Parachutes and Magpies

A magpie, seeing some light-colored object conspicuous on the empty slope, flew closer to look. but all that lay there was a splintered peg and a twisted length of wire.

Watership Down, by Richard Adams

There’s a shift underway in the way we approach professional development. Seeing how the ‘golden thread’ of teacher development imprints upon our school communities is a provision that I look forward to, and indeed feel pretty excited about contributing to what will be a significant development in the national offer that teachers have for the entirety of their career . I would like to contemplate on thoughts that I have around the implementation of a more sustainable approach, and what we might hope to avoid as we head into what will be an instrumental time for the sector, but especially for early careers teachers.

The world of CPD for a teacher can be cursory, cluttered, and convoluted in its very substance, particularly when poorly implemented, and I think there are a few factors at play here. The very nature of teaching is problematic for improvement, because it happens in real-time, with live subjects. For the novice teacher, the classroom is an hourly experiment, as they tackle the representation of their subject, a specialism that they recognised within the realms of perhaps a more academic or contextualised domain, now sitting, a little unfamiliar perhaps, within the four walls of a classroom. However, beyond this, the novice teacher’s decision making processes- fuelled by what formal knowledge is available to them in the split second that the situation demands of them- is governed by a wide range of contributory elements that are quite possibly not features that will lead to optimisation of learning. For example, the teacher might be attempting to orchestrate a class discussion around whether polemic poetry has a place as a literary piece. They are monitoring to what extent pupils seem to have grasped a clear definition of polemic, are trying to draw back to Shelley’s Waterloo, or Blake’s London as key working examples to aid students in articulating their ideas, and all the while, they are trying to think of question structures that will enable them to move the discussion towards a weighing up, evaluative collection of remarks that don’t feel to ‘fed’ to students, so that the opinions feel like their own, yet are informed by the evidence presented to them. Tough gig. The implications for that teacher in terms of managing their own cognitive load are substantial, as they draw from their own subject knowledge, work towards a pre-meditated conclusion to the conversation and all the while, ensuring that they check that, on the whole, students have a relatively clear understanding of what on Earth anyone is talking about. A proportion of students don’t seem to, the teacher feels rather dejected, but wants to dig around to find out how things might have transpired if they had equipped themselves a little better. They have a series of aspects in relation to their recent performance management meeting that they have been given to work on, and questioning is one on the list to ‘fix.’

I would like to consider two routes of professional development that the teacher might perhaps take following that lesson.

One, they could visit another teacher’s lesson to develop their questioning. They watch a master at work, as the experienced teacher bounces thoughtful and considered questions in a targeted way to individual students, ‘plays the room’ as it were, and everyone is poised, on the edge of their seats, waiting to see if their insightful comment can be shared that day.

Two, they could attend a CPD session about questioning that is being delivered by a renowned speaker, brought in to visit this school for a one hour session that will explore different types of questioning and how teachers might use these strategies in their own classroom the very next day. The speaker no longer teaches, but they do speak to lots of teachers about questioning. They provide a series of different question types that teachers might want to use to support and challenge learners.

Whilst both might be valuable in their own right, and whilst the novice teacher might indeed adopt (we might argue, emulate as opposed to adopt) some of the strategies within their own teaching, I wonder how likely that might be for a sustained period of time. They may experience much of their professional development in this way, where, if poorly delivered or without the ongoing discourse required to make sense of how it translates to their own classroom, leaves the features of the professional development highly under utilised.

Furthermore, I wonder to what extent this would help them within the context of the wider lens of gradual improvement that feels part of an ongoing trajectory of improvement. In short, that the teacher is going to feel as though this is an element of their practice which is being repeatedly looked at under the microscope, dissected, unpacked and refined so that if they taught the same lesson in one year’s time, they would be able to notice and additionally, articulate an improvement to the quality of responses. To return to three of the five Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development key principles:

  1. Professional development should be underpinned by robust evidence and expertise.
  2. Professional development should include collaboration and expert challenge.
  3. Professional development programmes should be sustained over time

Whilst the two scenarios set out are a little limited in their scope, there may be evidence that sits behind both the teacher’s practice and the CPD session; there might be underpinning evidence and expertise from both parties, but it is the sustainability that becomes a bit of a sticking point, both in regards to the recipient and the format of the CPD itself. For CPD to be cohesive and sustainable, we may want to ensure that the persistent problems are being correctly identified, but also that the CPD will attend to them in a way that does not feel fleeting or momentary. In fact, the simplistic nature of reducing identification of the problem as questioning is in itself problematic. What if the class discussion had lapsed because the students were not confident in the definition of polemic, because no one had checked their understanding? What if the discussion was not structured in a way that students had prior knowledge of such evaluative procedures to engage in the level of discourse? What if the teacher was so cognitively overloaded, that they had failed to correctly identify the problem at all?

And so, the teacher continues, having taken one of two options to improve their practice, relying on sweeping, saviour-like, parachute CPD to rectify the problem, before moving onto the next shiny thing. Only, the problem remains, because in either case, the professional development did not attend to that discussion, in that moment, with those students, that even the most expert of teachers could only hope to guess as to how the teacher might want to shift their attention towards to continue to improve: so that over time, that incisive element of their practice would be developed to such an extent, that it would be done with complete automaticity. That they would begin to develop a secure understanding around individual difference, and variance, so that they could begin to work with securing the ‘best-bets’ aspects of their approach in the classroom. Beyond this, that we could hope that the conversations around what makes for best bets would then continue outside of a one-off session, where both context and relevance are sparse, and longevity is compromised for the novel.

Finally, I wonder how each experience would leave the teacher feeling, and if that would be much improved to the dejection with which they originally left their own classroom. In the absence of naming the sticking point, discussing it, considering the desired outcomes and what success looks like, they could indeed be left with a fragmented idea of what they might want to look at within their own practice, or unfortunately, settling for an emulation of the teacher or facilitator within each scenario. It might eradicate any real sense of autonomy over their own improvement, and over time, the capability to identify what’s working and what is not. They work on fragments and strategies, without tying it back to their classroom, and those moments. And this is the largest tragedy, because instead of developing a sense of criticality to their approach in the classroom, they begin to collect parts of others’, creating a mismatch of hoarded moments from the classrooms of many others teachers, without having the opportunity to think about why what works, tends to typically do so. By seeking to develop themselves, the teacher might resultedly feel less accomplished in doing exactly that.

To move ourselves away from parachutes and magpies, we might consider that both scenarios lacked the discourse that we know is paramount to professional development. To return to my opening remark around formal knowledge, that through shared experience, as teachers, we can begin to collect micro-mental models of classroom practice- those moments of choice in the classroom, where expert teachers employ strategy based upon what has worked before, and so will be likely to yield positive outcomes in the future. Parachute CPD and magpie leaps from one thing to the next both threaten the discourse that moves us forward, collectively. And it is those organic conversations, placed next to the incisive, lingering over persistent problems in the classroom, that I am really excited to see more of next year.

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