This academic year has been one of many changes to how I work. Having read Shaun Allison’s recent blog on 2012-2103, it got me thinking about the benefits of such a blog topic. Over the course of a year, the marginal gains that we make can, when they become autonomous, be taken for granted as we become unconsciously competent. We forget how we used to do things and perhaps in some situations the reasons for the change in the first place. To be effective coaches and leaders, it is important that we clarify the changes that we ourselves make to our practice so we can build up a knowledge of development to complement our content and pedagogical knowledge.
So, this post is a reflection on my year, with two intended benefits. The first is to help me to recall and better understand my professional development, and the second is to help me to prepare for new responsibilities next year around leadership, coaching and CPD.
I did what I knew. And when I knew better, I did better.
It is only this year that I have had anything like an opinion on educational matters. Knowledge vs skills? Direct instruction vs discovery learning? I just didn’t know enough. Up until recently, I don’t feel I had any time available other than to work at making sure I taught well. I realise the importance of this background knowledge now and would advise anyone in their early years of teaching to make the time for supplementary reading. Twitter enabled this to happen – there are so many knowledgeable people sharing readily what they have been reading and their own expertise.
So, a significant change for me this year is that I know more. From Hattie’s meta analysis of effective interventions, to cognitive psychology writings by those such as Daniel Willingham, this knowledge helps to make better judgements, to question and to reflect. I know that many dichotomies presented are false. I know that many advocates of a particular approach have something to sell. I’ve read much more this year than perhaps all my other teaching years combined. Of note are: Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov; Seven Myths About Education by Daisy Christodoulou; Switch by Chip and Dan Heath; The Perfect Teacher Coach by Jackie Beere; Teacher by Tom Bennett; Cognitive Psychology and Instruction by Bruning et al. This is not to mention the numerous blog posts. Having this knowledge provides a sound foundation on which to develop teaching strategies, and it is the same in the classroom. Children need to know stuff if they are to develop the various skills expected.
Throughout most of my twenties, I was a goalkeeper in the lower levels of non-league football. I trained regularly, and a typical session would include practising ‘handling’ (catching and securing differing shots), ‘crosses’ (attacking and catching balls struck into the penalty area) and kicking (working on distance and accuracy with different techniques). Coaches would stop the drills at various points and offer feedback – when the shot is struck, make sure your feet are ‘set’ to allow you to react quickly to changes; raise your knee to protect yourself when jumping for crosses; pull your stomach in and up when you kick the ball to control your swing. Straight away, I’d continue the drill, trying this feedback out. I’m sure these chunks of feedback are fairly decent metaphors for teaching. Perhaps in a different post…
I read Doug Lemov’s book, Practice Perfect, after it was mentioned a few times in my Twitter feed. It provided momentum for a change in thinking. In my early years of teaching, I thought that children practising and children making progress were not comfortable bedfellows. Typing that sentence was rather embarrassing. The more I think about what I was taught as a novice teacher, the more it annoys me. Having played football at a fairly decent standard, I knew and lived the importance of practice. Those misguided early years of teaching were the result of some patchy ITT and the unrealised notion that beliefs and practices, however popularly held, can and should be questioned. Carefully planned practice of essential strategies, with quick and specific feedback, followed by immediate application of the feedback. It’s exactly what I did at football training but had not applied it to how I taught in those early years. Educational research has never been more accessible and an important change for me this year is to question what others claim is good practice.
Making concrete plans
Now, deliberate practice is a fundamental aspect of my classroom. Next though, I aim to affect teaching quality at my school by planning deliberate practice into our CPD schedule. When I read the book the first time, I imagined how a staff INSET session might look, applying Lemov’s 42 rules for getting better at getting better. For example, in a session looking to practice shared writing, I’d start by ‘Calling the Shots’: “We’re about to see a video/live lesson of Mrs X doing shared writing. I want you to look out for how she models her thinking process; how she articulates the writing process. Perhaps you’ll notice some phrases that she uses.” It should be apparent that we have consistent underlying principles, but flexibility in how we apply them.
With colleagues primed, they’d observe and discuss. We’d then probe to qualify what it was that the teacher did and how effective it was, as well as other ways of doing it. Having seen a good example and refined some ideas through discussion, we’d split off into smaller groups to have a go. Colleagues would have been asked to bring with them anything that would help them practise shared writing, perhaps parts of their working wall from their current unit of work or from a recent one. They’d have a go, colleagues would provide some feedback to the person presenting, then they’d act on that feedback by doing that bit again.
Up until this point it sounds pretty straight forward, but the moment the time comes to practise is probably the moment where it breaks down. It’s awkward, we feel self-conscious and most of us will employ some sort of avoidance strategy. With this in mind, until staff are more comfortable with the idea of practice I’m thinking that initially it would be better to build the habits of practice through 1:1 coaching in the classroom. Find opportunities in the lesson to give some quick feedback to the teacher and get them to redo strategies acting on the advice. I’ve tried both ways in the last few weeks and months and the 1:1 was undoubtedly more successful. However, we cannot assume that effective teachers will coach well too. So, a priority for September is to deliberately practise strategies that our coaches will be using. Demonstration lessons, coaching conversations and quick, effective feedback will probably be the staple of the coaches work. If we get this sorted early on, I know we can make advances in the pursuit if great teaching.
I get the feeling that we are approaching a period of significant change in education. As we understand more about learning and effective strategies, we can further refine what we do in the classroom. Looking forward to 2013-2014…