Over the past few weeks I met with a couple of teachers, at their request, to provide an evidence statement about their work and development over the past academic year. I found the discussions absolutely fascinating; one I had observed teaching a class on a couple of occasions in the week before and the other I hadn’t.
The preparation for me was essentially non-existent and I think, apart from collecting some books and bringing along their DAFITAL documents, was pretty workload light for them also. DAFITAL is a process we use as part of our life after levels approach to assessment. Teachers analyse an interim or end of year assessment, in a manner agreed by the department, to determine what pupils do/don’t know against the curriculum taught. It also allows you to consider what you have/haven’t taught well.
My preparation was limited to repeating a question I had heard John Hattie use, “Do you think the pupils have made a year’s progress following a year’s teaching.” It’s a great question that has the potential to open up a rich conversation; there needs to be a level of trust if someone is going to be open. Part of the power of the dialogue is that once you’ve asked the question you don’t have to say very much. Allow the person to think out loud, muse to themselves, follow different trains of thought and come to a determination about key factors they want to look at further or act on.
The other important contextual aspect is ensuring there are no high stakes judgements or cliff edged accountability consequences associated with the process. The question could lead the discussion down a cul-de-sac of validity and reliability of evidence; in a research environment this is more important. It is less so in the context of this conversation. Opening up lines of inquiry and using the evidence available to test them may be more productive. Don’t underestimate how defensive or uneasy a teacher may feel with the mention of progress; the current culture in too many schools can feel punitive.
One of the first things to explore is what would a year’s progress look like? What do we mean by a year’s progress? It’s an interesting question if you’ve never really thought about it. It’s not an easy one to answer but becomes a critical part of the discourse and helps a teacher explore and solidify what s/he should be looking for. Define it in concrete terms; the expected learning rather than a grade improvement.
Teachers tend to be a bit negative about their impact and can make statements like, “No I don’t think anyone has really made the required progress.” Prompt away with simple questions, “So no pupils have made the progress you would expect, then?” or “What would be the evidence that no pupils have made progress?” The teacher soon realises that a lot of pupils have indeed made good progress over the years.
Questions can deepen the exploration, “Is there a sub-group that has made more/less progress than another?” Or are there some aspects of this year’s curriculum that pupils have excelled at/struggled with?” Be aware sub-groups discussions tend to lose important information as you average out the progress. Within each group there will be individuals who are making good progress and others who aren’t; see the individual child or young person and their learning. For me the difficulty is limiting what I say; conversations with me tend not to be short affairs; it’s key that the teacher leads the discussion and owns the conclusions.
Looking at books and the quality of the writing in September, compared to December, then March and eventually June; are you seeing differences? Is there progress? This works in some subjects but not so well in others. Our interim assessments are cumulative so questions are asked on each one on the whole year’s work. For some subjects looking at the analysis of these assessments can be a more valuable way of assessing progress.
If you feel there is an important point you want to make then you need to ask, “May I make a comment or give a suggestion or offer a reflection?” This is a question so always pause after asking it (note to self); you may be given a yes or a no and you need to respect the teacher’s response. S/he may be in a train of thought that they don’t want breaking.
The evaluations were honest and deep. Between the various discussions the teachers had already made small but significant changes to their class room practice. Moving to 100% tests; pupils get the test question and answers in advance but must get 100% right or redo the test. Great for ensuring pupils know basic facts, vocabulary of rules. Scripting out the key stages in an important explanations so you don’t jump or miss bits. The curse of the expert; you just assume the pupils know what to do and how things link as it is obvious to you. When you own the changes you want to make it is surprising how quickly they are implemented. Teachers want to get better; they also want to have a say in what getting better is for them.
The process also puts schemes of learning under significant scrutiny; are the schemes enabling and expecting a year’s progress to be made? Too often they can contain too much or too little or the wrong things. Planning schemes of learning which when taught effectively lead to a year or more of progress for a year’s teaching is one of the top jobs for any subject leader.
It struck me that not only was this discursive process far more humane than the graded lesson observations and multiple data drops which schools have insisted on and teachers endured for too long; its efficacy in terms of improving teaching and learning is potentially much, much greater. Another thing that struck me was that you don’t need someone to ask you questions; the whole process could be self-directed. All you needed was a willingness, to reflect, an hour put aside and a glass of your favourite drink.
The final reflection was whether you could build a whole system of improvement and professional development around it? I’ll keep thinking.