As a new academic year begins, teachers across the country are looking at how to transform teaching and learning in their school or college over the year ahead. For many, INSET days will have provided a raft of exciting, inspiring ideas aimed at supporting students’ learning in a myriad of ways. But how can you focus and plan your professional learning to make sure these ideas translate into actual change and improvement in your classroom?

1. Pick one focus

It can be tempting to dive straight in and introduce a raft of approaches you’ve come across over the summer and on INSET days, but trying too many things at once makes it less likely that you’ll be able to sustain and measure the changes you introduce.

All good professional learning should be focussed on addressing the needs on your students. Take time to reflect on these: what data is available that will help you understand where your students need further support?

Use this to inform your choice of one focus for your own professional learning. It may be that you’ve already come across an approach that will address the needs you’ve identified among your students. Alternatively you might need to do further reading or investigation around the best course of action.

2. Read around the topic

Once you’ve chosen a focus, take time to read around the topic. Your INSET or initial research will have given you an introduction to the key themes. Next, deepen your understanding by reading a range of books, articles, papers and research summaries on the topic. Look at the topic from a variety of standpoints and take time to understand the key principles that underpin the theory.

This wider reading needn’t be a solitary activity. Indeed, you can do much to bolster your understanding by regularly discussing your ongoing learning with colleagues. This can be done either informally or in a more structured fashion, by setting up a reading or research group.

Social media can also be a fantastic tool for sharing and developing your understanding of research.

3. Plan

It’s then time to consider how the theory or approach will relate to your own practice in your own classroom. Careful planning to make a change in line with the research you’ve read will be key to its success.

When planning to trial or introduce a new approach, here are some things to consider:

  1. What does the research say are the most important elements of embedding the approach effectively? Make sure you plan to work as closely as possible to the evidence of “what works” and draw up a timescale of how you will embed the key elements of the approach.
  2. Is there an opportunity to collaborate with colleagues? Research shows that professional learning is most effective when done collaboratively with colleagues. If the learning need you’re looking to address is likely to be one found elsewhere in school, why not approach colleagues and suggest working to plan and embed the approach together. Consider using a model of collaborative enquiry such as Lesson Study to structure your work together.
  3. For which students will this intervention be most relevant? Remember to trial your intervention in a class or with a particular group of students whose learning needs relate to the approach you will trial.
  4. What does the research suggest the impact will be on these students? Based on the research and reading you’ve done, make predictions around what you hope to find. This will help you plan how to measure the impact on your students. However, keep an open mind and prepare to have these predictions proved wrong!
  5. How will you measure the impact on these students? Consider the range of data available to you that will help you measure the predicted impact on students. Choose a number of these to track. Using both quantitative (e.g. assessment data) and qualitative (e.g. pupil voice) data will give you a more rounded, nuanced understanding of what has (and hasn’t) worked.
  6. Do you need any external support? As your plan takes shape, identify areas where you may need additional support, and seek this out. Useful expertise may exist elsewhere in the school or you might need to find external opportunities and resources to support you.

4. Making the change

Unavoidable obstacles may present themselves, but otherwise do your best to remain focussed on the objectives, methods and detail of your plan.

It can be useful to work with a colleague for ongoing support and challenge. Find a trusted colleague to give non-judgemental advice and support as you make changes to your practice. Share your plan with them and use regular meetings to discuss your ongoing learning, keeping a constant focus on students’ learning needs and your own professional development.

If you are working together with colleagues, ask another colleague to act as a mentor or coach for the entire group.

5. The findings

Over time you’ll start to collect the data that will tell you more about the impact your practice has had on the learning need you first identified.

Compare your findings to your initial predictions: what worked, or didn’t work? If the findings more or less align with your predictions, what can you now do to sustain or further the impact over time? If the impact is less that envisaged, why might this be? Talk through these questions with your colleague and look at what you will do next: are there changes you now need to make and re-measure to really understand how you can best support your students?

Take opportunities to share your findings with the wider school community. Use some of the time set aside for teaching and learning in a departmental, year, phase or whole staff meeting to present your approach. Remember that sharing findings of what didn’t work is just as valuable as findings of what did work, and can be an exciting start point for further discussion and collaboration.