Planning for teacher learning has to be a key priority, says David Leat.

In the first two editions of Learning & Teaching and no doubt in all our future editions – we brought you many stimulating accounts of new ideas and development in classrooms relating to learning and teaching. We have broached innovative ways of working with parents, formative assessment, cooperative group work and thinking skills. This is exciting stuff. However, a cynic could argue that these are not new – ‘we tried that before and it didn’t work’.

In the first editorial we introduced the idea that there is no curriculum development without teacher development. in this issue we would like to develop the ideas which form the basis of another favourite quote, which comes from an American academic, House. He lamented that when people speak of an innovative school they mean one ‘that tries one new thing after another without making any of them work.’ Why is that?

The challenge of change

While there is much to be said about the influence of school cultures and communities on how people think and act as teachers, we will focus for now on teachers. The reality of changing classroom practice is monumental even where there is vision and commitment. As teachers we learn habits and develop rules for the classroom. Much of learning to teach is about learning to make classrooms more predictable, so that we feel that we are in control. Order is paramount, but order quickly becomes unthinking routine, if we are not careful.

I can remember trying new things with low achieving and disinterested Year 9s, to whom I was a new face, and I can remember coming unstuck – sweat breaking out on my back and desperately calculating (and recalculating) how long before the bell would ring to save me. I surely understand why we need order and habits. Such experiences are hard lessons, in both senses of the words. And in the light of such experiences many teachers are not keen on risk. To offer another trenchant comment, a number of authors have observed that it is essentially impossible to create a good learning environment for students when the same conditions do not exist for teachers.

The problem is what we might regard as ‘normal’ teaching. This might be thought of in a number of ways – teachers doing a lot of talking and asking lots of closed questions pressing towards closure on a right answer or a standard understanding of subject matter. Another manifestation is ‘death by worksheet’, and another still is copying from the board which I keep thinking must be a thing of the past and I keep getting surprised. Teaching easily becomes control and the result is boredom, disaffection, disinterest and no transfer of learning. ‘Seatwork’ and ‘busywork’ are some of the appropriate labels developed for such teaching. When doing in-service training sessions teachers have occasionally said things that have shocked me to the core and left me speechless:

  • If you do group work how can you be sure that the ideas in a pupils’ writing are their own (my unspoken response is ‘well you had better take their books away and stop teaching them as that helps them as well’).
  • The problem with all this (teaching thinking) is that it makes them talk. How can they think if they are talking (my unspoken delayed response is ‘I’m not sure that I can deal with that right now’).
    l I don’t want them to think, I just need to cover the syllabus (question: ‘What do you write as objectives or aims in your planning documents’.)

While the desire to be smart and persuade people that they are wrong is strong, attacking people is not a solution. These comments reflect both some deep-seated beliefs about the nature of schooling as well as conditioning by school environments. This is the nature of the challenge. Change requires sustained and sometimes painful learning opportunities for some teachers and a change in schools as professional learning environments. In some schools ‘routine’ teaching, which covers the syllabus, pays short-term dividends, as it is what students have become attuned to. But covering the syllabus cannot deliver the education that pupils really need.

If we stay with the individual teacher, there are some important points to register about personal change. If a teacher is inclined to try new things then it is likely to generate dissonance, a state in which what they are and what they want to be are not in harmony. This could come about in a number of ways.

Firstly the acceptance that something is worth trying probably indicates a recognition, at some level, that their current practice does not match what is possible or desirable. Secondly when something new is tried it might go relatively well or relatively badly. If it goes well then the challenge is to develop it fully and accommodate it within the overall ecology of one’s practice. If a teacher tries cooperative group work (perhaps with assistance) and they feel that it works, then that teacher needs to recast the type of task that they routinely plan to make them suitable for groups. If it goes badly then a variety of thoughts and emotions may be set in train – ‘that’s rubbish, I knew that it would never work’, ‘what did I do wrong?’, ‘how can I improve it?’

All of these ways of responding, positive and negative, carry an emotional cost. We all struggle with the thought of looking incompetent in front of students. One view of the emotions is that they have evolved to help us with situations when we get surprises (good or more often bad), through kick-starting our brains into action. Sometimes we opt for an easy life.

It must be recognised that many excellent teachers manage this process on a regular basis. Indeed, an excellent teacher could be defined by their overall ability to experiment successfully in the process of learning new practice. Michael Huberman (a Swiss researcher, now in the US) reported on the basis of research in his home country that teachers who continually make small changes in their practice, or ‘tinkerers’ as he termed them, are more satisfied with their work than the non-tinkerers. There is a sense of control that comes from taking your fate into your own hands. However, many of the ideas to be found in Learning and Teaching Update will require a bit more than tinkering, valuable though that process is.

So some teachers are naturals for the process of reforming and even transforming their practice. They have ambition, creativity, curiosity and resilience – I’m sure that you can think of a few of your acquaintance. For many more the barriers are up. It could be argued that the process of transforming learning and teaching is actually one of creating the widespread and lasting conditions for classroom experiment. In Newcastle University work on learning to learn with the Campaign for Learning, one of the most common factors mentioned by teachers in explaining what had supported their learning was permission to take risks and, if necessary, for that experiment to fail. This does not sit readily with pressures of accountability that teachers experience.

Social capital

A concept that throws a strong light on teacher learning is social capital, which is readily understood through the phrase ‘it is not what you know it is who you know’. There are two main components to social capital – trust and networks. Schools in Britain are predominantly hierarchical, with English schools having a strong line in performance management and accountability. Monitoring is the enemy of trust. Some performance management works well and helps focus professional development. However, if you can get a teacher to talk honestly many will reveal how much they loathe performance management and Ofsted inspections.

Many teachers experience such visitations as hostile witnesses. A common resentment is to do with the status and credibility of the visitor, who seemingly has the right to evaluate and perhaps judge the lesson. ‘How dare they? Who gives them the right?’ They much prefer somebody with no ‘side’ who will engage in talking about and analysing the lesson with a view to moving towards ‘some things to try’, with appropriate support to see it through. It is no accident that trust is a key component of coaching, which when it works well, provides a feeling of liberation.

Networks are a measure of who knows who. If you asked every teacher in a school to draw a diagram of who they know well within the school you would get a clear picture in which certain people emerge as nodes connecting to other clusters of individuals. This is a matter of such concern in some companies and organisations that consultants are paid to do this very task to sift out the movers and shakers. The significance of social capital is that it can be a key determinant of how knowledge is shared and whether people will try ideas that others volunteer, because they know and trust them. With low social capital, teachers may be reluctant to experiment; with high social capital they may give it a go.

Feedback from video

The use of video of lessons as a tool of professional development is a good barometer of teachers’ confidence in a professional development environment. A common reaction to being filmed is anxiety, as video is feedback. While the camera can be made to lie, in general terms it does give a reasonable ‘picture’ of classroom events. We do see our body shape, dress sense, less than perfect hair and annoying mannerisms. We hear what others hear – perhaps a regional accent, home counties edge or that ‘filler’ word, repeated regularly, such as ‘right’, ‘OK’ or ‘listen’, that grates on the ear.  And of course we get some impression of what it is like to be a student in our lessons. Watching can be painful.  There are many teachers who just point blank refuse to be filmed. While recognising that some people do have more characteristics to cringe over, this general aversion says much about the conditions of professional learning in schools and colleges.

The examination of and reflection on practice, for professional learning, via film of classrooms is a powerful tool, but teachers can feel very insecure because of what they fear their colleagues will think and even say. It does not have to be this way. One school of our acquaintance, during a project, spent the Friday evening of 24-hour residentials watching videos of each other teaching thinking skills lessons, not only to share practice but also to help develop their understanding of critical aspects of that particular approach. This built a very different relationship between that cohort of teachers. It is easy to stack up of a list of reasons for why video is difficult – getting a camera, parental permission, pupils playing up, no one to operate the camera – but they are not insuperable. It is very hard for teachers to make a claim for professionalism unless such a basic tool as video is used unflinchingly for teacher learning.

Teacher learning

One of the major pieces in Learning & Teaching (March 2007) described Thinking Through School. It is evident that trialling the materials was a considerable risk to the teachers and school. For the group of teachers it was both a painful and exciting process, but with the potential for significant learning. For the school it unearthed some disconcerting evidence which has spurred the school to tackle these issues. If our ambition is significant change in classroom teaching and learning experiences then planning for teacher learning has to be a key priority.