A compelling body of research shows us how leaders can improve the quality of teaching and learning. Key messages from Joyce, Showers and Timperley in their work on effective staff development are reinforced by the think piece “Leading learning in further education,” by the 157 Group and CfBT Education Trust (May 2011). One consistent message emerges loud and clear from the literature. Despite competing priorities, leaders need to focus on creating a culture in which teaching and learning are truly a priority:
“The effective leadership of learning appears to involve four areas of practice: Investing time and resources to promote the professional development of staff ; Having a close involvement in the management of the teaching programme; Setting clear directions for the organisation, including the centrality of teaching and learning; Establishing a culture that respects the professionalism of teachers and empowers them to innovate” (pg. 30) As one Principal notes in the thinkpiece, the current context in education makes this a challenging proposition:
“Everything militates against it; the need to maintain financial viability, implement continual policy changes….the challenge is making time and keeping teaching and learning at the forefront” (pg. 22)
One way that leaders can foster a culture of innovation and reflection is to set up a Supported Experiments cycle, sending a message to staff that the improvement of teaching and learning is a top priority. Based on an action learning model promoted by author, teacher and trainer Geoff Petty, the Supported Experiments cycle takes place in five stages:
1.Staff identify areas that they need/want to work on, to improve student achievement
2.Staff investigate new approaches and receive training on evidence based methods
3.Staff devise experiments to try out new approaches
4.Peer coaching sessions encourage staff to share good practice
5.Good practice is disseminated widely in the organisation and embedded
The benefits of this cycle
- Teachers can address a specific issue that affects achievement for their students and focus on improving that, encouraging autonomy, ownership and a differentiated approach to development. If experiments incorporate evidence based methods, the teachers are using approaches that have been shown to work in large-scale research studies, increasing the likelihood of success
- Experiments and peer coaching sessions take place over a period of time (typically 6-12 months as a minimum), giving opportunities for extended reflection in teams.
- The cycle includes stages for capturing outcomes and disseminating them, so that resources from experiments can be shared. Unlike many initiatives, Supported Experiments result in a tangible product that staff can use, in the form of summaries of experiments and related classroom materials.
- This model helps build a culture of collaboration and communication about teaching and learning issues, making space for professional discussions to flourish and strengthening team cohesion. It’s a flexible model that can be tailored to small groups or teams or run as a whole organisation approach The peer coaching element can help you to embed coaches into the organisation and develop their skills in a structured manner, if relevant training is provided.
The role of leaders in Supported Experiments
I’ve been working with over twenty colleges on Supported Experiments, providing project management guidance and training for coaches. Leaders have a key role to play in creating the supportive environment mentioned in the thinkpiece by 157 Group and CfBT, in which Supported Experiments can thrive. They can do this by:
- Creating a clear, concise vision of how Supported Experiments connect with wider strategic goals and inspiring staff to engage with that message
- Providing the essential timeslots for peer coaching and sharing sessions to take place by shaping the college calendar to accommodate these- many exciting projects have died a premature death due to lack of time allocated to them
- Identifying some budget to fund training, cover and overtime payments for coaches, as required
- Setting up a cross college working group to manage the cycle of experiments and ensuring they have relevant project management expertise
- Monitoring the progress of experiments with teachers and managers in order to maintain momentum
When coaches and the project team are trained appropriately and the Supported Experiments cycle is managed well, there can be great benefits for students, teachers and the wider college culture. The Supported Experiments cycle has a great deal to offer leaders in terms of creating a culture of innovation and reflective practice. We would do well to respond to the steer that is emerging from research and use this model more frequently.
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