Sunday, 6 September 2015

researchED 2015: Part 3

The third session of the day was when I presented with the SUPER Network (which I will blog about last), so I will move on to the fourth and fifth sessions of the day.

For the fourth slot, I was a bit unsure of where to go; there were so many different options that appealed. However, a cheeky Tweet from a fellow conference attendee alerted me to the option of biscuits at Beth Greville-Giddings (@bethgg) Journal Club session, so I decided to attend (how very shallow of me, right?). That being said, I was really pleased with my choice, biscuits or no!

The whole idea of Journal Club is that staff (I loved how inclusive the whole idea was - opening it up to all staff is such a simple, yet rarely done, option) meet regularly to discuss research (hence the name Journal Club) articles, much like a Book Club discusses books. What a great way to make educational research more accessible to teachers! I know first hand how hard it can be for teachers to get access to educational research journals, but with a Journal Club schools would really only need one person to be able to download, print and distribute a journal article every now and again for reading and debate. Nowadays this can be done via Google Scholar as well; as Beth said, there are a variety of ways to get access to journal articles without needing academic access. 

It's a fantastic way to keep everyone involved in education up to date, teachers and support staff alike. I also think, much like Beth suggested, that it's an excellent way for staff to become more familiar with the research that's out there on topics affecting schools. Making research more accessible is a huge step towards debunking the idea that educational research isn't useful to classroom teachers. A lot of the conversations around the conference were about how to make teaching a more 'evidence based practice', so any and all engagement with academic research is helpful.

I am definitely going to take the Journal Club idea away to my own school. We've recently advertised for new Pedagogy Leader (PL) roles within the school. The exact remit of this group isn't written in stone yet (because no one has been appointed), but I believe that the PLs will be instrumental in helping our Research Lesson Study (RLS) become truly research based; this year we're adding the requirement that each group has a research question to address. My thinking is that a Journal Club could be created by the PLs, with attendance being opened up to the rest of the staff as well. That way, staff could identify topics of interest, the PLs could go away and choose journal articles, and discussions could be had which would naturally aid in the RLS process.

Of minor note is the fact that Beth herself is a TA; this really did astounded me. I may be wrong, but my own impression of the TAs at my school (as lovely and knowledgeable as they are) is that they rarely attend staff meetings or whole staff CPD training. I'm sure (hope!) that they do their own CPD training, but I never see them at teacher training CPD sessions. Realistically, I think this is tied to their contracted working hours; teachers are contractually obliged to stay to 4:30pm for CPD, whereas the day ends at 3pm for TAs. I can understand why they wouldn't want to stay later for additional training, especially if they don't feel that it applies to them. However, there's an argument in there somewhere about how anything that goes on in the classroom should be of benefit to ALL staff involved in teaching and learning. Just thinking about this could open up a whole other can of worms, so I think I'll stop this particular ramble here...

The fifth session that I attended was 'Reclaiming the profession', a lecture given by David Weston (@informed_edu). Having previously watched David's TED talk, I was very excited to see him speak. If I'm honest, it was probably the session I was most looking forward to in the entire day, and it certainly didn't disappoint. David has a way of speaking that is thoroughly engaging, entertaining and informative.

He started off by talking about how 'research in education isn't normal' and that it can often be seen as 'avant-garde'. This is definitely the case, as most people balk when I tell them that I completed a research-Masters degree while working full-time in teaching. The very fact that people questioned my sanity shows what research is, as David suggested, NOT part of the profession at the moment. However, like almost everyone at the conference, David firmly believes that it should be.

He then went on to make a very nice analogy using steak. While he joked often that he was stretching the analogy too far, I think it was spot-on. To summarise, he suggested that CPD can be likened to cooking steak. I'm going to attempt to whittle his analogy down to the basics here, so apologies to David if I've butchered your idea...

When you first set out to cook a steak, you might decide to follow a recipe set out  by someone else. However, following a recipe (as my cooking can attest to) does not a great chef make; you're just doing what someone else has already proven can be done with passable results.

The next step, then, is to observe a chef; the hope here is that by watching the chef cook, you can emulate some of what they do. I've done this countless times, watching Gordon or Jamie cook on one of  Channel 4's many cookery special. By no  means will this make me a cook on their level, but I'll certainly make some (perhaps surface) improvements.

So then you might decide to go on a cookery course which will inspire you, provide you with some excellent ideas, but often, as we all know about day courses that we attend, be largely forgotten after a few weeks time. Your ability to cook steak may improve, but you'll by no means be at chef-level proficiency after a one-off course, will you?

Another way to improve your cooking ability is to go 'in house' and ask the people around you. I've consulted my dad on countless occassions, and he's always able to provide me with good advice. However, by doing that, I'm simply learning how to cook steak my dad's way, and he's no professional either.

A wise person might then decide to approach it scientifically. If you want to learn how to cook the BEST steak ever, then you could read all the evidence available about cooking steak and try to incorporate some of this evidence-based learning. By this point, you'll be very knowledgeable about how it's done, based on your extensive reading, and you might use this knowledge to create your own 'SEF Steak Toolkit', as David put it. It is here, he suggests, where the problem lies.

Throughout this entire cooking experiment, not once have you done anything which sustained your development as a cook. You've made superficial attempts to become better at cooking, but none of it has elevate your ability to cook like that of a chef. That takes years of practice, training and experience. Mimicry is not the answer, better education and training is!

Much like the audience at David's talk, I'm sure you can make the connection between steak cooking and CPD. Currently, much of teacher CPD is shallow and involves surface level solutions and mimicry. There is no engagement with the 'why' of things. It is here where his 'renaissance of educational scholarship' lies. He suggested that by embedding evidence into our every day job, we can learn to become not just practitioners but scholars as well. What a novel idea!

The idea that I will most try to push forward at my school is that of making PM observations more than just a one-off lesson observation. David suggested that observations should require more than looking at a lesson; they should involve in depth conversations about the lessons that came before the observation, the lessons that will come after, the planning that informed the observed lesson, and the growth and performance of the group throughout time. Lesson observations shouldn't be a snap-shot look at what goes on in a class, but instead a detailed discussion of ongoing work being done throughout. 

I've often felt that lesson observations were unfair in this regard. Let's take a group I taught last year; they were an extremely challenging group and presented me with a lot of difficulties. They were a wild bunch who struggled to follow instructions and work independently. They were loud, rowdy and often off task. I was sent on a costly external CPD course on behaviour management (which DID help, but don't ask me where the notes and resources I came home with went), watched other teachers teach, and I listened to advice from other teachers on how to manage the unmanageable. I suppose some of this helped, but it wasn't exactly what I needed to improve. It was all very superficial.

However, as the year progressed, I worked with them to change their bad habits, trying different techniques until I figured out what worked best for me. I gauged their levels of understanding, adapted my teaching, and by the end of the year saw the highest level of performance improvement (compared to all my other classes) from this group. However, these strengths were not addressed during my PM review of an observation with this class. Instead, it was suggested that in order to improve I 'step back' and allow the class more freedom and independence. It was recognised that the group had made 'excellent progress' and that it was 'understandable' that I exercise more control over classroom activities, it would be better if I could let go of the reins, so to speak. Doing this, I was told, would take me from a level 2 (Good) teacher to level 1(Outstanding).

I feel like, as David suggested in his speech, that my line manager is missing the point here. While we addressed the improvements I had made, we failed to have a detailed discussion about what came before the lesson, what was going to come after, and explore the real reason behind why behaviour with this group was so challenging for me. For me, it came down to the fact that despite all my efforts, and despite a recognition of how 'good' the lesson was, it wasn't good enough. I wasn't good enough. The lesson itself, and the buildup towards it, wasn't considered the way that it should be; instead, a judgement was made on that individual lesson (and as most teachers feel, on myself). It's no wonder that morale in the teaching profession is so low.

Moving forward, I recognise, from surveys I had each of my classes complete at the end of the year, that behaviour management is an area I should focus on. I plan to ensure that this becomes a PM focus for me in the upcoming year, but I refuse to go down the same path I went down last year. I no longer want to watch, read or mimic what other people have done. I need to look at the evidence that is out there and make a variety of changes to my teaching, working with someone who can coach or mentor me (a subject specialist, as David suggested), helping me along the way. Judgement is not supportive, so I want to move away from that, as I think most teachers would too.

The session ended with David listing a number of steps that teachers can take in order to, as I like to think of it, 'join the enlightenment'. These include:

- joining subject associations
- learning to ask 'why' about issues that affect teaching and learning
- be critical of what you read
- welcome professional debate by looking at the viewpoints of others
- keep coming to researchEd events
- get involved in system change
- look out for the 'Call to Evidence' which will be coming on Monday 

Ultimately, it's down to teachers and school leaders to begin to view teacher development differently, with more focus on 'skill mastery' instead of 'performance mastery'. If the literature on AfL is anything to go by, the way we expect staff to progress should be no different to how we expect students to progress.
(NOTE: This post forms the third part of  my blogs about researchEd 2015. Please make sure to check out the first post, available here and the second available here.)

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