The Best Development Comes From Within

Practitioner Enquiry as a way forward

For the last few years staff at both schools I lead have been involved in developing themselves and their practice through a ‘Practitioner Enquiry’ approach. This involves teaching staff in improving their understanding and practice through in-depth examination of what they are doing, why they are doing it, the impact on learners, and their ability to improve what they do to develop better outcomes for all learners. Big issues and big challenges to an already very good, experienced and committed staff.

What I do know, and can demonstrate, is that this approach has produced the most marked improvements in learner performance and understanding, in professional pedagogical practice, and in whole school development that I have seen in 13 years as a school leader.

The journey begins

Three years ago our self-evaluation processes, and our engagement with Curriculum for Excellence, identified that we needed look at aspects of our Literacy and Language programmes and activities. We felt collectively as a staff that we needed to change some of the things we were doing but were perhaps a little unsure of what we needed to retain and what we needed to stop or change. We decided to seek support for what we wanted to do, and so I approached Dr Gillian Robinson of Edinburgh University.

Myself and my DHT explained to Gillian what we wanted to do and between us we came up with a way forward based on enquiry, professional reading, professional dialogue and developing collective understanding and agreements. I took this to all staff and they were enthusiastic to engage with Gillian and the journey we had mapped out.

Initially we focused on aspects of the teaching of reading and writing. We looked at how we taught and exposed children to different genre of writing. What were the characteristics of the different genre and how best should we teach these and develop understanding in our pupils? We considered the ways in which we actually taught reading and how to identify, and plug, gaps in children’s understanding or learning. We did this through looking at research and professional reading, then discussing collectively what were the implications for what we were doing, and what we needed to change or begin to start doing.

All staff read about and learned how to carry out miscue analysis in order to diagnose difficulties pupils were having with their reading. They began carrying out baseline assessments of pupils before a block of teaching and more exposure to a new genre, this not only told them where the children were in their learning but also helped identify the teaching needed. Then they were immersed in that genre by looking closely looking at and identifying the genre’s particular characteristics from lots of different examples. They then practised some of these with their teachers, using them in writing activities which we quickly recognised had to be linked to the reading work we were doing. A block of teaching would be completed with pupils completing an activity that gave them opportunities to demonstrate new learning and understanding. Comparison between these and the initial baseline assessments clearly demonstrated the learning that had taken place.

Alongside this, teachers began to explore and discuss changes they would need to make to pedagogical practices in order to ensure all pupils had planned quality teacher time and intervention over the course of each week. Some tried a ‘stations’ approach, so that all pupils were engaged in a mix of activities related to the lesson focus, and one of the ‘stations’ would be direct high quality intervention and mediation by the class teacher. This was very successful. Lots of peer sharing took place and soon this type of organisation was appearing in all classrooms, across both schools. The standard of pupil writing and understanding of different genre was demonstrably improved, and was commented on by visitors to both schools, including HMIe to one of them.

In our very first year we were seeing improvements in teacher understanding, and their ability to back up what they were doing with professional reading and referencing. The standards of pupil writing, which had been good before this work, began to improve quite dramatically, as did their ability to identify different genre and some of their unique characteristics. The quality of pupil/pupil and pupil/teacher interactions were improved. For some time I had been encouraging staff to use more dialogical approaches in teaching and learning, and this work began to develop this approach in all classrooms. Improvements were made to pedagogy but not just in reading and writing activities. Once teachers could see the improvements made in aspects of language and their impacts, they couldn’t help but start transferring these across to other areas of the curriculum and their teaching.

We had to consider changes to how we planned the learning, and this linked really well to work we were undertaking in our learning community. We were focused on literacy, numeracy and cross-curricular work. We identified amongst ourselves, and in collaboration with colleagues in other schools and sectors, the key elements we needed to include in our planning, including opportunities for summative and formative assessment activities. All of this we underpinned with more reading and research by individuals and whole staff.

What also started to really develop was a consistent increase in professional dialogue, and an understanding of the power of this. Planned time was given to consider and discuss reading and research we had undertaken. This allowed teachers to develop their thinking and understanding, and also begin to challenge some of the things we discovered. Just as importantly, teacher began to question some of the practices we employed for quite a long time. What also happened was that conversations about learning and teaching were heard all over the school, and at all levels. This was often commented upon by visitors to the school.

All of this in only our first year of engagement!

We continued with all of the above in our second year, but we also added a new element. This was that all teachers agreed to carry out a focused enquiry into a particular aspect of their langauge teaching. Most chose reading. Again, supported by Gillian and through access to reading on different strategies that could be used to carry this out, all teachers completed this task last session.

There were lots of what I called ‘light-bulb’ moments, where teachers began to see how their own perceptions of what was happening whilst they were teaching often did not match those of many of their pupils! This really made some teachers stop and think about what they had been doing for so long, and how they needed to consider some changes, or even to stop some all together! Very powerful and only achievable through such self-realisation and recognition. Such insights can only be achieved from within and cannot be imposed from outside. If we don’t see or believe the need to change what we have always done, as soon as the opportunity arises, we revert to former behaviours.

This year our engagement with Gillian is reducing as we seek to embed this way of working into all that we do. All teachers have agreed that to carry out a further focused enquiry, but now looking at aspects of Maths teaching. The principles and practices are the same and I am looking forward to more of those ‘light-bulb’ moments as teachers recognise the changes they can make to help all pupils in another key area of their learning.

What have we gained from all this work?
1. Improved attainment for the majority of pupils
2. Pupils able to see connections between different aspects of their learning
3. Deeper professional understanding for all teachers
4. More professional dialogue and sharing across schools and sectors
5. Pedagogical improvements and development
6. Better planning and better use of assessment to support learning
7. Connections to Curriculum for Excellence and help with implementation
8. Connections to all aspects of the school development plan
9. Staff fully involved and consulted and, therefore see that change is being managed and done in a connected way
10. All staff more reflective and open to new ways of working
11. Innovation and risk taking encouraged and facilitated
12. Such approaches are recognised as a way forward for meaningful CPD by Donaldson Report and GTCS

Health warnings:
1. There really is no going back. Once you have gone down this route it means you think differently all the time, and about everything
2. The culture in the school needs to be open, supportive, responsive and trusting
3. Pace needs to be monitored closely. Sometimes you may need to slow down, stop, or even go back, to give people the chance to assimilate lots of new information
4. A supportive ‘critical friend’ is essential at the outset of such work
5. All this needs the backing and commitment of the HT and SMT to prioritise and make sure you are meeting the needs of the school

I strongly believe that to give meaningful change the opportunity to become embedded in practice, the need for it has to be recognised by practitioners. Then such change is more likely to be permanent and not just emphemeral. Using strategies as described above is the best approach I have discovered so far that is likely to permit this to happen.

George Gilchrist

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