What is good teaching? Sharing best practice across the School.
This blog focuses on identifying and spreading the best teaching practice across the school. As always, the aim is to raise the standards of our learners.
In March 2013 the headteacher and SLT had identified a group of “excellent” teachers. This was a group of staff from many different subject areas that had shown consistently strong practice over the last 3 years. We knew that we needed to use this group to somehow further drive school improvement. Every year we identify Departments that show best practice and the HODs of those departments makes a brief presentation on an aspect of their work in one of our regular HODs meetings. At first we were unsure exactly how we would utilise the best practice from the teachers group. We just knew that we needed to. In April 2013 the group met for the first time. The brief for the meeting was simple; how could we share the practice that the group do on a day to day basis across the whole school? In the meeting there were lots of ideas suggested. The idea of pairing up with a colleague and coaching was discussed. We already have a peer observation scheme running in the school where 3 teachers are grouped and undertake shared observations. Relatively few staff sign up because of time constraints although those that opt in find it hugely beneficial. At the end of the meeting we hadn’t really got any closer to getting some concrete ideas to move forward. Lots of good ideas had been suggested (including videoing lessons and putting them on the intranet) but we agreed to meet again and give further thought in the interim. At the end of the meeting our head asked if anyone had any more (concrete) ideas to email him before the next meeting.
The meeting must have inspired our head of English (KJ). That night she had gone home and put down on paper her ideas on what makes her lessons effective. They were in the form of a flow chart with headings such as planning, delivery, questioning, assessment. It was emailed to the head and myself the following day. KJ’s idea was that each section could be expanded upon to produce guidance (a how to guide). This was a great idea. If a colleague needed guidance on aspects of planning (for example) then they could refer to the guide. SG (our head of Science) also emailed a document outlining possible ways that the practice of the group could be spread wider. Again, it was a fantastic document which picked apart her excellent classroom practice.
Around the same time our head was feeding back (in an SLT meeting) on a conference where school leaders from across Wales had been given a platform to share their school improvement journeys. I really liked an idea from one of the schools. They had identified 10 strategies that were essential for excellent classroom practice. They had produced a “poster” for staff. The 10 strategies were also included (as a checklist) on their informal lesson observation forms.
From this it seemed a natural step to get a “10 features of effective lessons” from our excellent teachers group. We already have 10 strategies for inclusion and 10 strategies for promoting good behaviour (both excellent documents dripping with common sense). I thought the finished article would look something like this:
The next step was to meet again with our excellent teachers group to outline next steps. I explained the ” product” that I wanted us to create for the school. I didn’t share the 10 features from the school where I got the idea. I wanted our list to come from our teachers. I asked for all the teachers to email me a list of what they consider are the features of their lessons which make them effective. Once we come up with our final 10 I would ask members of the group to produce more detailed guidance in each feature. The guidance on the 10 features could then form the heart of a new teaching & learning policy. I also wanted (somehow) the 10 features to be a focus for observation and discussion during lesson observations. Over the next two weeks the majority of the group emailed me a list of the features they consider to be key in their classrooms. I had some wonderful responses. They varied from the very specific like “have pupils working the minute they enter the classroom” to the more general “teach every class as if your own child was in it” (absolutely loved that one). The next step was to collate all the responses and somehow whittle them down to 10.
When reading John Thomsett’s (@johntomsett) blog on lesson observations (here) I came across the following document:
I thought this was great. It was a far more effective layout with more information than the list of 10 I wanted to create.
I also liked the pin board format. I thought what they identified was spot on. I didn’t dwell on it (or print it out to share it) because I wanted all of our final 10 to have come from our staff without any preconceived ideas.
Our full full list of features of effective lessons when collated was:
Our next task was to condense the 24 into 10. It was clear that many had similarities and could be combined or included together. I spent a few hours undertaking this task with KJ and SG and (after much discussion, debate and horse trading- it resembled a British Lions selection meeting at times) we finally had our 10. What I now wanted was for a short piece of guidance to clarify what each feature meant and longer, more detailed guidance explaining how and why the feature is important and how it could be implemented. At all times my headteacher was adamant that we were to offer guidance that was supportive but not prescriptive. The guidance also needs to be realistically manageable for staff to include in al of their lessons all of the time (and not pulled out for a one off lesson observation). The finished “poster” was ready to go out to staff once the short guidance was ready:
Every year Estyn produce a best practice document based on pulling together the best lessons what they have observed. I checked what Estyn regard as best practice and referenced it against our 10 features. The correlation was very reassuring.
The final part in the jigsaw was asking teachers from the group to volunteer to write more detailed guidance on each of the ten. It can be quite daunting to “put yourself out there” and to write something that could potentially be citric ally relieved by your colleagues. We agreed that the guidance pieces would be done “anonymously.”
In SLT meetings around this time (as I was giving updates on the progress of the 10 features) we discussed how we could use the ten features as a possible focus for our internal lesson observations. The lesson observations for 2012-13 had focused on incorporating literacy strategies following whole school training on reading behaviours. From this our School Improvement Assistant Head produced 3 detailed documents (from 3 lesson observation sessions) to all staff highlighting best practice from the lesson observations. As a Senior Management team we felt that the focus for 2013-14 should be on the quality of teaching. A document that could pull together all the best practice observed across the school would be a very powerful document to further raise standards.
We wanted the lesson observation form, and the follow up dialogue, to focus on (some of) the 10 features. We came up with a lesson observation form that would involve highlighting 3 areas of strength and 2 areas for possible further development. We ditched any notion of having the 10 as a checklist but felt that if we have identified these features as being integral to effective teaching (i.e. teaching that leads to effective learning) then our lesson observations needed to focus on them.
The race was on to get the 10 guidance pieces written, edited and released to staff in plenty of time before the first round of lesson observations. Each of the 10 features was written by somebody in the excellent teachers group. They were then emailed and edited by me (if necessary). I would then and then forward them to the head where he would make some tweaks and amendments. This was a key part of the process as they always returned reading better and with the guidance that little bit sharper. The document was complete and ready to go out to staff.
Some of the guidance pages:
I took advantage of my editing role by adding to certain sections of the guidance with snippets that I had picked up from other blogs. The section above on making our teaching stick was taken from a blog by Shaun Allison (@shaun_allison) which can be read here– Shaun had taken the idea from a Chip and Dan book called Made to Stick)
The diagram at the bottom of the learning goals guidance comes from ideas discussed with Dan Brinton (@BelmontTeach) building on the ideas of Zoe Elder (@fullonlearning).
We were happy with the guidance document and the lesson observation format. The focus would be on the quality of teaching. It would of course also focus on the impact that the teaching was having on the learning.
I have read with interest a lot of what has been written and said about lesson observations in recent months. I was intrigued to read Professor Coe’s (@ProfCoe) analysis of lesson observations where he wrote the following:
(Professor Coe is Professor of Education and Director of CEM, Durham University- & a link to the full document is here)
Interesting points and I would agree that observing learning is devilishly difficult. While these may be poor proxies for learning, we all know that there are many strong proxies for a lack of learning. These would include pupils not listening, not completing work, not receiving any feedback, completing work that is not challenging enough and misconceptions in understanding not being tackled and undermining further consolidation of skills/knowledge.
Peter Blenkinsop (@ManYanaEd) has written a blog on what proxies for learning may look like in a classroom (read it here– it is a work in progress by him but a step forward in terms of how we may observe learning).
Whilst all lesson observations need to have a focus on the learner (because they are the reason that we teach); with how much certainty could we say that our 10 features will lead to effective learning? With a clear focus on the teaching (and the 10 features) how sure are we that we have the right features identified?
As well as having the Estyn best practice document, I cross referenced our 10 features (and guidance) against Doug Lemov’s “Teach like a Champion- 49 techniques that put students on the path to college.”
Doug Lemov (and the uncommon School’s network) identify the best teachers (by using student data) and then observe exactly what these teachers are doing in their classrooms which enables their students to get such excellent results. From this simple but brilliant idea Doug has identified 49 strategies employed by these teachers, broken down into 7 key areas. These are the things that great teachers do that many good teachers do not. I was interested to see how much overlap (if any) there would be between our 10 features (and guidance) and Doug’s 7 key areas and 49 strategies.
Reassuringly there was a huge amount of overlap.
Doug’s 7 key areas:
Huge overlap. Again, very reassuring. (For more on “Teach like a Champion” follow Doug Lemov on Twitter (@Doug_Lemov) and buy the excellent book here)
Do I feel that we have succeeded in highlighting 10 key features of effective lessons that will positively impact on pupil outcomes? Do I think that we have identified and shared the very best practice from our very best (at this moment in time) teachers? Yes. Absolutely (to both of those questions).
The guidance we have produced is not prescriptive but instead our staff need to adhere to the spirit of each of the 10 in the most appropriate way for their subject. I think we have succeeded in sharing best practice that is rainforest not plantation in its nature (for more on this read this by Tom Sherrington @headguruteacher).
In recent blogs Ross Morrison-McGill (@TeacherToolkit) questioned the future of lesson observations (read it here and here). The underlying message from him is that it must all be about good teaching (and what is good teaching). Again, I think we have succeeded in making our lesson observations about good (hopefully great) teaching.
The group that helped shape the guidance will change as time moves on. Hopefully the group will get bigger as this best practice spreads across the school. It may be that we tweak and modify the guidance as time moves on. However, I think changes will be fairly minimal. After all, the 10 features are not new. They have been around for many years. They are just good practice.
Thank you for reading, feedback is always welcome.
(& big thanks to my wife for letting me forgo some of our Easter chores to write this up)