Leadership | Professional development, implementation and asking better questions

I have been thinking about the process of implementation for some time, and whilst the EEF Implementation Guidance Report provides school leaders with the foothold they might need to be able to consider each stage of implementation as a deliberate, considered process, the ‘explore’ phase is certainly more of a challenge to make concrete from the abstract. This might explain why it often doesn’t translate to the reality of implementation in schools: we speak a great deal about the importance of timely communication and ‘preparing the soil’ for fertile ideas to be cultivated, but the ‘explore’ phase ensures that prior to all of this, we interrogate our ideas, views and biases adequately: it forces us into objective thinking and helps us to avoid the temptation of adding on the next big thing- or indeed, even the next small thing that someone is doing somewhere else and would be really easy to pop in as a quick fix. ‘Explore’ makes us think at a slower pace, so that the process of deliberation is a key features of implementation itself:

EEF, 2019

Identifying a key priority is difficult when schools carry a multitude of complex problems, served by key stakeholders across the staffing body, with all of these stakeholders viewing what might be a similar problem but with wildly different agendas and perspectives. It means that even exploring a problem requires drawing on the ideas of various colleagues who will be impacted in different ways, to understand what those implications might be. That’s messy, and difficult, but necessary. In the instance of professional development, I would argue that it is essential. To not undertake this preparatory work could result in a neatly designed answer to a problem that we did not fully understand.

For this blog, I will use professional development planning as an example, but the same could certainly be said of an area of priority sitting under the remit of curriculum, or assessment review, or even establishing an effective culture within a school. All these challenges seek to be applicable to all, yet due to the nature of perspectives, applicability differs to the eye of the beholder.

A senior leader overseeing staff professional development has the task of collating a professional development plan for the following year. The current school priorities are to improve staff knowledge and expertise around teaching disciplinary vocabulary, and effective modelling in the classroom. The senior leader knows that there is an abundance of experience across the staffing body, with a group of highly established teachers and some lead practitioners. Several staff are also undertaking the reformed NPQ programmes, they are expecting to have at least six ECTs next year and the senior leader would like to take this into account within their plans. Uncertain of where to start, they speak with others at a local level about what their plans look like. With these insights, they put together a comprehensive training plan that covers the school priorities at the beginning of the year, revisits these in sessions running in the Spring and then covers a series of one-off sessions on SEND, data analysis, wellbeing and questioning as it came up as a priority last year.

The senior leader carries out a task that needs strategic application, yet it serves many stakeholders who view professional development with varied perspectives. For an ECT, the school priorities might feel intangible within the perception of their current knowledge and expertise. For a subject leader, they might be thinking of the range of expertise distribution across a team and how to ensure that this square peg of an offer will meet their needs in light of the holistic data he has gathered throughout line management meetings and lesson drop-ins over the course of the last year. For support staff, they might despair at the prospect of sitting through ‘an introduction to using visualisers’ when they’ve yet to be bestowed with such a piece of equipment in their career to date. Meeting the needs of all is challenging, yet when we start to look at professional development as a responsive tool instead of a set menu, available to all yet palatable to few, it becomes a little easier to think about the nature of the design.

To view the provision of a complete programme as the intended outcome provides an answer as opposed to forming the right questions. Viewing the result as the central part of the process- forming a programme of PD- pays attention to the surface features of what we might deem as a useful outcome. Indeed, the senior leader looks outside of their own setting to establish how other leaders are approaching a strategic approach to professional development, as well as their own pre-identified school improvement priorities for teaching, yet by doing so, has made a series of assumptions based on very little data. He has tried to formulate answers to problems that he does not yet know definitely exist, and provides a solution based upon the approach that another school leader has taken. This seeks to attend to need without establishing exactly what that need is, but beyond this, fails to recognise that the other school may have indeed formed a comprehensive provision for professional development to serve their staff based upon an extensive amount of data. This is where skirting back to the earlier stages of the explore phase of implementation might have led to a more informed approach. Exploring what it is that we want to attend to, means to exercise restraint in jumping to find what we guess are the correct answers. Instead, forming well-designed questions will help school leaders to ensure that the plausible options reached are a best fit for their context and that specific point in time that the school is on a particular journey.

What are the current professional development needs?

What data informed our identification?

To what degree was this triangulated with data from a range of sources?

These questions force us into objectivity, but they may not quite support us to ascertain the starting point in the journey so far. To do so, is to bring ourselves into a process of looking back to be able to look forward:

What professional development have we asked staff to give their time to so far? What are we building on?

What was the impact of that professional development? How are we reaching this judgement?

If we asked staff, where have they made use of the professional development in their day-to-day role?

Posing questions that help to use context-specific data will then enable school leaders to consider where they want to attend to first. Like curriculum, it is impossible to build upon sand: we cannot simply say that last year we trained staff to use retrieval practice within their classroom teaching and so now, we move onto exemplification: who is using retrieval as part of their teaching? To what end that it has carried a fidelity to the evidence base? To what extent with both this fidelity and consistency with classes? How has this practice been shared? Asking ourselves questions that may not be immediately possible to answer will then inform where we want to build collective knowledge and expertise, where resource is best spent, but to return to our senior leader and his professional development programme dilemma, interrogate our confidence that this is what staff need next.

To ask questions around the substance of professional development, informed by the current point of how previous professional development has had an impact, leaves us with rich data that we can use to consider our provision. What is particularly significant of these thinking points, is how we frame such questions with colleagues. These questions might be useful at a departmental level to draw together conclusions of what has been observed as a result of student learning, as opposed to teaching. To evaluate the quality of teaching is complex, and multi-faceted, and fluid: to evaluate learning is drawn from inference: both feel only marginally less difficult than pinning a pin on a bluebottle. Yet, when we frame questions in reference to the effortful application of what has been learned by students, resulting in their progression through the curriculum, it makes for a more purposeful discussion than whether Mr Henry is using questioning effectively with Year 10. It enables us to speak collectively about the hypothesises that we might test out as a result: students Year 10 don’t appear to be using disciplinary-specific vocabulary in their analytical writing in history and English, so let us collectively attend to the problem, as opposed to drawing less accurate inferences in individual cases of teaching quality which might result in an opportunity-cost decision as opposed to a developmental one. It also invites everyone into these discussions, as opposed to making assumptions and judgements, built upon snapshots and superficial evidence.

To return to our senior leader, tasked with the role of ensuring that there is a curriculum of high quality professional development on offer, he might want to consider the task of leading colleagues through a sequence of what came before and in light of where they are, what questions he might need to ask next. Only then, can he begin to think about entering into a period of preparation. But September is little while away yet..

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