RI means ‘Improving’, not just proving

ri

We are now a year on from our full-throated retreat from graded lesson observations, described in this blog Better than Outstanding. If the title of that post was meant to presage the outcome of last year’s Ofsted inspection, I’m afraid I mistyped. We are now RI. We also have a new headteacher (although this is unconnected to our inspection result.) So we are now in the tricky position of having to improve the quality of teaching, while at the same time proving it.

It was always our mission to get better at what we do, and I always understood that – without grades – there was an increased onus upon us to benchmark what we meant by high quality teaching. To that end, and with the input from our middle leaders, we produced this: The Portrait of Great Teaching and Learning at Chace.

portrait-of-great-teaching-and-learning-at-chace

This was the invention of many mothers, an accumulation of the wisdom of ASTs and lead teachers and what we call ‘Development Coordinators’ over the past five years. It was designed not as a checklist, but as a prompt to ‘further greatness’: any teacher, however good, could be even better and this portrait might suggest ways they could get there.

However clever we were, Ofsted’s judgement suggested that not all areas of the school had absorbed our message. So this year, we have sought to underline some fundamentals. We have articulated our ‘Commitment to Great Teaching and Learning’, basing our September professional learning day on the non-negotiables displayed here.

commitment-to-high-quality-teaching-at-chace

These would not be the priorities of every school: they do respond to criticisms from our inspection team. But nor are they a departure from what we think we know about good teaching, and the leadership of good teaching. For note the and of this Commitment. Underscoring everything is ‘Knowing the Students’. This is how we offer differential challenge, pose questions, plan with high expectations. We assess so we can know so we can plan so we can teach.

Over-arching the fundamentals is our ‘Shared responsibility for high quality teaching’. Where a teacher is struggling, it is incumbent on us all to support. We can help through our rebooted peer observations. The head has asked for this to appear in every area’s improvement plans, and it will surely feature also in performance development (appraisal). Our development coordinators are this week engaged in a bit of ‘deliberate practice’, using our peer observation templates to plan, teach and peer observe on an aspect of differentiation. All of our middle leaders have been trained in developmental approaches to formal lesson observation.

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They are to eschew all references to gradings (I would even ban adjectives if I could), and focus instead on key episodes or phases in the lesson. Crucially they must commit to next steps. When we surveyed colleagues last year, there was clearly a preference for this approach, what I called our ‘Soft Landing’.

We know we have to know our students; we are still learning how to know our teachers. Our portraits, our commitments, our shared responsibilities will take us a long way. But we know that, if we are to assist them to become better when they are not being watched, then we need a better understanding of the work their students are doing when the door is closed. That is not meant to sound sinister: we want our book checks to be a real insight into what students do. As one of those senior leaders who frequently peers over the shoulders of students into their books (or worse, flicks through an anonymous selection from a crate), I concede I often don’t really know what I am looking at. To a history teacher, what does ‘progress’ look like in a maths book? Are most of the questions answered correctly? If so, does that mean the teacher is fabulous, or that the work is not challenging enough? What do I think of the teacher who has splashed out in red, compared to the one whose students have located their green pens and aren’t afraid to use them? What does progress look like? Our lead teacher team sought last term to come up with some answers.

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Taken singly, these might simply be indicators of a student’s performance: just because they done it, don’t mean that they got it. But we posit that, together, and over the space of pages, these might be useful proxies for progress. We arranged for each department to translate the above into indicators which made more sense in graphics, geography, etc. It remains to be seen how useful a document it will be.

Our new assessment and feedback policy has helped, but it is obvious to me as I walk past classrooms at 7.30am, spying teachers behind a tower of books, that we have more to do to make marking both effective and manageable. Inevitably, given our RI-ness (in an authority where nearly every other school ranks above us), our teaching and our books are under external scrutiny. But our headteacher recognises that, to make sense of this generous support from the outside, we first have to know what we stand for. Just as we have stated our ‘shared responsibility’ for high quality teaching, this extends too to how we support high quality assessment and feedback. Our developmental approach to lesson feedback must be matched by a similar approach to book checks – what I can’t avoid calling ‘feedback feedback’. Liberally stealing from questions I believe Graham Dring uses in coaching, I have designed this.

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It will take a while for our senior and middle leaders to make this their habit, and we may have to do some persuading of our local authority friends, but I am hopeful.

 

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ResearchEd16: A Slight Curve in the Architecture

Capital City Academy

DCSF / The Team Academies Brochure Capital City Academy, Willesden 25th November 2008 © Pete Jones pete@pjproductions.co.uk

 

ResearchED has now been going long enough (this was its 4th) to have acquired its own set of clichés. Tom Bennett will collapse the real world into the Twittersphere (“We’re trending!”) while wearing a waistcoat. Lunch may exist, but only for wimps (like vegetarians, like me.) The technology will be impressive for those watching in Sydney, but pants for anyone in the room. There is no single ResearchEd: everyone makes their own; and after spending Saturday experiencing it, they spend Sunday blogging about it. (Then they wait for Helene to retweet it.) My day was not your day. This was my day.

It’s not straight, and it goes uphill. Sir Norman Foster obviously wanted to introduce a bit more effort to the usual business of getting from A to B; perhaps he intended to disrupt our cognitive ease. In any case, headteacher Alex Thomas was right: Capital City Academy was somehow the perfect venue for ResearchEd 2016. The day was filled with gentle dichotomies and seeming contradictions, enough to provoke thought without provoking ire. Like the cognitive dissonance of being told that your identity did not matter that much, certainly not enough to be worth queuing for, and surely less than a TES bag and pen. What is identity to a denizen of Twitter? I am well-known, but hardly recognised – anonymous among 650 friends. Fortunately I brought two actual friends with me. That’s two more than Nick Gibb, who committed the raging solecism of being a guest at a conference devoted to evidence-based policy while defending grammar schools.

Thereafter, the ironies followed. Laura McInerney told a room-full of teachers that teachers suffer performance anxiety, that we are perfectionists before whom it is unwise to demonstrate best practice. And she did it perfectly. (Although I would quibble with the assertion that we are a ‘performative profession’.) She reminded us too of her discovery of the ‘tired teachers’, those leaving the mainscale to boost the profits of the agencies. Hers is a serious analysis, but there we were – tired or not – spending our Saturday morning with her.

Better with her, perhaps, than with the oddly cheery behaviourist Alex Petty. He trotted out the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram electric shock test – distressingly familiar studies which somehow go to demonstrate that we should still set homework to students who refuse to do it. In his analogies, I kept casting myself as the one with the prison guard uniform, the one with my hand on the lever and wondering whether I was a teacher at all, and not maybe O’Brien in Room 101. Petty’s solution to this toxic culture that he imagines pervades our classrooms is to ‘celebrate success’. (He said 6 other things too, but I was keen to celebrate my own success in writing that down.)

Paul Bennett imagined his talk was to take place after lunch, unaccustomed as he is to the parallel timetabling of #rED food. He also thought he was giving a talk called Technology, E-Learning and Teachers. But Bennett is an ‘iconoclast’ (Paul thinks Tom is too) and so a tech disrupter is bound to deliver a talk where the Power Point has lost all of his animations, and the screen is hung in the far corner. (Was that you, Lord Foster?) I’m grateful to Paul for sharing three Zs in one slide, without sending anyone to sleep: Personalization, Robotization, Googlization – the 3 ideologies of high tech education. Bennett is a self-professed blasphemer, and he should wash his mouth out for proposing that school leaders should develop reliable measures to evaluate the effectiveness of digital learning.

I loved it all. I marvelled at the 6th Form Library, where the books had all been stolen. I chuckled in an unreconstructed way at the blue and pink signs denoting the boys’ and girls’ changing rooms in the dance studio. I empathised with Frank Furedi, whose Why is Reading always in Crisis suffered its own near-crisis when Amanda Spielman showed insufficient passion and left early. And what eduquack chaser would not experience a delighted tremor as Paul A Kirschner checked off of all our favourite urban myths? And so as to prove that none of us is an efficient multi-tasking digital native, he forbade the use of phones and tablets. Surely the ultimate contradiction in ResearchED terms?