:::: MENU ::::

An Enquiry Video

Since first sharing my short guide to practitioner enquiry a few years ago, more and more teachers & schools have been approaching me to come and speak about this to groups of staff. Whilst I absolutely love saying yes to such requests, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to do so. With this in mind, I thought what might be helpful would be for me to make a short video sharing some of my thinking around practitioner enquiry which schools could use as part of their professional learning.

In advance of making the video, I made a few small tweaks to the PDF guide which I’ve been meaning to make for some time. You can download the most up to date version here.

And, here’s the video. I’ve tried to keep it short so that it could be used as a part of a session with groups of staff. I hope it’s useful…

If YouTube is blocked in your school, there’s a version on Vimeo here.

What do we mean by leadership?

In a recent post, I shared my realisation that many of us in education have been using the words ‘leadership’ and ‘promotion’ interchangeably. Since then, I’ve had many more conversations with many more folk about what we actually mean by ‘leadership’. What’s fascinating is that when talking to teachers, and others involved directly in education in Scotland, the vast majority agree with me that it’s often used to mean ‘promotion’ or ‘management’, and that it’s not necessarily something classroom teachers see as relevant to them – unless of course they’re going for that first PT post…

Even some of the language around education in Scotland still reinforces this concept of what is meant, for example ‘senior leadership’, ‘early leadership’, ‘first leadership position’. What’s even more fascinating is the few conversations I’ve had on this topic with people from outwith education. They’ve often commented that of course leadership is a component of all roles, no matter where they are in the hierarchy and they’ve shown genuine surprise when I’ve outlined how the word is often used in education.

So what do we mean by leadership? This is a question which I’m spending much of my time exploring and discussing. I posed this as the title of my presentation at the recent InnovateEducation event and I’m asking the question again this evening at Edinburgh, Midlothian and East Lothian’s Creative Learning Network’s series of Creative Conversations. That presentation uses a range of resources to explore the question (including quotations, images of kayaking, resources from my teaching, some of my work at SCEL, and a song about stew), but I also find the following quotation from a recent book chapter by Christine Forde and Beth Dickson of use:

leadership is a “lay everyday knowledge term not a scientific construct” (Forde & Dickson, 2017)

I personally sometimes wonder if we have over complicated the term ‘leadership’ to the extent that not only is it the preserve of those in promoted posts, it’s also quite a complex thing which can be off-putting to busy teachers. I know that when I was in the classroom, I was aware of leadership ‘theories’ and ‘styles’ etc. and even if I felt that these were of relevance to me (which I didn’t) I was, frankly, put off by what sounded like a lot of work to get to grips with them when I was busy with getting better at the job at hand. It’s for this reason that I like this quote as I’m drawn to the idea that leadership is a lay term. It is not the preserve of those of who have read and studied the term in depth, it is a term which is available to us all to use in our work and lives.

So, if we choose to use it, what might it mean? Again from Christine Forde and Beth Dickson:

Leadership is an interactional process where influence and power are exercised in different ways, in different locations by different people across an organisation. (Forde & Dickson, 2017)

I like this as it again captures the universal nature of leadership, whilst also highlighting the importance of relationships, influence, power and the variability of each. There are an increasing number of helpful sources such as this to reference in this regard, but this doesn’t always mean that this can easily be translated into the practice of those in education. So, how then can those of us who think that it’s important to encourage teachers to think of themselves as leaders, and crucially, convince middle, school and system leaders to support and encourage leadership go about achieving this?

I’ve been quite struck by the simple power of talking about all of this in the context of practice. I was asked to give a short presentation on teacher leadership at St. Andrew’s & St. Brides’s High School in East Kilbride earlier this month. It was kindly open to staff from across the area and it primarily consisted of me talking for about 45 minutes on my thoughts on all of this with a couple of examples from my own practice as a teacher and as an enquiring practitioner. As ever with a one-off short presentation, my fear was that this would have little or no impact on those who attended the session. In fact, I find that my imposter syndrome goes into overdrive upon completion of these sessions and I drive away convinced that everyone will have no doubt regretted having wasted their time turning up for that. I was pleasantly surprised therefore when I received some feedback from the session last week which included an almost universally positive response. I really appreciate the time taken by all those who shared their feedback and for the school for sending it through, but one comment in particular leapt out at me in the context of what I’ve been exploring in this post:

The presentation encouraged me to reflect and develop my own leadership skills, an area I had never really considered applicable as an unpromoted member of staff. After this presentation it was clear that effective classroom leadership can have a fundamental and lasting impact on our learners and this is something that I believe all teachers strive for.

Two things strike me about this comment. Firstly, that developing leadership skills had never been considered applicable to their role as a teacher (something I can empathise with) and secondly, a 45 minute presentation which primarily consisted of my current thoughts and past examples might have changed their mind on this a little and they are now able to summarise the point of all of this a lot quicker than I ever manage!

Perhaps therefore if we can all take a little time to share what leadership means to us and what it looks and feels like in our practice we can collectively redefine what we mean by leadership in education. I therefore will now go and give my presentation in Edinburgh and try my best to keep my imposter syndrome at bay.

Thank you again to the staff who sent me their feedback from the session at St. Andrew’s & St. Brides’s High School. I’m glad it was of use. 


Here’s what I went on to say after writing this…

One question which could enhance your enquiry groups

I am in the incredibly fortunate position to get to meet and discuss leadership and enquiry with a wide range of people involved in education across Scotland and beyond. What’s heart warming is to see the growing enthusiasm for supporting teacher leadership to develop practice which is, and practitioners who are, best placed to meet the needs of children and young people. It’s also great to see more and more schools agreeing to take an enquiring approach to making that happen…but what exactly does that look like?

A number of the conversations I have had recently would suggest that many schools are taking the approach of ‘enquiry groups’. These often involve small groups of the school’s staff, often with an element of choice, which each enquire into an aspect of practice. The whole school might be developing numeracy, and each group is enquiring into an aspect of numeracy practice, or the scope might be wider and have each group enquiring into a different aspect of pedagogy across curricular areas. This for many schools is a great step forward, and any professional learning which allows teachers time to reflect upon and develop their practice in small groups can only be a good thing. However, I would suggest that if you are taking this approach you could make one small tweak to your process which might help really unleash the potential of these groups.

Start with the question: ‘what do we want to be different for our young people?’ Not at a whole school level. But at the individual level, and then the group. This one question has the power to greatly enhance what the enquiry group then goes on to do as it shifts the exercise from being largely a whole-school improvement and professional learning exercise to a deeply personal enquiry into practice which makes a meaningful difference to the children in each teacher’s care. It also allows you to meaningfully gather and analyse evidence of impact as you know what it is you are hoping your change of practice will achieve. It also allows teachers the scope to consider issues of equity in their contexts and how this might be addressed through an enquiring approach.

Take for example an enquiry group who are looking at approaches to improving homework. In scenario A this could go as follows:

  • Group meets and shares experiences of and current practice in setting homework. They read and discuss literature to explore possible ways of making homework better.
  • Each member of the group agrees to try out one possible alternative approach to homework.
  • Each member of the group gathers some evidence, i.e. the homework artefacts and possibly a survey of the young people plus their own reflections, and reports back to the rest of the group.
  • The group shares their findings with the school.

However, in scenario B, this same group could proceed like this:

  • Group meets and shares experiences of and current practice in setting homework. They ask themselves what do we want to be different for our young people as a result of this? They discuss the biggest issues facing them in their practice right now. For one teacher this is that homework is making no impact on the learning. For another teacher the pupils never do their homework and huge amounts of time is wasted chasing this. One teacher is worried about pupils from the most deprived areas and their lack of access to resources to complete homework. Another teacher is frustrated that the pupils give up too easily and leave most of their homeworks blank. The last member of the group is worried about a student in their class who has English as an additional language and isn’t even keeping up with the learning in class let alone homework.
  • The group explores literature for different approaches to homework practice and discusses how each of their identified issues might be addressed through changes to homework practice. They also speak to learners in their classes to discuss current homework practice and the issues arising to explore possible solutions that they might have.
  • Each teacher decides upon and tries an approach to homework practice which will impact upon the needs of their learners. These approaches are different and tailored to the needs of their learners.
  • Each teacher gathers evidence of the impact their change in homework practice has had on the learners in question. Each approach to evidence gathering is different as appropriate for the issue they were interested in addressing.
  • They share their learning with each other and with the whole school.

For me, the fundamental differences between these two scenarios are that the first is serving the needs of the school, whereas the second is serving the needs of the learners as judged by the teachers involved. And also, the first scenario is hoping to achieve change but isn’t clear why, whereas in the second there is a clear purpose to the change in practice which can be related to tackling inequality and evidenced in terms of impact.

So, if you’re planning an enquiry groups approach for next session, perhaps you might consider how you could enhance these groups by asking this one question at the outset…

What do we want to be different for our young people?

Achieving equity in practice #TLconference

There are very few teachers who would argue with the current focus in Scottish education on closing the poverty related attainment gap. How could you? However, I’m pretty sure that if I were still in the classroom I would have been wondering what I could do more or differently to help achieve this. As a teacher, I felt that I was doing as a much as I could to help all students achieve as much as possible, so what more could I do?

When I saw the tweet above I got an inkling as to what I could be doing differently as a teacher and with my colleagues if I were still in school. I don’t remember ever looking at the attainment disparity in my students based on SIMD data and exploring the reasons for any differences and considering what I could do about them. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

This thought has been further fuelled by some discussions I was part of at the recent #TLconference in Miami. I have a stereotype in my head of assessment in the US whereby teachers have the autonomy to issue grades to their students based on relatively personal and behavioural judgements and that these grades were important to the life chances of students. I was surprised to discover that whilst not universally the case, this isn’t unheard of. There are moves to progress towards standards based assessment afoot, but the practice described above is still prevalent according to some of the teachers I was speaking to.

What I wasn’t aware of however was how tightly this practice is interwound with issues of race. I was informed that many schools there have tracking, whereby students are recommended for different levels of courses based on their grades. Only those who have received the best grades can take the higher level ‘honors’ classes, which in turn are needed for the best college courses. A number of teachers explained to me that as a result of issues throughout the system, “black and brown” (their words – this was the terminology used throughout the conference) students were substantially underrepresented in honors classes. I was quite shocked by the power teachers seemed to yield, which when combined with issues of race appeared potentially very problematic indeed. I heard of efforts to address this through ‘detracking’ and rethinking grading, but these appear to be very contentious initiatives amongst many.

However, since the conference finished I’ve been left wondering, is it that much different in Scotland? If I think back in particular to my National 4 and National 5 classes, or my Intermediate 1 and Intermediate 2 classes before that, I wonder now how represented students from different SIMD backgrounds were in each class? I fear I know the answer. What’s less clear to me are the reasons for these differences and how they might’ve been addressed. Whereas the differences in the US can be powerfully, and shockingly, visible as described by some of the teachers I spoke to – in that you can physically see the disparity as two classes of different levels line up outside their respective classrooms – in my experience the disparity isn’t always as apparent in Scotland.

So what should we do about it? If I was in school I think I would do three things next week:

  1. Gather and analyse the data as described in the tweet above.
  2. Propose and lead a collaborative enquiry to explore the reasons behind any disparities and develop approaches to practice which would impact upon these disparities.
  3. Use a form of Lyn Sharratt & Beate Planche’s data walls in departmental meetings to collaborate on ensuring everything possible was being done for students who were causing concern in terms of attainment. You can find out more about this at SCEL’s May conference.

No doubt there are already teachers and schools taking approaches such as these in their practice, but probably not all. I do think however that it’s important for us all to continually consider if we’re doing all that we can to ensure the best possible outcomes for all of the learners in our care.

Reading for Pleasure

So, let’s be up front about this. The author of this book is a pal of mine. More than that in fact. He was my primary partner in pedagogy during our pedagoo days. As a result, I already respected him massively as an educator and as a person. Rather than this fact hampering my review of his book, I actually think it only serves to enhance it. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to think more highly of Kenny Pieper prior to reading his first (of many, I hope) book, How to Teach Reading for Pleasure, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In this book, Kenny uses his fantastic humour and authenticity to argue passionately for the power of reading and the crucial role teachers have in leading and supporting young people to choose to read. Whilst Kenny generously and modestly shares many of the practical classroom techniques he uses to achieve this he also clearly articulates why this matters for our young people specifically, and society in general. I’m not sure I’ve ever read an edubook which was so entwined with the values and personality of the author. Reading it was like spending time in his company and I found myself frequently nodding and laughing along…the only thing missing was the pint!

If I had one criticism of this book it is that to some extent it is marketed as a ‘how to teach’ book with a particular slant towards secondary teachers of english. As a biology teacher, this book was very relevant to me and I know of primary colleagues who feel the same way. In many ways this book would and should appeal to any and all teachers, and parents, especially those who think that reading matters, not just secondary english teachers. I know if I was still in the classroom I would be doing a few things differently tomorrow as a result…

In case you haven’t guessed, I loved this book and highly recommend it to all. You can get your own copy here.