The Learning Leader in FE: Have we defined this role yet?

It is very encouraging to see some FE colleges introducing a new role called the learning leader, in an attempt to enhance the focus on T&L. Incorporating actual roles into college structures could be helpful in a range of ways:

  1. Give T&L issues and priorities a greater voice in long-term discussion, debate and planning across the organisation
  2. Create a team who can lead/coordinate TLA focused initiatives to ensure strategy becomes implementation
  3. Follow up on TLA development work to investigate the impact on staff and learners and share those findings, to inform future planning
  4. Act as a link to the wider world of TLA through reading (research, policy, practitioner insights and case studies) and networking with other institutions to bring current theory and practices back into college for consideration
  5. Act as ‘change agents’ or ‘champions’ for getting college culture more focused on TLA questions and issues, in the battle against the rising levels of bureaucracy in the sector

In my training and consultancy work to develop the skills of these new learning leaders, I am beginning to note a common challenge. Many institutions genuinely want to increase the focus on TLA but the learning leader role definition is not sharp enough in terms of priorities or even how it interacts with other roles in college structures.

Some recurrent challenges are:

Overloaded roles

Learning leaders in some places have a substantial number of teaching hours yet are being asked to manage staff, carry out developmental observations, run CPD and “drive TLA monitoring and improvement and create a great culture of learning” across teams. In this situation, the established operational processes such as observation and appraisal seem more likely to take precedence over the less sharply defined and new TLA leadership aspects of the role. In these settings the learning leaders I meet are feeling entirely swamped by operational tasks and deadlines and are struggling to find space, time and focus to develop the innovative leadership elements of the role. To me these roles most closely resemble that of a curriculum manager with a smattering of TLA tagged on but not clearly defined.

Loose definition of the leadership of learning aspect of the role

Some institutions have put considerable resource into these roles, freeing up a large proportion of the week for the leadership of learning aspect of the role, keeping teaching hours at a more manageable level. However, the role descriptions and subsequent briefing meetings indicate that there is a vagueness around how it will work and where and when learning leaders will be active within operational processes, initiatives and project cycles. It appears that nobody did the appropriate homework of working out how the role could fit together with other parts of the college structure and process, to enhance TLA. The danger here is that the learning leaders start in their role but are unclear about priorities, don’t necessarily engage with key staff and miss opportunities to foster improvement in TLA. Duplication of effort could also be a consequence of different parties getting involved in the same area of work from poor definition of responsibilities.

I am meeting many learning leaders and hearing a great enthusiasm for the notion of the role but a great deal of confusion/hesitancy about its identity. It seems to me that careful thought about the shape of the role is critical here.

Questions to consider when shaping the learning leader role

  1. How can you balance aspects of the workload to make it viable?
  2. How much teaching and everyday line management can be included without diluting the focus of the role on inspiring, galvanising and leading others in TLA improvement?
  3. Are the learning leaders part of the formal lesson observation team and how comfortably does that sit with their developmental remit?
  4. What are the key TLA priorities for the college and how does this role engage with those?
  5. How much of this role is about tracking and monitoring and how much is it about initiating development work and being a change agent for TLA?
  6. How does the learning leadership team get access to other key collaborators such as the coaching team, ILT/E-learning team, curriculum managers and senior leaders who steer on TLA? Which meetings, forums and working groups will they need to attend?
  7. Who is the strategic lead for this group and who do the LLs report to? For me, it needs to be someone at a high enough level of the college structure to ensure the relevant overview of strategic priorities and the capacity to make decisions which enable TLA development to take place

Developing the learning leader skill set

Once the role has been defined thoughtfully, there is a need to ensure that the learning leaders have the appropriate skills to be effective. In many settings, I am delivering skills training related to:

  1. Project management planning, monitoring and reviewing
  2. CPD delivery skills
  3. Coaching skills for engaging individuals and groups
  4. Solution focused thinking and communication skills

With a clear remit and direction as well as the appropriate skill set, I am optimistic that learning leaders can play a significant role in TLA development in the colleges of the future.

If you need support with shaping and supporting the Learning Leaders in your college or school, you can contact me at





Posted in Culture for Learning, FE, Leadership of learning, Learning Leader, Management skills, schools, Staff Development, Teaching and learning | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The journey to ungraded developmental lesson observations: Some mid-year reflections

Working with colleges and schools on the journey to developmental observations is a complex, rich and rewarding experience. I am currently at a review point with several institutions and some recurrent themes emerge from their feedback. The overriding impression is how excitingly different observation can be when framed and implemented with a developmental ethos and skills.

On my first visit to these institutions teachers and observers voiced a well-documented set of concerns about the negative impacts of graded models and expressed a desire for observations to change in their settings. There was a hopeful, cautious tone in our conversations – maybe it could all be different; perhaps observation could become a tool for reflection, dialogue and development instead of a reductive and stress inducing assessment measure? I could see the potential was there for a positive change. These institutions could see the inadequacies and limitations of their current models and how much more they had to gain from changing them. They were ready for the journey.

As our initial planning and training sessions went on, people began to open up about the challenges of having trusting, thoughtful conversations about your practice in a graded model with too much at stake. The lesson observation grade was still carrying a disproportionate weight in some discussions about ‘performance’ and sometimes being linked to judgements made in appraisal. Power relationships and hierarchical structures were having a problematic impact on observations and teachers’ ability to take risks in them, to experiment and gain truly developmental feedback. When asked whether graded observations led to development, growth and improvement for staff and learners, few people could say they did and many people emphatically felt they didn’t and couldn’t in their current form.

It was encouraging to see senior leaders in these institutions involved in these conversations and recognising the value of engaging with staff to create a change together. All of these institutions have spent time debating with staff about what observation could look like if focused on reflection and development. They have held round table discussions, formed working groups, gathered survey data, held team meetings, to consult with staff through different channels and access a rich range of views. This process has been the start of moving observation from something that is done TO teachers as quality assurance to something that is done WITH and FOR teachers, to foster improvement and professional learning. I have noted that it is worth spending time, thought and effort on this process of consultation before embarking on the changes themselves. This process allowed each institution to formulate a new model of observation that took on board staff views in that context instead of imposing something that may have been contextually, culturally dissonant. The models were devised with staff instead of imposed on them.

All the institutions have devised a model that is ungraded, developmental in ethos and incorporates pre-observation interaction and post-observation follow-up, to reflect on development and changes to thinking/practice. They are underpinning the model with coaching approaches to foster high quality, challenging, thought-provoking conversations about wider practice. As I am the consultant supporting the change process and also the trainer developing the coaching skills of the observation teams, I am working with them as they grapple with shifting their own mindset, behaviour and communication skills to focus on development not simple assessment/judgement. In some cases work is being done with teachers to build reflective skills in a lesson observation context, through reviewing lesson videos and debating those practices and also having structured peer coaching conversations to reflect on their own classroom methods and assumptions.

As is evident, this is a long-term change process involving shifts in mindset, skills, behaviour, processes and expectations. It is positive to see that at the mid year review point people can already identify how much positive change has occurred and how differently observations can be executed and experienced. There is an energy, drive and excitement now in this work which shows me the strength of the appetite for change and the fact that these institutions are now well on the road to a new world of lesson observation. There is a sense of ownership and creativity in conversations about what lesson observation could become, an increasing confidence in the changes they have started to make. I have huge respect for these people and the work involved in making this move and it is a really exciting thing to be part of this lengthy and demanding transformation process.

So, what are they saying half way through the year about this journey to developmental observation?

There are comments about how unlike the graded experience it is – how this process feels much more tailored to the teacher’s context and needs, how it is more relaxed, more collaborative and less tense/stressful than the old way. People talk about a move from judging and assessing to reflecting and debating together. Teachers talk about feeling as if their observer is interested in what they think and their wider experience in the classroom. It feels ‘less narrow, deeper, more about me as a whole practitioner.’ Both observers and observees talk about feeling less tense and stressed, experiencing less performance/assessment pressure, enabling a more authentic display of practice and an organic, evolving conversation about learning. The desire to deliver a ‘ show pony’ lesson recedes. In some cases teachers talked about showing experimental practices that they are still exploring as they felt safe to do this within the new model and wanted to gain thoughtful feedback and have developmental dialogue with their observer. This is a world away from feeling you need to jump through the hoop of showcasing the current hot methods of the moment as valued by Ofsted or your leadership team. Many teachers were stepping into a reflective developmental space because they wanted to and were interested to be in that conversation with their observer. They were eager and open to change.

Another hugely encouraging piece of feedback was that in many cases, observation stopped being another isolated action on the ‘to do list’ which people did once but didn’t take any further, but became something that led naturally to further activity. Observers mentioned passing on reading material or video links and arranging to go back and watch something being tried out informally later on. There were some interesting comments about observees going in to watch the observer teaching and subsequent dialogue about approaches to explore. HOORAY! Observation can be such a rich source of stimulus and challenge to thinking and practice when it is framed as a tool for ongoing developmental dialogue. Heartening to hear that observers were interested and motivated to follow up in this way and that observees were prepared to dedicate valuable time to these steps.

Where were the challenges and glitches?

Of course, finding time was a challenge. This process, with pre and post lesson activity takes more time and this needs to be considered and accommodated. The teams in the institutions have begun to debate how to allocate more time to this process on an ongoing basis. There was a recognition that if this process is valued and valuable, it is worth finding the time. Several people also commented that currently an inordinate amount of time is used on graded models and other activities that appear to yield little benefit for staff and learners apart from a list of numbers on a spreadsheet. Surely it is worth finding the time needed to enable this process to deliver growth, development and improvement for staff and learners? It is about priorities, focus and valuing impact. Some people spoke about using Skype, Face Time or a conference call to facilitate communication for the pre-observation conversation. Others proposed a new way of structuring their observation schedule to spread observations over the year into a series of calendar windows; others felt they needed to expand their observation team to be more agile in this work.

All the observation teams were honest about the challenge of using coaching approaches. Many people have spent years ticking checklists, boxing off aspects of practice in a reductive and rather simplistic way in graded models and then not following much up to look at developmental impact. This has been the norm in many settings so adopting a different approach is a learning experience and definitely not a quick fix. It is very different when you try to engage a teacher in deep reflection instead of just giving them feedback and fundamentally walking away afterwards. It takes skill, practice, patience, commitment and persistence. We are on that journey together as I work with them to develop skills and practices that build their competence and confidence. Interestingly, nobody voiced a desire to go back to the old approach and abandon the reflective, dialogue-based methods. The value of the coaching conversation was clear. Just because it is challenging doesn’t mean you should abandon the process.

The quality of reflective skills amongst teaching teams was raised as a challenge in some settings. Where teachers are used to being given judgements/feedback and not asked to engage and reflect, there can be a lack of familiarity with how this works and how to do it well. Some curriculum areas and subject specialisms put a high value on reflective skills and so they adapt more easily to coaching conversations, maybe. People spoke about fostering these skills through CPD and team-based activities so that teachers can come into the professional dialogue better equipped and ready to contribute.

These reviews have been energising and motivating for the teams in question and helped them keep up momentum and focus during this complex culture change process. To the institutions on this journey with me, all the best with the next stages and I look forward to hearing more about your progress over time.

If you need support for planning the change to developmental observation or skills training for observers or teachers in your school or college, you can contact me at



Posted in coaching skills, Consultancy, FE, Graded lesson observations, Lesson observations, schools, Ungraded lesson observations | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Questioning Skills and Techniques for the Classroom

Video clips

Short video clips of “Teach Like a Champion” questioning techniques in the sample section – Right is Right, Wait Time and Check for Understanding

Blog posts and web links





Posted in Advanced Practitioners, Assessment methods, CPD for Teachers, FE, Questioning strategies, Teaching and learning | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Blogs and podcasts about retrieval practice

1.Ways to practise bringing information to mind

2. For students – Learn how to study using retrieval practice

3. What I learned from the Learning Scientists by Rachel Garbett

4. Resources, tips and suggestions about retrieval practice

5. A series of podcasts and blogs about retrieval practice, with tapescript versions available



Posted in Advanced Practitioners, Recycling, Research, Retrieval practice, Revision, study skills, Teaching and learning | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Updated Further Education and Skills Inspection Handbook from Ofsted (September 2017)


Word version of the Inspection Handbook in use from September 2017 onwards by Ofsted.



PDF version of the Inspection Handbook in use from September 2017 onwards by Ofsted.

This link dispels some of the myths around expectations from Ofsted and would be a useful read for leaders, managers, observers and teachers.


Posted in Common Inspection Framework, FE, Inspection, Ofsted, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting participants involved in a CPD session

It can be a challenge to design a CPD session that participants want to be involved in and feel welcome to contribute to as it takes place. From my experience, getting participants involved in a CPD session requires a combination of planning and preparation beforehand and some facilitative approaches for the session itself.

1.Pre-session communication to diagnose needs and interests

When you’re designing a CPD session, it is very helpful to get an idea of the participants’ experiences and views of the topic as it enables you to select content and tasks that are more likely to be of relevance and interest. This information can be gathered through a pre-session survey, a self-assessment task or even a quick email with question prompts, if you are not able to talk to the group face-to-face in a scoping meeting.

  1. Ask participants to bring something along to share or review

This might be a classroom resource, samples of learners’ work, an assessment tool, lesson plan or Scheme of Work. Rich, contextually situated conversations can take place when you ask people to relate their situation and teaching resources to content that you have covered in the training.

  1. Balance input with high quality discussion in groups and pairs

One of the common complaints that I hear about CPD sessions is that there is too much sharing of practice and too little content from the trainer. I think that the person leading the session needs to bring something into the room. It may be research insights to discuss; it may be messages about practices from the wider sector; it may be a practical approach or activity that is modelled and evaluated. People often want to come away from a CPD session with something new to try out, a different perspective on a familiar area of practice, something to explore through reading, a shift in approach, otherwise there is little chance of development in future.

This does not mean that the trainer needs to dominate the session with ‘trainer talk’ and never involve attendees in debate, group discussion and pair dialogue. It just means that there is some balancing of ‘sage on the stage’ with peer conversations in different forms. One of the skills here is ensuring that the paired/group conversations are purposeful and have reflective depth. Using tasks that tap into higher order thinking skills can be helpful here e.g. Asking participants to identify pros and cons of an approach or activity for different scenarios or inviting them to critique some resources in terms of how well they would meet the needs of their learners.

  1. Incorporate reflection and application slots

 My experience is that attendees in CPD sessions participate more actively when they have the chance to think and talk about how the content relates to their practice/context. There is an energy and dynamism from thinking through those connections and a creativity that can emerge from those discussions. As the trainer, it is good to look for spaces and opportunities to bring the participants’ reflections and ideas for practical application into the room. Some of the most actively participative sessions that I have run recently have involved attendees in evaluating their resources and planning classroom activities for future use.

  1. Respect and harness the expertise and experience in the room

 This may seem an obvious point but it is an important one to note. The most engaging trainers I have seen are interested in what the participants have to say as well as interesting in terms of what they bring to the content and style of the session. Rich, complex and thought provoking conversations can take place in CPD sessions if they are facilitated instead of suppressed by the person at the front of the room.

Posted in Advanced Practitioners, CPD, CPD for Teachers, FE, Professional Development, Sharing good practice, Staff Development | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Creating the conditions for CPD to flourish

In schools and colleges there are many real and complex challenges in offering CPD opportunities that both motivate staff to get involved and meet their varied needs and preferences. In my freelance consultancy and training role, here are some of the attitudes I have heard which highlight the challenges involved:

CPD is not for me; it’s generic and part of a management tick box exercise to cover the hot topics of the moment!

I meet many teachers who feel disengaged from the current CPD offer in their workplace and cynical about the compliance with sector agendas that they feel are more about fashion than substance. There is a challenge for managers and leaders who need to engage with national/local priorities and initiatives while relating them to their specific context and diverse range of staff. It can be helpful to think about:

  1. Ways to tailor content and method of delivery to different groups in your organisation. Not everyone necessarily needs the same session or depth of knowledge on every topic; for some staff a guidance document discussed in a team meeting will be more relevant and appropriate than attending a full training session, for example. In some settings it works well to have a concise briefing slot followed by differentiated group work sessions to address different areas of interest and need.
  2. Developing a communication process to find out from staff what development needs and interests they have and thinking flexibly about how to deliver those. For some people, signposting some reading with application and reflection tasks can be all they need; others may benefit from an ongoing relationship with a coach or mentor to develop some aspect of their practice in more depth; for others, online webinars or resources might be of use. Training sessions aren’t the only way to develop people and for many people other methods suit them equally well, if not better.
  3. Evaluation and feedback surveys or round table discussions in meetings can surface what people really think about CPD and what else they feel would be helpful. These are very positive tools to use on a regular basis to take the temperature of your organisation re-CPD.

CPD is done to me with no discussion of my interests or needs

 Increasingly I hear complaints about CPD being undifferentiated in approach. With the current Ofsted focus on stretch and challenge and meeting personal needs and debates among educational authors about personalising learning, it feels as if CPD models in some settings are lagging behind.

Some schools and colleges are exploring ways to address this by:

  1. Involving teachers in shaping the focus for CPD sessions by circulating questionnaires beforehand to elicit challenges in the classroom, areas of interest and priority within the topic. These feedback comments act as input to the training design.
  2. Discussing CPD needs with teachers in 1:1 and team settings and passing that information back to the CPD Coordinator(s) who collaborate with the presenters to devise something relevant. This may involve in house practitioners sharing approaches or resources where appropriate.
  3. Some institutions offer a ‘Pick and Mix’ CPD programme of activities that staff can choose from; some places balance organisational priorities with individual preferences by asking teachers to identify two personal development targets for the year and also work on two more that emerge from learner achievement data, observation reports or appraisal. One teacher described this to me as the ‘Two for you, two for us’ model and felt it was a fair compromise.

There is never any time to design learning resources or plan how to put things into practice, so things don’t go from the training room into the classroom

I have worked in teaching, training and CPD for many years now and this is my greatest concern. Too many approaches never get thought about in depth, developed and applied in practice. We end up wasting time and money on CPD that has little or no effect on practice. It is so important to value reflective space and provide time to plan and develop resources and approaches with the support of colleagues. Here are some ways I see this happening:

  1. Incorporate a slot into the CPD activity where participants identify applications and actions for themselves and their learners. A grid or learning log, online or actually on that old thing called paper, can help here as you can review it later as part of professional dialogue with colleagues.
  2. Build in ‘workshop’ sessions for teachers to design resources, plan a series of steps or peer review lesson plans together. Make these a part of the CPD activity and make commitments to that process as managers and leaders.
  3. Encourage participants in CPD activities to pair up with a learning partner to connect outside the session and share experiences and materials.
  4. As a middle manager or Head of Department, build follow-up slots into your meeting programme to close the loop after CPD activities. Ask teachers to discuss: What were your main learning points? How did the CPD activity affect your thinking in any way? What did you put into practice? How did learners react? What did you learn from that process? Where next with that?

Nobody bothers to follow up; it’s as if it doesn’t really matter and it isn’t valued enough to be reviewed later, which is dispiriting!

In a sector fixated with impact and checking progress, there is an odd disconnect here. With learners we are all discussing how to identify progress, debating whether we can accurately assess the impact on learners of our work with them. Yet with professional development activities, the big focus is often on getting people to attend a session as opposed to noticing any learning later on.

It helps to focus on this question: You did some CPD but so what? 

These additional reflection and discussion questions can be useful:

What changed in your thinking?

What are you doing differently?

What might indicate the impact on the learners? What else might have contributed to that change?

Who could help you reflect on the impact on yourself?

How could you learn more about this area of practice?

What else do you need to do in this area, to develop it further?

Who else might be interested in this?

People who lead CPD activities (trainers, coaches, educators, team leaders, programme managers, mentors?) can incorporate this focus on reflection into their materials and also into their process with participants. It may be a sheet of questions, a set of email prompts, an online discussion board, a Skype conversation or a webinar with a group of participants in different locations. Technology can be a great tool for enabling some reflection and sharing across space and time, especially where it is impossible to be in a room together.

For me, it is important to plan how and when you will close that loop or it just may not happen. It is best planned at the outset so that the developmental work isn’t a one-off event but becomes an ongoing dialogue about learning. This isn’t easy but it is part of valuing professional learning and giving it the space and time to flourish.

I would like some development but I can never attend the sessions on the timetable for CPD

The timetable is often a beast and it can make finding time for CPD a real headache. Being creative, flexible and experimental can help. Different institutions have told me that they have found success with some of these approaches:

  1. Breakfast bite-sized CPD sessions, sometimes with a bap!
  2. Learning lunches with a theme or focus for discussion
  3. Tea and Teacher Talk, often with a facilitator/coach supporting the discussion and with cakes/fruit on offer
  4. Webinar, podcast and video materials for access at a time that works for you
  5. A twilight slot for training that moves in terms of which day of the week it falls on
  6. Phone/ Skype or Face Time coaching or 1:1 s with a manager or mentor or coach
  7. Making sure that part-time staff have some hours paid and allocated to developmental activities as part of their contracts. They affect learners, they work with colleagues and they should be entitled and enabled to develop, just like everyone else
  8. CPD sessions can be filmed so people can watch the clips and access the materials if they miss the actual delivery

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to be so inventive, but current realities make it essential, and using these approaches we can involve and engage more people with developmental activities that mean something to them and affect their practice. We can collaborate together on professional learning and grapple with meeting needs in creative ways. We can aspire to create CPD that is continual, professional and truly developmental.



Posted in Advanced Practitioners, CPD, CPD for Teachers, FE, Leadership of learning, Learning Leader, Professional Development, schools, Sharing good practice, Teaching and learning | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment