Falling Apart At The How

“If people were silent, they could hear the noise of their own lives better. If people were silent, it would make what they did say, whenever they chose to say it, more important. If people were silent, they could read one another’s signals, the way underwater creatures flash lights at one another, or turn their skin different colors.”

The Thing About Jellyfish, Ali Benjamin

As a profession, much of what we do from the individual choices we make around teaching, to the decisions we make more strategically at subject or whole-school level, are sometimes focused upon what we do and the outcome which we hope to see as a consequence. In fact, we might spend a great deal of time in deliberation over whether the outcome is worth what we set out to enact before even setting about the task at hand. What do we hope to achieve? What impact will this have? What needs to change for us to make a start? I wrote to share my thoughts around continual improvement a little here , as so much of what we do can perhaps be undertaken in haste, and with little time to dwell upon or mull over what we might expect to see in a month, three months, a year or even three years from the point that we make a change in how we approach a problem, or intend for an improvement.

However, whilst time is a leading factor when it comes to the effective implementation of change management- even the best initiative will fall apart if the thinking time has not preceded it- on an equal footing is how to communicate and undertake that work, particularly in the preliminary steps. Irrespective of whether you are in the classroom, seeking to trial a new approach, or working with a team to provide core information which will help them either at an operational level, or indeed to move forward in strategy, how you set about sharing that with the other people involved in the change itself is crucial to its success. In fact, the more time I have given over to considering change implementation and change management in school, the more I have become pre occupied by the how as opposed to the what. In short, most ideas in principle are good ideas, until they reach the point of execution and it is at this pivotal point, that perhaps we can sometimes falter.

Let us take remote learning as a key example. The classroom teacher wants to introduce the use of live questioning within their lesson, as opposed to using the chat facility. He wishes to replicate the optimum classroom experience to as greater degree as possible for his students and feels that this will be a helpful way to do so. In the classroom, he likes to ask questions to all so that every student engages, and hopes to continue this as students learn remotely. And so, next lesson, lets students know that they should put their hand up when they have an answer and he will take them off mute to share with the class.

This is a good idea. And whilst this might be effective, the teacher might consider how he could carry out preparatory work with students to ensure that his desired outcome- to replicate the optimum classroom experience- is achieved? By mitigating for the how (how students may react, how students might feel, how students will feed back regarding the experience), it might improve the experience overall. This might have been: letting students know what this will look like in advance during the lesson before; having a practice run with a confident student; setting expectations about what other students might do whilst they listen to the response. Such micro changes to the execution of the idea may not only improve the outcome for students, but also the experience for the teacher, with what may be a group of technologically challenged children- or perhaps that is just the teacher himself!

Or we might want to apply such principles of preparatory work prior to execution to team-led work, where I think this has a significant impact upon the quality of the outcome, however, in addition, breathes through continual work around building professional trust and mutual respect. The how here is all the more crucial when we implement new ideas or approaches. For instance, a Subject Lead wishes to set a standard for teaching vocabulary, or anything in fact. The desired outcome? For students to experience explicit teaching of vocabulary, so that they no only use the vocabulary of that particular unit, but they harness this knowledge of vocabulary at future points in their curriculum journey. It may be that the Subject Lead wishes to carry out a professional development session which seeks to standardise assessment across the team. Or maybe, they simply want to share feedback around resources created and shared at an earlier point in the unit. (Worth mentioning here, is that the closer the work to the craft of the teacher, the more vital the need for professional trust: we cannot set about the process of change without a desire to change it, and a belief that it can be even better- that will be a discussion for another time). Again, we return to the question- what is the desired outcome? How do we get there? What would be the best way to share or deliver this information?

To return to my vocabulary example, the desired outcome? For students to experience explicit teaching of vocabulary when they learn, so that they not only use the vocabulary of that particular unit, but they harness this knowledge of vocabulary to then make use of at future points in their curriculum journey. The outcome for teachers: to feel confident and knowledgeable to deliver the explicit teaching of vocabulary with a sense of automaticity. Consequently, when it comes to how we set about sharing this with a team, both at initial trial and implementation, but at later points to ensure we continue to communicate it as a priority, but in such a way that maintains a high level of acting as a collegiate, in a place of professional trust?

The Subject Lead could research vocabulary teaching, before coming along to a meeting, PowerPoint in hand, imparting what they have read before finishing up with some key actions for the team to implement within their teaching. Alternatively, the Subject Lead could drop round a copy of a recent report which explores the importance of teaching disciplinary vocabulary, with one or two bullet pointed takeaways for teachers to think about. Perhaps, they might have a discussion with a member of staff and ask that they go away and read the report, with a view to creating a series of do’s and don’ts for vocabulary teaching to share with the team. All of these will be met with varying responses, depending upon the motivation, expertise and availability of time on the team’s part, but I feel that they fail to consider the fundamentals of the how of implementation. Through knowledge, we do not automatically secure investment. Through passivity, we do not automatically ensure a sense of ownership. And through direction, we do not experience the inevitable and safe sensation of failure that is necessary to fully shifting our belief system to not just acceptance in, but alignment with the possible success of a change to what we do. Resultedly, change becomes a rapid process, because there is a singular driver as opposed to a collaborative sense of purpose:

ActionTeam participation
Read research into disciplinary vocabularyPassive
Prepare presentation on the importance of vocabulary in teachingPassive
Deliver presentation with actions for follow up Passive
Check content of lessons that demonstrates evidence of the explicit teaching of vocabulary Passive

Therefore, we may share information in such a way that it either positions the team as spectators of their own development or worse still, chips away at the trust and investment required beyond our own individual sphere of priority to make great change: micro-change, but bolstered by the formation of a culture of improvement, through the willingness to improve by many people. So what might we want to consider when considering the how of what we do?

To return to the example of the classroom teacher, the method of implementing change is underpinned by how we prepare, communicate and evaluate with people as part of the process, and with adults, the same principles remain. Professionals wish to understand the why of what they are doing, with time to digest, discuss, debate and object to the thing, whatever the thing may be. They want to feel as though the thing is being done with them as opposed to to them, not just during the journey towards change, but especially at the beginning of that journey. They deserve to feel invited into a dialogue, with a clear view of what the roadmap of that journey might look like, and with the flexibility to know that it is simply a plan, and not a system, or a target. And most of all, professionals want to contribute to how this might be evaluated, or at least understand the rationale of the evaluation process, in that it asks the right questions, and measures things the right way. We can sometimes mistake a team acting as a collegiate as a process where participation and contribution are equal in both depth and measure, when this is not the case. Instead, it is allowing the opportunities for individuals to feel that they know how the what will be prepared for, implemented and evaluated in a timely manner.

What might that look like? For any school role, it is ensuring those involved in the change taking place are prepared: the Subject Lead might share the importance of vocabulary teaching at an earlier point and signpost some suggested reading or showcase a member of the team- with their permission beforehand- to share how this might look. It might be that the team are signposted that this will be a focus over the coming term, with the suggestion that they go away and discuss in mini-teams current strategies or challenges when teaching vocabulary, or speak with other subjects about how they approach it. The team could possibly, over the duration of a term or even a year, trial two or three approaches, discussing beforehand about possible indicators of success, beyond grades, beyond test results. All of these exchanges, these important discussions allow for an organic yet powerful approach to change, as we recognise that time, discourse and a common language are all vital components of what it means to balance sustainable change, but with trust and respectful honesty at the very centre of that change. Because, to instigate change without a shared understanding will crumble even the very best of ambitions, as it fails to keep people at the heart.

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