“Isolating a piece of pedagogy and practising it outside of the classroom makes perfect sense.”
This is a typical reaction from one of our teachers after being trained in a key principle of ours – the idea that teaching is a performance profession, and therefore, just like surgeons or actors, teachers should practise under controlled conditions before they ‘go live’ with their classes.
For many schools, however, the scale of change involved in this principle is dramatic. The long-standing culture of teachers’ professional development has focused on discussion rather than action. This often means that teachers struggle to see the value of practice. After all, standing in front of colleagues and seeking their feedback on your classroom performance is not something most teachers would get excited about! This is, however, a key component of our whole school Transforming Teaching programme. How do we break down the barriers towards practice?
It’s actually fairly straightforward. We build practice into the majority of our training sessions. Cycles of practice – feedback – and more practice enable teachers to see the immediate improvements it can bring about in their performance. Practice has its biggest impact when learning from taught sessions is reinforced through instructional coaching. As one of the teachers we work with on our Transforming Teaching programme put it after an instructional coaching session:
"It’s surprising how often teachers don’t practise – doing so yesterday made us realise just how difficult it is, it made me refine my own actions and realise how often I go on autopilot."
These light-bulb moments are great to see and are our first step to changing teaching quality for the better. However, the growing body of research from across the IfT faculty clearly shows that getting teachers to think differently about practice is only half the battle. What we need is for teachers and schools to adopt new habits, enabling them to incorporate practice into their CPD models.
One way we tackle this is through coaching sessions with the teacher educators in the schools in which we work. This, more than anything else, helps them to embed habits of practice. The power of this was particularly brought home to me by the reaction of one of our teacher educators. We had been working together on the modelling sections of her year 11 lessons to focus on rigour – scripting and practising her modelling and the questions to check for student understanding. This has quickly become a powerful habit – to the point where in one meeting she explained how she felt like she’d let her students down by forgetting to take her pre-scripted questions to one of her lessons!
This is why it’s been so exciting to work with the teams of teacher educators in our Transforming Teaching schools. They know their contexts and can see what support is needed to bring about sustainable change. They’ve been quick to appreciate the value the instructional coaching model offers through individualised feedback, and are now, with our support, looking at how practice can become an integral part of their school cultures. They recognise the value of having expert coaches and being systematic about training: "Good practice requires good planning by a coach – this comes from the experience of trying it in training".
Transforming Teaching is such a fantastic project to work on because it allows us to apply carefully considered theoretical models and adapt them to real school contexts. However, in the excitement of testing out our core ideas, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of why we want our teachers to practice – a goal perfectly summed up by one of our teacher educators:
"It’s interesting to reflect that we used to ask our teachers to practise in the classroom. By asking our teachers to practise prior to teaching, our students will get the best."
This article originally appeared on the website of the Institute for Teaching. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.