I have read “Leadership for Teacher Learning” by Dylan Wiliam this holiday. It was the sub-title more than the main title that really grabbed my attention:
“Creating a Culture where all teachers improve so that all students succeed.”
Having worked in a range of schools over 20 years, with many colleagues and having been privileged to visit numerous other schools I think the importance of school culture is one of the key drivers that make a difference. Supportive, compassionate and challenging: encouraging and empowering all staff to be life-long learners: this is the type of culture I endeavour to promote and help flourish.
Dylan Wiliam discusses that “the main job of school leaders is to improve the work performance of those they lead…developing the classroom practice of teachers”. Leading by walking about, leading by engaging in regular, open, low risk, professional conversations, leadership by ensuring time and resources are available to support teacher’s professional development and understanding, and leadership by ensuring staff are partners in that on going professional development.
How do leaders improve the quality of teaching? Wiliam suggests two main ways: by replacement or by improvement.
Only a few years ago the approach favoured by the local authority in which I work was very much based on the first of these. If a teacher’s practice was not good enough on a consistent basis and pupils’ learning was suffering they advocated a swift process of working that teacher out of the school. I have never felt entirely comfortable with this approach, given that we work in education, which surely is about people learning and working to transform their capabilities, particularly when you take into account the 10,000 hours to become expert at anything combined with the fast paced changes in education which can make us all feel like novices every few years.
Over the last few years with a decreasing number of teachers staying in the profession, the local authority have realised that there is not a pool of ‘Good / Outstanding’ teachers sitting at home waiting for a vacancy, and have been far more supportive of improving and developing the teachers we have. This for me is why “Creating a Culture where all teachers improve” is so crucial, and if done well hopefully also motivates teachers and gives them far greater job satisfaction.
But who has all the answers? Who can say confidently and accurately everything that every teacher in school needs to change, adapt or stop doing to become highly effective? I certainly don’t claim to.
“In education, just about everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere.”
Part of a leader’s role is to offer advice, to engage in professional dialogue, to suggest other colleagues to talk to or to observe, but also to listen and learn from colleagues. Everyone I have worked with has taught me something.
I think it is also important as a leader to summarise some key external research (which can often be contradictory) as objectively as possible, and synthesise it with internal collaborative analysis and evidence. This is a process which can take time, and it would unfair to ask class based teachers to undertake this whole process.
As a professional learning community in a school we need to ask questions about our pedagogy and the impact this has on pupils’ learning. We need to investigate together and analyse what we find, before clarifying the main development points and refining (not whole scale changing) our professional practice.
Wiliam focuses mainly on describing how successfully formative assessment can be used in teacher learning communities to identify and explore those elements which will have most benefit on learners and learning.
“A focus on formative assessment focuses on aspects of teaching that will have the greatest impact on student achievement.”
This has to be a collaborative approach between teachers and leadership and teachers, as he states that “attempts to tell teachers what to do are bound to fail”.
Wiliam describes how difficult it is to predict what every child will learn during a lesson, and that the end of the lesson they are likely to have learnt and understood it in the same way that the teacher perceives it in their head. This is why formative assessment is so valuable, to find out what they have learnt, how they understand it and what steps they need to take next on their learning journey (which may be more deliberate practice to reinforce their learning).
“We need to review what our students have learned regularly and frequently…before moving on is applicable to any learning”
Ericson et al (1993) defined deliberate practice as a “highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses and performance is carefully monitored.”
In my roles I have undertaken a range of observations and drop-ins to classes to watch and listen to pupils working and learning. Often the most valuable of these are when I observe with a colleague, but we always ensure a professional dialogue with the class teacher takes place afterwards. The focus is not on making judgements, or just picking faults, but is often on trying to together analyse what progress in their learning certain pupils have made. What is the evidence? What did we see and hear? Are we in agreement?
I often tell colleagues that I am in a privileged position (and should be able to spot more) as I am able to sit down and watch, listen and engage in different conversations of my choosing. For class teachers, with 30+ pupils, trying to teach the lesson, manage the classroom and systems, deal with all the queries and questions, manage the resources, respond in real time to the learners… it is very challenging to have insight into how all the learners have fared. This is one reason why working with colleagues on peer observations / team teaching can be so valuable and enlightening.
Richard Dufour (2004) identifies three ideas that are central to the formative assessment approach:
- All students should be learning
- Teachers work collaboratively to solve problems. “Significant advances have been made by treating failures as system failures rather than as failures of individuals”
- The work of professional learning communities must be focused on pupil outcomes
Definitions of Formative Assessment
“All those activities undertaken by teachers – and by their students in assessing themselves – that provide information to be used as feedback to modify teaching and learning activities.” (Black & Wiliam 1998)
“Assessment carried out during the instructional process for the purpose of improving teaching or learning” (Shepard et al. 2005)
“Frequent, interactive assessments of students’ progress and understanding to identify learning needs and adjust teaching appropriately.” (Looney, 2005)
“The process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there.” (Broadfoot et al. 2002)
Other quotes from the book I found interesting
“In the future, young people will need higher levels of achievement than have ever been needed before, not only to find fulfilling work, but also to empower themselves to thrive in an increasingly complex world.”
“Teachers vary considerably in their effectiveness in promoting growth in student achievement, so improving the quality of teachers is essential to improving student achievement.”
“Help focus the development of teachers on aspects of their practice that will have the greatest impact on their students.”
“The relationship between instruction and what is learned as a result is complex. Even when instruction is well designed and students are motivated, increases in student capabilities are, in general, impossible to predict with any certainty.”
“Clear evidence that having teachers engaging in an enquiry cycle where students’ needs are identified, and solutions are then proposed and developed, can be effective.”