Developing the Expert Teacher

At the Cramlington Learning Festival I talked, albeit briefly. about the need to recognise and promote the role of the expert in the teaching profession. Here are the slides –  CLV Festival 2013 (NXPowerLite) I chose this topic because in our school system I see more and more instances of opinion masquerading as insight, novices positioning themselves as experts and collectively we, our schools and our students suffer in consequence..

The slides ought to speak for themselves but to paraphrase my argument it’s down to the profession to wrestle back the influence in shaping thinking, particularly around what constitutes great learning and teaching in our schools. I argue elsewhere that the ‘Novices’, the ‘OFSTED Whisperers’, the ‘Evidencing Soothsayers’ and the ‘Policy  Pedants’  will rob us of our profession.

When you watch an expert teacher working you see the artistry of teaching underpinned by the science of learning. It’s the culmination of years of reflective practice, bench marked against the best and tested in differing challenging contexts.

My experience tells me that expertise needs to be tested in different contexts; experts deploy a range of strategies and can do so under duress. The expert teacher has spent years improving and adjusting what he or she does so that there is no unfamiliar.

When we filmed the Step Up lessons we saw expert teachers close up. What quickly became obvious was there was no one way – the teachers adapted their interventions to the context. Some were directive, others less so; some focused on specific outcomes, others more on developing skills and understanding of learning processes. So we had a matrix – Teacher to Learner on the horizontal axis, Outcome to Process along the vertical. It looks like this Matrix. Experts excel in any of the four quadrants. Here are a selection of excerpts which illustrate each quadrant on the matrix. Fuller versions are all available on Step Up.

An example of a Teacher  and Process emphasis can be seen in Craig Stuart’s maths lesson. In this short preview to the lesson Craig explains how the approach is to isolate the big questions in maths which will tap into the learners’ innate curiosity to know more about the world around them.  Craig Stuart Outstanding Lesson (1) Craig directs and orchestrates the learning, although pupils have limited autonomy, through his skillful use of challenging questions Craig ensures everyone is stretched .

Some teachers set up learning challenges which deliberately positioned content understanding within the skills development of the learners and then  nudged pupils through the process in an indirect way. What followed was a Learner and Process emphasis. Learner autonomy was high, outcomes uncertain.  Darren Mead Outstanding Lesson (2) In this short excerpt Darren is conducting a review with Year Seven students engaged in a species diversity project on behalf of a local farmer. This lesson shows an ‘expert’ science teacher  interleaving learning interventions without being consciously aware of doing so.

One of the more exacting challenges for any teacher is to achieve quality learning outcomes without being directive. David Gray explains how he use learning conversations and choices of ‘route’ to help year 7 maths students direct their own progress towards agreed levels. Here we see a Learner and Outcome approach David Gray Outstanding Lesson which is engaging and brilliantly differentiated.

It may seem that a teacher directed learning experience towards a given outcome is the everyday work of the full-time classroom teacher. It would be understandable to see this quadrant as the least challenging. In this lesson Charlotte has brought the topic to life using a memorable Teacher and Outcome approach. Charlotte Murray Outstanding Lesson (1)

Expert teachers have years of accumulated experience focusing and refining their professional skills. Novices just don’t get it! Experts in all fields retrieve information holistically, focus attention on what matters and make successive and rapid decisions about appropriate interventions. Our profession needs experts; we should celebrate and cherish our best teachers as our collective futures depend upon them.

Formative with Forthright in Formby

Friday was spent being Forthright with Formby. John Turner and I worked on our first day with the Secondary and Primary schools in the in the Forthright Learning Community as they further their journey to develop independent learners and independent learning across the community.

The schools are embarking together on an ambitious, self-funded project over the next two years to develop independent learning approaches across the schools starting from the infants. The schools within the community are already successful in their own right and have a tradition of academic success. The aspiration is to be even more successful in helping students be autonomous problem solvers who take increasing responsibility for their own progress.

Over two years it is hoped that staff in the schools can work together on agreed interventions which will help transform the learners’ experience. Amongst the possibilities which were offered for consideration

School level

  • Episodes such as problem solving programmes, learning to learn approaches
  • Events such Enquiry Week, Independence Day
  • Vertical tutoring challenges on big questions
  • Changing rewards and incentives towards independent learning behaviours

Classroom level

  • Reinforcement of essential attributes and skills
  • Development of common tools – such as an independent enquiry wheel with versions for all Key Stages
  • Shift from performing to learning orientation
  • Improved group work
  • Extended enquiry built into how we teach
  • More pupil choice
  • Lazy Teacher week!
  • Use of Critique method of authentic presentation and feedback

Learner level

  • Learner passports across the Forthright Community
  • Independent learner profiling
  • Fewer lessons led by the teacher, more challenges initiated by the pupil
  • A Students Commission on how we should learn
  • Improved use of the environment with better spaces for problem solving
  • Prop boxes for topics

John and I were very deliberately avoiding giving a ‘strategic lead’ in favour of consensus and collective ownership and so time was spent identifying what is meant by independent learning and how we would recognise the independent learner. We asked the group of nineteen to sub-divide into three and ‘characterise the learner’ before we then went on to isolate and rank the key attributes. This allowed us to agree the following working definition –

In the Forthright Learning Community, independent learners are curious about answers to the ‘big questions.’ They are prepared to be open-minded and resilient in their pursuit. Forthright independent learners are also:

  • willing to be actively involved in extending their own and others’ learning
  • flexible in approaching challenges and in learning from setbacks
  • able to make connections
  • optimistic, and ready to make positive contributions alongside others
  • able to apply and extend  reasoning
  • reflective, and in being so capable of improving their own learning
  • autonomous

The definition will be used to help shape all of the agreed activities. Going forward the group started to define what the signature features would look like at whole school, classroom and learner level with strategies to provide clarity, coherence and consistency for each.

The Forthright definition is pleasing because it has not been sourced from an academic, imposed by an agency or produced by a cabal and because it’s owned by the schools and emerged from honest debate it’s arrived with built-in durability; in other words, its forthright for purpose

Stick to the Knitting!

The phrase ‘stick to the knitting’ popularised by Tom Peters is interpreted as guidance to businesses to do this – to focus on what they know and do best and nothing else.

For over 200 years the small Dales town of Dent stuck to its knitting. Dent, in the north of England owed its prosperity to wool, and developed a cottage industry of knitters, mostly men. These knitters became known as the Terrible Knitters of Dent. Terrible then meant ‘awesome’ – surprisingly good! The knitters went at it night and day, sometimes whilst they herded sheep, milked cattle or repaired their roof! They multi-tasked using knitting ‘sticks’ tucked into the belt as one of the needles. The locals had to stick to the knitting to sell the products and keep starvation at bay. Needles often became bent and worn with use. An 18th century rhyme went:

She knaws how to sing and knit
and she knaws how to carry t’kit
While she drives her kye to t’pasture

The Terrible Knitters of Dent were awesomely good at what they had to do. They shared ideas, collaborated, maintained a high standard in their work and thrived together. They also did the other things but never stopped sticking to the knitting for a moment. Tourists would come from miles around to watch as they knitted with one hand and milked their cow with the other! We can learn from the knitters.

For me the lessons of the knitters are bound up in what my colleague,John Turner, calls the three C’s: Clarity, Coherence, Consistency. We might add a fourth, Community.

Organisations such as schools apply the three C’s when seeking to improve. By focusing down, by saying no more often, by avoiding the temptation to fulfil others’ agendas schools become terrible knitters. Clarity is found when agreement is reached over core purpose. For us core purpose is about planning, delivering, evaluating and improving quality learning experiences for and on behalf of the students – nothing else!. Top sports coaches talk of the power of focussing on process over results. A focus on results distorts preparation. We say focus on the processes of learning. For the knitters clarity was being sure that what they could produce was useful, locally owned and of the highest quality.

Clarity around what makes great learning precedes coherence. Coherence comes when we build and share agreement on the mechanisms for the delivery and scrutiny of great learning and each and every one of us buys in to those mechanisms. This means that we meet and talk regularly about what we do well and how to get even better; we monitor, support and challenge each other and we benchmark against the best. Coherence for the knitters would come as they sat around each others’ fireplaces and talked.

Finally a school achieves consistency when great learning is a matter of routine. Consistency is when, day on day, learning is optimised for the benefits of the students. This does not mean each and every lesson, every day is high in teacher energy and suffused with novelty. It means that students are actively and purposefully engaged often feeling a responsibility for their own learning and the learning of others. When a learning community comes together in support of an agreed purpose, you witness discretionary effort! The knitters survived as a community phenomenon into the 20th century. The Community adds leverage to any common goal. A community who invests in delivering great learning directs and schedule its efforts towards its day on day delivery.

Having worked with a community of schools over a period of 18 months we found remarkable progress once agreement on what comprised great learning was in place.  Once we had clarity over what great learning looked like, we were able to pursue coherence in delivery and consistency in its quality. Here is our clarity on Great Learning. Students across our community –

  • Value and Enjoy Learning
  • Are Actively and Purposefully Engaged
  • Are Safe, Secure and Self Confident
  • Build and Sustain Relationships
  • Stretched Through Challenge
  • Are Creative, seeking out Patterns and Solutions
  • Ask, and are asked, Great Questions
  • Make Progress Based on Feedback
  • Transfer Their Learning
  • Take Responsibility for their Own Learning and the Learning of Others

The Terrible Knitters of Dent endured without any sorts of checklists. The harshness of daily life alone reminded them to stick to the knitting. Be clear about, and focus relentlessly on, what needs to be done. Eventually as you become accomplished in your knitting you might be able to milk a cow at the same time.

What’s your icy shower?

Once in a while you experience, see or hear things which set you back and make you think. These moments don’t happen often and are never to any sort of formula. They are infrequent in life but have a resonance beyond the moment. What then follows is often a period of personal dissonance, where your everyday assumptions and the behaviours which go with them, are questioned.  Things feel uncomfortable for your for a while. You begin to question your motives and ask if what you do, day on day, aligns with something purposeful.

The landscape of our lives provides births, deaths and rites of passage each with their own little questions and answers nudging us along – but what would it be like to get up every day of your life knowing that what you were doing consumed all of your hopes and dreams and answered all your questions? For some, maybe most, such moments never occur and larger questions are never asked, never answered.

Meeting people who have this strong purpose can be as invigorating as standing in an icy shower. I haven’t met this guy, Mickey Smith, but I’ve listened to him speak and what he said stopped me in my tracks. This short video works for me like an icy shower. It sends the equivalent of thousands of volts straight down my spine. It gets me out of bed and asking the questions. It washes away the self-doubt that can transfix. Judge for yourself…

“If I only scrape a living, at least its a living worth scraping…” Mickey Smith, 2011