While I was still teaching, my main leadership responsibility was for the development of teachers at the foothills of their careers, so it may be fitting that – now that teacher and leader development is my full time job – I still spend a sizeable proportion of my time with teachers less than half my age.
This year, with Liz Luka, I have been running a programme similar to this one for the Future Zone group of schools in Islington. We call it ‘early career development’ but, to be honest, the focus is not on career except in the sense that we want to see these teachers still in the classroom many years from now. The purpose of the programme is for everyone to find their voice, their identity as professionals; the means is through a series of evidence-informed enquiries.
The participants, at the start of the programme, got to choose from a range of pedagogical themes. They selected differences between boys and girls, assessment, differentiation, pupil grouping and practitioner research. In each session, I would introduce something from the literature on one of the chosen themes – nothing too heavy, material that they could readily grapple with and imagine applying in their own classrooms. Then they would plan a lesson (or, more often, a series of lessons) where they introduced an innovation inspired by the literature. They would then decide how they would collect evidence: these were often in the form of pupil voice, teacher observation, or analysis of work in books or other artefacts. With one session per half term, they would normally have five to six weeks to conduct their enquiry, before returning to the group and sharing their insights.
They did not always find what they expected to. One teacher was certain his boy-heavy Year 6s favoured the curriculum presented in a boy-friendly (despite research suggesting otherwise). He discovered the opposite. Often they found that an innovation applied with one group of pupils in mind had just as positive an effect on a different group. A common finding was that pupils initially responded well to a new way of learning, only to ‘regress to the mean’ after a few lessons of the same. We explored the potential pitfalls of practitioner enquiry – tiny data sets, short treatment periods, innovation bias – but believed that the sum of learning was much greater. We asked them how they felt the enquiries had changed them as teachers. The gains to their confidence were enormous.
‘Trying new things is scary, but I am more open to doing new things having done it a bit.’
‘Made us try new things that we might not have tried otherwise.’
‘More confident to allow children to attempt different levels of work.’
Another huge takeaway from the programme is the changed relationships they have with their classes and, more than that, how they increasingly began to see the children as partners in learning.
“I will allow children to have more ownership.”
“Give children more of a purpose and to assess their own learning.”
“Created more of a collaborative approach, working together with children.”
“I have changed my attitude, giving over more control to the children.”
‘More aware of who actually needs support, and trusting the children to help each other.’
‘Trusting self to take risks; trusting children too – both can be successful.’
In finding their identity as teachers, they have become more able to speak up for themselves. Sometimes teachers are faced with policies and practices that they just comply with because they have little or no experience of other ways. As a result of undertaking enquiries into evidence-informed practice, they can now engage more critically as professionals.
‘Made us re-evaluate why we are doing something – is it really effective?’
For the final session, with a free choice of research theme, they returned in most cases to an enquiry from earlier in the programme. They wanted to collect more data, or collect it in a new way. They wanted to tweak their innovation, having learned from their mistakes. They shared their new insights with their peers, now in the form of research posters. Perhaps for the first time, they truly felt like evidence-informed teachers.