Playing left-handed: How do I improve as a teacher?

In the 1996 World Championships, O’Sullivan came up against Alain Robidoux and displayed a talent that few can rival. Being naturally right-handed, O’Sullivan began to play left-handed during the match. Robidoux accused him of being disrespectful and Ronnie responded that he was a better player with his left hand than Robidoux was with his right.

“O’Sullivan was called to a disciplinary hearing following Robidoux’s formal complaint, where he had to prove his skill with his left hand. He played three frames against former snooker star Rex Williams and won them all. The charge of bringing the game into disrepute was dropped.”
(talksnooker.co.uk)

In considering Legacy, which derives leadership lessons from the All Blacks and is one of our CPD Book Club choices, my colleagues and I were interested in this one: ‘when you’re on top of your game, change your game.’  My colleague Will Lau, who combines pedagogical thoughtfulness with a mine of knowledge, offered this anecdote as an example of such a change- of a professional seeking to surpass himself.

As professionals and as teachers, we have a duty to change.  Perhaps Dylan Wiliam has put it best:

Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.”

I won’t labour this though, because I suspect that anyone reading this is believes this already.  The question I want to consider is how can we make change work?  For this, I’ll begin by returning to Legacy, which makes up for dire writing with thought-provoking ideas.  When I submitted a working title to Helene, I felt that calling the post ‘ways to improve as a teacher’ – its real subject, would hardly draw crowds, so I stole another idea from the book: the OODA Loop.  This is (apparently) a military term, standing for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.  This structure seems so obvious that it’s barely worth mentioning – but it bears some resemblance to the process of improving as a teacher, and it did for a title.  The whole thing also resembles Kolb’s adult learning cycle, so as well as avoiding a pretension of particular expertise, I’m also going to renounce a claim to originality.  I hope, however, that this may inspire some new thoughts or changes to your practice.

1) Observe – what does the class need?

I’m not sure whether improving something about my teaching is as a result of becoming conscious of a problem or a solution first – my best guess is that the two are nearly coincident.  All teachers no doubt wish their students could listen, write, speak or think better – and so will notice things in their classroom they would like to change.  Without seeing a technique that makes this possible though, it’s hard to conceive this improvement.  It was only when I first saw a ‘do now’ used, a year and a half into my teaching career, that it occurred to me that the first minutes of a lesson could be better used.  So, I think the first step in getting better is being on the look out for things to change within my classroom and new ideas as to how to achieve this.

Key ideas:
What are you reading?
Who are you visiting?
Who is seeing you teach? (And I mean those people who are there to help you?)
How is this going to improve students’ learning?

An example
Reading Joe Kirby and Katie Ashford’s post about dot marking got me wondering whether this was possible… at the same we had been discussing in school how to improve our feedback and use of SCWEAC (DIRT) time – so I had both a problem and a possible solution to consider.

2) Orient – how can I deliver what the class need?

There is no end to the number of possible solutions…  whether it’s books or websites with hundreds of tips or evidenced-based strategies (like the EEF Toolkit) and techniques (like the list of possible ways to implement AfL in Embedded Formative Assessment.  I’ll read around these, supplementing it with blogs and conversations with colleagues to begin weighing up the different options.  I’m looking for something which aligns to my understanding of research in the field but also makes sense – which seems feasible in my school, with my students and in my lessons.  I also have to consider the time and energy the techniques would require.  Not because I’ll choose something which won’t take time; any change is likely to demand this investment at the beginning, but I will need to think through where that time will come from and what else I’ll neglect to create it.

Key ideas:
What are the options?
What are the limitations and benefits of different approach?
How will I make this manageable?
How does this fit or contradict school policies?  What can I get away with?  What’s worth the hassle?
Which choice best suits me, here, now?
What will the impact of the change be?  Will it be worth it?

An example:
When I wanted to improve my students’ understanding of learning intentions, I looked at what I was already doing, considered whether it was working well enough and the pros and cons of alternative approaches before making any changes.

3) Decide – how will I know?

As a heuristic, and, indeed, a theme for a talk, I think it’s clear this has broken-down.  I have little to say except that a decision is a logical conclusion to the orientation above.

Instead, I’ll lever into this heading something else that’s important to decide upon: establishing how I’ll know if what I’ve done has worked.  If I can’t answer this, I risk wasting my time, and that of my students…

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I cannot claim to be qualified to speak about this – but it seems to me there are two ways to approach evaluation:

A direct measure of success – GCSE grades, levels, whatever you use.  I find it very difficult to see how this can be made to work well for individual teachers (or departments).  Even if you have one teacher with two classes studying the same course, how can you isolate the effect of your intervention from all the other differences between the two groups (students, prior attainment, which period they are taught)?  Two people have, in my (untutored) view, managed a convincing way to do this (and written it up!) Alex Quigley and Mr Benney.

An indirect measure of success – Put other people’s research into practice.  I’ve stolen this idea from something Dylan Wiliam said a while ago and hope I’m not misrepresenting him.  For example, studies exist which prove pretty conclusively that students need to understand and take note of the feedback they receive in order to get better at what they do.  I don’t need to prove that this research is correct – I can be satisfied by proving that my students are paying (better) attention to the feedback they receive.  In the example he gave, he discussed a teacher dividing comments from essays and asking groups of students to match feedback with papers.  It’s not necessary to study this exhaustively – it is a technique that implements established research.  So my pre- and post-tests become ‘can students explain/act upon feedback?’ rather than ‘what are my students GCSE grades?’

Key ideas:
What are you improving?
How will you know this has worked?
How will you make the measurement simple and valid?

An example:
In examining sharing learning intentions, I asked students to summarise the lesson’s purpose on a post-it and identified how accurate their responses were.  I repeated this exercise at the end of the experiment to see if it had worked.

4) Act – how do I make it happen?

A handful of ideas that I have found helpful at this stage:

Piloting…  With those changes for which it makes sense, I have experimented with just one class.  This limits the time and energy required and ensures that I’m not irrevocably committed if the change is unsuccessful.  I once tried to change two things at once with all my classes – it led to some of the worst lessons I’ve taught in the last year and a half.  Limiting it to only one class also makes it easier to:

Monitor and evaluate…  I take a lot of photos as I go along, partly out of curiosity, partly to provide a models, partly for the blog.  I try to work out how the change is going as I proceed.

Dealing with students…  In my current school, my students have become used to my experiments and those of my colleagues – nonetheless, they can often be suspicious of change – particularly when they are habituated to certain actions and expectations.  Some of the most fundamental changes: asking students to read something that’s been marked even though it doesn’t have a grade on it, turn over a coloured card and keep working rather than put their hand up to ask a question, take a long time and are viewed as troubling.  So, for significant changes, like increasing wait times, I’ve talked through the change in advance with students – and modifications I make as I go along.

Key Questions:
Is it working?  How do I know?
How is it affecting students’ learning?

An Example:
In improving  learning intentions, I made the changes with just one class – which meant I could take in and examine the sheets I’d made for the class after each lesson and check how it was working.  I also asked students for their opinions about the changes.

The loop – how do I change for life, not just over Christmas?

I’m not trying to make a single change – I’m hoping that a series of alterations will combine to improve the overall effect of my lessons.  So I have to consider:

Evaluating…  I’ll return to whatever I’m measuring – let’s say, students’ quality of writing, understanding of their targets or retention of a topic and consider whether the approach has worked.  I also have to consider whether (once I’ve refined it as much as I can) it has been sufficiently successful to be worth keeping.  Thinking about Hattie’s point – that everything works – the burden of proof is very high.  Perhaps real boldness comes in experimenting with something for a term and then concluding it is not worth pursuing – this is not something I have yet managed.

Honing…  No change is likely to work perfectly first time around – so I try to keep tweaking to make things simpler, clearer and more efficient – until I have a system which is sustainable for the students and for me.

Routinising…  If I conclude that the change has worked, I want to routinise it.  I’m always tempted to move on once something seems to be working passably.  But as I have written, in reflecting on half-implemented changes before: “Perhaps the moment an improvement is starting to bear fruit is the point at which I should redouble my focus upon it.”  If I start the next change too quickly, then the risk is that the old one stagnates or falls aside – and the effort was wasted.

Related changes…  I may wish to move on to the next change…  but altering one aspect of my teaching often demands other changes.  For example, as I tried to make hinge questions work for me, I realised (subsequently) that it was only by refining my understanding of learning intentions for lessons that I could formulate a hinge question which truly summarised students’ understanding.

Key Questions:
Is the change working?
How can it be made more effective?
How do I routinise the change?
What other changes does this demand?

An Example:
In introducing hinge questions, I kept going back to them to make each question better (with a degree of success).  I improved my appreciation of learning intentions, and then came back to hinges again with a view to making them better still.  Now that I’m dot-marking every lesson, most lessons don’t have enough time for hinge questions at all…

A worked example – what does this look like in practice?

Observe
I wasn’t happy with my practice in learning intentions, which had gone unchanged for about two and a half years and didn’t seem a very effective use of time. I surveyed my students and discovered that many of them could not accurately tell me what the lesson was meant to be about.

Orient
I looked at a lot of different ideas – I reread the chapter in Embedded Formative Assessment, I looked for history specific ideas, I asked my colleagues what they did – and considered which of these ideas might work.

Decide
I chose an approach (I already had my pre-test, in surveying my students – and my research evidence – that knowing what they were meant to be learning helps).

Act
I piloted with one class, kept taking them in and making changes until I found something I was happy with.

Loop
I surveyed students again and found only two students could not clearly summarise the lesson’s purpose – a much better result.  Once I was content, I spread the approach to the rest of the year group, and, this year, have done it for all my classes.  It is now second nature and happens very quickly – although I need to go back to it and make more changes.

(The full story is in these three posts).

Over to you – what will you change?

This is roughly the text I delivered at Pedagoo London yesterday.  Thank you to everyone there and especially to Helene for making it happen.

With acknowledgements to Caroline Cullen, with whom I shared a number of interesting conversations about  Legacy, and Will Lau, who in one conversation told me the anecdote about Ronnie O’Sullivan.