Professional Development | Abstract Thoughts and Alienation

The Head wants the staffing body to focus their energies on giving effective feedback. They task the Assistant Head overseeing data and assessment to deliver a whole-school two and a half hour session that will be attended by all staff. Meeting beforehand to discuss the vision of this session, the Head states that he wants all colleagues to understand the feedback policy, all subject leaders to focus on developing formative feedback in their departments and all teachers to increase the amount of feedback they give in the classroom. Staff were told at the start of the year that feedback would be the priority this year, so they’ve all been thinking about it ahead of the session.

When discussing or planning for professional development, we might often think about how we communicate it to staff, what information we want it to contain, what we want it to do in the longer term. Yet in the process of this design and delivery, it is easy to lose sight of and overlook the more fundamental aspects of how professional development can be designed not just to improve the quality of teaching but to motivate people to set about this task themselves in a way that is both effective and sustained over time. Is our professional development really setting out to achieve what we want it to achieve?

The assistant head looks to the the EEF Guidance report: ‘Teacher Feedback to Improve Pupil Learning,’ as a starting point and plans a session. She opens with some hefty statistics from the report to ensure staff buy into the importance of effective feedback, shares why feedback is imperative to pupil learning over time, then creates a carousel of approaches to formative assessment that colleagues can try and use in the classroom as of tomorrow. In the final fifteen minutes, colleagues complete an action plan to list three strategies they will try over the next two weeks, along with an evaluation of the session itself.

In the bid to set the scene for professional development in-house, there is sometimes a danger to take a ‘crammed’ approach that somewhat misses the mark: the example here certainly uses a well-informed source to underpin the session, and seeks out to accomplish the aims provided to her, yet with the very best of intentions, seeks to condense what is a continually complex and persistent challenge for teachers into a manageable, one-off session. It is trying to deliver professional development that will be all things to all people; overlooking the crucial component of professional discourse or presenting the big ideas and evidence of feedback without the substance of concrete, tangible examples that will help colleagues to make sense of what can feel rather abstract without the context of a classroom in view or perhaps most common at highly ineffective. Delivering a whole-school session will always be tricky, because of the range of expertise- in terms of the novice to expert spectrum, it’s like teaching EYFS to undergraduates how to fish, without knowing if they know anything about fish and hoping they all know the same thing about fishing in the first place. Maybe it might be helpful to consider before even constructing a design:

What are the starting points in terms of colleagues’ prior knowledge and expertise in this domain?

How has the facilitator established a commonality across the group that might transcend what we could assume is a significant range of knowledge and expertise?

Do all colleagues now know what the underpinning principles of effective feedback might be?

Have they had the opportunity to air possible misconceptions or been exposed to examples and non-examples?

Has there been a space for subject-specific dialogue so colleagues can begin to develop mental models?

How do colleagues know what to do next? How will they know it was successful or otherwise?

Previously, I shared my own loose proposal for how an effective session or sequence of sessions might be structured to enable the opportunity to further unpack these questions:

KHoward, 2021

However, this was without the insights provided by the most recent Guidance report from the EEF regarding effective professional development and in addition, it does not pay as much attention to the need for professional discourse and a sense of continuum as I might like.

The hypothetical within this blog is not atypical for any school environment. Many T&L leads will be presented with a list (hopefully, not too long of a list) of priorities and an allocation of time in which to work towards these priorities. It is hardly surprising that this crammed approach to professional development is what may result. We have perhaps all been in attendance at CPD that has felt too abstract, too disconnected, trying to do too much with the limited time available. Now is possibly ideal to circle back to the EEF Guidance report: effective professional development for the three overarching principles that it shares:

  • When designing and selecting professional development programmes, school leaders should focus on the mechanisms for development, such as feedback or goal setting.
  • Ensure that professional development effectively builds knowledge, motivates staff, develops teaching techniques, and embeds practice.
  • Implement professional development programmes with care, taking into consideration the context and needs of the school.

I will not mutate the report too much by attempting to contort its entirety into a single post, for fear of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of my own blog! However, I would like to consider how these three principles might help that assistant headteacher to reconsider their design:

The assistant headteacher calendars three sessions with staff. Providing the key recommendations as pre-reading for the first session, she takes initial reflection points as a way to provide a safe environment to share a common language and enable more experienced staff to share their thoughts as a way to immediately tackle misconceptions that a feedback session must mean a mountain of marking or everyone going crazy with stickers. She shares key excerpts from the report, honing in on the first recommendation made: to lay the foundations for effective feedback, with a focus on high-quality instruction and formative assessment. She has spoken with heads of the department previously and shares a small collection of examples and non-examples that use planning out explanations and checking for understanding with subject-specific sensitivity. Staff then discuss in their subject teams what they might try for the next half term, before putting a theory of change together that identifies the problem they’re trying to solve, what the intended impact would be, and where they might go for any additional support they might need to know what such practice looks like in action. The second session will be to revisit a) what makes for high-quality exposition and b) what makes for high-quality formative assessment, in light of the changes to their practice. It would be beneficial to have a sense of healthy accountability for the original action plans put together, but also the opportunity to discuss and share successes as well as points of further exploration or development. It might also be useful to consider the ‘evidence to classroom’ ratio, as more experienced staff share how they have seen mutations of such approaches in the past (all hail the verbal feedback stamp). The third hour will be handed over to departments who will share what they trialled, how it was or was not as effective as they might have hoped, and whose classroom they might head to see it executed with fidelity to the evidence and principles originally discussed.

Staff are able to consider how the focus of the professional development might help them to form a goal for their subject teaching- and I would urge this school leader to consider how goal-setting itself might be exemplified to ensure more of the ‘design feedback tasks that assess understanding or revisit key concepts’ ilk and less of the ‘ask better questions’ or ‘use MCQs’ ilk. These may be well-intended, but if I can ask ‘how?’ then it’s not there yet. The professional development sessions look to build knowledge and expertise over time, and instead of selling a pitch to staff, seeks to motivate through autonomy and increasing levels of competence. Finally, focusing on one aspect of the recommendations laid out by the Guidance report gives time over to the possibility of mastery, before handing over to subject leads to ensure it doesn’t morph into Frankensteined feedback. My only question to the head would be how important improving feedback is if we can only give three hours to it, but that’s for another blog altogether.

References

Collin, J., & Quigley, A. (2021). Teacher Feedback to Improve Pupil Learning. Guidance Report. Education Endowment Foundation.

Collin, J., & Smith, E. (2021). Effective Professional Development. Guidance Report. Education Endowment Foundation.

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