Teacher talk: the beating heart of effective professional learning and development

by James Mannion (@RethinkingJames)

Talk, eh? Isn’t it amazing how making weird noises with our throats can have such a profound impact on so many aspects of our personal and professional lives?

I’ve spent the last 10 years designing, teaching, evaluating and now disseminating a new approach to Learning to Learn known as the Learning Skills curriculum. I evaluated the impact of Learning Skills as the focus of my PhD, under the supervision of Neil Mercer (hence my entanglement with Oracy Cambridge). This 8-year study, which involved following four cohorts of pupils through from year 7 to 11 (one control cohort, followed by three Learning Skills cohorts), found that Learning Skills led to significant gains in subject learning across the curriculum, with accelerated gains among children from disadvantaged backgrounds. If you’d like to find out more about this study, or about the Learning Skills curriculum itself, you can do so here and here.

The Learning Skills curriculum is a complex intervention, an idea that is common in other fields such as medicine, psychotherapy and social work, but which is relatively underdeveloped in education. A complex intervention is defined simply as an intervention with two or more moving parts. It’s basically a variation on marginal gains theory, an approach to improving performance that was brought to wider attention through the remarkable success of the British cycling team under the guidance of Sir David Brailsford:

“The whole principle of marginal gains came from the idea that if you broke down everything that could impact on a cycling performance — absolutely everything you could think of — and then you improved every little thing by 1%, when you clump it all together, you’re going to get quite a significant increase in performance. So we set about looking at everything we could.“ [1]

When we were designing the Learning Skills curriculum, we decided at the outset to identify a range of different practices for which there is evidence of improved outcomes, and then combine them together under the umbrella of a single intervention in the hope – or rather, with the intention – that the marginal gains associated with each individual component would stack up and interact, leading to a larger effect size overall. I firmly believe future generations stand to gain hugely if education researchers and school leaders can move past the obsession with ‘silver bullets’ and embrace more complex thinking. Human development is, after all, a complex endeavour.

In total, the Learning Skills curriculum had about 8 or 10 moving parts, but it can really be distilled down to three key concepts that interact in theory and in practice: metacognition (which we defined simply as ‘reflecting on learning’); self-regulation (‘monitoring and taking increasing control over our emotions and learning behaviours’); and oracy (‘developing effective speaking and listening skills across a range of contexts’). We really threw the kitchen sink at oracy in particular – philosophical inquiries, presentational talk, structured debates, carousels, goldfish bowls, role-play, embedded exploratory paired/group talk in every lesson –you name it, we went for it. Interviews with pupils and teachers revealed that to a significant degree, the increased confidence the students gained through oracy education helped them develop a stronger sense of identity, and this in turn enabled them to learn to speak up in lessons, participating more fully and ensuring that their needs were met.

In recent years, my interest in learning has expanded to incorporate the professional learning of adults. I think this is partly because during my 12 years as a teacher, so much of what we did in the name of professional development fell so far short of actually helping me get better at my job. And now, through my role as Bespoke Programmes Leader at the amazing London Centre for Leadership in Learning (LCLL – part of the UCL Institute of Education), my job is to design and facilitate annual programmes of professional development for teachers and school leaders. Here’s a short description of three of the programmes we run at LCLL – see if you can spot any common themes:

Collaborative R&D (aka action research, practitioner inquiry – call it what you will)

This is an annual programme where we typically work with a group of 10-15 teachers from the same school. R&D projects can vary widely, but a common format is to a) identify a problem you want to solve; b) review the literature to explore various ways of solving it; c) implement some new practice or intervention designed to solve the problem; d) collect data to evaluate the impact of this particular aspect of your practice; e) draw conclusions and figure out what it all means. I have now guided hundreds of teachers through this process of professional inquiry, and it never fails to hit the mark; the programme evaluations are really quite something. When it’s done well – and we do it well – practitioner inquiry is an unbelievably powerful approach to helping teachers get *even better* at what they do.

Research-informed Peer Review

This is a fascinating approach to school improvement through theory engagement developed by Dr David Godfrey, inspired largely by the work of the New Zealand Professor of Education Viviane Robinson. In this programme, a group of 3 or 4 schools work together over the course of a year to work on some aspect of school improvement – usually, feedback. The essential question we explore is: what’s the difference between the espoused theory (what the school says is supposed to happen, e.g. in the feedback policy) – and the theory in action (i.e., what’s actually happening on the ground?). To achieve this, we all visit each other’s schools and collect data, through lesson observation, book looks, and interviews with children, teachers, learning support assistants and so on. It might sound daunting but it’s like the opposite of an Ofsted inspection because everyone’s a friendly, and everyone takes their turn under the microscope. It’s quite simply the loveliest and most life-affirming form of observation-based professional development you’ll find. The ultimate aim of the programme is for each school to write a new feedback policy and then to implement it in such a way as to minimise the gap between the walk and the talk. Which brings us to our third example, and my latest obsession…

Implementing School Improvement

This is a programme that I developed this year with my colleague Mark Quinn, and which we piloted over the last 6 months at UCL Academy. This programme draws together insights from ‘implementation science’, a field of study that has emerged in the last 15 years or so in an attempt to answer the question policymakers have wrestled with for decades: How can we take what we know from the research literature about “what works” (in reality, what has worked – past tense – in particular research contexts) and then translate that knowledge into social policies and practices that replicate (or improve upon) those positive findings when applied in new and different contexts? Implementation science is a slightly problematic name – it’s really not a science – it’s more a set of research-informed approaches to change management, applied to the task of improving outcomes for kids in real-world contexts. It’s an attempt to address the fact that so many school improvement initiatives fall over or fizzle out within days, weeks or months. The feedback we’ve received so far has been hugely encouraging – e.g., see this lovely blog written by one of the participants from our pilot programme. People say things like “all school leaders should receive this training”, and I am inclined to agree. There appears to be a huge appetite out there for this programme – although we only developed it this year, we’ve already run versions of it in the UK, China and Australia, and the early signs suggest that it might just lead to world domination. Or thereabouts. [2]

Why am I telling you all this?

Well, it’s partly because I want people to know about these amazing programmes. But there’s something else. At some point, I took a step back and noticed that there are three familiar common themes that unite all these amazing professional development programmes. Metacognition – taking the time to reflect on some aspect of your school/practice; self-regulation – taking ownership over the process of professional development, becoming a problem-solver rather than just jumping through hoops or ticking boxes to show that you’re 100% compliant with the latest government, Ofsted or leadership wheeze; and oracy – teachers working collaboratively and in parallel to solve problems and share their ongoing professional learning journeys. In a nutshell: it’s Learning to Learn for teachers. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander – or, more accurately, what’s good for the gosling is also good for the, er, grown-up geese.

Of this holy triumvirate, I would venture that it is oracy that drives professional learning the most. To give just one example, the Collaborative R&D programme usually involves six sessions throughout the year – some group sessions and some individual clinics – and I’ve noticed a funny pattern. Teachers are typically lovely, self-effacing, busy people, and they often begin a session by saying something like “I’m so sorry, I haven’t done anything on this since last time we met”. Then they start talking through their project, and all this stuff just pours out – their thinking and their theorising and their lived experience and the data they’ve collected and the new questions they’re formulating. The conversations often meander a lot especially at first and there are often surprises and even complete u-turns along the way. But in talking it through, slowly but surely, the meandering mess starts to take shape and new understandings emerge.

Perhaps because of my own biases, I often use quite scientific language to describe the R&D process – write a research question, collect and analyse data and so on. But it’s probably more accurate to think of a research question as a thread. Sometimes, it turns out to be a short thread with an unambiguous answer attached, and then you choose another thread to pull at. Other times, you pull at a thread and everything you think about education starts to unravel. So begins a process of professional inquiry that doesn’t often feel particularly scientific. In reality, the process is more accurately captured by the image at the top and bottom of this blog. When we talk with colleagues about our professional inquiries, we aren’t just reporting on what has happened since we last met. What we’re really doing is thinking out loud, and in so doing, we construct new narratives that draw together a range of sources of information and evidence – the hard data we collect, the soft data of our daily lived experience, the literature we consult, the conversations we have and the questions that preoccupy us – weaving them together into new narratives, new stories we tell ourselves about how best to teach, or what children are capable of, or what education is for. And from these narratives, new understandings, new practices, new priorities emerge.

On professional development programmes such as these, we learn a huge amount from listening to others on similar journeys to our own, as well as through engaging in robust, professional exchanges with colleagues with different ideas to our own. But at heart, it’s the simple act of taking the time to talk together – thinking out loud, individually and collectively – that enables us to weave these new understandings from the tangled complexity of our professional lives. It’s the talk that drives the spool.

[1] Interview with Sir David Brailsford, British Cycling Performance Director: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBY3q8TqoXY . See also Hall, D., James, D., & Marsden, N. (2012). Marginal gains: Olympic lessons in high performance for organisations. HR Bulletin: Research and Practice, 7(2), 9-13.

[2] If you’d like to find out more about any of these programmes, drop me a line – james at rethinking-ed dot org.

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