Beautifully Fractured

It's all about the why.

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Evaluating Teaching Not Teachers

How Did We Get Here?

I have never been someone to make excuses or not have the very highest aspirations and expectations for teachers and students.  I have also never thought that these aspirations and expectations are realised by measurements.

In 2010, I developed a cycle within school that did not base the evaluation of the quality of teaching on lesson observations alone.  At the time, this was a significant shift from previous school policy, and also from a lot of other schools I knew.  Over the last 5 years, this cycle has ebbed and flowed with the removal of lesson observation grades taking place a few years ago.  It used to be my biggest frustration that schools didn’t believe it possible to make informed statements and judgements about the quality of teaching without lesson observation grades, and the preoccupation with ‘having to have something to show Ofsted’ seemed absolutely the wrong way round to me.

But it wasn’t until @benbainessle joined our team, and we created our evaluating teaching not teachers cycle, that I finally feel I have squared the circle.  Prior to this, the model was fit for purpose, it was welcomed by staff, and it was driven by my core beliefs:

L+T core beliefs

But it still wasn’t quite right.  It still seemed to be masquerading – whilst it was not driven by measurement, it still didn’t feel ‘authentic’.  Whilst we are only at the start of our evaluating teaching journey, I am convinced this is what I have been looking for.

The Catalyst

Leverage Leadership was one of those books you read that transforms the way you think about things. Having led learning and teaching, I was always the biggest advocate that the very best way to improve outcomes for students was by implementing a coaching model which focused on giving teachers regular, bite-sized feedback. Imagine my surprise when I found myself reading that the content of my very vocal soap-box was questioned. And that there were credible arguments that it was, in fact, data-driven instruction which would have the biggest impact on student outcomes. I subsequently read and saw the term data-led instruction changed to data-informed instruction and this sits much more comfortably with me. Data gives you no answers and as soon as we take the data as absolute, we sacrifice in my view, everything that is important in education. Data is just the starting point and we have worked hard with staff over the last couple of years to get them to view data as a check for the effectiveness of teaching strategies and approaches that they have already implemented, rather than as a catalyst for starting actions. It is our job as leaders to question the data and look to find the story behind this before we make any rash, uninformed decisions.

@LeadingLearner has written here about how his school teams have adapted the principles outlined in Leverage Leadership.

Data and Feedback Informed Teaching and Learning

We have adopted a slightly different approach.

Principles of the Model

The principles behind our evaluating teaching cycle are straightforward:

  • We are evaluating the quality of teaching NOT teachers. There is a subtle but important difference.
  • It is a flawed methodology to arbitrarily judge the quality of teachers through lesson observations.
  • The best schools promote a collaborative and shared commitment to improving outcomes for students.
  • There is no prescriptive approach to quality teaching – what’s good is what works.
  • Data is merely the starting point – it gives no answers, just generates hypotheses.
  • The most important aspect of any evaluation cycle is the input – the quality and personalisation of research, actions, and strategies which recognise that different approaches work differently for different teachers, departments and students.

The Cycle

These principles led to @benbainessle and I designing the following cycle as our methodology for both evaluating and improving the quality of teaching:

kc-et-cycle

 

Data Collection

This is just the start (or once the cycle is implemented – the checking process!). This is not the post to discuss the process we go through to collect data, but needless to say it has been through a process to ensure that it is meaningful and robust. For us, this is just summative data and we do not pretend for it to be anything other than this. @benbainessle has written here about how we are using PLCs and grain-sized data as the most important form of assessment to inform teaching for students.

Part 2 – How do we prevent data being the catalyst for change?

Key Questions

This data forms the basis for Directors of Learning and SLT line managers to draw hypotheses from:

  • What are the trends for key groups across the subjects?
  • How are the students performing in relation to their prior attainment?
  • Is there a difference between performance at key stages?
  • Is there in-subject variation?
  • Where is there good practice?

Cause and Effect

Our Directors of Learning are constantly evaluating the quality of their department’s work, but following the generation of the hypotheses from the data collection, we have a consistent review week across the school to allow for quality assurance, and joint work between middle and senior leaders, to ‘test’ these hypotheses. If the data is suggesting, for example, that in Year 8 maths the high prior attainment disadvantaged students are underperforming in comparison to the advantaged students, we will make this a focus for further investigation on top of our everyday evaluation. We will visit lessons, look at schemes of learning, look at books, talk to the students, look at parental engagement, compare attainment of these students in maths with other subjects and so on.

Once we have interrogated the data and our initial hypotheses, we discuss as a department team, and as a team of middle leaders, what our priorities are as a whole school, as well as highlighting any in-school variation. I am a fan of Patrick Lencioni and we have “if everything is important, than nothing is” displayed throughout the school. Whilst there are inevitably going to be nuances within departments, for maximum impact we know we need to identify the common strands.

Making the Difference

Once these have been identified, we move to the most important part of our cycle – how we use what we know to ‘productively tinker’ with our practice. We tackle this from both a teacher and student perspective. Some of the strategies we have found effective for us can be seen here:

kc-et2

The work now really begins and students, teachers, middle leaders and senior leaders work together to implement the actions with an emphasis on shared ownership and collaboration. Our data scrutiny meetings have completely changed emphasis. Rather than focusing on the numbers, they are instead driven by a discussion and commitment to the changes that will take place in the classroom in schemes of learning, teaching approaches, assessment approaches and department work. Our SLT leads for data, and learning and teaching are present – the two cannot be separated. @benbainessle often says his destiny is intertwined with that of @RhiLlGant.

The next data collection is then an opportunity to ‘temperature check’ the impact of the work we have been undertaking. And so the cycle begins again – in all likelihood, we will need to continue with what we are already doing as sustainable improvements don’t happen overnight, but ‘checking in’ allows us to track progress against priorities and alert us to anything else which may need investigating.

But what about?

The concept of the cycle was welcomed unanimously by Directors of Learning, and their input into how the cycle would work in practice led to some effective changes to our initial thoughts. Unsurprisingly for them, the collaborative approach was the most important aspect.

It is worth noting though that this is not a ‘soft’ option – this model does not excuse underperformance. And whilst I wrote here about my view of accountability,

Accountability is not about telling people off.

my driving belief is that I want all teachers to be teachers who I would be happy to teach my own children. So, this model is not one which precludes tackling and addressing individual underperformance. Nor is it only during ‘review’ weeks that teaching is evaluated. We all know that you don’t need an observation or a data collection to tell you that a teacher is not performing. If at any points, there are concerns, these are raised and addressed in the appropriate way.

And whilst I would hope nothing I do is driven by Ofsted, I am not naïve to these pressures.   I have every confidence that when we are next inspected, our approach to evaluating teaching – with not a single grading of a teacher in sight – will be welcomed. In fact, I won’t allow it to be up for discussion.

Next steps

Alongside trialling and refining this cycle, @benbainessle is also currently working on a teacher PLC which we will use to forensically identify where we have areas of strength in terms of pedagogy, and where we need to do further work at both a teacher, department and whole school level. I am excited about the potential of this and again, this has been welcomed by staff. I know he intends to blog about it in the near future and I would definitely recommend looking out for it if you are a senior or middle leader.

We would love to hear your thoughts / feedback on what we are doing.  Please do leave us a comment.

Accountability is not about telling people off.

Our staff are the most important resource in a school. I am inspired and driven by the difference I can make to children’s lives, but I know that this is never going to be possible without a motivated and committed staff.

I get really frustrated sometimes with words such as “rigour”, “robust”, and “relentless”. Not because I disagree with them – they are critical to ensuring excellence – but because too often they are used to excuse systems, behaviours and actions which do nothing to promote collaboration, creativity or, in actual fact, challenge. They can lead to a notion of accountability which becomes about fear and falling short. What’s more damaging to innovation and a love of learning than that?

For me, accountability is more about clarity and focus than it is about measurement. It is about the transparency and alignment of expectations, clear communication, personalised support, and taking appropriate action should these not be realised.  And it is a two way process. As a leader within a school, I hold others to account.  However, more essential to me is that I hold myself accountable to my own values, that I am held accountable by the staff I work with but most importantly, that I am held to account by my students.

Meetings – potentially the most exciting part of your day.

 

“How am I going to get any work done, if I spend all my time in meetings?”

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We’ve all thought it.  But I want to challenge the view that meetings are inherently bad. I have sat through plenty of meetings (and, in fact, chaired a few) where I absolutely get why this is the case – ineffectual, circuitous, frustrating, irrelevant. But inspired by Lencioni’s Death by Meeting, I am an absolute convert to his belief that this is entirely avoidable.

If you haven’t read Death by Meeting and you are a leader, you really should. The effect of bad meetings on a team can be huge – more so than you may realise. Lencioni clearly shows his readers how meetings can be turned into the best part of someone’s week. It is not, though, through more detailed preparation, agendas or minutes. Instead, he advises leaders to adopt some principles which may be counter-intuitive at first, but will soon prove their worth.

The two problems with bad meetings

Lencioni’s view is that meetings have two fundamental problems. The first is that they lack drama. Think here (and this perhaps gives you an insight into my non-working life) of Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol, rather than Dickensian, Sherlock Holmes, Game of Thrones or Holby City depending on your inclinations. The second is that, he claims, they lack context and purpose. Think here a random (and therefore confusing) mix of strategy, information, administration, operational issues and review. The result – a meeting which seems to go on forever with no decisions made that get the commitment of the entire team.

How do you create a soap opera?

Building on his ideas in Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Lencioni convincingly tells us that meetings need to be engaging. How? By identifying and encouraging conflict. This is something all good authors and screenwriters know well. There’s no better way to captivate your reader or viewer than through a good-old fashioned bit of tension – and this needs to happen pretty quickly to avoid someone changing the channel.

What does that mean for your meeting? Make sure the items and issues which will cause the most debate are tabled right at the start. Lencioni asserts that this way – expecting people to tackle these issues until a resolution has been agreed – can create authentic and irresistible drama, thus preventing participants from switching off.

Which episode and why?

Of course unless there is clarity over the purpose of a meeting, even high drama will be worthless. Lencioni here does not talk about agendas and minutes, but distinguishes between different types of meetings. His solution here is to have more meetings. This DOES NOT necessarily mean more time in meetings, but making sure there are distinct types of meetings. He outlines the following types:

The Daily Check-in

This is an administrative meeting that should last no more than 5 or 10 minutes. The purpose is simply to keep team members aligned and to provide a daily forum for activity updates and scheduling.

The Weekly Tactical

This is what most people would call staff meetings. These should be about an hour, and focus on the discussion and resolution of issues which effect short term objectives. Again building on ideas in his other books, he shows that these actually work best if there is no pre-set agenda. He advocates that the agenda should be determined at the start of the meeting by quickly reviewing the team’s priorities for that week. This ensures focus is only on the most pressing and important issues.

The Monthly Strategic

This is the most interesting kind of meeting for leaders, and for Lencioni is the most important indicator of an organisation’s strategic vision. This is the meeting for big topics and issues which will have long-term impact. These issues require more time and a different setting, one in which participants can present and debate ideas to come up with the best solution.  Each strategic meeting should include no more than one or two topics, and should allow approximately 90 minutes for each topic.

The Quarterly Off-Site Review

This is the final type of meeting and is an opportunity for team members to step away from the day to day business of the organisation and reassess how the team is performing, strategy, morale and so on. These are likely to take a full day.

So at the end of the first day back, and after what I am sure have been many minutes spent in some form of meeting by many of us, give Lencioni some thought.  As leaders, meetings are part and parcel of what we do. The solution is perhaps not to get rid of them, but to make sure we transform them into the most compelling part of the day.

 

Learning Without Limits

What’s the problem?

Uncompromising expectations for all? Progress regardless of starting point? Nothing to argue about here, and it’s not astounding or new to say that it comes down to expectations and mindset. A fortuitous Google search when looking for a clip for the SSAT NC workshop I co-delivered yielded this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=viHaslVc9cc. It’s well worth a watch.  But what does this look like in practice?  How do we plan and structure learning so that this becomes a reality and students make progress from their individual starting points so no learning time is wasted and expectations are ambitious for all? This is the first in a number of posts which will share an approach that we have found has gone some way to doing this.

I wrote here http://wp.me/p73FPf-1d about Bloom’s taxonomy and how its use as a teaching model rather than the assessment model for which it was intended, has potentially limited expectations in the classroom.   Of course it’s not just Bloom’s which has the unintended effect of capping expectations of students.  Any form of differentiated learning outcomes – all, most, some; must, should, could; any direction of students to undertake tasks based on a number or letter has the same effect.

I thought this approach had all but vanished but I think I may be being naive here. My husband who, as part of his role at the University of Nottingham, works with English PGCE students tells me that over 70% of the schools he visits still use some form of this approach to underpin their planning and delivery of lessons.  So what’s the alternative?

An alternative mindset when planning learning

I started thinking and working on this in April 2013 and fundamentally it’s about changing a mindset, an approach to planning lessons. Following some feedback I was listening to in April 2013 on some of the teaching which had been seen within the school, a comment was made about maximising learning time for all. Too often students were spending time undertaking tasks they didn’t need to, or conversely moving on to tasks when they were not ready.

I started to reflect on my own practice – how often did I do that?  A vertical approach to lessons was evident in the fact that I would write the lesson outline of our learning journey on the board in a number of steps.  I consider myself proficient at differentiation and I would always ensure that all students could access the learning question I was exploring that lesson or series of lessons. I would always move students on when I felt they were ready but in essence, I still expected all students to move through the lesson / scheme of learning in a vertical way.

I thought back to an A level language lesson I had taught earlier that week where we had all undertaken a discussion of a text we were then going to analyse. Two thoughts came to mind – why did I expect student X to sit through this?  She had a good grasp of the linguistic frameworks required and she was able to structure her responses so that they started with consideration of context first.  My other thought related to student Y.  How much had she actually gained from listening to the discussion?  There were some gaps in her knowledge in terms of the linguistic frameworks she needed and she also had a tendency to feature-spot.  I knew all this information before I started the lesson from my assessment of their work and I tracked this in what was a very early version of a PLC!

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 19.05.47

I used this information to tailor learning so that students addressed their individual gaps and in this particular lesson, students were focusing when undertaking their analysis on the assessment objective which they struggled with the most.  Yet it struck me that even though I did all this, I still wasn’t maximising learning time for all as much as I could.

As I sat and listened to the feedback that April, I started to sketch a diagram to try and visualise my thoughts which were now formulating about thinking horizontally not vertically.  I know that learning is messy, I know that learning takes time, I know that learning involves forgetting and revisiting, and I know that even if two students are given the same notional grade, their skill sets are very different within this.

Key principles

The key principles are:

  1. Teaching up – expect all students to achieve mastery and start the planning of learning here.
  1. Success is judged against the same assessment and success criteria for all regardless of where they start.
  1. Steps to the same expectation. Give more time, different support, building blocks to achieve the next steps towards mastery. There is not a ceiling – same steps to essentially the same goal. If you read my post on Bloom’s, the English lesson I referenced was a good example of how this works in practice.
  1. Students don’t all start at the same step but all should make progress to the same end goal.

An early worked example

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What it looks like now

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Three and a half years on, much collaboration and trialling with staff, refinements and amendments, my original sketch looks like the one shown above.  It is important to note that in the evolution of the diagram, the steps and dotted lines didn’t appear on the initial document. Originally the diagram was just blocks with fully defined lines as in the early example. This didn’t visualise adequately the notion that students were all climbing to the same destination and it promoted a ‘blocking off’ and discrete tasks -which was exactly what I was trying to avoid!

What it’s not

This is not a lesson plan. It is an attempt to visualise and codify a way of thinking / mindset.  It encourages staff to think where on the journey students need to start.  This is individual and particular to the learning which is going on at the time – it doesn’t matter what grade a student is targeted or working at, it’s about identifying what you know about that student’s readiness and where they would be best placed.  Students may skip steps, go back steps, stay on the same step for a while but the principle – that all students are expected to achieve the same goal but that the steps they take to get there are different – has transformed classrooms in our school.

Where next?

Part 2 will share some practical examples of our approach to learning design as well as sharing some of our successes and inevitable things we still need to refine.

Part 3 will focus on sharing practical strategies on one of the most fundamental aspects of this approach – making sure that students start at the right place on their journey.

In the meantime, I would welcome debate, challenge, feedback!

 

 

‘Who in the world am I?’ – What would your sentence be?

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I am sure many people reading this are well aware of Dan Pink’s Drive.  I read this soon after it was published almost 5 years ago now, and it absolutely made sense to me.  If you haven’t read it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  For a couple of years afterwards, it was my gift of choice for colleagues and friends alike.  There are many ideas within Drive that if I am ever fortunate enough to lead my own school, I would like to see underpin the work the whole school community undertakes.  It is the antithesis of all the quick fixes which frustrate me daily, and I am convinced that the children in our schools deserve to understand and be helped to achieve those three concepts of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Something which has worked for us (and led nicely on from our commitment to always think about the why first) is Pink’s concept of ‘my sentence’.  A short video (which I played to all students and staff) can be found here:

http://www.danpink.com/2011/01/whats-your-sentence-the-video/

In summary, a ‘my sentence’ encapsulates how you would like to be remembered.  That sounds a little morbid but it is utterly brilliant for getting students (and staff) to think about what’s important to them.  What’s their why?  What motivates them?  What do they hope to achieve?  I often try and avoid at all costs sentimental quotations, but the words of Gandhi here really do sum up how powerful this activity can be.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”

All staff and students created their own ‘my sentence’ and we have shared these as a school community.  Some of our student ‘my sentences’ are in the process of being enlarged with photos of the students to be displayed around the school.  There are no better role models!  I would like to see the staff and student ‘my sentences’ accompany our recruitment literature to give a real sense of what working with the brilliant colleagues and children at our school is like.  Asking students to reflect (and refine!) their ‘my sentences’  is an invaluable piece of useful ‘data’ for teachers of new classes in getting to really know them, and what their ambitions and values are.   Our Class of 2015 attached their ‘my sentences’ to a balloon and these were released at the end of year Prom.  On the bottom of the slip, we asked whoever found them to let us know that they had via email.  We had some lovely replies and there was something gratifying about knowing that our students had potentially changed the perception of some out there in relation to teenagers.  When we start back in January, we are going to ask all students to revisit their ‘my sentences’ and we will display these by hanging them from the ceiling in our foyer.  There are many more practical ways that ‘my sentences’ can be used with all of the school community – we are only just starting!

The other question that Pink believes to be important is “Was I better today than I was yesterday?”  This embodies the mindset of growth, determination and hard work that is so important to me and again, it is great to use with staff as well as students.  There are all sorts of possibilities in terms of weaving this into the daily life and language of our school that we are beginning to explore.

We have also spent time thinking about what our school ‘my sentence’ and department ‘my sentences’ would be.  It’s harder than you might think to capture your dreams, ambitions, and values in just one sentence.  Every word counts and like the best poetry, the economy of expression can lead to some beautiful writing.  More than that though, I have found it to be unequalled in terms of getting school teams to define and create a shared sense of values and purpose.  Our departments use their ‘my sentences’ as their ‘tag line’ to students and on emails.  It has not become a gimmick.  Instead, it helps form distinct identities within an overarching common identity which has engaged everyone.

My own ‘my sentence’ would be, “She always gave her best and challenged everyone to think, not just be.”

What’s yours?

Is it time to rethink Bloom’s?

Why rethink Bloom’s?

The language of Bloom’s taxonomy is one of those enduring discourses that seems to pervade all schools. Whether it is used as a basis to create a replacement system for life without levels, frame learning objectives, adorned on bookmarks given to students, on colourful posters in classrooms to prompt questions, or any other number of wonderful variations, the one thing I am certain of is that Bloom’s is pretty much the most widely known taxonomy amongst teachers. But what if this popular model was actually doing more harm than good? What if it was actually widening the achievement gap?

Bloom originally created the taxonomy as a model of assessment, as a way of classifying and assessing learning outcomes. The intention was that outcomes should interrelate closely with each outcome subsuming the level before it. It’s important to make note of this as the original model was intended to allow educators to deduce the particular outcomes which students had mastered based on an assessment of a difficult but closely aligned task.

What appears to have happened over time is that what was initially intended as a model of assessment, has become a model of teaching. And before I go any further it is probably worth saying that “higher order” and “lower order” don’t appear anywhere in Bloom’s taxonomy. As this maladaptation of the taxonomy has taken hold across classrooms and schools, it has led to several important, but unintended, consequences.

The limitations of using Bloom’s as a teaching model.

Using Bloom’s as a model of teaching has equated to teachers using it to decide when and how outcomes should be covered. In particular, it appears to have led to teaching practices which prevent so called “higher order” tasks being attempted before “lower order” tasks have been mastered. How many times do you hear (and I have been guilty of this) a teacher say, “But my student can’t attempt analysis or evaluation because they can’t recall or comprehend.”

The taxonomy has been broadened so that it is now used as a way of sequencing activities with the assumption that students have to be given a lower order task before they can undertake any higher order task on the same general topic. This is where the earlier point about closely aligned tasks is important. In the generalisation of the model, it is this aspect which has been most lost – activities are simply sequenced without any regard as to whether they overlap or whether the higher order tasks are more difficult than the lower order tasks. Carol Ann Tomlinson puts it starkly when she writes in Understanding by Design that differentiation by Bloom’s taxonomy is simply “indefensible”.

Does Bloom’s lower expectations of thinking?

My biggest worry about the shift that has happened in the use of the model is that by using Bloom’s taxonomy without proper regard to its original conception, we have actually failed to encourage the thinking which teachers are so adamant that using this model promotes. I fear we are in fact simply lowering our expectations of thinking, and consequently increasing the achievement gap.

I spent the day with one of my mentees last year and he spent the whole day ‘describing’, excluded from the more engaging and demanding tasks.  I remember sitting with him in English while he had to complete a cloze review whilst some of his classmates were able to create a far more interesting review for a specified genre, audience and purpose. And this wasn’t because he had poor teachers, all of them were doing this with honest intentions. But the misapplication of Bloom’s had unintentionally led to a lowering of expectations, and promoted a view that higher order tasks were inherently more difficult than lower order tasks. Whilst this is obviously the case if the tasks are closely aligned, it is not a natural leap to then assume that students can’t attempt a more accessible version of the higher order tasks.

In the English example I have just given, why couldn’t my mentee have been expected to also create a review? Whilst he may have needed more support in terms of scaffolding by either doing some preliminary work on effective review writing, or considering the impact of contextual factors on writers’ choices, or even in the content which he was reviewing, there was no reason why he couldn’t still have attempted the same task as the most able students. How many of our students spend their days languishing at the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy?

The danger of using Bloom’s stems to phrase learning objectives.

My other more recent concern relates to the ubiquitous use of Bloom’s taxonomy stems when phrasing any kind of learning which teachers want to take place. Again, I have been there. I remember creating chequebooks and laminated stem cards to cover every kind of verb going in Bloom’s taxonomy. But the more I see, the more I think that this over-reliance on the stems is actually creating less thinking, rather than more thinking.

Of course Bloom did attach verbs to each level of cognition but these somehow now seem to have taken on a mythical power of their own – that by simply using them, it’s enough for a particular type of higher order thinking to occur. More often than not though, I see students simply going through the motions. Every type of thinking can be undertaken consciously or unconsciously. You cannot detach evaluative thinking from all other levels – all disciplined thinking requires some kind of evaluative thinking. Explaining something is not just a mechanical process. It requires all sorts of thinking around what exactly to say and is underpinned by an appreciation and consideration of the audience, purpose and genre for which one is writing.  To increase challenge for all we need to explicitly scaffold the critical reflection needed for every level of thinking regardless of its position on an hierachy.

What next?

Teachers can be resistant to any debate around Bloom’s, and indeed other taxonomies such as SOLO. It’s as if it has become so accepted into the folklore of schools that it has to be right. I have done much work around learning design and how to structure learning so that all students are expected to achieve the same end point. I will share some of these practical strategies in a later post but would love to hear in the meantime any responses to this.

What I do know is that if we are to promote thinking within our schools, we need to do a little more thinking ourselves.

Productive Tinkering

We all know that regular, targeted, bite-sized feedback is the best way to fine-tune our teaching practice. We also all know that it is the constant feedback which we are so used to receiving as trainee teachers which can sometimes dwindle as we progress through our careers.

The 30 day challenge inspired by Matt Cutts is a great way to not only engage staff, but also refine pedagogy. If you don’t have a few minutes to watch his TED talk, the concept is quite simple. 30 days is just about long enough to form a habit.

I adapted this idea and asked all teachers to commit to working on one aspect of their teaching practice for 30 days with the support of a colleague. Each day we all received some form of input into our own challenges, whether this be by popping into each others’ classrooms for 10 minutes to focus on the chosen aspect, sharing a resource, observing another colleague, or even having a conversation about our area of focus.

We shared our reflections as a group as we went through the 30 days, and by the end of the first cycle not only did we all feel we had refined our practice, but more importantly we had strengthened collegiate links.

For those who are maybe thinking we don’t have the time or resources to invest in daily feedback, I would absolutely challenge this. By focusing only on the element that will make the most impact, and making this the same priority for 30 days, a short visit and / or any of the other feedback mechanisms is definitely achievable. When creating a culture of ‘productive tinkering’, there is nothing more important than making the time to think about our own practice.

I also showed the clip to all our students in assembly and they undertook their own personal or class 30 day challenges alongside us. The sense of focus and energy was tangible throughout the school community.

The language of the 30 day challenge is now part and parcel of our learning and teaching discourse and has certainly been one of the most ‘stickable’ things I have done. I am happy to share resources if anyone would like to see them.

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

It’s rare to find a social media savvy educator these days who hasn’t seen, or at least heard of, Simon Sinek’s Start With Why.  When I first watched this clip in 2013, it was one of those lightbulb moments.  One of those concepts that was just so obvious that you wondered why you had never thought of it before.  It simply made sense.  It was the clearest explanation I had ever come across in terms of articulating what it was about all those leaders who inspired me.

I have always been someone who is motivated by that almost romantic and idealistic view of what can be achieved, and I am drawn to people who are authentic in their beliefs and the expression of these.  It’s no wonder that some of the people whose writing resonates with me most, are those who convince me via their written word of this authenticity – @headguruteacher @LeadingLearner @kevbartle@Edutronic_net.

My discovery of the Sinek video coincided with the writing of our school development plan, and it has absolutely transformed the way we write and indeed use this document in our school.  After only watching the video once, it already seemed ridiculous that we had always written a plan which was driven by data targets, structured around actions based on Ofsted categories, and aimed at outlining what we were going to do.  What kind of teacher would get excited by this?  Not the kind I would want educating my own daughters.

I am not naive enough to think that those things can just be discarded, but to make those the driving force of a document which ultimately is about creating incurably curious learners seemed limited at best, completely uninspiring at worst.   Despite many previous attempts (which were successful to some degree) to engage all stakeholders meaningfully with this crucial document, we were always missing the final piece of the jigsaw.  And it turns out that it came down to the way we were communicating.  We had fallen prey to communicating the what, not the why.

So, in order to become the school planning equivalent of Apple, we reversed our process and thinking.  We articulated our why first – our purpose in leading our school – condensed into one sentence which has become the drive behind everything we do .  This was followed by the how – the 5 tenets through which we wanted to get to our why.  And finally the what – the actions we would undertake to achieve this.  Our plan now exists in the form of a diagram which mirrors Sinek’s golden circle.

The shift has been remarkable.  Staff, students and parents can talk about and understand our core purpose and how we are going to get there.  Leaders are always reminded of the distinct flavour of our school as they undertake actions, and this moral code keeps us on track to ensure that we remain authentic to our beliefs.  I was challenged at first, by a practising Lead Ofsted inspector who works closely with us, as to why I hadn’t used the Ofsted categories or language as the frame for the school development plan.  By the end of a lively and lengthy discussion, he was convinced.  I am absolutely steadfast in my belief that if you do things right in the first place, the external validation will take care of itself.

Of course any effective plan needs clear and tangible milestones, and ours has an executive summary which maps these out, but these are simply checkpoints along the way.  They are not the instigators of actions.  By starting with the why, a school development plan suddenly becomes a whole lot more than just a document.

If you are interested in what this looks like, please feel free to direct message me.

“Everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head…That story makes you what you are.”

Feedback drives us as humans.  There is nothing any of us want more than affirmation of what people think of us, what people think about our ideas, what people think of how we behave, and what we do.  There are those who claim this is not the case, and that they are instead driven by their own intrinsic sense of motivation and high expectations but I would question this.  I defy anyone to not ultimately recognize that the power of the written word is in its ability to connect us to each other, to help us understand our own emotions and those of others, and in its rawest form to provide comfort that we are not alone.  This need for validation is also central to feedback.

But like so many other concepts within teaching, feedback has at its heart an almost paradoxical quality.  We all know the impact that feedback has on learning when done well, but we are also all equally aware of its crippling effect when done badly.  This dangerous highwire we tread comes from the fact that feedback is intensely personal.  Regardless of whether the feedback is about a piece of work, a performance in class or an answer to a question, it is almost impossible to separate feedback about the task or learning objective from something more personal – from something which at its heart says something about you as a person.

How many times have you been given feedback about a lesson and when you get to the inevitable improvements, not had an instinctive reaction which ultimately equates to something along the lines of personal criticism?  That flight or fight mechanism kicks in before you can stop in.  Of course as professionals and adults we learn to get better at managing this response and not letting it hijack the feedback which will ultimately help us improve.  But how do we encourage this in students who are also negotiating a changing sense of self, their position within the classroom hierarchy and an undeveloped toolkit of emotional responses?  It seems to me that we all have much work to do in relation to this.

Assessment has always been high on everyone’s agenda, and the debate about when to give feedback, when not to give feedback, what type of feedback to use, and any other number of similar questions will always exist.  But before we even start considering the detail of this, I would suggest that we need to understand and nurture in our children something more fundamental in the first instance.  And it relates to a student’s sense of self worth and purpose.  Without the emotional resilience and ability to negotiate the high stakes of the flight or fight response, there is almost little worth in providing feedback as it will always be interpreted though frosted glass.

 

 

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter;”

Today has surprised me in many ways.  Some parts have been good, some bad.  What all parts have emphasised is what I referred to in my last post as the insidious nature of expectations.

Expect the best from people, particularly children, and they inevitably rise to the challenge and almost always surpass them.  After only a few weeks of practice, the unadulterated sense of joy and achievement which the students felt as they performed as choristers to the staff was tangible.  An afternoon of nagging, frustration, and downright fear about what we had attempted to undertake was forgotten in moments, and I was reminded of the transformational power that music and being part of a musical ensemble can have.

At the same time I have been reminded about the danger of expectations and what they can do.  Noone is a winner in this game.  Those with the unrealistic but forever hopeful expectations are almost always let down – the reality of the grecian urn is too often left wanting, and those who have experienced the self-belief that expectations can promote are left floundering when they are taken away. Equally there are those who surprise you.  Those who you underestimate but who, at the most unexpected moment, show you an insight so sharp that you see them in a new light.  And finally there are those who get forgotten.  Those who are so good at never falling short of expectations that they get pushed to one side.  There is no sense of fragility – just a steadfast belief in what they do and how they do it.

And so we are back to that sense of self.  How as teachers do we make sure that the children we support know both who they are and how they can be authentic to that?  It’s not easy and it’s different for every child we encounter.  But it is the case that for every child, expectations play a critical part in this.  It’s a very fine line between giving a child the belief that they are able to undertake a task, and giving them the space to explore what this looks like to them.  And it is this space, with the accompanying time, which is essential if a child is ever going to discover what it is that they expect of themselves.  I am convinced though that this is the point of what we do.  It is from expectations of ourselves that we truly achieve success and if we can help our children to discover this, then we can confidently stake claim to part of their journey.

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