Teachers can be simply too busy, as well as wary of getting out of their comfort zone, to improve their methods. But the secret is to put them in charge of their learning, make them feel motivated and supported, and let them try out new ideas to see whether they work. It really can make a difference.
Teaching has at least three times the effect on student achievement as any other factor you might change. Also, teaching can never be done perfectly – it is always possible to improve.
But how should we improve teaching? The research shows that both institutions and teachers themselves find it oddly difficult to improve teaching. But we do know a hugely motivating way that really works.
Teachers are reluctant to get out of their comfort zone – they are often too busy meeting institutional demands to address their teaching strategies at all.
Institutions have even more difficulty. We are all familiar with the CPD training session approach. But the research reviews mentioned later in the article show that this method, by itself, simply doesn’t work.
Why? Because some staff go back to their desks after the training, they see that their inbox and in-tray have grown while they were being trained, so they embark on reducing the backlog. Soon the training becomes a distant memory, even if they enjoyed it and found it relevant.
If the training suggests teaching and learning methods that are known to be effective, and the teacher finds these interesting and relevant, which is not always the case, then some teachers will usually try a method out. (Hooray!)
But they often find that the method doesn’t work well first time, compared to methods they have practised for years (an unfair comparison), so they abandon the new method. Soon even those who have tried the methods have reverted to their normal practice. The training was a waste of time.
The research shows something we as teachers should have known right from the start – improving teaching is a learning process and, like all learning, it requires:
Teachers are very practical people and it turns out they are motivated by relevance. They want to decide for themselves what the problems are that they and their students are facing with their teaching and learning, and they want training based on that. Like all adult learners, teachers need to be in charge of the objectives of their learning; we should have known that too.
So it makes sense to do a ‘training needs analysis’ which asks teachers for the learning problems that their students have. For example: ‘My students often can’t write essays’. As for the teaching problems teachers themselves have, you might ask ‘How do I motivate disaffected learners?’.
Then the training can be based, at least in part, on the problems that many in the institution are having. There is often remarkable agreement in my experience. The teachers can then be taught about best practice methods and techniques that have been effectively used to solve the problems that they have identified.
You can’t improve teaching without changing it
So once the teacher has learned of ideas that might solve their learning and teaching problems, they will need to try them out.
This may not go smoothly. The teacher will not be used to this method, and neither will their students. They will have to try the method out in small ways, repeatedly, adapting as they learn the outcomes of using this new approach. Joyce and Showers say it takes five trials to find out if a method is going to work, and a further 20 trials before the method is used about 80 per cent effectively.
Why? Because teaching requires a great deal of skill, which comes from trial and error, and a lot of creative adaptation of the method to the teacher’s unique context.
Alarmingly, the research on CPD shows that even what we’ve discussed so far is not enough to change a teacher’s practice. Teachers also need regular meetings with a community of colleagues to support them. This is variously called the peer coaching group, a teacher learning community, or a community of practice.
This democratic group of, perhaps, six colleagues meets about every four to six weeks to discuss the experiments the teachers have been carrying out. This encourages staff to experiment as it’s embarrassing to have nothing to say at the meeting. But, more importantly, lots of learning is created, and a huge positive buzz.
In these meetings each teacher takes it in turn to describe how their experiment is going. They might bring along evidence such as student work to illustrate this. They give an honest, warts-and-all description of the experiment. Then the group discusses how the teacher could overcome any difficulties to proceed with the method. The teacher then tries it that way and the reflective active learning cycle repeats: Do, Review, Learn, Apply.
At the end of the year teachers report to others outside their mutual coaching team so that teachers can all learn from each other. A Supported Experiments Exhibition is a great approach, where teams exhibit to each other what they have tried and achieved. The best methods are made available to all teachers and appear on ‘Active’ schemes of work so that benefits are shared.
I can hear you! “Really?”, “What a palaver!”, “Is it worth it?” Emphatically yes. First, it is practically the only way to improve teaching that has been found to work (Timperley 2007).
The leaders of the most successful institutions set their highest priority as ‘Promoting and participating in teacher learning and development’ – that is how their institution got to be successful (Viviane Robinson 2009). Oh, and it creates a tremendous buzz – both staff and students love it.
1. Explore the context
What are the key problems students have with their learning, and that teachers have with their teaching?
2. Explore the pedagogy
What learning and teaching strategies could we use to solve these problems? CPD training on these methods would help.
3. Experimentation and implementation
Decide as individuals and as a team what experiments would be worth trying, and who will experiment with what.
4. Improve and ‘coach-in’ strategies
Teachers experiment with the methods and improve their use of them. They receive support from a peer coaching team of other experimenters in regular democratic meetings. Teachers carry out their ‘Supported Experiments’ for the team, not just for themselves.
5. Share and celebrate success
Teachers report on their experiments and share their strategies. Sharing is both within and between teams. Learning Fairs are useful here.
New and improved strategies are agreed and then put into schemes of work, assignments, worksheets, lesson plans, and so on. The whole team now has access to the improvements.
Implementation is monitored to ensure the changes are supported and are sufficient to make a difference to students.
Watch the SET webinar recording with Charlotte Bonner, National Head of Education for Sustainable Development at the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), to get insights into experiences and opinions of FE professionals relating to sustainability.
In the latest episode from the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) podcast, Paul Tully, Strategic Researcher at the ETF, is joined by training expert, Joanne Miles, to discuss how teacher research in the form of supported experiments can strengthen professionalism and raise standards in teaching and training.
The Education and Training Foundation’s Head of Professional Status and Standards, Andrew Dowell, explains how Advanced Teacher Status (ATS) fills the gap for advanced teachers looking to demonstrate their mastery.