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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.

 


An Enquiring Matrix

Click to download An Enquiring Matrix

Here’s something else which has been on my mind of late regarding practitioner enquiry that I would like to put out there. I know not everyone will be keen on this idea, but the more practitioners I speak to about it, the more I think it is worth exploring.

To me, there is a continuum to practitioner enquiry. I am still developing as an enquiring practitioner, however through the course of my MEd, my use, and understanding, of enquiry became more sophisticated. I would suggest that I am still learning when it comes to enquiry, and in the years since I graduated I have varied in the extent to which I have used the enquiring skills I have developed thus far, largely due to time.

To me therefore, some sort of progression of enquiry would be useful for teachers to support them to know how to progress as enquiring practitioners. However,  I also feel that it would be of value to teachers who are experienced in enquiry to make pragmatic choices when taking an enquiring approach to understanding an aspect of their practice.

I’ve therefore made an attempt at a first draft of just such a matrix. At any one time, a teacher could be making different progress, or choices, in the different components of enquiry.

What do you think? Would something like this be helpful? If yes, is this the right way of going about it? Can you improve upon this first draft?

EDIT

There have been a few suggestions for improving on this idea on twitter since I posted this. I thought it might be easier to make an editable version of the matrix which anyone can contribute to. Click here to open the editable version and add your ideas.


Enquiry in the context of leadership, professionalism and agency

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This is a conversation which I’m increasingly having, and I wanted to try and capture some of my current thinking. It centres on the nature and role of practitioner enquiry in the various domains of the life and work of a teacher.

Through my work at SCEL, I am focused on supporting teachers to develop as leaders. Our view is that all teachers are leaders of learning and practice and as such can develop as teacher leaders. Once again for clarity, here’s is SCEL’s definition of teacher leadership…

Teacher leaders are passionate about caring for children and young people. Through informed and innovative practice, close scrutiny of pupils’ learning needs and high expectations they play a fundamental role in improving outcomes for children and young people. Teacher leaders are effective communicators who collaborate with colleagues, demonstrate integrity and have a positive impact on their school community. They model career-long professional learning.

Skills, qualities and professional actions demonstrated by teacher leaders can be identified under four main areas:

  • Values and commitment
  • Learning and teaching
  • High expectations and ambition
  • Communication and collaboration

From the SCEL Framework for Educational Leadership

During our recent engagement on teacher leadership, there was broad agreement of this view of teacher leadership, and many teachers expressed a need for more opportunities to develop their skills and confidence as leaders of practice in this sense. It was apparent to me that a programme which used an enquiring approach to support teachers to develop as teacher leaders could be an important aspect of SCEL’s response. We are therefore currently prototyping an online teacher leadership programme with 40 teachers across Scotland, supported by a group of 16 teachers who have significant prior experience of practitioner enquiry. The programme supports teacher professional learning towards the GTCS Standard for Career-Long Professional Learning and is being highly evaluated by the participants thus far. More on this in a future post…

A question which has come up a few times since the launch of the programme is along the lines of how practitioner enquiry relates to leadership, given that others often refer to enquiry in the context of teacher professionalism. In addition, I’ve just started reading Mark Priestley’s new book,  in which they distinguish teacher agency from the perceived definition of teacher leadership, but I would suggest that SCEL’s definition is closer to Mark’s definition of teacher agency. So how does practitioner enquiry fit into all three of these?

My developing view is that practitioner enquiry, and having an enquiring stance, is a key aspect of a teacher’s work and learning as a professional. I also see it as a route to developing the ecological agency in teachers and their contexts as defined by Priestley et al. I also see it as an approach for developing as a leader of learning and pedagogy.

What I’m thinking is that practitioner enquiry, and having an enquiring stance, can be a component of, and contribute to, all three of these domains of being a teacher. It doesn’t fit neatly into any of these boxes and can contribute to all three, and more…

 


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