What are the right conditions for teacher learning? Teachers need a working space where they have freedom to think, innovate and learn, say David Leat and Kate Wall

Also on this site is an extensive summary of the three-year Learning to Learn (L2L) in Schools Phase 3 Evaluation funded by the Campaign for Learning. One can think of the project as a range of opportunities and resources offered with a relatively loose dispositions framework – the 5Rs (resourcefulness, readiness, resilience, reflection, remembering). It was evident that some schools took greater advantage of the opportunities offered by the project then others. Why is that?

In each of the three years telephone interviews were conducted with a sample of the teachers and in years two and three the interviews threw considerable light on the conditions in the schools that help to explain this variation. We came to call productive conditions for developing innovative teaching ‘Working Space’.

Since the introduction of the National Curriculum and all the change thereafter the DfES have exercised increasing control over schools, notably through Ofsted inspections and the targets system relating to national exams. There are tough external standards for schools to meet and it is said that teachers in England are the most accountable in the world. This tends to take up much of the creative energy that teachers have, leaving little over for pursuing other ideas. The opportunities for thinking differently are easily crowded out.

However, some teachers are very resilient (which is very appropriate in L2L schools). Just below the surface they have very strong ambitions and values. If you catch them at the right moment they can recall what drew them to teaching and I have never heard anyone say in relation to this: ‘to meet my targets’. If these teachers are given any encouragement they will carve out a Working Space in which they begin to think differently and experiment.

One of the most important factors evident in the teacher interviews was permission. If we accept that teachers feel somewhat constrained then it helps a lot if senior leaders lend their weight to some new ideas and encourage some experimentation. Some teachers even expressed this as permission to fail.

It is important to recognise that they are not saying that their students can be allowed to fail but rather that they can take a risk in trying something new. It is better still if the senior leader(s) lend active support rather than just giving a nod and a pat on the back. Of course other teachers don’t need this – they will do it anyway.

A second important factor, which surprised us a little, was the exposure to ideas. Teachers in L2L had not only a termly in-service training day but they also had the opportunity to attend a residential conference once a year in Bristol. They heard some notable names speak – Paul Black, Alistair Smith, Tony Buzan, Chris Watkins, Mary James – as well as inputs from our team. This exposure to a high density of connected ideas was more important than we thought: it seemed to encourage a sense that there are alternatives and things do not have to be as they are.

A third factor was a supportive culture in school, where other teachers were willing to listen and get involved. This cannot be taken for granted and, of course, can be related to the tone set by senior leaders. This might be characterised as top-down forces being in balance with bottom-up processes. Senior leaders give permission, support and structure but individuals need to be given some freedom to shape change. And it must be said that there is no substitute for creative, energetic individuals who grasp an opportunity when they see it. The jargon word for this is agency. Some schools suffered enormously from the loss of key teachers.

Interestingly it was not necessary for schools to create new structures for L2L to flourish, teachers could colonise other meetings and formats. However, a number of accounts suggested that an indication that Working Space was developing in a school was a qualitative change in teachers’ talk. Those active teachers seemed to have talked intensively with some of their colleagues covering such ground as the learning of individual children, values and goals in education, their own beliefs and how to plan effectively for change. This talk is not chat, it is not a simple transaction to get things done. Instead it is, at its best, dialogue, where ideas are juxtaposed, debated and explored.

Another sign of the appearance of Working Space was the subversion of traditional power structures. It is very difficult to mandate change from the top, especially creative change. In many of the schools the energy and commitment came from relatively junior and inexperienced teachers. Part of the secret of success in some schools was harnessing this energy, rather than wasting it. Performance management does not always lead to such sensitive approaches.

A final phenomenon worthy of mention is cumulative change. The very active L2L schools tended to thread initiatives together over time. They might start with one, sometimes rather superficial but graduate to more substantive issues over time, particularly change related to formative assessment. It was not uncommon for schools to link formative assessment, thinking skills and some aspect of improving talk.

There is always a danger that this may be done superficially as part of initiative overload, but generally this was a thoughtful process of seeing the powerful connections between initiatives and exploiting the synergies.