staff used consisted off three sections: gains, pains, and learning.
Gains – What were the gains that were made?
It’s so important to dig below the surface of ‘it worked’ to unpick why it worked. Not only that, but what other unexpected gains may have been made, have we not noticed?
This question focuses practitioners’ thinking, right from the start of the professional learning programme. By identifying the sources of feedback that will demonstrate the impact of their changes on the learning of their class(es), practitioners can then collate this feedback as the programme proceeds.
The feedback falls into two broad categories.
Some of the feedback is qualitative in nature, for example:
- Observation of adult/learners
- Quantity and quality of practising by children
- The deepening of children’s oral or written responses
- Video recordings by practitioners of their own teaching/interactions and the learning of the children
- Photos of resources that had been adapted e.g. scaffolding tools, modelling techniques, checking for understanding prompts, classroom environment
- Pupil voice
Practitioners also gather quantitative data, where it is available, including:
- Assessment data
- Observation data e.g. numeric data linked to which children answered questions, and the nature of their responses
Having collated this feedback, practitioners at Northway were better able to evaluate the gains that had been made, and ensure that they were making judgements based upon the impact on children’s learning not just their own personal reaction to the programme. Focussing on the impact on students’ learning is what Thomas R Guskey refers to as ‘Level 5 impact‘.
This feedback on impact aided more accurate assessment of both the expected gains, as well as pinpointing the unexpected gains. For example, one practitioner noticed that effective use of mini-whiteboards not only gave her more accurate feedback about the depth of understanding across the class, it also prompted the whole class to habitually engage in the Q&A process. Something they hadn’t done before.
Through unpicking the gains, the cause-effect relationships between practitioner actions, and the learning of children could be established. In the busy environment of the classroom these relationships can be tricky to unpick ‘live’.
By analysing cause-effect relationships carefully, practitioners gain a deeper understanding of the processes at work. This puts them in a stronger position to evaluate opportunities to transfer new approaches to different contexts. For example, how can we take this new approach to teaching maths, and adapt it to our teaching of writing?
Pains – what pains did we encounter?
I must always appreciate that the minute I introduce thirty children into a new process, that it’ll take time to practise to make it perfect. Taking an iterative approach, and appreciating implementation issues are normal, means that I focus on embedding the new approach over time.
By conducting a pre-mortem with all participants at the start of the programme, we were able to identify the key risk factors and adapt the process to minimise them.
For teachers, in many schools, the biggest pains related to engaging deeply in professional learning is time, or rather the lack of it. Pre-Covid, schools were busy places. In these Covid times, with higher rates of staff absence, the lack of supply staff, coupled with children’s attendance suffering too, it is important to ring fence dedicated time to maintain the momentum of professional learning programmes.
Learning – what did we learn from the process?
It is just as important for me to be a learner about teaching, as it is for my children to be learners. Keeping that curiosity, makes being a teacher so fascinating…
The learning section of the reflective presentations from practitioners is always fascinating. They tend to fall into one of three categories:
- The learning about the children they teach. For example, how teaching in different ways can build learner competence, higher expectations, and deeper understanding
- The learning about teaching, new strategies/approaches, and the research that informs these approaches
- The learning about themselves as learners. That change involves risk and uncertainty, however well planned it is. Yet not being open to change brings risk to, as it can limit the impact of our teaching
Here is just a sample of the reflections from practitioners at Northway about their learning…
And what next?
The final question was ‘what next?’. After all, the process of developing teaching, deepening collaboration and reflecting on the impact of teaching on learning is, in the most fertile teams I’ve worked with, a habit.
Thanks to the whole Northway team for embracing the programme.
Photo credit: “Cradle Mountain reflections” by Scott Cresswell is marked with CC BY 2.0.