This month we feature a guest blog by Dr. Dave Walters, Deputy Principal at one of our newest eedNET member schools Clyst Vale Community College
‘People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains, at the huge waves of the seas, at the long course of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering.’
These words, attributed to Saint Augustine, were first drawn to my attention through a paper by Dr Cheryl Hunt. The message they convey has been further strengthened by the work of Professor John Hattie, and his notion of leaders and teachers as evaluators and activators. Indeed, his mantra ‘Know Thy Impact’ as a leader and teacher relies on bringing the attention back to the ‘self’ as a change agent. It’s a way of thinking that shifts the minds of educators so that they accept that their fundamental job is to know what impact they are having on children’s learning. Actually, this is not as easy as you might think. Sometimes educators don’t seem to understand the difference between learning and progress and conversations and communications blur the issue. I see lessons that are annoyingly punctuated by numerous progress checkers like RAG rating or suchlike, often at the expense of sustaining momentum in learning. Now let’s be clear once and for all. Learning is a process undertaken to acquire new knowledge, skills and understanding. Progress is the distance travelled as a result of that process. If we do not understand this difference then we cannot see learning or its relationship with progress. Ask a teacher or leader if they can see progress in their classes and most will get out a plethora of spreadsheets, charts and graphs. Ask them if they can see and show you learning in their classes and you can usually hear a pin drop! When students are learning they are alert (not glazed over), engaged (curious, genuinely interested in what they are doing and know why they are doing it – not just procedurally going through the motions) and able (have strategies and heuristics to undertake tasks). A teacher’s role is to activate this learning process in all their students and a leader’s role is to activate the professional learning of teachers.
For a teacher to be an activator they need to avoid becoming the guide on the side. As popular as discovery learning and the teacher as a facilitator have been, there is much evidence and research to indicate that it has not had the impact on achievement (attainment and progress) we would expect. This is because when we are a novice at something, we need a lot more content. As we become more proficient, then content can give way to more open ended discovery approaches – content is vital as we have to think about something! The mistake also to avoid is that of stopping at the level of content so that learning leads to superficial gains. Part of this activator role is to make it explicit to students from the outset what success looks like so that they can move towards it and check their own progress. It also worth bearing in mind that character (or the acquisition of dispositions like persistence) can be taught. At a time when distributed leadership is rightly held up as a vital characteristic of genuine improvement, the importance of strong and determined team leadership can be overlooked. In the real world, as a school leader, you have a paradoxical role. You are your own school’s biggest fan, supporter, marketer and advertiser, ferociously protecting students, staff and resources from incoming attacks. However, you are also its biggest critic and not only look for problems but see opportunities to improve when those around you think everything is OK. The most effective leaders at this level distribute leadership in a way in which other people start asking those same awkward questions.
Whether a teacher or a leader, your primary role is that of evaluating your impact and constantly looking to ensure that all students at least get what Hattie refers to as a year’s growth for a year’s input. This relies on teachers and leaders actually believing that change / achievement is possible for all children. Unfortunately, some educators don’t believe this – have you ever heard educators blaming the children and parents for underachievement? If we view ourselves as change agents then we can esteem the successes we have and become proud of the wonderful profession we are a part of. Impact is based on evidence though. The nature of evidence is a contested issue. It is not just about test scores. Yes, we can look at student outcomes to include progress, value-added and even adopt Hattie’s use of effect sizes (this latter measure is an excellent addition I would suggest). However, there is much evidence beyond this to indicate your impact on the learning of others. Take a walk around your school and look to see evidence of your ‘fingerprint’ on the successes you see around you. Prior to writing this I visited an after school Art session where year 11 were working ‘in the zone’ as the Art team often describe (full engagement in its truest sense). My Art teacher colleague waxed lyrical about how great the students were and how much they had improved over the year. My reply was to say that there must have been a fantastic teacher behind this somewhere!
Dr Dave Walters