Very recently, I ran what was essentially the same session in front of two different audiences. The content of each session was virtually the same, both given to Maths teachers, but the outcomes were very different. The first session was my first team meeting as a newly appointed Subject Leader for Maths at BSix, and the second was a summary of the first session at an ATM London Branch meeting. What happened at these sessions created a lot of debate among those who attended. This series of four blog posts are my reflections on these sessions.
Part 1 – Our aims
I introduced each session with some background about me. I have been a teacher for over 10 years, and have been a Head of Department for some of this time. I have made many mistakes, and have learnt a lot. Perhaps the most important thing I have learned in this time is that, whilst there are many aspects to being a good teacher, we can’t undervalue the importance of getting the desired results for our students.
Sadly, results in my department in recent years have not been as desired, and it is clear that this is my first task in my new role - to improve results - but how? My thoughts around this question formed the basis of the two sessions.
I spent my first few weeks at BSix teaching students, talking to teachers and watching lessons. On one occasion, one of my colleagues (who has been teaching less than a year) was planning a lesson. I asked him how he knew his method would be the most effective way of teaching that topic, and he said he didn’t. I asked him if he had watched anyone else or talked to anyone else about teaching that topic; he hadn’t.
I could clearly see that we must work together more closely, especially around planning, and we needed to start watching each other teach. As Hattie says in Visible Learning for Teachers (p74):
“The co-planning of lessons is the task that has one of the highest likelihoods of making a marked positive difference on student learning”
1. Work together to plan and deliver consistently good lessons.
2. Gather frequent evidence about how and what our students learn.
3. Make decisions about practice based on a mixture of research and experience.
First and foremost, our aim is to improve student outcomes. To do this, we must be open and work hard to improve our practice. However, I do not want to increase teacher’s workload, or swamp them with one initiative after another; each of these priorities will form a termly focus for our weekly department CPD. We will improve our practice one step at a time and maintain a simple, back to basics approach.
And we will do this by supporting each other; this statement describes our underlying principles:
We want to create a culture in the department where we are all responsible for the success of all students who are studying Maths. To do this we must work together to identify and implement what works well and what doesn’t, and have humility and openness about our practice.
This idea of sharing a collaborative responsibility for all students we teach was inspired by this section from Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov (p164):
“In successful schools - schools where teachers, students and families are working together towards a common goal – teachers see themselves as ‘school teachers’ not ‘classroom teachers’. That means that teachers are invested in each other’s success and that all teachers are responsible for the teaching and learning of all children in the school, not just those students in their classroom. When they see another teacher in trouble, school teachers seek to help them instead of judge them. The sad reality today is that many of our schools are full of classroom teachers, teachers who walk by unsuccessful classrooms and roll their eyes, thinking, “Those students behave with me.” Classroom teachers subscribe to a “shut my door and teach” mentality. They believe that they have one responsibility, to teach their kids.”
On arrival at this school, the students did not take to my style; perhaps I went in too hard, or perhaps the school systems were at fault; most probably it was a bit of both. At one point, I complained to the Head Teacher of the school; his answer was to take me on a tour of the school to show me how wonderfully behaved the students were. I felt as though I was back in my NQT year all over again. It was the most difficult, but perhaps the most enlightening, period of my career; I vowed that when I returned to being a Head of Department, I would support and help teachers in my department all the way.
Having shared these aims with my department, I felt that we must first create a shared idea of the features of good planning and teaching. I performed the same exercise at the ATM branch meeting. My findings on this topic, and my reflections on the outcome of the two presentations, forms part 2 of this series.
Part 3 of this series then looks at our model for making all this happen. It is a synthesis of ideas inspired by Lesson Study and the books Practice Perfect (Lemov) and Leverage Leadership by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, into a method that I feel will meet our objectives, which I have called ‘Lesson Practice’.
The process involves identifying a particular element of teaching that we as a department feel needs to improve (e.g. teacher instruction), then isolating a single feature of that element (e.g. making explanations as concise as possible}, and then practicing this in front of each other.
We then feedback, refine and practice again. When we are happy we have improved, each teacher takes it to the classroom, and we then meet again a week later to review and refine again if required. We will measure the success of the method simply, through peer observations, and through student outcomes.
The first method that we isolated and practiced as a department was a technique that Lemov calls the ‘Shortest Path’. A description of this technique, and the reaction from my department and members of the ATM meeting, forms part 3 of this series.
Part 4 will contain the questions that arose as a result of the two sessions, and my next steps.
Next post: Part 2 – What are the elements of planning good lessons?