“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.”
Every teacher wants to be better. I use Dylan Wiliam’s quotation over and over unashamedly because I think it strikes a truth that all teachers and school leaders must embrace. I used it to begin my #TMClevedon seminar on ‘becoming a better teacher‘. We all know and understand the pivotal impact of teacher quality for our students and surely we all want to be better.
There really is no bigger prize: better teachers improve the life chances of students. It should be our personal focus as committed professionals. It should be the core purpose of school leaders to develop great teachers. The government should relentlessly focus its resources and efforts into improving our current stock of teachers, supporting them to be better.
Of course, many teachers are not improving. The reality is that the impact of teacher experience on student outcomes actually plateaus after a couple of years – see the evidence here. Therefore waiting to get better simply from the benefit of experience throughout your career won’t happen. We may want to get better, but are we actually going about it in the right way? We must ask ourselves an awkward and challenging question.
Perhaps a pretty uncomfortable ‘elephant in the room’ question: Have we plateaued as a teacher?
After the whirlwind of feedback and the perilously steep learning curves of our first two years as teachers the impact of experience dulls. Is the comfort derived from developing good habits of behaviour management and easing our attendant stresses a bad thing? No. Should we be flagellating ourselves with the birch over our failure to become an expert in only a couple of years? Of course not! Should we be looking in the mirror and looking for new answers how to better improve? I would argue yes.
The Problem with Continuous Professional Development
As the line goes, no man is an island. No teacher can improve in splendid isolation. The problem with continuous professional development is that the continuous bit is too often missing. The most commonly booked courses focus on external threats like OFSTED. They are not systematic and most often are not even about learning.
David Weston’s (on Twitter as @informed_edu) Teacher Development Trust has outlined the research that has identified that only 1% of CPD has a transformative impact on classroom practice. Even the best CPD will struggle to have a definitive impact upon classroom practice. Time and money are scarce resources in our current climate. This may all sound bleak, but the heartening truth is that teachers can lead a transformation themselves. Let’s not fool ourselves, it will take effort and a boatload of ‘deliberate practice’… but teachers can get better and do it for themselves.
Like waiting for some course that will deliver pedagogical manna from heaven, we too often look in the wrong place for answers. We can too easily waste time focusing upon the latest tools and new resources and not on our core practice that makes the difference. It is perhaps only natural. Shiny new tools promise us so much, yet their promise too often translates into a crumby reality. Spending time making resources, like cards sorts or making lovely new displays, feels very much like hard work, and often is time-consuming, but the actual impact on learning can finite, and arguably negligible, but certainly not worth the time. We need to focus upon the 80/20 rule (otherwise known as the ‘Pareto principal ‘).
We must identify the vital core aspects of our pedagogy that will have the greatest impact for our learners. We must narrow our focus and deliberately practice those 20% of teaching strategies that have 80% of the impact on learning. What are your strategies? Note them down on this diagram and focus in your ‘deliberate practice’ on these and these alone.
I have written at length about the ‘holy trinity’ of teacher practice as I see it: effective explanations, questioning and feedback (both oral feedback and written feedback). I am fully aware my choices may seem rather lacking in glamour and sparkle! There is no branded, bespoke package for teacher explanations. We do them habitually, intuitively and daily, often without even thinking, so automatic are they to our practice. But, like all habits, we need to unpick and analyse if we are to really make sustained improvements.
We need to heed Dylan Wiliam’s advice and stop doing so many good things. Instead we must hone, craft and perfect our core practice. Here is my law of the vital few, but remember, these are my strategies – look for yours.
The Answer: ‘Deliberate Practice’
A rather gritty and sobering truth about being an expert teacher, or an expert at anything for matter, is that it takes a tremendous amount of hard work. Thousands of hours of hard work, probably unsurprisingly, is the answer. Yet, what happens with teachers who have taught for many years and who have stubbornly plateaued regardless of the time invested? The issue is that we often undertake the wrong sort of practice and our ‘hard work’ lacks direction. Every teacher undertakes repeated practice, but simply doing something over does not confer expertise – in fact, simply repeating practice can harden bad habits. Teachers need to undertake a specific type of practice: ‘deliberate practice‘.
So what is it? I have written about it in detail here. To use a simple analogy, if you think about a top golfer, they practice specific shots, with a coach giving immediate feedback, typically including a series of corrective tweaks. The feedback is king. The reflection and tweaks are essential. In many ways, we need to revert to our state as an NQT – constantly reflecting upon our practice with the alert mindset of the novice. Perhaps we cannot source a top golf coach, but we can find a ‘critical friend’ in a colleague; we can blog and find an audience there; we can work with our subject leaders, a teacher coach etc. To improve we must undertake what can be a frustrating process with grit and resilience. Here is a simple step by step guide to the ‘deliberate practice‘ method:
What are the Barriers to Improvement?
Of course, such a process that demands monotony and discipline is hard to sustain. Like a new year diet, many of us are likely to slip. Our hands caught in the biscuit tin by mid-January at best! Such barriers are represented in the above image. Firstly, there is the emotional barriers. Exposing ourselves to failure can be a chastening business. Failing regularly seems like plain stupidity – a raw, public affair!
We need to focus on the goal and be committed to getting better and being prepared to fail. Often, we will need support: inspiring school leaders, appreciative students, a strong department team – not too much to ask! Secondly, we instinctively view success falsely as a linear process, the fixed idea of the genius not encountering failure is rooted in our psyche. We must be prepared for the messy process of concerted practice in a classroom – the advice to never work with children and animals exists for a reason!
Of course, time is a crucial barrier. We must be committed to giving over extra time to hone our practice. We should look to find marginal gains in terms of time with aspects of our practice, like written feedback (see my partner post about my #TMClevedon seminar here). Finally, we must recognise our bad habits – like the smoking granny! Then we need to work on improving our habits.
We can all improve upon our habits. We can allocate weekly times and places to share, research and reward ourselves. We are programmed to follow little cues when forming new habits. We need to find time by reducing our workload in other ways, such as honing our written feedback. Find pockets of time that you can practice and plan. Ideally, this is done with a ‘critical friend’. Perhaps a like-minded colleague? A school teacher coach? A subject leader? By committing ourselves to others and publicly announcing our plans we are much likely to see it through.
Too often the new habit, such as executing a new teaching strategy, will simply not pay off quickly or easily. This is where our mettle is tested. We must ride through this hump in the road and focus on the small bright spots of success that can lead the way to being a consistently better teacher.
Reflect to Improve
It is crucial to focus upon being a reflective practitioner to sustain professional improvement. This takes habit forming and an allocation of our time. Good schools will factor this into CPD time. This can involve filming ourselves working on our core practice; writing a blog; speaking with your colleagues, your critical friend or coach, and people on the like of Twitter about pedagogy etc.
We should be prepared to read and research like we did when we were at university. If we are serious about being an expert we must undertake the research habits which we would demand of our best students for example. In the past I have been guilty of hypocrisy – expecting to get better as a teacher without the extra commitment. Yes, we have the issue of time, but in the long run the rewards could be transformative for your professional practice.
One final strategy is to practice perfect. The following diagram can help by giving you a simple record of the thirty or so attempts at practice reputed to help root new habits in our teaching routine. It was originally shared by the brilliant Daniel Coyle on his really useful website: http://thetalentcode.com/. Simply take the diagram and select the first letter of the focus of your ‘deliberate practice’. Once you have you ‘E’ for explanations that use thirsty or so bubbles (the full one hundred if you are brave…or foolhardy!) for your letter ‘E’ and check them off as your undertake your classroom practice.
Perhaps make little reflective notes to bank that crucial feedback, both from yourself or your ‘critical friend’. This segmenting of what is of course complex information is important to help us learn new habits and strategies more effectively. You could make two or three bubbles on the diagram milestones for videoing yourself to get that extra layer of feedback into your reflective practice. Using this diagram is only a small reflective strategy, but perhaps it could be the cue you need to form a new habit. Perhaps you could become a brilliant teacher by undertaking such ‘deliberate practice‘ and doing it for yourself. In the words of William Faulkner:
“Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”