Geoff Petty - The leaders-as-teachers revolution

If you lead a team of teachers you need to know about ‘supported experiments’, says Geoff Petty. Geoff is the author of Teaching Today and Evidence Based Teaching, and has trained staff in more than 300 colleges and schools. 

Many of those who lead our colleges, learning providers and teaching teams fill their diaries and agendas with relatively unimportant issues – and ignore or delegate their most vital function – which is to ensure their teachers learn. 

To learn, teachers need time to meet in teams to problem-solve their teaching and learning issues. They need to trial possible solutions repeatedly and improve them. They also need to be challenged and supported by expert opinion and by coaches. 

Is this just a new trend? No, it’s the consensus view from systematic reviews of all the high-quality research done internationally on educational leadership and effective professional development. 

The leader’s main job is to get their teachers and trainers to learn. If this is true of principals and chief executives, it must be especially so for leaders closer to the classroom and workshop. 

Many managers have long deluded themselves that underperforming teachers are lazy, and that a healthy dose of accountability will buck their ideas up, and raise their performance. Lazy teachers do badly, even in Ofsted inspections. 

This is because teaching and learning is very complicated and some teachers’ understanding of it – and hence their methods – are not as good as those of better teachers. The cure for this knowledge deficit is learning, not threats, shaming, or blaming. 

As Helen Timperley, professor of learning, development and professional practice at the University of Auckland said in her 2011 book, Realising the Power of Professional Learning: “Teachers won’t engage in cycles of enquiry when they feel criticised, or put down for not being good enough… Blame and shame are counterproductive to promote [teacher] learning.” 

Experiments with teaching methods have shown that if you train an average teacher to use a really good teaching strategy, then students can learn between 50 and 100% more. 

If Jaguar Land Rover was told it could increase productivity by up to 100%, this would become top priority. Executives would clear their diaries to make space for implementation. But many leaders at all levels in FE either ignore this vital function, or delegate it to CPD managers or advanced practitioners, who often don’t have the time and resources to do the job as well as they might. 

Meanwhile, these same leaders work on ‘more important’ things. They have their priorities back to front. Let’s look at the evidence. One of Timperley’s colleagues, Professor Viviane Robinson, carried out a best-evidence synthesis on how educational leadership affects student outcomes. This involved the systematic finding, sifting, and reviewing of all the highest quality research internationally on this question. 

Her main finding was that there were two prominent styles of leadership taught to leaders – and one was much more effective than the other at improving student outcomes. Here they are in summary. Which leadership style does best for students? 


Style A: transformational leadership 

Transformational leadership’s focus is on the leader and their staff, not on student learning. It has been actively taught on many leadership development programmes and is very common. 

Transformational leadership: 

  • Sets the vision, goals, and expectations 
  • Ensures there is learning support 
  • Monitors college activity 
  • Buffers staff from external demands 
  • Ensures that staffing is fair and equitable 
  • Is easily accessible to students and staff 
  • Secures a high degree of autonomy for staff 


Style B: pedagogical or instructional leadership 

This style has three or four times the effect on student outcomes as Style A. It: 

  • Makes several formal classroom observations each year 
  • Interprets test scores with teachers 
  • Insists teachers plan teaching programmes together, across grades or levels 
  • Insists teachers expect high proportions of their students to do well on achievement outcomes 
  • Insists and knows that class atmosphere is very conducive to learning for all students. 

Pedagogical or instructional leaders focus on teacher learning – they see it as their main job and have a big impact on it. This is why students in their organisations or departments do better. 

In 2008, Professor Timperley carried out another rigorous, best-evidence synthesis on the CPD that best improved students’ achievements. She found CPD usually had no effect on student achievement (help!). However when it was carried out as in the diagram above, there was a very large effect on achievement. 

This cycle gets teachers to identify their teaching and learning issues, and those of their students. Then they learn about best practice in this area. Then it requires teachers to try to solve their issues using a trial and error action research approach. 

This whole cycle must be carried out in a ‘community of practice’ or ‘peer coaching’ group. Without this, the CPD has always failed to produce significant improvement in student achievement, says Professor Timperley. She cites cases where this approach has more than doubled the rate of student learning. In my experience, staff hugely enjoy the process. But they need time set aside for the meetings and must be challenged – as well as supported – with expert assistance. 

So if you lead a team of teachers what should you be doing? Well in the UK we call it ‘supported experiments’. Many providers have made a start on these, but they’re not easy to prioritise and to make work well. This ‘the-leader-is-a-teacher’ approach is also supported by Professor John Hattie’s Visible Learning books and by a research review on CPD by American researchers Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers. 

A revolution is underway in educational leadership and the opportunities it provides are striking. 

Vive la revolution! 



  • Robinson, V. (2008) School leadership and student outcomes. 
  • Timperley H. (2011) Realising the power of professional Learning, Oxford University Press. 
  • Hattie, J.A. (2009) Visible Learning a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement, Routledge. 
  • Petty, G. (2009) Evidence Based Teaching, 2nd Edition. OUP 


Information about supported experiments can be found on Geoff Petty's website.