It is time we had the big conversation and made some choices. We all work in the FE sector and know the kinds of barriers we see to really putting the focus on teaching and learning: bureaucracy, external pressures, politics and just lack of time for reflection and action. But some of this is about excuses, blame and not cutting through the layers to the centre of what we should be about – accelerating and maximising learning for the students we work with and enabling the staff to do their best to support them. So, let’s be clear headed and focused and think about what our colleges would need to focus on if we really centred our work on learners and learning improvement at all levels.
Every day in my work as a consultant, trainer and coach, I meet passionate, committed, skilled people who want to focus on improvement, who are inspired by learners and the potential for learning to change and enhance lives. I think we need to channel this drive more carefully, engage this expertise more thoughtfully. There is a whole lot of vision and a whole lack of action going on in some institutions I visit.
To leaders, I would like to propose that these questions could form a fruitful discussion inside your institution. You will know where best to place these questions, the forums and networks where they could yield insights and next steps:
1. How effectively do ideas for T&L improvement get shared within your college? Are there regular opportunities for good ideas to surface and take hold as actions? Is there enough focused reflection going on followed up with actual change?
In many of the colleges where I work, I hear practitioners comment on the scarcity of time to meet and the ineffectual processes for reflection and sharing practice. Ironic, or ridiculous, rather, in institutions dedicated to learning. It could be an interesting exercise to ask middle managers and staff about how this happens and what might improve that process. Then action as many points as possible, even if it takes meetings, banging heads together, working through glitches etc. A college dedicated to learning would focus time and attention on those activities, instead of just talking about doing them and not following through. I wonder how much time is spent weekly on bureaucracy and politics, which could be spend more usefully on reflection, sharing and solution focused action planning.
2. How well can managers keep in touch with what is happening on the ground in classrooms? Are they too far removed from classroom practice to help develop it effectively, due to other time constraints on their role?
I know many curriculum managers who feel they have almost become bureaucrats or resource administrators due to the demands for reports, audits and data submissions. I wonder how well they can lead improvements in their curriculum area if their role is so detached from teaching and learners on a daily basis. Learning walks, shadowing, visits, team teaching, informal observation and/or some actual teaching can remedy this, but requires a total re-think of the middle management role and in many cases, extensive up-skilling in staff development techniques and approaches. As leaders, do you want this role to drive learning improvement? In many colleges this message seems to be getting mixed up – many places are re-defining role descriptions for middle managers without being practical about the implications for everyday activities. I can see that changing the practical focus will take a lot more than re-drafting a JD.
3. How engaged are learners in giving regular, quality feedback on teaching and learning? I don’t just mean some end of course questionnaire or Learner Voice survey. I mean ongoing, regular, class level dialogue about how it is going and what could be altered or improved. One-minute paper feedback is useful for this. Big brother diary room video feedback clips can work well. How can social media and student forums/focus groups or round table discussions be part of this? Teachers swapping classes to do a reflective discussion can be very revealing, for example. As a leader, could you be part of encouraging this process and driving improvement forward as points emerge from it?
4. When problems or issues get spotted, how agile is the college/team/individual in responding? Many colleagues talk about the need to support learners further through ALS or additional workshops or tutoring but say that resources are lacking. Are resources being deployed appropriately and rapidly? Are there other creative ways of filling the gap and catching students before they fall? In your college, where is there effective practice in this area that needs sharing?
If we put some time, attention and focus on the areas above, I think we can make a difference to how things work. I think we can deliver better, to more learners and work better together as professionals. The question is, do we have the appetite and the persistence to have this big conversation and follow through on the outcomes? As a leader, are you up for this challenge?