Saturday, 5 September 2015

researchED 2015: Part 1

About a month ago I received an e-mail from one of my course supervisors asking me if I'd like to attend the researcherED (@researchED1) conference in London, not just as an attendee, but as part of a SUPER Network (@SUPER_Network) group of presenters. I was absolutely gob-smacked to have even been considered, so of course I jumped at the opportunity. The fact that it was on a Saturday didn't even register as an issue with me. Neither did the fact that I'd have to arrange my own transport there - not like getting to London from Cambridgeshire is a big deal anyways.

I was told that my schools CPD budget might cover the costs of transportation, but I felt that paying for it (not that it was a large sum) was something I wanted to do myself; I believe in my OWN professional development enough to fund myself. In fact, I didn't make my attendance at the conference public knowledge to my school; I couldn't really think of a way to broach the subject without coming off as a bit of a bragger - in Canada we're brought up to abhor that type of behaviour. Now I have the ability to go back to my school and (surprise!) share some of the excellent ideas and practice that I heard about yesterday. With minimal bragging.

As such, today's post will consist of a summary of the days learnings, with more than a little critique (debate is always a good thing, right?) along the way. I'll try to include Twitter handles for anyone interested in getting more information from the presenters. I do apologise in advance if I misinterpret anything that was said in the sessions I attended - I'm happy to debate or clarify these on Twitter (@ReflectiveRambl), so don't hesitate to get in touch!

I'm going to break the post up into small chunks; while typing, I realised that if I tried to discuss all of the sessions in one large post, I'd likely lose readers - I don't want to bore people with an insanely long and daunting post. Instead, I will tackle a few sessions per post, and hope that you dip in for a read as and when the mood strikes you. 

The day started with a lovely, and thankfully brief, because the seating was rather uncomfortable for uninitiated bottoms, opening speech from Tom Bennett (@tombennett71). His comments really set the tone for the day; he described how 'the future is open', that there is now an 'appetite to reclaim the profession' and that it is an 'exciting time to be in education'.

I couldn't agree more with what he said. It does sometimes feel to me that there's a bit of what David Weston (@informed_edu) referred to as a 'renaissance of educational scholarship' happening. Perhaps I'm privy to this 'early enlightenment' as a result of completing my Masters. There are days that I wonder if I'd be where I am now (or, more specifically, was yesterday) if I hadn't started my Masters journey. The whole process of completing my Masters really opened my eyes to the world of educational research; as I said in my own presentation, I've caught the research bug and there's no turning back.

However, I don't think it's realistic or even feasible to suggest that all teachers complete a Masters degree - at least not once they've started their teaching career. I know from experience how time consuming it can be to work full time and complete a degree. It's worth it, definitely, but it takes a certain type of person to make it through.

I'm a huge proponent of suggesting that PGCE students complete a research-based Masters course as part of their quest to become a teacher - I think it would be amazing if teaching became a 'Masters profession'. I realise that this might raise some hackles, but in terms of my own professional development, doing a research degree has made me a MUCH better teacher. I was forced to learn things that I might not have learnt in the classroom alone. I adapted my teaching based on the evidence out there, and think that more teachers should access this evidence-based research in order to make changes to their own practice. I just hope that I can make a difference at my school, however small, in ensuring this 'enlightenment' and subsequent 'renaissance' happens; I definitely think we're on the right track, but there's still a lot of work to do. After all, you can't change a culture overnight!

Anyways, I've gone a bit off topic - this blog is called 'Reflective Rambles' for a reason, in case you're a first-time reader.

The first session that I attended was entitled 'CPD that works' by Philippa Cordingley (@PhilippaCcuree). I attended this session because I, like many teachers, feel that CPD can often be a bit dull and unhelpful. However, the fact that the room was jam-packed (people had to actually sit on the floor to attend) is testament to the fact that there are enough of us out there who want to help change things!

The very first point Philippa made which really struck me was her addition of 'L' to CPD; the 'L' (naturally) refers to 'learning'. What a novel idea! Teachers using professional development to LEARN? It seems so ridiculously simple, and yet her starter activity really highlighted that many of us felt that the CPD we're currently offered doesn't help us to learn. I know great strides have been made in this regard at my school, but I must admit that I did sit through some CPD sessions last year thinking they weren't telling me anything I didn't already know.

Philippa instead suggested that the very way we teach students to learn should be used with teachers as well. She suggested that school leaders view staff as their 'class'. This idea is, again, so simple in it's aims! You can't imagine how many times I've wished I could receive the type of feedback on teaching that I give my students. Or how I wish someone would sit down and show me practical examples of good practice, working through it with me, providing me with exemplars or scaffolds and prompts. If we know this is how students make good progress, why aren't we doing it for ourselves?

Her argument was that schools should 'create personal professional coherence'. School leaders need to be able to facilitate environments where this can take place. She really stressed the idea of adding depth to CPDL. Instead of highlighting an issue, for example feedback, and talking at staff about how to improve it, schools should instead look at the 'how and why' of issues. What are the current issues with feedback? Why are these issues arising? How can they be addressed? By taking risks and trying new things, evaluating their successes and failures, teachers can LEARN what makes good feedback for themselves, and therefore much more easily embed changes into their practice.

Another thing she stressed was that CPDL needs to focus on 'our aspirations for pupils'. Most teachers want to do good by their students, and this should be at the forefront of CPDL. We need to ask ourselves how our own learning will affect student learning. If you can't see an effect between the two, then I'd suggest something isn't working, and that's okay! The literature behind AfL suggests that mistakes should always be celebrated, because these are the places where learning takes place; the same should stand to reason with teacher-learning as well. Taking risks and celebrating our 'mistakes' should be encouraged, so long as aim is to enhance our learning for the benefit of our students.

In order to make this type of teacher-learning feasible, Philippa suggested that it be done in 'bite size episodes' instead of 'intense hits'. This allows for multiple opportunities to try things out, adapt them, and try again. This is a wonderful bit of advice, and one I've given teachers before in terms of how to give effective feedback.

To extend the analogy, imagine you've got a class of 30 students. You're looking to provide them with feedback in order to improve. You can go about this in one of two ways. One option is to get them to produce a long, time-consuming piece of work. You devote large chunks of class time working on the project, and in the end produce a very weighty piece of work. When you take it in to mark, you'll have to spend a long time reading, assessing, and commenting on the work. You might be able to get through one of these types of assignments a term, which means that students will only receive one bit of feedback after each large attempt. 

The second option is to divide the task in to small, manageable chunks. At various stages throughout the process, you stop, collect work in, mark it and provide feedback which informs the next stage of the project. Students therefore receive lots of feedback, make numerous changes and adaptations to their work, and are more than likely produce something that's much better than if they'd received no feedback until the very end of the project. The amount of time that you've taken to mark each tiny section of the work is likely to be the same as what you'd devote to marking the large, weighty piece, but the end result is much better.

We know that teaching students the second way works better, yet we don't provide training to teachers in this manner. Teacher sit through CPD sessions, whether internal or external, are given a weighty project to complete, and are provided feedback only at the end, usually in the form of a (sometimes scary) performance management observation. To me, it seems obvious why this system doesn't work! It wouldn't work with students, and it doesn't work with staff.

As Philippa suggested, this type of change requires a large amount of support from schools. It won't be easy to change the existing system of CPD, but no one expects these changes to take place over night. Instead, small steps should be taken to ensure that the 'lessons' offered to teachers are individual, they're extended, and they provide teachers with the opportunity to adapt, change and reflect on how their learning will affect their own practice and their aspirations for their students. We talk a lot about enhancing the metacognitive abilities of our students, and I think the same should be done for staff. Better models of professional learning are needed in order to ensure teachers have access to CPDL that will help them really embed what they learn.