‘Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare!’ (Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll).
Yesterday – 23 October 2013 – I had the great privilege of spending a day at Christopher Whitehead Language College, Worcester. Having followed Rachael Stevens (@murphiegirl) on Twitter for some time now and attended her sessions at Pedagoo London (March 2012) and Teaching and Learning Takeover (October 2013), I was keen to see in person the development of classroom practice in action and, in particular, the ‘Big Brother’ classroom (http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2013/oct/11/observation-classroom-teaching-development-schools). I am about to launch a Teaching & Learning whole school project at my workplace and know that I need some help and support to clarify my thinking. Rachael’s tweeting, blogging and presenting always strikes a chord with me so it seemed logical to see if I could pay her a visit to learn more.
This blog is likely only to cover the beginnings of what I learnt yesterday. I suspect that I will carry forward with me so much of what I witnessed and that more learning will emerge as I reflect further and begin to lead my own project. But it’s a start…
With a programme covering an Open Lesson, some Lesson Study and a Walk Through in place, I was excited about how much I could gain from the day. Aside from the formal CPD aspect though, came the extra learning which happens simply from being in a school other than your own. From the welcome at Reception to every interaction I had throughout the day – whether with staff or students – I felt like I was in a pretty special place. And I know that ‘mindset’ is a term being bandied about freely in the educational world at the moment (and I know that I have been challenged in relation to my ‘buy-in’ to Dweck’s work) but mindset seems the most pertinent word here – everyone was open to my presence, my questions and my interest in what is happening at CWLC: fantastic!
So, I started in the observation classroom, watching, from behind the glass, Rachael teach a Year 10 English lesson. What a superb resource. Not only can a diverse collection of colleagues meet in the observation room, watching and discussing while the lesson goes on (at no risk of causing a distraction to students or teacher) but also the glass can turn ‘all soft like gauze’ and staff can enter the room to interact with teacher and/or students – it really felt like the possibilities are endless with a resource like this on hand. The Deputy Head was able to point out significant features of the lesson, identifying key aspects of the teaching and learning while simultaneously enabling a range of colleagues to comment and question or simply sit and watch. The CPD opportunities emerging from a single session like this spiralled in my head like crazy fireworks – imagine the potential for subject-specific discussions; NQT & NQT+1 discussions; Behaviour for Learning discussions; cross-curricular discussions… and all those lights and colours and flashes spelt out ‘PEDAGOGY PEDAGOGY PEDAGOGY’ as I sat there and marvelled at the beautifully intertwined simplicity and complexity.
One of the strengths of this model is that staff are able to discuss immediately. It was particularly lucky that this open lesson took place immediately prior to break, so we were able to remain in the classroom and talk about what we’d learnt from the process. To hear people across all stages of the profession happily discussing what they would take away and why was such a positive off-shoot; I had no doubt that I was in the midst of a learning culture. For me, the takeaway was and will remain the notion of progress being made on both sides of the glass – a ‘sort of mist’ had, I am sure, cleared a little for everyone.
Lesson Study was my initial reason for wanting to visit CWLC – it’s going to be the starting point for my own whole school project and I wanted to know more about it. (Rachael has blogged on Lesson Study here: http://www.edulike.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/lesson-study-and-how-it-can-work-for-you.html) I love the non-threatening aspect of it, the collaborative endeavour and the ongoing potential for growth. Rachael explained the process with great clarity and I feel well-set to establish a pilot group of willing volunteers who will, I hope, experience the positive impact of looking closely at the planning, observation and feedback stages while focusing specifically on three students in the class, rather than directly on the teacher. Thank you to Stephanie M who allowed me to spend time in her classroom observing three Geography students. It’s enlightening to realise what can be gained from watching the students rather than the teacher, by questioning them and considering their perspectives on the lesson, and then taking the ideas generated by this process back into the planning discussions and considering how directions might be changed or tweaks made. As Dylan Wiliam writes, ‘Teacher quality can be improved by replacing teachers with better ones, but this is slow, and of limited impact. This suggests that our future economic prosperity requires improving the quality of the teachers already working in our schools. We can help teachers develop their practice in a number of ways; some of these will benefit students, and some will not. Those with the biggest impact appear to be those that involve changes in practice, which will require new kinds of teacher learning, new models of professional development, and new models of leadership’ (Teacher quality: why it matters, and how to get more of it).
Lesson Study, it seems to me, is one of the key ways in which these ‘changes in practice’ can be explored and, more importantly, teacher-led: the personal investment is high and, therefore, from my perspective, the impact will be greater. We all know how we feel about being ‘told’ by ‘experts’.
Following the Lesson Study, I did my first ever Walk Through and I am left in no doubt whatsoever that this is going to form part of my ongoing plan for developing Teaching & Learning at my school. (Rachael’s blog on the Walk Through process is definitely worth reading: http://www.edulike.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/walk-on-through.html) It certainly felt odd heading off with no paper or pen and no real sense of what I was looking for. Armed only with the knowledge that I would need to write down something under the headings ‘Questions, Favourite and Feelings’, I set off with a sense of curiosity. Thank you to Matt S for accompanying – I liked it that this was ‘real’ CPD, not something staged for a visitor – and to Paul G, Matt W, Abbie A and their students for being so welcoming. (How I resisted joining in with the dancers in the final lesson remains a mystery – it felt so infectious!)
The post-Walk Through process is such a brilliant and uncomplicated idea – it baffles me why anyone might be resistant to it (I have no evidence of such resistance but imagine it’s out there, somewhere…). The opportunity to open up and engage in a dialogue about your classroom and to understand what colleagues love about what you’re doing seems to me an immensely humane way to build on good practice and to collect evidence for a CPD file or similar. I guess what it does rely on is people being willing to spend a little of their free time doing something which not only has potential benefits for observed colleagues but also for the observer (to steal from Wilfred Owen, there’s surely some ‘eternal reciprocity’ here?).
And I suppose that’s the key to what I left with yesterday, an overwhelming sense of shared commitment to and real interest in being better. I am not naive enough to think that this is some kind of magical formula – no doubt hard work and time has gone in to fostering this environment and inevitably there are those who buy-in more rapidly than others; there is always more work to be done. Nevertheless, I’d be back at CWLC like a shot of time allowed and I know the invitation to visit with my colleagues is a genuine one. Although the title of this article – Collaborate or Die: The Future of Education – seems somewhat extreme (http://www.universitybusiness.com/article/collaborate-or-die-future-education), there’s definitely something to be said for sharing and spreading the word of the great stuff that’s going on out there in schools all over the country. I’m very lucky to have been part of that sharing process yesterday and, like a good Brownie Guide, I promise that I will do my best to keep on sharing.
Thank you Rachael and colleagues.