Why is continuous learning so important for staff?
The key to transforming a school is in the ability of the institution to support and encourage teachers to continue to learn. As professionals we are working with the brain the most complex system in the universe. Sociological and environmental factors are continually changing and evolving and it is these that influence and shape how the brain works. Every student, class, cohort is different and responds differently to the stimuli we create. Added to this is the revolution in technology which now plays a key role in students’ everyday lives. This means the way they learn has, and is changing and we need to understand these changes. My daughter can look up any question on the magic of the internet and have the answer within a couple of seconds. The strength of that answer and the validity might be in question, but she has the beginnings of knowledge at her fingertips. How much does she now need to retain? How much retention supports her ability to connect her knowledge together and to dig deeper? how much can she revisit again? What should become part of her schemata? (Her brain map of knowledge and understanding.) How much can she rely on storing this knowledge on her computer rather than her brain?
If we accept that we are only just beginning to learn about how we learn, and that our subject pedagogy is deepening all the time. Then as an institution, I believe all schools should be committed to investing real and quality time for staff to continue to learn. Most school meetings which are hopefully effective and full of learning, are bolted onto the end of the day. As the exam period arrives they get pushed to the side and revision and or support classes take over in a challenging school. For staff this means longer hours with students, leaving little time for our own continuous learning.
How do you know when staff are actively engaged in learning?
You know your school will transform and outcomes will begin to improve when you walk into your staff room or bump into some of your team in a corridor, department office and sadly for us (as this was one of the only places we met regularly) the toilet! When the conversation has moved from, “This child didn’t do this….and this one was misbehaving in this way.” To a discussion about pedagogy: what they were trying at that moment in their classroom? What was working and what they had learnt from their trials? How they were going to adapt their practice further and what benefit they anticipated in students learning? Your staff are learning and your school is improving.
How did we create continuous cycles of learning at our school?
For most schools, investment comes in the form of finding time. With the help of my lead researcher and Deputy, pummelling me with weighty research documents confirming that learning was essential for staff. I decided that we needed to devote some of our timetable to this process. The idea neatly combined with my desire to provide our students with enrichment activities outside of the classroom. So on Wednesday afternoons key stage 4 finished school at lunch, missing the last hour. They completed this hour on a Monday pm where then stayed until 4 pm. Key stage 3 went into Enrichment after lunch, which involved a significant number of coaches who came into school. More about this in the enrichment chapter. After lunch my staff were given devoted time to learning. For staff the time alternated between their departments one week and cross curricular coaching groups the next.
Cross curricular coaching to promote learning?
We appointed a Lead Coach, line managed by my Deputy to lead staff learning across the school. We used the school improvement plan, to steer the learning into four or five broad subsets which shaped the framework of our development plan. For example: increasing challenge in the classroom, meeting individual needs, supporting the development of literacy, and improving engagement. Staff were then able to select which area they wanted to research and work on this. We linked with CUREE a research education company to help us create road maps to support the learning that staff were doing.
For example, if I chose to go into the increasing the challenge group. I would be assigned a coach, who would help me to define what I wanted to research within this topic area. They would then support me by giving me a road map to recent research, that I could use to further my understanding of the topic I was looking to explore. I would then be asked to focus in on a specific cohort of students that I wanted to work with, and to identify the student outcomes I was looking for. This might be to take my five top end students and to improve their ability to achieve an A* in the Geography decision making paper. Increasing the amount of opportunities, they took to use their case studies as evidence in the paper and, in helping them to use them to show how they can support their ideas or counter arguments.
Once the students’ outcomes and cohort were identified, teachers were then paired with others and they began their research and or trials. This research was limited and not always scientific,[i] but it allowed staff to trial, discuss, revisit tweak and conclude. By linking their research deliberately to student outcomes, we could track and identify a base measure of impact to the programme. At the end of the term, staff shared their learning through a variety of different media. We carried out a style of speed learning modelled on speed dating to report back findings. We created blogs of our work, and galleries displaying our progress.
Overtime the staff engagement with this process increased dramatically and almost all staff developed and began to think, take risks, and adapt their processes. Because of the alignment to the school improvement plan, this thinking meant that individuals were learning and the school was learning. The alignment to the school plan also meant we were all travelled in the same direction. Seeking greater understanding of the key areas we identified as specific areas for progress within our school. This alignment to the school plan was essential. We were like an amoeba, our wobbly learning individual, yet traversing in the same direction. In my last year I listened to the voices that told me to let this alignment to our plan had to go. This was a mistake as learning became disparate and without the collective had less meaning and ultimately impact.
Our last development gave us an opportunity to link to a project that aligned university research to schools by allowing teachers access to a website. This site, enabled staff to ask questions of researchers which could aid and support their own learning and trials in the classroom. Using the amoeba effect and linking this to a university and or groups of higher education research would have been an incredibly powerful addition to the process we had developed.
Twilight sessions to develop learning.
Alongside the coaching on Wednesday afternoon we offered a variety of twilight sessions to further learning. These were run initially by the more experienced teachers and were created from our school improvement plan and or training requests from performance management. Over time, as teachers research provided additional learning within our context, volunteers appeared wanting to run session to share their learning. We also developed specific sessions to improve understanding of particular student needs and eventually we were able to encourage parents into these sessions to support our staff in understanding of particular issues and concerns with SEND students. The twilights became an evolving process and a vehicle for sharing good practice which staff regularly revisited in the year. Each twilight linked to alternate and additional sessions so the learning could be revisited throughout the year. We found this model far more effective than one off events that inspire but rarely lead to changes in practice. In order to encourage longevity of learning our inset days were replaced with attendance at a set number of twilight sessions.
Structured opportunities to continue to learn at whatever stage of your career.
Promoting effective learning at my school required significant skill and something that could not be fully acquired in one year. To leave a Newly Qualified teacher after a year seemed wholly inappropriate. So we developed a compulsory 2nd year course for all new teachers. Meeting once a week and led by our Lead Coach. The idea was to extend the pedagogy and to promote and instil the practice of continued learning and research. Alongside this, we developed training opportunities in each of the career paths within our school: preparation for middle leadership, senior leadership and headship. Each course was funded by the school and linked to a qualification and a University.
As with all new initiatives the numbers were small to begin with but word of mouth spread and by the end of my tenure the majority of staff were taking these opportunities to support their learning. In reflection, we identified that while we had created structural hierarchical leadership learning, what we missed was the ability to develop subject specific expertise and this was something I would have explored further. The Singapore model of identifying staff early on to support different strands of learning from: learning for leadership, experts in their subject, or a pedagogy within teaching has I believe, merit.
I have learnt, If I want to maximise the learning capacity of a teacher, intensive co- teaching will produce the best outcomes. In my experience where new and or vulnerable staff are given a half term minimum, but preferably a term with an assigned quality practitioner. With the specific purpose of team teaching, and modelling with an agreed class and set of lessons, the learning is greatest. This is an expensive business assigning a quality practitioner to sit alongside a learning teacher. Identifying and agreeing the student outcomes you are looking for, and then mentoring and or team teaching in all these lessons creates overlap in the timetable and removes a quality teacher from teaching another class. However, time and again it has proven to be exceptionally powerful.
In order for this method to succeed I made the decision to offer this process, without the usual accountability procedures that tend to accompany support. I was clear, when performance management became directly related to the teachers’ salary, the accountability and pressure became too great and performance management lost its ability to stimulate quality learning. High stakes agendas reduce learning. Therefore, intensive learning was described as a gift and I meant it. It sat outside the performance management framework and was confidential. Staff were able to explore new strategies and take risks without the constraint of the accountability stick damning them if their and the students learning wasn’t immediately successful.
As this practice grew we had a number of staff who volunteered for intensive learning, (yes they actually volunteered to have staff observe them daily) but this time from a position as a strong practitioner wanting to further their development. In these scenarios the experienced practitioner took on a coaching role, acting as a facilitator of learning not the guru.
Where success occurred in intensive learning many staff opted to use the exercise as evidence for their performance management but this was their choice. Intensive learning remained the gift, performance management remained the accountability. The only exception to this was; one year due to a horrendous recruitment processes we began with a maths department with four potentially inadequate teachers. Each was assigned an intensive learning programme. Within three weeks, one of the teachers was so unable to make progress. The situation was so poor we had to move into capability and she left within the week of her own accord. This was a unique case and the intensive system flourished because of its opportunities to nurture.
Using our Evidence into Practice Blog to feed us the latest research.
Our Lead researcher developed a blog and programme of learning for those teachers interested in keeping up to date with the latest body of research into learning within the educational community. Research is invaluable but finding the time to keep up with it difficult. Whenever we were looking at a change, we had our own librarian to source and map the latest thinking that was out there. To ensure that we did not go into change blind. This blog was awarded one of the top educational blogs in the TES 2015 awards.
Your not good so you can’t lead the training of teachers.
One key element of creating a successful and sustainable school is your ability to attract quality teachers and retain them. It doesn’t matter how good your systems are, and how innovative you may be, if you don’t have the staff you will fail. For schools in disadvantaged circumstances, sourcing beginning teachers is a key strategy for engaging new graduates in the joy as well as challenge of working with disadvantaged students. It helps to secure a regular supply of new teachers into your school. Training teachers also has a secondary impact of creating regular and effective dialogue about pedagogy, and helping your current practitioners to continually reflect on their practice. New recruits are often full of enthusiasm and in the best institutions bring innovation and the latest research theory with them.
The changes to the training of teachers has bought about significant barriers for schools in challenging circumstances. Taking on beginning teachers in now almost all ring fenced to Good and Outstanding schools. Teaching Alliances have to have Outstanding schools within them, often leading. Whilst we applied to our local Outstanding Alliance (25 miles away) to train teachers, we were never given the opportunity to do so. In the four years we applied we were offered a big fat zero of new staff. We became locked out of training and sourcing beginning teachers. This remained a strangle hold on our school’s ability to reach Good.
The School Direct route which provides salaried training, directly into school was also barred from us, as we were Requiring improvement. Frustrated we decided to ignore the system. We had through our blog and training programmes in house, a growing reputation as a thinking school. Fortunately, by manipulating our networks we able to access non salaried routes to training. Yes, come and train with us in a really difficult school and don’t get paid for it, was our only route available to attracting beginning teachers, and yes they had to self- fund this training! [ii]
In bucking the system, we were able to secure university training partnership with five significant institutions. By the end of our program we were the only school in County who achieved Outstanding with our two students who completed the self- assessment route. We were used an examples of excellent practice for the quality of their training programme with one of our significant University partners
These new recruits to the profession having worked with us, lost the fear of working in a challenging school and actually began to enjoy their experience and relish the challenge. Our current training system channels the majority of student through good and outstanding schools with no concrete training in disadvantaged situations. This leaves the shrinking number of graduates who are available each year, even more inclined to avoid these schools and with absolutely zero experience. God give me strength!
Actively seeking time devoted to learning collectively, is the essential ingredient for school improvement. Creating a safe haven away from the accountability machine promotes the greatest learning as staff are more willing to take risks.
[i] the Education Endownment Fund latest research on non -cognitive skills has a rating for scientific research which I find helpful, for some we had a constant to compare others we did not. I believe we would have been rated level 2 to 3 in their scale of 5.
[ii] review of training providers by the think tank Policy Exchange is well worth a read in highlighting the inadequate system of training currently at work. They believe our current system has most damage for the most disadvantage schools and most advantage for outstanding. I wouldn’t disagree