In this blog, Tom Boulter discusses how he went about designing an INSET day. This first appeared here, and you can read more of his work on his own blogThis is one of the articles in the TDT September Newsletter (sign up here).

Lots of recent blogs have expressed a general sense of dissatisfaction with the impact of CPD / INSET in schools – Joe Kirby brings the main themes together in his characteristically incisive and clear post here so I won’t add to the stupendous recent edu-blog word count by discussing it here. Instead, here’s a summary of an attempt we made recently to run an INSET session on using the principles of deliberate practice in order to develop questioning skills.

To give some context, we have been focused for a while on developing questioning as one of the ‘things that make the most difference’ in the classroom, and had previously undertaken some conventional training on this, through presenting to the whole staff. This was then followed up by doing smaller group work on structuring questioning for engagement, in which teachers had a go at experiencing some of the structures.

However, after reading Practice Perfect (thanks to Alex Quigley for the recommendation), and reflecting on the frequently negative views expressed about this conventional approach to INSET, we tried to devise a session where the emphasis was much more on asking teachers to actually practise a questioning technique, get immediate feedback and then be able to have another go. To do this, we used Lemov et al’s idea of setting up small group ‘class role-play’ situations, whereby, after having had a chance to learn about and discuss a technique (in this case Pose, Pause, Pounce, Bounce, Flounce, Denouce (something along those lines)), teachers would be able to put the technique into action immediately, with their peers acting both as a guinea-pig class, and a source of feedback, encouragement and advice.

The format of the voluntary, after-school session went like this:

– Introduction – recap previous training on key issues re questioning, including a couple of video clips
– Input about the ‘new’ technique (although lots were aware of and using it already – given that this was a first go, we went for something fairly safe and straightforward)
– Modelling of the technique using the question ‘what’s great about Great Britain?’ (me attempting to model, colleagues as the class)
– Smaller groups of about 8, with one teacher using the technique and others responding / encouraging / reflecting / feeding-back

Was it any good? Well, the answer to that is a resounding ‘sort-of’. There was a general sense that it was certainly an approach worth developing and sticking with, but, inevitably, there were lots of things which could have been better. When we do it again, we’ll aim to:

– Cut all the waffle at the beginning to an absolute minimum – that funny video may be funny, but including it cut down the time we had available for the important part of this session. We didn’t really get going on the practice for at least 35 minutes – this needed to be more like 10 (see previous post on simplicity in the classroom)

– When modelling / role-playing, ask teachers to try to be ‘in role’ by giving typical student responses as far as possible. In the modelling that I did, the responses generated were so thoughtful, prolonged, perceptive and articulate that it became totally unrealistic to try to ‘bounce them around’ – were a student to provide an answer like this in class, the appropriate teacher response would be to fall over backwards, not try to elicit an alternative response from someone else. When we did start getting more in role (weird at first, but good fun in the end – an expertly-imitated array of sulky, truculent, evasive non-responses came out as years of frustration was cathartically explored – more like therapy than training really), then it started to feel really worthwhile, generating useful, authentic discussion and practice of how to deal with typical student responses. It’s interesting to pause the role-play at different points, to consider what would be the best response at any particular point, and also then to ‘rewind’ a little and have another go.

– Try to be absolutely clear about and focused on how to do this technique – what are we trying to learn to do? This should help the avoidance of getting into long protracted debates – in PP, Lemov points out that teachers are expert in discussion and reflection on lessons, but that the impact of this can be limited. In this activity, the point is to PRACTISE – to have a go, get feedback, try again. In my experience, this is an unusual way for teachers to be asked to work – it’s worlds away from the ‘here’s a piece of A3 paper and a marker pen, draw me a picture of a 21st Century learner’ style of INSET – and that needs to be made really clear before starting off. It doesn’t mean that the value of techniques, or of alternative approaches can’t ever be discussed, just that if this is a practice session, it’s not the best time for those discussions to take place.

And that’s about it – embedding the principles of practice in running training sessions does have great potential for improving the quality and impact of CPD – it certainly felt more inclusive and interactive, with a much greater sense of learning together. But it’s wasn’t easy, or, in this instance, particularly successful. It could be, but learning to do it well will take, like anything else worth doing, consistent and sustained investment of time, a recognition that it’s not a magic bullet and won’t be for everyone, and a commitment from those leading it to put in the hours, reflection and, yes, practice, to give the approach its best chance of actually making a positive difference to all those involved.

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