This is a rather delayed write-up of my notes and reflections on David Weston’s (@informed_edu) workshop at The Telegraph Festival of Education. Having heard David speak on several occasions, I felt certain that he’d live up to everything good CPD should and I’d leave with disrupted thinking and things to be curious about. I wasn’t disappointed.
Within a few weeks, I had shared my new learning with senior colleagues as well as fellow leaders at College. This has been learning that has locked itself firmly in my thoughts and will hopefully lead to more effective CPD approaches for colleagues.
Many of us used to facilitating CPD or introducing fresh approaches in our colleges and schools will be accustomed to colleagues often presenting with the rolling eyes of, ‘I’ve been teaching for 20 years. What will be different about this new learning that I won’t have experienced before?’ And why blame them? Much of education policy seems to take a cyclical motion. Something experienced 6 years previously appears again but those crafty politicians have disguised it to look like something else, assuming that we’ll all be fooled into thinking they hold all the answers to our prayers. Alas, we are not as stupid as we clearly appear and we can see through their thinly veiled attempts at revolution. So when teachers pitch up at yet another workshop or coaching session claiming to ‘revolutionise their practice’, there is little surprise many present with an initial cynicism.
So how can we approach teacher learning in a way that lands with novices as much as it does with experts?
I mean, apparently the inclusion of a brain or the word ‘science’ could get us pretty far…
But seriously, what answers might science hold for us?
Please excuse any inaccuracies in what follows and please feel free to leave feedback on anything you think is scientifically awry. It’s not especially my strong suit and it’s new learning for me!
The images used are ones I created – I’m sure David Weston (@informed_edu) wouldn’t appreciate you thinking they were his handiwork!
Schemas formed the basis of the first part of David’s exploration of teacher learning. For those of you who don’t know what these are, they’re essentially ‘packets of information that help us anticipate what we’ll find when we encounter a certain concept, category, person, or situation.’ (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Psychology)
When we encounter a new situation, our senses pick up on aspects of this new situation and add to the packet. For instance, we learn at a young age how to tell if things are hot and how best to respond to this situation in the future – ie. don’t put your hands directly into fire. In fact, remain a safe distance from it.
It’s important that things are discarded from the packet or placed in a different packet at times though. For instance, when we learn what a dog is, we recognise it has ears, 4 legs and a tail. As we come across more dogs we learn that they’re furry and bark. But what happens when we come across a cat? They’re furry, they have 4 legs, they have ears and a tail. But they don’t bark… If this information were to be added to the existing dog schema then it may cause some considerable issues… Luckily, we check this thought with those around us and they confirm that what we’re seeing is not a dog. As we learn and form schemas, there is a continual adjustment to what our senses are presenting; causing equilibrium and disequilibrium as our schemas adjust and are formed.
So, our brains respond to sensory information and begin to form associations; constantly causing this shifting movement as our schemas form and adjust based on our responses to the environment we find ourselves in.
Let’s translate this to the teaching environment then. Think back to being a brand new teacher. How did it feel? An assault on the senses? New things, faces, people, process, approaches, knowledge… You can see where this is going! A serious sense of disequilibrium and one can easily imagine the impact this might have on our learning.
When working with ‘novice’ teachers, it’s important that we help them to navigate the choppy seas and their feelings of being overwhelmed by the assault on the senses and their confused attention trying to make sense of everything they’re coming across.
How many of us when we first started teaching (especially in Further Education) were plunged straight into a classroom on day 1 with no training and a full timetable (my hand is up!)? How many of us were sent to observe more experienced colleagues to see how they did things? How many of us left those observations thinking all teachers were gods with magic powers and presence we couldn’t work out how to get our hands on?
This is the point at which I realised that what David was sharing could be absolute dynamite for the profession if we all took it on board.
Novice teachers have few relevant schemas already formed and no real clear idea of what a good lesson looks like. Lessons lead to confused attention and there is a sensory overload but they struggle to make connections and associations as they have no existing schemas in this area to help. It’s an exhausting experience and their working memory becomes overloaded as what they’re experiencing is in a brand new domain of expertise.
Novice teachers are unable to make sense of what they’re seeing in a more experienced colleague because they don’t have existing schemas yet. They see students engaged, attentive and working well. They see a teacher in command of the room and seemingly effortlessly involving each and every student in answering questions. The novice teacher sees only the end product and conclude that there’s just something magic going on or they try to piece together what they’ve seen based on little knowledge of teaching and form incorrect schemas.
If they were to have a colleague or mentor with them whilst watching the session then that colleague could act as the translator of the effective practice- ‘They’re reacting in that way because of the teacher’s position in the room, their stillness, the routine they’ve established with the ‘do now’ activity and meet and greet at the door.’ ‘She’s getting every student involved and boosting their confidence by taking a look at their work first, and spotting which ones have the answers before asking them to share with everyone else.’
You get the idea. It’s essentially a walkthrough of what a teacher has achieved so that the work of a teacher is demystified for a novice and made to seem far more achievable. That it’s not just down to experience. Most things written by Doug Lemov achieve this kind of thing perfectly, see this example of cold calling. (I might be a little obsessed by Doug Lemov at the minute).
The dangers that exist if we leave novice teachers to their own devices is that they begin to form schemas that won’t lead to effective practice in the future or a continued sense of being overwhelmed that ultimately leads them to leaving the profession.
So what might help?
Well, the paired observations would go far to support the formation of effective schemas. As a result of a paired observation, novice teachers could then benefit from clear procedures to follow for just 1, 2, or 3 aspects of their practice at a time so the disequilibrium is reduced. We shouldn’t be asking them to develop all aspects of their practice at once or expecting them to; this will only increase their feelings of being overwhelmed.
After recalling my own start in teaching, I feel some of these approaches could have seriously reduced the negative impact of being thrown in at the deep end. When I recalled what I’d heard from the Head of Michaela earlier on in the day speak about how their new teachers receive feedback on specific aspects of their practice 4 times a day, I made the immediate connection and my schema about effective CPD for novice teachers had expanded.
So what of expert teachers?
As experts (experienced teachers and not necessarily effective ones), we have a lot of relevant schemas to make use of and we can therefore direct our attention effectively to whatever needs it the most. What we choose to pay attention to is easily decided upon as we’ve become accustomed to the classroom environment and have well-established schemas to help us respond.
The issue with well-established schemas is that ‘unlearning’ is not easily achieved and whilst learning something new, we are easily drawn back to old habits and existing schemas. We demonstrate bias and reject the unfamiliar. Learning and change becomes a much greater challenge.
What biases should we look out for in our ‘expert’ teachers?
Most leaders, coaches, mentors, and facilitators of CPD will undoubtedly recognise some of these biases in colleagues they’ve worked with at one point or another.
This is the curse of ‘knowledge’. We have an inability to remember what it’s like being an overwhelmed novice.
So what might help?
- Get ‘expert’ teachers to articulate existing thinking- ‘What are you doing now and why? How does it impact your students?’ (In order to change or at the very least challenge their existing thinking).
- Leaders being more transparent about their learning and the journey taken, including their own biases they had to challenge along the way. All the better if they can demonstrate, too, their evidence-based decision making proving that whilst their experience had taught them to make one decision, they routinely choose to check this against what other sources of evidence have to say.
- Encourage expert teachers to gain a new perspective on existing thinking by following a student around for a day to see learning through a different pair of eyes, a different lens. A colleague to join them help them reflect on this experience would surely help them to correct and form new schemas just as it would for a novice?
- As a leader, use social connection to change and overcome resistance. Form connections and make relationships. Admit your own failures and reassure them.
- Experimentation, a sense of agency and high quality feedback are all essential.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about expert teachers is that it’s vital to sustain the change over time on order to suppress and replace incorrect or ineffective schemas. Short interventions mean that existing schema will just reassert themselves so it needs to be continuous.
Once more for the cheap seats…
Development must be continuous for expert teachers. One offs can even be actively harmful for experts as they might reinforce schemas we already have- ‘It looks similar to something I already do so I’ll just continue doing that as there’s nothing long term to influence my thinking in any other direction.’ There’s no depth to one off experiences and so the learning has all the stickiness of a sticking plaster ready to fly off at any moment.
Novice to expert is the journey that we want and we want it in its most effective form. Just repeating procedures won’t make us great teachers. We need a higher level of expertise than that. We need an adaptive approach. Responsive teacher learning will support this so that a teacher’s learning is pursued based on the classroom happening in front of them.
This session from David at the festival has seriously disrupted my thinking about teacher CPD and, along with the online Match Education course on coaching, has already had impact on my practice and approach to working with teachers.
Now that’s the level of impact we want from CPD.
If only it could all be great as this.
I believe it can be.
We just need to listen to David!