In this blog, Graham Newell, Director of Education at IRIS Connect discusses collaboration between teachers and how this can be maximised. This is one of the articles in the TDT October Newsletter (sign up here).

I am old!  When I started teaching the idea of sharing and collaborating was an anathema.  My first action with my new classroom was to put a display across the window – my classroom is my kingdom! No collaboration for me.

Over my career I have done – ‘given and received’ – a great deal of CPD. Nearly always well evaluated but I have increasingly questioned my approach. My current view is captured in Michael Fullan’s comment in ‘Learning is the Work,’ “Nothing has promised so much and has been so frustratingly wasteful as thousands of workshops … that led to no significant change”.

The recent resurgence of interest in evidence based change has led to more questioning about effective models for CPD.  The development of the National Teacher Enquiry Network is a welcome innovation which will support the critical analysis of what actually works.

There is a growing body of evidence showing that effective adult learning relies upon the following key features:

  • Contexutalised learning
  • Self reflection and peer review
  • Coaching and mentoring
  • Building communities of practice and consequent social capital
  • Research and Action research

Although not new, the Lesson Study process captures all these key activities and has been given new impetus through organisations such as the Teacher Development Trust.  Lesson Study supports the growth of Professional Capital within a school and reflects the notion of teachers being professionals at the front line.

The importance of developing Professional Capital is described by Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves in ‘Professional Capital – Transforming Teaching in Every School’.  Effective teaching is not an individual activity but relies on developing communities of practice where implicit knowledge becomes explicit and experience is shared.

The importance of peer support is also reflected in research.  For example, Viviane Robinson’s research ‘School Leadership and Student Outcomes’ demonstrate that a focus on teacher-led professional development had a greater impact on learning outcomes (0.82) than anything else.  In ‘The Missing Link in School Reform’, Carrie Leanna illustrates from her research the impact of a staff room with high social capital, where staff share and develop together, can have on pupil outcomes.

So, everything points towards collaboration and sharing but there remains a challenge.  Observation is a natural part of collaboration. The current emphasis on observation as part of the accountability framework creates tensions for some teachers when it comes to observation.

Recent research by Professor Christina Preston on the IRIS Connect system provides some comforting thoughts and suggests ways forward.  Amongst many findings, Professor Preston found that of 99 teachers actively using the system, 88% felt their confidence as a teacher had improved and 96% felt they would be more likely to try new practices and be more experimental in their teaching – in other words they felt liberated and not constrained by the proves of observation.  Even more profound is that 99% felt they were taking more responsibility for their own professional development and the same figure felt there were more conversations between teachers about teaching as a consequence.

There is no magic formula and most is down to the culture of the school but lessons learnt around adopting IRIS Connect may provide some help:

  • Ensure there is total clarity about the purpose of the observation and never conflate quality assurance and CPD
  • Introduce observations incrementally following full explanations to everyone – even those not directly involved – of what is happening and why
  • Allow the teacher to control the observation process – allow them to decide what to share, with whom they share it and allow them to withdraw viewing rights if they wish
  • Allow teachers to start with self review and share when they feel comfortable
  •  Peer observation can be powerful and constructive.  The inclusion of the SLT too soon can change the dynamics
  • Make the process democratic.  Senior leaders should also open themselves up to observation by less experienced teachers
  • Work in triads.  Sharing within a small group made up of teachers with varying levels of experience and skill can provide interesting insights for both the NQT and the most skilled teacher
  • Have a communications strategy in place from the start and regularly disseminate lessons learnt across the whole school

To return to my opening sentences, far from seeing classrooms as kingdoms my view is now that to have an effective education system we need to develop professional capital through collaboration and sharing.  Young teachers today tend to be much better at this than my generation were – which is why they are better than I was.

You can learn more about IRIS Connect here.

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