This post is mostly descriptive about others’ work and ideas; little, if any, is my own work or ideas. I hope it is worth sharing. I’ve been made aware that the not-common aspects of my school don’t fare well when summarised in a sentence or a single visit; hopefully a more detailed account of the role of practice in CPD will let others add more evidence and anec-data to their decisions for in-school training.
How It Works
Largely based on Doug Lemov’s work in Practice Perfect, CPD was adjusted last year to have more focus on practising the seemingly-routine aspects of school life. This comprises twice-weekly practice sessions from ~8-8.30 for all teaching staff and, where appropriate, more tailored practice responding to an individual’s focus or needs. The morning practice sessions focus primarily on three techniques* described in Teach Like a Champion (more Lemov) – 100%, No Opt Out and Positive Framing. He summarises each idea thus:
100%: “There’s one acceptable percentage of students following a direction: 100 percent. Less, and your authority is subject to interpretation, situation, and motivation.”
No Opt Out: “A sequence that begins with a student unable to answer a question should end with the student answering that question as often as possible.”
Positive Framing: “Make corrections consistently and positively. Narrate the world you want your students to see even while you are relentlessly improving it.”
These have been selected as the techniques most likely to have the biggest impact and thus the ones most worth mastering and spending time on. Sessions might also look at aspects of school life where we want consistency (e.g. reaction to lacklustre student responses when the teacher greets the class, or embedding the school’s values into our interactions).
Practice itself consists of a mix of discussion as a whole group (e.g. to make sure everyone is on the same page with rationale and intended outcome), discussion in small groups (e.g. considering different scenarios) and role play. I can sympathise with people who don’t want to engage in roleplay – it’s seen as embarrassing, can elicit the eye rolls that give this post its title, and can seem unnecessary for ideas and actions that you ‘get’. However, it’s only through practice that wording can be refined, positivity and optimism built into corrections, values can be discussed without seeming cheesy, other aspects of routine behaviour can be maintained – I could go on. I am blessed to work with colleagues who are able to be earnest in what they do whilst having a sense of humour, so the instinct to feel self-conscious doesn’t last for long.
Does it Work?
I’m not sure if it would be possible to measure the impact of undertaking practice as it is intentionally focused on small adjustments, not stand-alone actions. I’ve not heard staff speak negatively about it and many have sought to incorporate practice into their subject-specific CPD, so I hope it’s reasonable to list some of the benefits (as I see them).
- Consistency and fairness: one of the school values is fairness, and this is both exemplified and tested every time we need to correct a student’s behaviour. As the behaviour expectations are very high and sanctions very strict (same-day half-hour detentions for off-task behaviour, failure to bring equipment, lateness, etc) it’s important to have consistency. This is especially pertinent for the most vulnerable students, or those who have ingrained bad habits from before they joined us; practising together helps us to have clear and consistent messages and techniques to move students towards making better choices and not need to be corrected.
- Embedding values: as mentioned above, the school’s values are at the heart of how things are done and must be constantly reinforced to ensure buy-in. Messaging in displays and daily assemblies is part of this, but they only have meaning when they can be applied to a situation. Actually talking about values, and how they guide our actions, is something that many adults can feel embarrassed about; practising these ‘pep talks’ together helps us to talk about them in a natural and genuine way when speaking to students. This can be for both positive and negative behaviour (e.g. practising linking descriptive praise to the school’s values, or practising explaining to a student why their behaviour contravenes one of the norms and values of the school).
- Positivity and Efficiency: when a student is off-task, it is easy to feel frustrated and call them out directly. This isn’t a terrible thing to do, per se, but it does quickly narrow down your options, interrupt your lesson and make the atmosphere less positive. Although we all know, in theory, that we have multiple options (e.g. “25 people are focused on me, we need 2 people…brilliant, we’re ready” or “Thank you everyone who remembered to look at Abdi before he speaks” or non-invasive gestures, such as opening your hand to indicate to students that they need to put their pen down or stop fidgeting), the sense of urgency when in front of the class makes it very easy to go straight to – for example – “Abdi, this is the second time I’ve asked you to track Eloise.” Practising the less invasive/anonymous corrections makes it easier to make decisions in real-time (e.g. Do I want to escalate this, give a formal warning to a student, and make a serious point about behaviour to the class, or do I just need a few students to be a little less dozy and remember that they are always expected to look at the speaker?) as positive and efficient responses are (almost) as instinctive as responses borne of frustration.
- Culture of Practice and External Communication: I first realised the difference that practice sessions were making to the overall culture when I had to call candidates for teaching posts to tell them that they had been unsuccessful. This isn’t something I’d done before and I was keen to convey a professional and constructive message. I told a colleague that I felt nervous about it and she suggested that we practise. The difference it made to actually run through the message, get her feedback and suggestions, and then do it twice more until it sounded right, was remarkable. Despite having made notes and run through it in my head, the errors I would have otherwise made would not have been ironed out without practising with her. I’ve taken to practising tough messages (e.g. with parents) and have found that – to paraphrase the head of Dixons Macmillan – it’s moved from being difficult conversations to positive conversations with difficult messages. I’ve seen a big difference in student performance also by asking them to practise and take on feedback. For example, as a form tutor, two of my roles are to listen to my students read to me and to give feedback on their stretch presentations (see the ‘stretch projects’ video in this link). Once I started insisting on practice before the ‘real deal’ there was a marked difference in quality.
- Feedback as a Norm, and Improving Exposition: As alluded to above, having a culture of practice has made it normal to give and receive feedback. Both students and staff are positive about receiving feedback; defensiveness is rare. Students are improving at giving feedback to each other and to the staff, as it is modelled to them so often. Considering that students’ default position is to say “Next time, write more neatly” it is exciting to see them come so far. I had the good fortune to work with a colleague last academic year who was developing her classroom practice. One aspect she was working on was how she explained concepts and chose examples; being able to act out scenarios and refine them transformed the quality of what she was doing when with her classes. I should acknowledge that she is exceptionally open to feedback and exceptionally hardworking, but being able to suggest that we practise scenarios made it much easier for me to be of use to her.
I’m not sure what it would be like to introduce explicit practice in a different school or different culture. I think it’s important that those leading it are fully supportive and model it themselves. Trepidation and some initial embarrassment is to be expected, but close-minded cynicism would be poisonous. Additionally, it needs commitment over time; practising once, twice, thrice is not enough. If the purpose of practice is to encode behaviours, then it needs to be constantly revisited and people need time to make errors and forget things before returning to it.
*These are unashamedly behaviourist approaches; discussing the merits and demerits of this approach is beyond the scope of this post, but perhaps worth acknowledging, as staff acceptance of this philosophy on behaviour management is (probably) critical to this aspect of CPD being useful. This is not to suggest that therapeutic interventions, warm relationships, and other things that bring joy and trust to a school, are not highly prized. It’s just that they, too, are beyond the scope of this post.