‘Sharing good practice’ is one of those phrases that has slipped into the everyday language of school leadership. We think that most schools, if asked, would say that they share good practice. Would any school say that it does not share practice, or indeed that it shares bad practice?
On the other hand, there must be something very difficult about sharing good practice. If it was straightforward, then teaching should be of a comparable standard across a department or indeed a whole school. Furthermore, there would be relatively little difference in value added between teachers. We know that this is not the case, and yet most schools have invested in some of the technology of sharing practice – teaching and learning groups, study groups, learning walks, peer observation and coaching.
As touched upon in LTU issue 32, we have recently completed a research study, funded by the National College and CfBT, on improving coaching, and this has prompted us to reflect on the wider issue of developing and sharing good teaching practice. A good starting point is the DfES research report on Factors Influencing Transfer of Good Practice (Fielding et al, 2005). The report highlighted four elements of practice transfer for special significance. The first was relationships and trust, which signals the importance of social learning between teachers. Teachers need a climate in which they feel that they can talk openly. The second was teacher and institutional identity, which reflects (or not) certain conditions for building trust. The third element was teacher (as learner) engagement, which promotes a willingness to try things out and take risks. The last factor was an understanding of time, as there are no quick fixes and more time is needed than is usually acknowledged or allowed.
This is helpful in that it points to social and cultural conditions as a necessary condition for teachers to be innovating and working so that learning does not remain locked into one person. However, there is the need to be more specific about the processes of developing and sharing practice.
‘Turning towards’ the problems
A variety of research attests to the importance of practical ideas as the starting point for practice development. Research in the 1990s demonstrated that trainee teachers variously relied on peers, family or friends who were teachers, teachers in their placement schools and books for practical ideas. In 2010 we are all aware of the importance of websites for teaching ideas and lesson plans. More recent research in Holland studied a small number of teachers and found that their ideas for learning about teaching came predominantly from ideas gleaned from listening to their peers. It was also evident, however, that some of these ideas were never acted upon and where they were, teachers adapted them to their own context. A variety of other studies also underline the importance of collaborative professional development. So there is a strong emergent picture that much development and sharing of practice comes from picking up ideas from your professional learning ‘networks’ and experimenting with them, but that a supportive culture is critical in this process.
However, there is evidence that allows us to go further in picking out the detail of successful processes in developing and sharing practice. This is contained in a study by Horn and Little (2006) who studied two teacher collaboration groups in the same high school in the US. The school had a high percentage of ethnic minority students and was under significant pressure to improve the percentage of students graduating to go to college – a parallel scenario to many schools in the UK. The two teacher groups were focused respectively on algebra and reading comprehension. The algebra group was significantly more productive in terms of learning about practice – so why was that?
Teachers brought ‘problems’ to their group (problems are a very solid basis for learning) and these problems were accepted or normalised as OK – they could happen to anyone – providing important emotional support.
The teachers ‘turned towards’ the shared problem and treated it as the starting point for detailed discussion of classroom instances as a way of linking the problem to more general principles of teaching.
The teacher bringing the problem, with the support of the group, was expected to play a significant part in defining and unpacking the problem and working out possible solutions.
Leverage for developing and sharing practice is provided by ‘actionable responses’ from colleagues; in other words, the practical ideas, rooted in sound principles, that offer a way forward. Rehearsal was often a feature of such episodes, linking the actionable response to possible student behaviour/response.
A striking feature of the transcripts provided in the article was the extent to which the teacher was able to talk about her emotions (about being angry and upset) and use laughter as an antidote. In the literacy groups different patterns emerged. It was far more common for the ‘problem’ to be left as the property (and fault) of the particular teacher. There was much less attention to drawing out a description and diagnosis of the problem. This is described as ‘turning away’ from the problem.
One of the explanations given in the article for the differences between the two groups is that the algebra group had a common set of tools and principles derived from shared professional development opportunities, many of which were outside the department. They had a much bigger and more secure intellectual resource base for developing and sharing practice.
It may be worth stating that our belief is that sharing and developing good practice through coaching results from both parties developing a heightened awareness of the evidence emerging from specific teaching episodes of its impact on learners and learning. For those of us interested in thinking skills, there is an interesting parallel in that we are striving for metacognitive teaching.
In our experience this level of awareness comes from playing close attention to the detail of practice, relating it to decisions taken during lesson planning and to the quality of the decisions the teacher takes during the lesson itself. It also results when the coach and coached teacher find mechanisms to get under the skin of the learners’ experiences and learning outcomes, and when the conversation also takes into account the teachers’ beliefs, values and attitudes. In a sample of 29 coaching conversations from our research study, examples like this were less common, and our analysis suggests that this in turn capped the potential of coaching to develop and embed good practice.
Sharing good practice is often the expressed intention when introducing teacher coaching in schools. This is especially the case when those involved in coaching participate as peers rather than as part of the line management structure. Evidence from our research study demonstrates that both the form and the purpose of teacher coaching vary between schools. By ‘form’ we are referring to, for example, whether video was used or whether there were standard forms for recording outcomes, while ‘purpose’ differentiates between schools where professional development was the aim and those where better teaching was the aim.
However, while senior leaders from each case study school described subtle or more significant variations in the function and nature of coaching in their school, they all expected some degree of sharing of good practice to result. Even more strikingly, those involved in coaching reported that this was one of the most beneficial outcomes of coaching, and that it was not exclusive to the teacher being coached but was often a two-way process. It is therefore worth asking the question: what can we learn about the nature of coaching which facilitates this? And going beyond this, can coaching support the development of practice and what types of coaching interaction are most likely to achieve this outcome? After all, an investment in coaching (time, people and therefore money) deserves to result in the development of innovative practice.
We analysed 29 transcripts of coaching conversations from secondary schools in four geographically diverse areas of England. Common features of the coaching conversations demonstrate their potential for sharing practice. For example, the conversations indicated that a rapport had been established, and in all cases the focus was on practice, often relating to an observed and video-recorded lesson. As such the participants discussed the nature and effectiveness of teaching in general terms. However, there was evidence that most discussion in our transcribed coaching sessions was initiated by the coaches. Typically they asked the coached teacher questions and also offered some degree of evaluation. This tended to prompt the coached teacher to explain, justify, clarify and contribute to the evaluation of their teaching. While this does not imply that sharing of good practice cannot occur, it suggests that this is more of a by-product of the experience as a whole rather than a function of the nature of the coaching conversation per se.
Where coaching could be described as most productive (and we did find good examples too), it tended to result from the coach having what we described as a ‘wide coaching repertoire’. These coaches stood out because the conversation was not simply characterised by the typical ‘initiation- response-evaluation’ pattern described above.
Sometimes this was triggered through the effective use of video. Although the great majority of the lessons that were to be the focus of coaching were filmed, many coaches and coached teachers did not use the video in the coaching session. For many teachers it is probably still very scary to see themselves teaching. Where used well, it allowed productive analysis of what individual pupils were actually thinking and learning. It also enabled the coached teacher to take more responsibility for analysing their practice, and therefore to take a more proactive role in the coaching conversation. We also noted that where coaches were prepared to challenge the teacher they triggered hard thinking (dissonance) around teachers’ planning and practice and the beliefs that underpin them, although in our sample this was rare.
The most advanced coaching we defined as ‘co-constructive collaborative coaching’. We found that this co-construction, where the coaching pair worked cooperatively to solve a problem in planning or analysing lessons, is also unusual. Co-construction can be regarded as the creative aspect of coaching in that both parties challenge their own practice and work together to develop new suggestions for teaching and learning. This has the potential to lead to new action in the classroom and an opportunity to review it. When coaching creates this critical, metacognitive cycle it becomes a vehicle for meaningful sharing and development of good practice. However, we would suggest that coaching, although a very valuable process, is falling a long way short of its potential role in improving classroom learning.
- Horn, I and Little, JW (2010) ‘Attending to problems of practice: routines and resources for professional learning in teacher workplace interactions’, American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 47 (1), pp. 181-217.
- Fielding, M et al (2005) Factors Influencing Transfer of Good Practice, London: Department for Education and Skills, research report 615