Archive | May 2013

Why We Should Mistrust Ken Robinson

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Sir Ken – A knight amongst educationalists the world over.

A couple of weeks ago, like millions of other teaching professionals, I watched the latest iteration of Ken Robinson’s celebration of creativity on TED. It reminded me of the first Sir Ken talk which I had the pleasure of watching in Athens…whilst working! Yes, you heard right – I trained to be an International Baccalaureate teacher in the blazing sun of Athens; watching Sir Ken celebrate creativity in a fan-filled Greek classroom for part of that time (those heady days for comprehensive school teachers are long since gone!). Great work if you can get it! Perhaps it was the heat of the midday sun, or the heady scent of sun tan lotion, coupled with the wit and charm of Sir Ken, that made me feel like his words were a sort of watershed for me as a teacher, or education the world over.

I was entranced. I felt determined that a whole new paradigm for schooling was required: the ‘factory model’ of schooling was dead. I felt what I was doing in the classroom was hopelessly ill-fitting for the needs of my students. I was enraptured by his stories of creativity and enriching personalisation. I bought the book (his talks usually precede a book – fair enough, I’m sure he has to pay the bills). I felt myself nodding along with the book, only once I had read it the trance had been broken. I was looking for something like answers for systematic school change, yet all I found were charming individual examples and beguiling prose. I watched the video once or twice more in various professional scenarios and at home. I still laughed. I was still taken by his persuasive argument, yet I had lost the initial spark – like a drunken first-sight infatuation spoiled by the cruel clarity of daylight. The watershed had become little more than a barely perceptible watermark.

Recently I read this article from a link by Geoff Barton entitled ‘Is This Why TED Talks Seem So Convincing?‘. The article was based on the enlightening scientific evidence that a fluent speaker can acutally fool us into thinking we have learnt more than we actually have in comparison to a less fluent speaker – see here. It brought all my frustrations with Sir Ken to the surface. His skilful words and rapturous call for change under warm lights and at the beck and call of a willing crowd had wilted. I was left without any real watershed at all. In fact, it wasn’t Sir Ken who was to blame at all – I had been seduced by the cult of personality – by the promise of change led by such a guru and I was culpable for blame. I had forgotten that the reality of education is a more gritty and compromised state of affairs: with politicians, Unions, teachers and the public all vying for their respective interests, often creating a maelstrom of muddled education policy. Compromises, fractured systems and vested interests abound. No call for creativity by Sir Ken would provide a universal panacea to the grey, ambiguous reality of schooling – whether in sunny Athens, the field of dreams that is California or wet and windy England.

Having recently written a well received blog post on teacher explanations – see here – I began to unpick the fact that Sir Ken’s latest speech was another barn-storming performance. But beyond the frilly knickers of the performance we are left searching for the less aesthetically pleasing undergarments that are the practical answers for change. He includes the memorable analogies – Death Valley in bloom. His charming anecdotes and well-timed wit abound. Only this time I was distinctly less enraptured. The Death Valley image was striking, only the analogy was a little more of the same: a pleasing picture but not an answer. Perhaps Sir Ken just takes the beautiful photo to inspire and that we have to go and work the land, toiling to create the conditions for betterment?

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Death Valley in bloom – hopefully not some Hollywood CGI!

On reflection, creativity appears to me a grittier, tougher process than such talks imply. Thousands of hours of ‘deliberate practice’ enable creativity. It is not all ‘flow’ or organic personalisation. For example, repeating the rules of grammar with sometimes deadening repetition can actually create the mastery required for playful creativity and rule breaking. Sir Ken likely scripted and practised his apparently spontaneously witty talk over and over to create his seeming carefree confidence and fluency. The pleasure of finding ‘flow’ is replaced by the dull but reassuring knowledge that perseverance could help make a difference, in a ‘factory model’ school or not.

Ken is undoubtedly a gifted speaker – like most teachers I can’t help but like him- but my infatuation is sadly over. I will take his glamorous TED talks with more than a pinch of salt. I won’t look to edu-gurus like Sir Ken to provide watershed moments. I will prioritise the ideas of my peers at the chalkface. I will attend a TeachMeet or two. I will read a blog or three. But I won’t expect a TED talk to change the world. I will conquer my finite disappointment in finding that Sir Ken’s speeches are nothing like promises and maintain my infinite hope invested in an education system that improves marginally day by day, by gritty perseverance. I will look spend more time looking for answers for teachers by teachers – being healthily wary of the words of eloquent speakers under the glow of cinematic lighting.

On my blogging anniversary: Why Write A Blog?

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“A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”

Anthony Trollope

 

I have just received my congratulations from WordPress on the first anniversary of my blog! Nearly eighty posts later, totalling easily over one hundred thousand words, I feel immense pride at having reached this point. Pride at the fact that an amazing number of people, mainly teachers, have taken the time to read my posts and leave comments. Pride at the fact that I have managed to balance teaching and writing about teaching. Pride in the knowledge that blogging has helped me in my pursuit of becoming a better teacher. Writing the blog has inspired me professionally: it has helped make me more disciplined with my working habits and it has undoubtedly made me more creative. I would feel I was cheating people if I didn’t recommend blogging for all teachers, even in the midst of busy working weeks.

I hear many valid arguments for not blogging. Workload issues or the sheer temerity of having a life beyond teaching spring up most commonly. I admit, I have the great pleasure of having very young children, therefore my social life has been whittled away like carrion in the dessert – ideal for some evening blog writing! For me, blogging is an antidote to drudgery filled tasks like report writing – without the attendant guilt of more purposeless pleasures.

Other people appear to be paralysed by a pursuit of perfection and therefore decline to publish. Perhaps is it my low standards, but I stick to the attitude of publish and be damned! Errors may exist, but I don’t possess a personal editor beyond my capacity to proof read through tiredness, so my fallibility is exposed – and I care not a jot! I welcome correction and laugh in the face of pedantry…then hastily make the correction! I know some people view blogging as an act of arrogance – a symbol of a misguided sense of a person’s sense of self-importance. The problem with that perspective is that if we all lived by this thinking then no-one would produce or publish anything. People who persist with this complaint need to get over themselves: stop chipping away at the ideas of others and produce some of their own they deem better!

So what are the benefits of blogging?

1. It can make you more efficient and even work less!

I understand the argument that blogging can simply mean more work. I would argue that the discipline of habitually writing a blog can actually hone your skills to the point where you research, plan and execute lessons better, and faster, than ever before. By making myself blog habitually in my evenings, attempting to post weekly, I have created productive habits that have spilled over into my teaching life. Gretchen Rubin, in her book, ‘The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun’, described the positives thus:

“Step by step, you make your way forward. That’s why practices such as daily writing exercises or keeping a daily blog can be so helpful. You see yourself do the work, which shows you that you can do the work. Progress is reassuring and inspiring…”

Of course, the converse is true, but having people read and respond to your personal reflections or teaching and learning ideas is tremendously motivational. That motivation pushes me to complete my work and subsequently write. It takes habit building – finding a routine: a space to write; a time of day; the usual tools and treats that give you those vital daily cues that writing needs to be completed. Of course, like anything worth doing, blogging does require perseverance. I like the perspective of Alexander Graham Bell, of telephone patenting and “99% perspiration” fame, on this:

“You cannot force ideas. Successful ideas are the result of slow growth. Ideas do not reach perfection in a day, no matter how much study is put upon them. It is perseverance in the pursuit of studies that is really wanted.”

By writing a blog we are committing ourselves to continued learning – however ill defined the ideas. Read some of my earlier blogs and find myself disagreeing with myself, but that is part of the discovery. What better way to constantly remember and model the habits of mind our students themselves need to succeed than by living them ourselves?

2. It can make you a better teacher

I undertook my blog writing hoping that it would make me a better teacher. I am pretty sure it has. My writing has led me to research and search other blogs, books and articles that have easily doubled my knowledge of the art and science of teaching. In one year I have undoubtedly learnt more than my last six or seven years in the job combined. By building my knowledge I have been able to try, trial and improve. I have been able to write about my teaching regularly, reflecting upon my many failures and my less frequent successes, honing my knowledge of how I teach, whilst borrowing ideas from other great teachers about how they teach. I have been able to get constructive feedback on my practice, as well as having my ideas, preconceptions and knowledge tested by fellow teachers and those with more expertise than myself.

By building my knowledge of pedagogy and related research I have become much more creative as a teacher. I have been able to make creative connections between what I have written and what I have had to read to enable me to write with thoroughness. Those creative connections have strengthened my core teaching habits and given me the confidence to experiment.

Too often creativity is depicted as a ‘Eureka!’ moment, or worse, the preserve of the creative genius. This lazy representation has neglected the more workmanlike truth that creativity emerges from gritty determination, dogged persistence and daily effort. Most often the dull repetition of ‘deliberate practice‘ must precede the creative act of breaking the rules, which can often be the hallmark of ‘creative genius’. In the words of Seth Godin:

“The notion that I do my work here, now, like this, even when I do not feel like it, and especially when I do not feel like it, is very important. Because lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it.”

3. It engages you in disciplined self-reflection

Blogs can be a shouty celebration of success. They can also be a deeply reflective examination of failure, marginal success and barely perceptible improvement. Most teachers really experience the latter. The much heralded ‘ten thousand hour rule‘ of expertise made famous by Malcolm Gladwell is a good barometer for teachers for the true complexity of some of the most obvious core activities of teaching. In my ten years of teaching I feel I am perhaps half way there with the ‘basics’ of questioning or memorable explanations. My self-reflection on this process is the reason why I am making small, incremental improvements. My blog is one key tool to to reflect, as too often in the hurly burly of the job such clear, reflective thinking simply becomes too difficult.

4. It can be great for your self confidence

Teaching can be a solitary pursuit at times. Beyond the discussions in staff rooms and offices, or the less frequent opportunities for useful feedback on our practice, we often disappear into our classrooms and simply get on with things. Talking about what we have done, sharing the ups and downs can be really liberate and having positive feedback and making a record of when things went well is good food for thought in gloomy times. The simple act of writing can build your confidence:

“Action is a great restorer and builder of confidence. Inaction is not only the result, but the cause, of fear. Perhaps the action you take will be successful; perhaps different action or adjustments will have to follow. But any action is better than no action at all.”

Norman Vincent Peale

 

I plan to keep up my blogging action for a long while yet! Give it a go – find a routine. You won’t regret it.

Thank you for reading, retweeting and commenting.

Ref: The brilliant www.brainpickings.org has been the source and inspiration for many of the quotations selected for this post. If you don’t follow that website you absolutely should.

Can Coaching Help Transform Teacher Quality?

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In the last week Michael Gove has challenged teachers about the setting of the highest standards in our schools. Beyond the Mr Men debate, there is a truth that we should all be seeking the highest standards of teaching and learning possible. In my experience there have been very few teachers who don’t agree with Gove on this, or who do not attempt to challenge students and inspire curiosity with the highest of expectations on a daily basis. Rather than focus upon pointless political point scoring I want focus upon some practical solutions to help raise standards and I would hope Gove lessens his point scoring politicking to do the same. This post aims to explore how we can improve Continuous Professional Development in our schools, thereby improving teacher quality – the singularly most important factor impacting upon standards in our schools.

My starting point is a quotation from Dylan Wiliam, made at last year’s SSAT conference in Liverpool, which has made a deep and lasting impression upon me as a teacher:

“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” Dylan Wiliam

There are different considerations to account for when addressing teacher improvement. Firstly, it is crucial to make the case for changing and improving upon our current CPD provision. Research by the Teacher Development Trust – see here – has proven that CPD informs practice, but it is still yet to be proven to embed practice and it patently does not transform practice. Perhaps the notion of transformative continuous professional development is too ambitious. We would hope that our new staff is already good enough to not require ‘transformation’, but instead require marginal improvements to have a strong positive impact upon student outcomes. Clearly; however, we need to ensure that we at least ‘embed’ improvements in practice. This is paramount because we know that despite the complex array of factors that influence student attainment, teacher quality trumps everything else. We also know that teacher impact plateaus after a couple of years (see my article here on reaching the ‘OK Plateau‘) and that we must make professional development genuinely continuous and continuously effective.

Currently, the DfE are presenting solutions to improving teacher quality, such as ‘performance related pay’. I am not wholly against all the reforms put forward by Gove, but this proposal to use market forces to attempt to improve teachers is wrongheaded and will fail. There is no international evidence that PRP impacts positively upon teacher quality and the process fundamentally misunderstands the largely intrinsic nature of teacher motivation. The vast majority of our teachers couldn’t work harder if they tried (although I would argue many could work smarter – myself included) and no pay incentive system can further improve pedagogy in the classroom without a catalogue of damaging effects. The market force of pay differentiation will do nothing except drive down average pay and it will not see teachers improve in a sustained and systematic way that benefits our children.

The current financial plight in schools does mean that as teacher improvement becomes paramount, the means to drive this improvement becomes still more difficult. High quality training costs time and money. The days of expensive external one day training being the sum total of ‘continuous development’ are clearly on the wane – if they have not died out already. Dylan Wiliam has shared research that proves the efficacy of ‘professional learning communities’ in schools and many models are currently being implemented with success – within schools and in broder partnerships. David Weston (from the ‘Teacher Development Trust’) has outlined the following ‘rules’ of truly effective professional development:

– It must begin by identifying teacher development needs based on the learning needs of the students being taught, and it must build on teachers’ existing skill.

– The coaching or training must maintain a balance of focusing on ways for the teacher to help these students while providing skills that transfer to the rest of the teacher’s work.

– The development process must be collaborative, with teachers of similar skill and confidence supporting, observing and coaching each other.

– The development process must be actively sustained for at least two terms for a large number of hours (i.e. more than 40). And it must follow cycles of trying, reflecting, and adjusting, while maintaining the focus on improved student learning – and not teacher behaviour.

-External expertise is vital to keep the improvement on track, avoid false glass-ceilings and disrupt ‘group-think’ that can develop in departments and schools. This could be an expert teacher from a nearby school, or an external consultant.

From http://www.informededucation.com/?p=255

 

Various successful models are being shared across families of schools, but more needs to be done to share what effective CPD looks like in schools in a systematic fashion across the country. The impact of such provision needs to be evaluated and measured as closely as possible. The ‘coaching’ model fits the bill for schools in many ways. It meets the criteria outlined by David Weston and, pragmatically, it is relatively cheap considering the budgetary pressures schools are currently under…oh, and it works.

 

‘The Coaching Model’: Embedding a Culture of Coaching

One leadership guru who commands universal respect is the Great Britain cycling and Team Sky coach, David Brailsford. He made a simple but prescient statement that best sums up the power of coaching:

“You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one.” Dave Brailsford

I wrote a blog about how the elements of the Brailsford model can translate to school improvement here. The above quotation is rightly simple, but its message is a perceptive answer to false idols such as PRP. What we must do is create an engine room of high quality teacher coaching within our schools to drive improvements in pedagogy and teacher quality.

Why invest in a team of ‘Teacher Coaches’? The psychology of change and actually changing the habits of adult professionals is very complex. What is widely known is that externally imposed change rarely sticks and changes the culture within schools, or indeed any organization. Hierarchical, top-down change also suffers from the same inadequacies and unsustainability. It can make for an imposed temporary change, but it doesn’t engineer sustained habit changes in the classroom. Teachers must be emotionally invested in any development of their practice in the school community. Involvement and choice are powerful drivers of habit change. Local knowledge form within the school is powerful and develops a greater degree of trust in what is an emotional and often messy process! Teacher coaches have a better knowledge of the school community; they will invariably gain greater respect than any external figures and they will certainly benefit from higher levels of trust.

‘Teacher Coaches’ are in a great position to shine a light on existing successes and spread that light across the school. School leaders can do this of course, but staff are more open to their colleagues suggesting and driving improvement. The coaches can become roles models of the best kind: undertaking research; tweaking the school environment; providing evidence of successful pedagogy; supporting underperforming colleagues; embodying a growth mindset and being open to adapting their practice to improve – in effect, becoming leading lights to drive change. The investment can be relatively small – the impact significant. By selecting outstanding practitioners, and finding them the precious commodity of time, they can be trained to lead CPD; to work with underperforming colleagues, colleagues looking to become truly great, and to undertake the practical and theoretical research which will give their methods credibility with colleagues.

No matter how effective the team of ‘Teacher Coaches’ are, of course, they will not transform teacher quality alone. The ethos of coaching to improve, with the attendant ‘growth mindset’, needs to permeate the organization – from students upward. What coaching promotes is an institution committed to learning to improve through every level. Senior leaders must lead the way. How many Head teachers share their educational reading or talk about their teaching with colleagues throughout the organization? There are few more powerful influential factors than this wholly free tone setting from the top.

Subject Leaders are also a pivotal group if a coaching culture is to be established and thrive. Subject Leaders need to be coached to be coaches – the language and practice of coaching is nuanced and subtle, requiring deliberate practice. Every department can create their own tailored microcosm of the coaching model if they are steered intelligently by school leaders and given time to do so (most often, Subject Leaders need to be guided to better utilize they time they already possess – for example, how many department meetings are wasted on administrative tasks, when time to improve pedagogy and share best practice is already tight?).

Schools can help work together collaboratively to unify models of best coaching practice. There are already many success stories, from the ‘coaching triads’ implemented during the ‘London Challenge’ program – see page 16 of this OFSTED report here. International models, such as the ‘jugyou kenkyuu’ lesson study’ model in Japan (see here for an explanation) have proved a sustained success and we should look outwardly to such working models. There is evidently a thirst for research and development to provide an evidence basis for change in education and teachers and schools must ensure that they lead that area, or we shall be beholden to changes we feel do not represent our expertise and experience.

I wrote this post to articulate some ideas for the SSAT #VISION2040 action group. Organisations like SSAT can help connect schools and teachers to better share successful coaching models on schools. Every school, as previously stated, should develop change from within, and ideally from the bottom up, but we must also connect more outwardly. Cooperation, and not competition, will see our education system improve. In my school we are initiating change to include a coaching model, supporting and constructed with staff – see here. In the #VISION2040 group, Stephen Tierney is initiating a development model in his school that hones in on formative observations, research and reflection and ‘innovation fellows’ – all aspects of a whole school approach that ideally suits the coaching approach – see here. If we are to improve teachers and teaching and learning, our raison d’être, we can do many things, but systematizing and sharing models of coaching best practice can provide a great way to embed improvements in pedagogy.

 

Useful further reading:

‘Improving Coaching: Evolution not Revolution’ by the National College:
http://www.ncl.ac.uk/cflat/news/documents/CoachingSkillsTWFinalwebPDFv3.pdf

‘Creating a Coaching Culture’ by the ‘Institute of Leadership and Management’: http://www.i-l-m.com/downloads/publications/G443_ILM_COACH_REP.pdf

‘Creating a Culture of Coaching’ by the National College: http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/2980/1/download%3Fid%3D147562%26filename%3Dcreating-a-culture-of-coaching-full-report.pdf

The ‘Teacher Development Trust’ Website and newsletters: http://www.teacherdevelopmenttrust.org/

Coaching in Schools – Top Five Reads:
https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/coaching-in-schools-top-five-reads/