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Opening The Door On Our ‘Craft Knowledge’

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My last post of the school year is a resolution for the school year ahead. There is no special philosophy, research or expensive equipment required. It is a simple focus on ‘opening the door’ more in the coming year. It is about sharing. Not just in the sense of sharing knowledge through blogs, Teachmeets or Twitter, or through great books on education, although all of these have their value. The commitment to sharing and ‘opening the door’ is primarily about being in the classrooms of my colleagues more and them being in mine more too. Not as a lesson judgement, a snooping check or some OFSTED preparation, but to simply share better what we do well.

I am excited at the prospect of becoming a ‘Teacher Coach‘ in the coming year. I will have the pleasure of working with a whole host of teachers across the school. Part of that coaching is utilising video technology to share best practice. As part of the whole-school process we will aim to share our successes, ideas and good practice. I hope to use that technology, alongside good old fashioned human appearances (!) to see, share and support more teachers and their learning. In my capacity as a Subject Leader of English and as a Teacher Coach, this will pretty much be my core business. I need to get better at doing it with consistency. We should look to any levers, like video technology, that help us share our good practice and see other teachers teach and talk about it more often. Sharing good practice matters. It has a significant impact upon student outcomes:

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Thank you to David Weston for guiding me to this chart, and for greatly influencing this post.

This ‘opening of the door’ has the attendant benefit of being great for my teaching and learning because I most acutely learn about my craft when I observe other teachers, whether it be interview lessons, student teachers, or my experienced colleagues. What I hope to do is help create more of this ‘open door attitude’ writ large. We mustn’t be afraid to share. We must resist labelling people as arrogant because they are happy to share. We mustn’t inhibit others from being inclined to share their practice, simply because we don’t want to open our door and we are inhibited ourselves.

Teaching is a very emotional business and it is often quite an isolated one. More experienced teachers can go months without an adult in the room, other than a teaching assistant. Opportunities like ‘lesson study‘, where teachers observe practice, like medical rounds in a hospital, is very rare. Just as rare is the basic practice of watching our colleagues teach (outside of more formal PD observations) with anything like regularity. After our NQT year planned approaches to doing this usually grind to a halt. Therefore, often unintentionally, we develop deep-seated emotional barriers to such experiences, becoming defensive about our teaching. Of course, the torturous process attending OFSTED exacerbates these issues and accentuates personal inhibitions. These barriers, over time, ossify into our teacher self. It can sometimes become negative without our ever having intended it to be so. Roland Barth expressed this problem sagely here:

“More often, we educators become one another’s adversaries in a more subtle way—by withholding. School people carry around extraordinary insights about their practice—about discipline, parental involvement, staff development, child development, leadership, and curriculum. I call these insights craft knowledge. Acquired over the years in the school of hard knocks, these insights offer every bit as much value to improving schools as do elegant research studies and national reports. If one day we educators could only disclose our rich craft knowledge to one another, we could transform our schools overnight.”

When a teacher does place value on what she knows and musters up the courage and generosity of spirit to share an important learning—“I’ve got this great idea about how to teach math without ability-grouping the kids”—a common response from fellow teachers is, “Big deal. What’s she after, a promotion?” Regrettably, as a profession, we do not place much value on our craft knowledge or on those who share it.”
Roland Barth, ‘Improving Relationships Within the Schoolhouse

I spent time this week talking to my Head teacher, John Tomsett, about him speaking to an experienced teacher in our school who has honed their craft expertly over time with little fanfare (see his excellent post here). So much so, this teacher humbly simply couldn’t understand the attention being given over to his teaching, or the consistently outstanding results his students attain year after year. Not to mention his reputation as being the wisest of colleagues. My abiding feeling after having that chat about this member of staff, and reading John’s blogpost, was being desperate to get in and observe him at his craft! I want to drain the marrow of his ‘craft knowledge’ while I can, use it myself, and look to pass it on. It left me craving a culture of consistently ‘opening the door’.

In the current climate of ‘payment related performance’ there is the corrosive potential for competition trumping collaboration between teachers. Once more, Barth anticipated this notion in 2006:

“We also become one another’s adversaries through competition. In the cruel world of schools, we become competitors for scarce resources and recognition. One teacher put it this way: “I teach in a culture of competition in which teaching is seen as an arcane mystery and teachers guard their tricks like great magicians.”

The guiding principles of competition are, “The better you look, the worse I look,” and “The worse you look, the better I look.” No wonder so many educators root for the failure of their peers rather than assist with their success.

Our guiding principles, as Barth suggests, need to be a determined by a deep-rooted sense of collegiality. By sharing and making sure we share better and more often than we thought possible. Despite all the external factors that inhibit us from ‘opening the door’ we must do so with determination. That is my resolution. I now need to work on the ideas to make it happen. Roland Barth eloquently summarises the challenge and the value of ‘opening the door on our craft knowledge:

“Making our practice mutually visible will never be easy, because we will never be fully confident that we know what we’re supposed to be doing and that we’re doing it well. And we’re never quite sure just how students will behave. None of us wants to risk being exposed as incompetent. Yet there is no more powerful way of learning and improving on the job than by observing others and having others observe us.”

Becoming A Better Teacher: Teachers Doing It For Themselves

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

Dylan Wiliam

Every teacher wants to get better. I use Dylan Wiliam’s quotation over and over unashamedly because I think it strikes a truth that all teachers and school leaders must embrace. I used it to begin my #TMClevedon seminar on ‘becoming a better teacher‘. We all know and understand the pivotal impact of teacher quality for our students and surely we all want to be better. There really is no bigger prize: better teachers improve the life chances of students. It should be our personal focus as committed professionals. It should be the core purpose of school leaders to develop great teachers. The government should relentlessly focus its resources and efforts into improving our current stock of teachers, supporting them to be better.

Of course, many teachers are not improving. The reality is that the impact of teacher experience on student outcomes actually plateaus after a couple of years – see the evidence here. Therefore waiting to get better simply from the benefit of experience throughout your career won’t happen. We may want to get better, but are we actually going about it in the right way? We must ask ourselves an awkward and challenging question. Perhaps a pretty uncomfortable ‘elephant in the room’ question: Have we plateaued as a teacher?

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After the whirlwind of feedback and the perilously steep learning curves of our first two years as teachers the impact of experience dulls. Is the comfort derived from developing good habits of behaviour management and easing our attendant stresses a bad thing? No. Should we be flagellating ourselves with the birch over our failure to become an expert in only a couple of years? Of course not! Should we be looking in the mirror and looking for new answers how to better improve? I would argue yes.

The Problem with Continuous Professional Development

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As the line goes, no man is an island. No teacher can improve in splendid isolation. The problem with continuous professional development is that the continuous bit is too often missing. The most commonly booked courses focus on external threats like OFSTED. They are not systematic and most often are not even about learning. David Weston’s (on Twitter as @informed_edu) Teacher Development Trust has outlined the research that has identified that only 1% of CPD has a transformative impact on classroom practice. Even the best CPD will struggle to have a definitive impact upon classroom practice. Time and money are scarce resources in our current climate. This may all sound bleak, but the heartening truth is that teachers can lead a transformation themselves. Let’s not fool ourselves, it will take effort and a boatload of ‘deliberate practice’…but teachers can get better and do it for themselves.

Like waiting for some course that will deliver pedagogical manna from heaven, we too often look in the wrong place for answers. We can too easily waste time focusing upon the latest tools and new resources and not on our core practice that makes the difference. It is perhaps only natural. Shiny new tools promise us so much, yet their promise too often translates into a crumby reality. Spending time making resources, like cards sorts or making lovely new displays, feels very much like hard work, and often is time-consuming, but the actual impact on learning can finite, and arguably negligible, but certainly not worth the time. We need to focus upon the 80/20 rule (otherwise known as the ‘Pareto principal ‘).

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We must identify the vital core aspects of our pedagogy that will have the greatest impact for our learners. We must narrow our focus and deliberately practice those 20% of teaching strategies that have 80% of the impact on learning. What are your strategies? Note them down on this diagram and focus in your ‘deliberate practice’ on these and these alone.

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I have written at length about the ‘holy trinity’ of teacher practice as I see it: effective explanations, questioning and feedback (both oral feedback and written feedback). I am fully aware my choices may seem rather lacking in glamour and sparkle! There is no branded, bespoke package for teacher explanations. We do them habitually, intuitively and daily, often without even thinking, so automatic are they to our practice. But, like all habits, we need to unpick and analyse if we are to really make sustained improvements. We need to heed Dylan Wiliam’s advice and stop doing so many good things. Instead we must hone, craft and perfect our core practice. Here is my law of the vital few, but remember, these are my strategies – look for yours.

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The Answer: ‘Deliberate Practice’

A rather gritty and sobering truth about being an expert teacher, or an expert at anything for matter, is that it takes a tremendous amount of hard work. Thousands of hours of hard work, probably unsurprisingly, is the answer. Yet, what happens with teachers who have taught for many years and who have stubbornly plateaued regardless of the time invested? The issue is that we often undertake the wrong sort of practice and our ‘hard work’ lacks direction. Every teacher undertakes repeated practice, but simply doing something over does not confer expertise – in fact, simply repeating practice can harden bad habits. Teachers need to undertake a specific type of practice: ‘deliberate practice‘.

So what is it? I have written about it in detail here. To use a simple analogy, if you think about a top golfer, they practice specific shots, with a coach giving immediate feedback, typically including a series of corrective tweaks. The feedback is king. The reflection and tweaks are essential. In many ways, we need to revert to our state as an NQT – constantly reflecting upon our practice with the alert mindset of the novice. Perhaps we cannot source a top golf coach, but we can find a ‘critical friend’ in a colleague; we can blog and find an audience there; we can work with our subject leaders, a teacher coach etc. To improve we must undertake what can be a frustrating process with grit and resilience. Here is a simple step by step guide to the ‘deliberate practice‘ method:

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What are the Barriers to Improvement?

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Of course, such a process that demands monotony and discipline is hard to sustain. Like a new year diet, many of us are likely to slip. Our hands caught in the biscuit tin by mid-January at best! Such barriers are represented in the above image. Firstly, there is the emotional barriers. Exposing ourselves to failure can be a chastening business. Failing regularly seems like plain stupidity – a raw, public affair! We need to focus on the goal and be committed to getting better and being prepared to fail. Often, we will need support: inspiring school leaders, appreciative students, a strong department team – not too much to ask! Secondly, we instinctively view success falsely as a linear process, the fixed idea of the genius not encountering failure is rooted in our psyche. We must be prepared for the messy process of concerted practice in a classroom – the advice to never work with children and animals exists for a reason! Of course,time is a crucial barrier. We must be committed to giving over extra time to hone our practice. We should look to find marginal gains in terms of time with aspects of our practice, like written feedback (see my partner post about my #TMClevedon seminar here). Finally, we must recognise our bad habits – like the smoking granny! Then we need to work on improving our habits.

We can all improve upon our habits. We can allocate weekly times and places to share, research and reward ourselves. We are programmed to follow little cues when forming new habits. We need to find time by reducing our workload in other ways, such as honing our written feedback. Find pockets of time that you can practice and plan. Ideally, this is done with a ‘critical friend’. Perhaps a like-minded colleague? A school teacher coach? A subject leader? By committing ourselves to others and publicly announcing our plans we are much likely to see it through. Too often the new habit, such as executing a new teaching strategy, will simply not pay off quickly or easily. This is where our mettle is tested. We must ride through this hump in the road and focus on the small bright spots of success that can lead the way to being a consistently better teacher.

Reflect to Improve

It is crucial to focus upon being a reflective practitioner to sustain professional improvement. This takes habit forming and an allocation of our time. Good schools will factor this into CPD time. This can involve filming ourselves working on our core practice; writing a blog; speaking with your colleagues, your critical friend or coach, and people on the like of Twitter about pedagogy etc. We should be prepared to read and research like we did when we were at university. If we are serious about being an expert we must undertake the research habits which we would demand of our best students for example. In the past I have been guilty of hypocrisy – expecting to get better as a teacher without the extra commitment. Yes, we have the issue of time, but in the long run the rewards could be transformative for your professional practice.

One final strategy is to practice perfect. The following diagram can help by giving you a simple record of the thirty or so attempts at practice reputed to help root new habits in our teaching routine. It was originally shared by the brilliant Daniel Coyle on his really useful website: http://thetalentcode.com/. Simply take the diagram and select the first letter of the focus of your ‘deliberate practice’. Once you have you ‘E’ for explanations that use thirsty or so bubbles (the full one hundred if you are brave…or foolhardy!) for your letter ‘E’ and check them off as your undertake your classroom practice.

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Perhaps make little reflective notes to bank that crucial feedback, both from yourself or your ‘critical friend’. This segmenting of what is of course complex information is important to help us learn new habits and strategies more effectively. You could make two or three bubbles on the diagram milestones for videoing yourself to get that extra layer of feedback into your reflective practice. Using this diagram is only a small reflective strategy, but perhaps it could be the cue you need to form a new habit. Perhaps you could become a brilliant teacher by undertaking such ‘deliberate practice‘ and doing it for yourself. In the words of William Faulkner:

“Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”

The video link for my TeachMeet Clevedon seminar is here: http://youtu.be/G2liBBzcAlw. Thank you to everyone at Clevedon school for their brilliant hospitality. It was a fantastic few days full of inspiring people who certainly made me want to be better.

Wise Words For My Younger Self

“Before, you are wise; after, you are wise. In between you are otherwise”
― David Zindell, The Broken God

I read a great TES article a couple of weeks ago which was based on the conceit of writing a letter to our NQT selves, with the benefit of our experience (see here). I was taken by the idea and it has lingered in my mind ever since. I therefore decided to write one of my very own.

Dear Alex,

You will begin teaching with a deep seated fear of failure. This lack of confidence will drive you to want to be better and, with time and support, you will be better…thankfully, much better! In fact, your fear is your secret weapon – harness it and make it a positive force that drives you. Eventually it will dissipate and harden into something like experience. People will eventually look to you to develop their confidence in order to conquer their fears (which may seem absurd considering your current state!) and this will become one of your favourite parts of the job. Each struggle you will overcome in your early years of teaching will serve its purpose and show its value many times over.

Uncertainty attached itself to your decision to become a teacher, but your instinct was right. The variety and difficulty of the job will test you daily, but this will mean you are never bored. You won’t lose your passion for helping children and passing on a lasting love for English. Your passion to see children have the same opportunities that you were given will never falter. The job is incredibly hard but more rewarding for being so. Shout loudly about how much you enjoy teaching – too many people resort to easy cynicism that you know to be wrong.

You will realise that the relationship you have with students, and their willingness to work hard for you, will outdo any teaching and learning strategy you can devise. Never forget to cultivate those relationships. It will be one of the greatest pleasures you will get from your career. Quickly, you will realise ‘liking‘ a teacher can be wholly different from ‘respecting‘ a teacher. Don’t strive for popularity – strive for respect. You will develop more and more confidence in your own professional instinct. It will tell you that what you know they need to learn will always outweigh what they think they want to learn.

On your PGCE you went along with the crowd and mocked the advice to be a ‘reflective practitioner‘ as lame jargon repeated ad nauseum – theory not rooted in reality of the taxing day job. You were all wrong. You will eventually give the exact same advice! The job is a maelstrom of emotion, complexity and dizzying change (which is one of its more perverse attractions). Find time to reflect and talk about your practice as much as you can. You will spend hours writing about teaching in the future – ironically, you will be at your most productive and effective as a teacher when you do this. Don’t be taken in by the false economy of not committing yourself fully to getting better because you ‘don’t have the time‘.

You remember watching ‘Dead Poets Society’ and thinking you wished teaching was like this, but knowing that it wasn’t. Well, you were right. But the call to ‘seize the day‘ was undoubtedly true. Only, more accurately, I would tell you to ‘seize the CPD’! It takes thousands of hours of deliberate practice to become an expert. This will not happen on any single training day, no matter how good it feels to you at the time. You will need to read, reflect and retain your passion to get better beyond the parameters of such training and practice. After a couple of years you will plateau and not realise it. Don’t let yourself fall into lazy habits – don’t worry about what others are doing – try to be better than yourself.

Don’t look to OFSTED for answers – they turn in the wind. Don’t try to become the ‘outstanding’ teacher you have the good fortune to observe. Know yourself – that isn’t how you work. Commit yourself to gradual, small improvements (the tortoise can defeat the hare) and be the best version of yourself you can possibly be.

Ten years later you will realise choosing to teach was the wisest choice your young self ever made. Despite the early bumps, particularly your rocky first year, enjoy the ride!

Yours,

Alex

Try writing the letter yourself – it is very cathartic!

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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/

Overcoming the ‘OK Plateau’ and Becoming a Better Teacher

(This post is a copy of my article for the Guardian Teacher network)

I’m a huge football fan and I always have been since my father took me to watch Everton with the promise of dour football and a lukewarm pie. Such inspiration led me to play football almost continuously throughout my childhood to the present day. If I was to total my hours of practice it would surely be in the thousands. In fact, it would near the 10,000 hours total which has been associated with becoming an expert by people in the know. Only I am not an expert. I am little better than I was when I was a spotty teenager. A long time ago I stopped improving at football. I had reached my ‘ok plateau’. I was no Wayne Rooney and I had accepted that I was going to be ok as a happy amateur. So how does my football practice explain the problem of teacher improvement?

The author, Joshua Foer, originated the term ‘ok plateau’ in his popular science book, Moonwalking with Einstein, on the subject of improving memory. He used it to describe that common autopilot state when you have habitually mastered the basics of a task, but despite being skilled you stop really improving to reach expert status; you simply plateau in performance.

Teachers are as prone as any other profession to this state. After our time as a trainee and NQT, when we are grasping new knowledge and making successful connections, our improvement slows, sometimes to a stop. This, unsurprisingly correlates with a decline in regular coaching.

The evidence, from Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain (2005), is that after the first couple of years teacher quality reaches a plateau and teacher experience beyond this point has a negligible impact upon student attainment. This clashes with our basic presumptions about experience in teaching and it should certainly give us thought.

I believe I experienced a similar ‘ok plateau’ for at least five or six years. After mastering the craft of behaviour management and getting to know the nuts of bolts of teaching English I was simply happy to be doing a good job. With the storm of demands created by workload, any improvement beyond this point seemed fanciful. I stopped reading about teaching and learning and I stopped being coached with genuine regularity.

Part of the problem is our system of continuous performance development (CPD). This system is tied to targets and professional standards that actually inhibit conscientious teachers taking risks and experimenting with new teaching strategies. We set targets, either consciously or subconsciously, so that we may meet them, regardless whether they genuinely improve our practice or not. Gone is the regular critical feedback of our first couple of years. We move into autopilot, often even entering a state of professional inertia.

There are no quick fixes to the issue of genuine continuous teacher improvement. One method is to undertake consistent coaching systems that better imitate our earlier state as training teachers. We need to separate the judgemental CPD targets from genuinely developmental strategies, like coaching in departments. In my school we are employing a team of expert coaches to drive research and personal coaching across the school. In departments, we are also moving to a more personalised coaching model where feedback is constructively critical and consistent, with time allocated to do this.

A key issue is that experienced teachers are not undertaking the most effective method to continuously improve; deliberate practice (see my blog post on the subject here. Deliberate practice involves chunking smaller aspects of pedagogy and repeating that practice with lots of immediate coaching feedback. When I play football I get no specific feedback, it is trial and error, with lots of uncorrected errors. Deliberate practice is about a self-critical process of reflection and gradually, but consistently, raising the level of challenge. It is the responsibility of the teacher to be committed to such time consuming and challenging practice, but it is also the responsibility of school leaders to support teachers and to create fertile conditions for such development.

There are many books that delineate effective deliberate practice and support successful teacher coaching, such as Practice Perfect, by Doug Lemov, or Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Golvin, so teachers can take some control of their own development if their school conditions prove barren.

Many teachers are now writing blogs to reflect on their practice; undertaking action research, attending TeachMeets, or connecting with other teachers in professional networks, such as Twitter, to develop their pedagogy. There is such a passion and commitment to our vocation that I see every day in our profession that is heartening.

I may be a bit past my dream of playing for Everton, but with the right type of practice and support I can improve to eventually become an expert teacher. When Dylan Wiliam popularises research that proves that students with the best teachers learn twice as fast as average then our pursuit of excellence, with effective coaching and deliberate practice, could just make a transformative difference for our students.

Failing with Confidence

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So often this year I have encountered students crippled with a fear of failure. At this time of year, with exams looming, that crisis of confidence can erupt – flattening a student with terrific force. In schools we can use the resilient language of the ‘growth mindset’, but for many students it never comes close to penetrating the hardened layers of protective shell that students have formed from an early age. I also sense that despite our willing use of the language of the ‘growth mindset’ as teachers, we too often doubt that willing resilience will see us tackle failure confidently and that success will follow. With these thoughts in mind I came across this speech by J K Rowling, given as a Harvard commencement address back in 2008, that eloquently articulates the benefits of failure:


“Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”


J. K. Rowling See full transcript here.

In a testing fortnight personally, when I too had experienced failure, the speech resonated deeply. Also, if I were to look back on my teenage self I would see a boy terrified of failure. Now, the more I fail the more I manage to succeed. The adversity and strength gained by overcoming failure has meant I am happy to tackle challenges I wouldn’t have thought possible as a student. Job interviews, public talks, public writing – all frighteningly public opportunities for failure, but all tackled with something like excitement and a healthy dose of fear. I need to keep communicating that to students. Don’t be afraid to fail. Aim to fail with confidence.

Coincidentally, J K Rowling gave this speech in Boston, not far away from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau had written about living “deliberately” over a century and a half before. The parallels between the words of each famed writer about how we need to live are clear:


“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.”

Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walden or ‘Life in the Woods”

Over the coming weeks I am going to aim to remember to continue to attempt to fail with confidence and draw confidence from failure. I am going to try to communicate that message to my students. I have a suspicion it may lead to some success and that “inner security” described by J K Rowling.

Coaching in Schools: Top Five Reads

There appears to be a significant rise in coaching in schools at the moment that provides hope for a more coherent approach to teacher improvement. The whole topic of Performance Development is schools is a contentious topic. Clearly, performance related pay and other ideas are being mooted with justified scepticism from teachers. Of course, the lines between coaching and Performance Development can, and will, be blurred and obscured, but if we can develop a system of coaching free of the inhibiting spectres of annual targets, or even OFSTED, then there is hope for a developmental system of teacher improvement that might well make a difference to teachers and therefore to the ultimate success of students.

Over the last year I’ve sourced evidence through Dylan Wiliam and beyond about the plateau in development experienced by teachers (indeed most professionals) after a couple of years. In American research, by Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain (2005), it has stated that after three years there is little improvement in teacher quality. It would stand to reason that teachers reach a level of competency when they can then effectively switch on the autopilot and teach very well…or not of course. This plateau in performance also correlates with a lessening of direct coaching. On a PGCE course, in the NQT year, and sometimes in the third year, teachers are regularly engaging in coaching conversations – many intentionally, or some as a by-product of early performance development. After that the ‘continuous‘ aspect of ‘Continuing Professional/Performance Development’ too often gets lost. Coaching is the potential antidote. It can provide the vehicle for ‘deliberate practice’. ‘Deliberate practice’ isn’t a process of vague trial and error – it is a process of specific chunking of teaching skills, repeated practice, with regular and precise feedback. It is this crucial mode of feedback which requires continued coaching. There are many models and methods of coaching which I will likely explore in further posts, but I wanted to share what i thought was some useful reading on the topic. There are many books in the field, both specific and some not specific to the profession. I have selected what I have found most useful in my attempt to be a better Subject Leader and coach:

1. ‘Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better’, by Lemov, Woolway and Yezzi.

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This is my favourite coaching book as it is packed with a host of practical approaches to coaching in the school context and methods to improve the all-important ‘deliberate practice’ so key to becoming a better teacher (see my post on ‘deliberate practice’ here). It gives lots of specific examples with everything from the right phrasing to encouraging a coaching mindset, to detailed accounts of where to practice and how.

2. ‘Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential‘ by Carole Dweck.

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In many ways this book has become seminal in the field and education and beyond to articulate the psychology of success. The dichotomy of the positive ‘growth mindset’ and the more limiting ‘fixed mindset’ underpins the language and practical process of coaching. It isn’t the most practical of coaching books, as it focuses on illuminating the concept with examples, but it does provide some crucial advice about using language effectively in coaching. Also, it provides a clear narrative that any coach can communicate with ease to make the process more effective and, hopefully, more likely to succeed.

3. ‘Talent is Overrated: What Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else‘ by Geoff Golvin.

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There are many excellent books now on the market that focus on the development of expertise and even genius. From Daniel Coyle to Matthew Syed, there are books well worth your time, but if I had to choose one book about performance and practice, which combines the theory of Dweck with the practical focus of Lemov, it would be Golvin’s book. He presents a compelling argument for ‘deliberate practice’ with lots of specific approaches, from becoming better at golf to being great in business, he priorities the importance of feedback, central to effective coaching, and outlines the grit and perseverance in evidence when analysing expert performers.

4. ‘Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard‘, by Dan and Chip Heath.

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This book is not about coaching or teaching in any specific way. It is, however, essential reading for any professional looking to help make changes in an organisation and with individuals. It is so good I couldn’t help but write a blog post all about it here. The book brilliantly articulates how you can change habits, even the most hardened, which is essential knowledge for a coach. It also clarified the emotional factors underpinning performance and how you can positively help an individual makes changes to their practice. It presents an intriguing range of case studies that will get any would be teacher, coach or school leader reflecting deeply.

5. ‘Visible Learning for Teacher: Maximising Impact on Learning’ by John Hattie.

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You would be forgiven for asking why I haven’t chosen more books specifically about coaching itself. I think there are some laudable subject specific books, but I would argue it is paramount that any teacher coach needs to be themselves great learners, readers and researchers on education in order to coach colleagues towards improving practice. What is key is that coaches in schools have a broad knowledge of pedagogy and that any coaching actually focuses in upon teaching and learning that has the greatest impact. School leaders and coaches are duty bound to synthesise the best research in the field, followed by research that approaches such research with practical applications. Books like Zoe Elder’s brilliant ‘Full On Learning‘ or Jim Smith’s ‘The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook’ are essential in developing an expert range of pedagogy. Hattie’s research is so fundamental in that it slays some sacred cows and actually guides teachers towards pedagogy that is proven to work, with the evidence that underpins the practice. Of course, context is crucial, so even huge meta-analyses of evidence needs to be equated with individual school contexts, but the book is a must read for a well informed coach.

I have had the difficult task of narrowing the number of books to only five, but I expect Jackie Breere’s prospective ‘The Perfect Coach‘ will be another gem that synthesises many practical approaches to coaching in schools if the rest of the ‘Perfect’ series in anything to go on. If you have any great suggestions for other books specifically on coaching in schools, or other books related to coaching then please do comment. If we are to be a good coach, we must pursue knowledge and good practice deliberately and reading and researching is a great start.

Becoming a Better Teacher by ‘Deliberate Practice’

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“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Bruce Lee

When I was a young boy I dreamt of being like Bruce Lee. He had complete mastery over his body and mind. He was a genius who could also beat anybody up, if required…crucial for a young, bespectacled light-weight like me! I remember owning a book on ‘Hung Ga Kung Fu‘ – only, I never did commit myself to the training. For one, no-one wanted to grapple with me or be repeatedly kicked a thousand times over, and secondly, my big brother was, well…just too big! After dabbling with a few thousand hours of football practice over the years, without expertise, the next great passion became the pursuit of becoming an expert teacher. This is what brings me back around to Bruce Lee twenty years later. His quotation above about ‘deliberate practice‘ has many ramifications for what our professionalism means and how we must work in schools to improve if we want to become experts and great teachers. 20130303-152547.jpg The ‘Twelve Bridges’ of ‘Hung Ga Kung Fu’ provide excellent behaviour management poses for the discerning teacher!

Many people know the many great quotations about effort trumping ability; about genius resulting from resilient persistence, rather than innate ability. The mystique that attends the genius attributed to the likes of Bruce Lee (I remember the stories about his fabled ‘one inch punch’ or his superhuman flexibility) is stripped away and the theory of ‘10,000 hours’ of practice presents us with an all too human answer to what becoming an expert means – simply lots of effort! Although more nuanced scientific evidence deems the epic 10,000 as an average, with research proving 3,000 hours can establish expert status in a specific domain, such as chess – see the research here). A famous example of the popular 10,000 hours hypothesis is in Malcolm Gladwell’s enjoyable narrative, based loosely on the theme of ‘deliberate practice‘ , entitled ‘Outliers‘. Gladwell takes a more anecdotal, magazine-style approach; whereas the likes of Geoff Colvin grapple with a more rigorous on ‘deliberate practice’, which is much more specific and complex a narrative than Gladwell suggests. A good example is this golfing analogy form Colvin:

“For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day – that’s deliberate practice.” Geoff Colvin, ‘What It takes to be Great’

Interesting elements of the research used by Colvin, from K Anders Ericsson deserve a reading and could be compressed into nuggets like this:

“Across many domains of expertise, a remarkably consistent pattern emerges: The best individuals start practice at earlier ages and maintain a higher level of daily practice. Moreover, estimates indicate that at any given age the best individuals in quite different domains, such as sports and music, spend similar amounts of time on deliberate practice. In virtually all domains, there is evidence that the most important activity— practice, thinking, or writing—requires considerable effort and is scheduled for a fixed period during the day. For those exceptional individuals who sustain this regular activity for months and years, its duration is limited to 2-4 h a day, which is a fraction of their time awake.” ‘The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance’, K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer

Now, undertaking a vast amount of practice does not confer expertise, otherwise we would have moved towards some practice driven master-race long ago! A whole host of other factors weigh into the mix to complicate the rightly lauded power of effort. Factors such as the underpinning motivational qualities and perseverance of the individual; the quality of coaching; the innate cognitive ability of the person and the capacity of their working memory to retain key information. These are just some of the complications that muddy the narrative somewhat. Yet, they may muddy the water, but they do not eliminate the big fish of the idea: that the simple but very powerful idea that ‘deliberate practice‘ can have a transformative impact on performance for teachers and beyond.

Also, it is crucial to note that just turning up for work and bashing out a few lessons is not true ‘deliberate practice‘ either. ‘Deliberate practice‘ has some very specific qualities which differentiate it from mere ‘practice‘, or what we typically deem ‘work‘. This is what is key for schools when aiming for a successful Performance Development system for example. ‘Deliberate practice‘ is not ‘mindless‘ repetition, where a teacher uses the same resource or strategy willy nilly, in a loose ‘trail and error’. It is not trying lots of fun, new resources or teaching strategies out on a pliant group. Instead, it is about a deeply reflective process, that is highly rigorous and specific.

It is therefore often slow and difficult – nothing like the ‘flow’ state articulated by the likes of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It requires organisation and often works best as action research, or other such reflective process, like blogging your practice. The process undertaken is not easy – therefore discipline, the sort possessed by a rare few, is paramount. The ‘flow’ may come later, with mastery of an aspect of teaching for example, if at all. Too often in education we expect that if we adapt to find something that will establish that ‘flow’ for students they will fly, but the reality is that we are doing them a disservice. if we never make them persevere with the struggle and failure of undertaking difficult work they will never have the ‘grit’ to be true experts in anything. We need to train ourselves, and our students in what W. B. Yeat’s poetically described as “the fascination of what is difficult” if we are to last the course. It takes time and effort – some deep habit forming actions – with a strong degree of resilience to plough through the many failures on the path to mastery.

Here is my simplified idea of some of the key steps in the process:

Key Steps for Successful ‘Deliberate Practice’

1. Define the time and place High quality ‘deliberate practice’ requires a careful consideration of time and place (just like good habit forming). Consider: when is the best time to reflect? When are you best focused and for how long? Define the time and place specifically. Be consistent and persistent about the habit. Ericsson’s research notes that consistency is key.

2. Research your evidence thoroughly, then define, and refine, your focus. Share with a coach/critical friend Then there is the reflective thinking about the specific focus of the practice (intelligent research is key here). Have you researched all the evidence? Do you know your Hattie from your ‘Brain Gym’? Then each skill needs to be broken down into sharply defined elements. The focus is then entirely on that one minor element – over and over, as Bruce Lee describes. As Dylan Wiliam, rather paradoxically stated, “we must stop trying to do too many good things.” Our focus must be narrow – be it asking great questions; establishing rigorous peer feedback etc. – otherwise we will not be able to make exacting improvements. Too much ‘Performance Development’ is over ambitious, has too many strands, or is has distractions divorced from our core pedagogy.

3. Record your evidence and your reflections systematically. Have an open and frank dialogue with your coach on a consistent basis Then it becomes a case of recording that practice (the aforementioned action research and blogging is ideal). It could be an individual blog, or a departmental or school blog. It can be better when you are part of a group whom are willing to give you focused, supportive criticisms, but sometimes that is impractical for the degree of close coaching required. The audience and feedback to a blog can also be very useful to the process. What is important is that we record continually to give structure to our reflections. If we leave our responses down to memory we may well fall prey to ‘confirmation bias‘ i.e. we will believe what we want to believe! This is far from easy in the hurly burly of the day job, so school leaders would do well to facilitate as much of this time as possible, providing resources such as time (all important), the technical support and high quality coaches. Good quality time: such as your coach observing your practice (it could be as short as five minutes) and giving you very specific feedback; or observing experts, within and without of your school, needs to happen weekly. Not only that, to make significant improvements the teacher must be willing to devote more time than could be realistically allocated within school hours. As Ron Berger states, an ‘ethic of excellence’ must be cultivated.

4. Share, reflect and repeat…and repeat… No-one said this process would be easy – becoming an expert in anything takes a grinding determination for betterment. Some people simply don’t care enough to face the difficulty – this is true in all professions and walks of life. Repetition is dull, recording evidence lacks the ‘sexiness’ of the performing act! It is why so few people become true experts. As teachers, we often enjoy the trialling of a new strategy – by the fifth attempt at improving the strategy, the inclination to undertake more student voice or record more summative evidence becomes a burden we simply let fall aside. This is where the discipline of step 1 comes in; as well as the responsibility to your coach and/or wider audience in step 2 and 3.

Coaching in Schools

Coaching is becoming a much more common phenomenon in schools. It is linked to ‘Performance Development’, but that link is problematic. Whilst performance targets are linked to career advancement, we will always naturally become risk averse; falling back upon more well established practices to meet the performance goals. This conservative response doesn’t encourage the attitude needed for the real development of expert skills. Not only that, the best laid plans of ‘Performance Development’ targets at the beginning of the school year often lack the flexibility required for really effective ‘deliberate practice‘. We become determined to ‘pass’ our ‘Performance Development’ target, regardless of whether the target itself may have become useless to our real development needs – if it ever was in the first place.

What schools must do, therefore, is carefully delineate between ‘coaching’ and ‘Performance Development’. They must coach good coaches; they must facilitate time for the deliberate practice to be observed, recorded and reflected upon. Schools must ask how they can lever this type of practice into our weekly structures. Schools must have a relentless focus upon sharing good pedagogy, whilst encouraging that sharing across the boundaries of the school gates. There is evidence to say that teachers stop developing after two or three years. That is to say, that basics of behaviour management are mastered and the basic repertoire of pedagogy is established, but then there must be a fallible ‘trial and error’ process stopping some teachers moving towards true expertise. In our PGCE year, and our NQT year, we typically receive consistent feedback and we often exist in a state of constant reflection (often with fraught nerves and on the brink of exhaustion!). The problem is that is after the close, consistent weekly coaching process stops then we inevitably plateau as professionals. We must work on the ‘continuous’ aspect of performance development in the truest sense: each day, each week and each term.

In reality, such a focused coaching process could be costly and time consuming. The only answer is for leaders to inspire a culture where teachers undertake ‘deliberate practice’ driven by a desire for betterment; where there is some time facilitated regularly; quality training in groups on pedagogy, not time frittered away in endless meetings. As a subject leader myself, I needed to be trained out of this fallacy. I thought a good meeting was nice and broad – sorting peripheral issues – when greater focus on pedagogy was required (any meeting time is simply too precious – we must find other methods to communicate the day to day business). I also need to work much harder in making meaningful coaching time and ‘deliberate practice’ happen for all the colleagues in our faculty. I would admit to struggling to find the right process to make coaching really meaningful and transformative – more ‘deliberateness’ is still required!

In the last year, on a personal basis, my blog has been a fantastic way to reflect and perform a weekly attempt at ‘deliberate practice‘. I have formed a time and place to execute my habit, which has knocked on to me spending much more time researching and reflecting on the day job. It feels nothing like ‘work‘ in the traditional sense, but it complements my day job brilliantly. As a subject leader, it is actually hard to find time to be coached for my own classroom practice, but the willing audience for my blogs has often filled a void brilliantly, inspiring me onward. My coaching targets have been questioning and improving feedback (the subjects of many of my blog posts). When I read this great blog by Joe Kirby here, an eloquent synthesis of Hattie, it brought me back to our opening faculty meeting this year, when we looked at those very effect sizes and started to size up our own coaching needs. My focus on questioning and honing in on quality feedback – very nearly aligned with Joe Kirby’s blog recommendations. My progress has been flawed, as such things always are. My colleagues and I all need to work on undertaking ‘deliberate practice’ with greater consistency – even as the demands of the day job are legion – but then expertise in anything never came easy, or without considerable time and effort. Crucially, we have to want to commit that time and effort – we must keep on kicking!

Support resources for ‘Action Research’, ‘Deliberate Practice’ and ‘Coaching’: Action Research:

‘Action Research’
Needs a sign up for full access but useful: http://www.expansiveeducation.net/pages/about-us/action-research
Does what it says on the tin! http://www.actionresearch.net/
Highly recommended by Zoe Elder – need I say more? http://www.jeanmcniff.com/ar-booklet.asp

‘Deliberate Practice’:
Quite simply the link of links! http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/2012/07/21/the-best-resources-for-learning-about-the-10000-hour-rule-deliberative-practice/
Interesting article: http://calnewport.com/blog/2012/04/09/the-father-of-deliberate-practice-disowns-flow/
Clear and very useful blog: http://lifehacker.com/5939374/a-better-way-to-practice

Coaching:
Great overview of coaching for schools: http://thebeechconsultancy.co.uk/uploads/files/leading-coaching-in-schools.pdf Another good overview: http://www.cfbt.com/evidenceforeducation/pdf/5414_CfT_FINAL(Web).pdf
My faculty based coaching resources: https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/keep-getting-better-coaching-in-our-english-media-faculty/

Thank you to @Andyphilipday for the conversation that inspired this blog and to @fullonlearning for the many great links on action research.