Keith Grainger writes about Garth Hill College’s journey in developing a new teaching and learning framework, and how the thinking behind it and the way in which it is used is more important than the framework itself.
One key principle that guided us in forming a new teaching and learning framework came from an acceptance that pupils progress well over time when teachers execute all of the basics well and provide a strong learning experience, accurately and consistently, day in, day out. Thus, learning and progress over time should determine the quality of teaching provision, not a snapshot lesson observation.
It follows that we should no longer attempt to grade individual lessons, but rather seek substantial evidence of progress and learning over time. Such evidence might include scrutinising pupils’ written work, listening to their views and explanations of their learning, and analysing and reviewing their outcomes in tests and examinations. All things that help us form a truer picture and a more meaningful assessment on the quality of teaching and, importantly, what is going on in the classroom when observers are not there.
Can there be a school leader who has not observed a colleague that ‘pulled it out of the bag’, or at least put a little gilding on the lily, because they knew visitors were coming? For years we have appraised colleagues on the back of one, or at best a few, observations. No longer should this be the case. This ‘cup final’ experience was often stressful, unhelpful (unless your line manager liked your lesson and graded you well – in which case it was at least good for morale if not for professional development), and was sometimes meaningless.
As classroom observers, we seek evidence, but should be under no illusion that we can gather all. The problem with any teaching and learning framework, including our own, is that it is a model. The problem with models is that although they can be useful, models are invariably misleading and can be harmful. For example there can be a tendency to conform to the model, or worse, to what people perceive to be the model. Models also fail to take account of silent evidence or the ‘dark matter’ in the classroom. These are the things that are hard to see, but contribute to the seemingly ‘unfailing luck’ that some teachers appear to have (and our pupils benefit from) with great outcomes year in, year out.
So learning and progress over time is a limiting judgement on the quality of teaching. Whatever ‘judgement’ the observer might be tempted to make in twenty or thirty minutes, this should be secondary to the outcomes of those pupils in that class over a considerable period of time. This more rounded judgement will at least take into account the effect of the silent evidence even if we do not know what that is!
Strip back lesson observations
As well as ending the practice of grading individual lessons, we should consider stripping back the process of observation and freeing colleagues a little from the ponderous and time consuming approach to reporting observations and feedback. This might include immaculately planned and detailed learning review schedules (sometimes issued in advance), pre-arranged observation appointments and grandiose observation report forms. On top of all this, colleagues often struggle to find yet more time for the feedback meeting.
We should question how far this bureaucracy is contributing to school improvement. It may actively discourage classroom observation on occasion – an extra burden of workload in the day-to-day whirlwind of school leadership. Our new College framework no longer requires pre-arranged appointments, form filling or formal feedback sessions (unless you really want to) and this is where our work in trialling ‘spot coaching’ has also come into its own. As a result, we are spending more time observing each other, sharing practice and engaging in meaningful professional dialogue. These things should be an entitlement of every teacher’s working week.
Teaching and learning frameworks should not have regard for basics or ‘non-negotiables’. Such elementary things should be the expectation and anything less unacceptable. Provision cannot be at least good without these ‘givens’. If books are not being marked as they should, if home learning is not being set that adds to the learning, if the teacher’s expectations are low, then these are basic management issues. Excellence should be the standard, and for all colleagues irrespective of career stage. This is a realistic aspiration for colleagues new to the profession when it is backed up with top quality professional mentoring, coaching, support and development.
The best games have a set of rules that you seldom refer to
A good framework is succinct and concise, easily digested by colleagues and, above all, useful. The best games have a set of rules that you seldom need to refer to. Our first College drafts were quite wordy. In mid-development, a senior colleague and I were shown a very fine version of another framework that ran to a little over 40 words. We were suitably embarrassed and put efforts into boiling down our version further still. Our framework is better for it. However, we decided not to edit out the following sentence from the final version: ‘The teacher’s scholarship and habitual willingness to critically engage and reflect on their own teaching practice develops their expertise and craft as a teacher.’ Conveying this vital message to all our colleagues is too important. Learning is the job.
It is not what you have got, but how well you use it. A useful teaching and learning framework is one thing, but good learning in context enables our colleagues to develop and become great teachers. Teachers need to engage in learning about their practice in the setting in which they actually work, observing and being observed in the classroom. More frequent observation, teaching coaches, lesson observation cameras and spot coaching enable practitioners to stay close to what the Greeks called ‘techne’ – the development of craft.
Spot coaching is a form of specialist coaching. Purposeful feedback provided in the instant gives colleagues the chance to respond there and then. It is developmental and experiential. Through trial and error the chances of moving practice forward increase considerably. It is learning in context.
Do no harm?
The only thing necessary for the triumph of mediocrity in the classroom is for good men and women to do nothing.
Though we recognise that sometimes doing nothing is preferable to doing something potentially harmful, our duty as leaders of learning is a duty first to pupils – to develop others’ practice. We do not want to do something that will make colleagues feel uncomfortable or incompetent in front of the pupils, but you cannot build trust by promising that no one is going to be unsettled. Plenty of colleagues have been hurt under the old way of doing things. Spending more time with each other in the classroom, without judgement, will surely build more trust.
Appeles of Kos, a renowned painter of Ancient Greece, only created the perfect representation of foam drooling from the mouth of the horse he was painting when he threw his cleaning sponge at the painting in disgust at his repeated failed attempts. Appeles also practised every day. I believe that our new teaching and learning framework creates the right conditions for practice, as well as for a little more spontaneity and serendipity – essential traits in the developing practitioner.
We want colleagues to be confident enough to take risks, digress more, throw a few metaphorical sponges in the classroom, including when spurred on by the interventions of colleagues. We want our colleagues to use the job itself as the subject of their learning and professional discovery – an essential guiding principle for the genuine learning organisation. We want our new framework not to help colleagues decide what they are or where they are, but rather what they can become.
Keith Grainger is Principal of Garth Hill College, Bracknell.
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