It turns out, quite a lot. I was lucky enough to act as MC for this inspiring event during March 2014 in the heart of Wales and it struck me throughout that Wales has created an approach to experimentation and professional sharing that the wider sector could benefit from. So, how does it work?
In 2012 Wales held their first national T&L conference for the FE sector, where Geoff Petty presented on evidence based teaching methods and I shared findings from Supported Experiments cycles in England. Subsequently, the Welsh Government made available some funding through the Quality Improvement Fund (QIF) linked to T&L experimentation, so colleges could bid for a pot of cash to enable them to buy resources, bring in training or consultancy support etc. There is also a multi media repository available through CollegesWales’ Teachers’ Toolbox, with presentations, information and samples of practice that every college can access.
Over the year I attended several meetings of the Teaching and Learning network, which is coordinated by CollegesWales (an equivalent body to the AoC). The Teaching and Learning network is attended by key players from each college on a regular basis, and I supported the project planning and use of coaching approaches within the experiments cycle. At these network meetings, the participants shared progress updates, talked technology and resources, opened up about challenges and helped each other trouble shoot, to resolve any glitches within their experiments work. It was always an engaging, free and stimulating professional discussion, helping everyone get and stay on track with their experiment projects when they went back into college. There was a wealth of rich professional learning about how to establish a culture of experimentation and collaboration in colleges.
This is the kind of opportunity for cross-organisation sharing and reflection that I feel is really lacking in the FE sector in England. There is some really innovative and exciting work going on in England but at best I see colleges sharing at a small cluster group level or with partners. We have no consistent, wider sharing mechanism or forum available, that I am aware of. I am really hoping someone will be able to contradict me here and tell me about something fabulous I have missed! We all lose out because of this lack of sharing, I think. I am constantly linking up colleges who are working on the same T&L initiatives while out on a limb, with nobody to engage with and learn from. So they end up reinventing the wheel and falling into the same pitfalls that could have been avoided. We so need to work smarter and more collaboratively, to help all of us move forward, I think. These link ups also enables the stimulating wider professional dialogue that enhances our thinking and practice.
The dissemination event format
The format was interesting- a combination of snappy 6-minute main stage presentations from the colleges, followed by a Learning Fair, with tables displaying further resources from the experiments and people on hand to answer questions and explain details. The mix of formality and informality seemed to go down well and the presentation phase was a rich mix of reflection from project leaders, coaches and mentors and classroom practitioners. The audience could take a great deal from their learning points, both at the level of project implementation and classroom delivery, showing the potential of such a large scale dissemination event. After the presentations there was a question and answer slot, complete with roving microphones, with much engaged discussion and thoughtful commentary coming from the floor. At the Learning Fair, the stands buzzed with conversation, people reviewing resources, people watching video demonstrations and swapping contact details. It was a stimulating event with much food for thought and many areas to explore further next year.
In the afternoon, Mike Bell, a man steeped in evidence-based research and practice, gave a stimulating session on evidence-based teaching methods (EBT) He was able to respond to points arising from the morning and give a research-based perspective on certain aspects of the work. His session will also act as a springboard into identification of interesting avenues to explore for experiments next year, which will help Wales with the critical challenge of year two experimentation – keeping the momentum up, refining EBT skills and ensuring the experiments remain well-focused on students’ needs.
What made the Welsh work on Supported Experiments so inspiring?
1. Creative tailoring of the model to context and needs of each college.
Some colleges opted for whole college approaches with a wide, rich range of experiments owned by teachers (e.g. work at Coleg Sir Gâr and Coleg Ceredigion) These colleges also took the opportunity to develop and up-skill a T&L coaching/ facilitation group and reported back at the conference on the value of this for engaging staff, enthusing them and keeping up momentum over the life of experiments. At these colleges, the focus for experimentation was wide-ranging, from questioning strategies, to graphic organisers for assignment planning, to uses of IT to engage learners with target setting and feedback.
Some colleges opted for smaller scale pilot projects for specific cohorts, e.g. Gower College Swansea tried out recorded verbal feedback on student work on Level 2 Dip Motor Vehicle, A level Classical Civilisation and L4 Dip in Art and Design; St David’s Catholic College focused on improving reading skills for A level students and used the control group model discussed in evidence based reviews. Both colleges plan to use this pilot work in internal dissemination and develop it further, as well as looking for opportunities for wider experiments, so it has proved a positive pilot.
See this link for further information on the Supported Experiments model and evidence-based teaching methods:
This large-scale dissemination event ensured that all the colleges could reflect on the different models in use and take away ideas for the future. The opportunity to ask questions and seek out further details face to face was invaluable, I think.
2. Engagement of practitioners with further exploration of evidence based teaching methods.
Some colleges were already exploring these extensively but this project injected some drive and momentum into more reflective, deeper work in many settings. The range of methods being trialled was exciting and fascinating to hear about. Some examples were: assertive questioning at NPTC Group, digital toolkits for assessment for learning at Coleg Cambria; marking schemes for tutors and related feedback practices at Pembrokeshire College, to focus on developing learners’ literacy skills; video samples of classroom practice showing formative assessment methods at Grŵp Llandrillo Menai.
It was great to see practitioners, coaches and project leaders openly discussing the challenges and glitches they have encountered while trying out these new methods. It has been shown in research that changing practice is challenging and that multiple implementations of a new method are needed so that the practitioner refines their skill in using it and moves from conscious incompetence to unconscious competence.
Some NPTC Group teachers had experimented with assertive questioning and were reporting positive feedback from staff and students about effects on confidence and engagement. They had only had the chance so far for about a half term of actual implementation, so felt this was in its infancy and not yet embedded. They couldn’t yet report big changes in achievement and this sparked an interesting discussion about the need to persist with embedding these methods and seek longer term, harder achievement and outcomes data, to help us reflect on the wider impact on student performance of harnessing EBT methods. As Mike Bell pointed out, if you are going to bother to experiment with something, why not choose an EBT approach that has been trialled repeatedly under rigorous conditions and shown to work, as opposed to something mentioned anecdotally by some guru at a training session?!
3. Cross-organisation experimentation and the development of Professional Learning Communities.
Bridgend College, Coleg Gwent, Coleg y Cymoedd and Merthyr Tydfil College have collaborated during the experiments cycle. They established targeted supported experiments to create an inter-institutional PLC; they developed a catalogue of videos and other materials, including numeracy and assessment toolkits; they created innovative methods of sharing and communication including an e-platform. Their focus now will incorporate the setting up of a Quality Assurance group to oversee PLC resources and work on protocols to regulate categorisation of all resources. It was exciting to see how far down the road some colleges were in collaborative practice, with embedded coaching and CPD models enhancing their work. For colleges just beginning this journey, the network meetings and the dissemination event can give them access to what has been noted and learnt in colleges who have already taken this route before them. In England I find that these learning points are shared through case studies. Thanks again to the colleges who have been working on experiments and have generously shared their learning points with me here:
There seems to be less extensive and consistent face to face sharing and reflection going on across the FE sector outside Wales.
It was inspiring to see all the different colleges embracing the Supported Experiments model and using it to move forward T&L from where they were in their cultural, structural contexts.
What benefits are the Welsh colleges reporting from their experiments?
1. Improved teaching and learning observation grade profiles
Coleg Sir Gâr– 10% rise in excellent teaching and 4% improvement in learner outcomes to 84%; Coleg y Cymoedd reporting a rise of over 20% in good and excellent teaching, comparing 2012 and 2014 data, and saying that Supported Experiments are embedded in staff room vocabulary and a major factor in improved teaching.
Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate, gave its first excellent T&L grade in June 2013, to Yale College, Wrexham (Mid and North Wales Skills Consortium), now part of the newly merged Coleg Cambria. They stated:
All staff use wide range of effective teaching and training methods. Trainer-mentors and teaching staff use ILT highly effectively to enhance teaching, learning and assessment. Teachers make good use of applications which allow, for example, instant assessment and feedback.
These approaches have been at the heart of the Supported Experiments work at the college.
2. Positive impacts on culture
Many presenters commented on the enthusiasm that had been sparked in staff, during the experiments cycle, and the way it had encouraged them to try something new and build confidence in experimentation. For me, this is one of the most significant effects of experiments, as it creates a momentum behind experimental, reflective practice that can support more sustained improvement work. Here are just a few quotes from the colleges:
Staff have been energized in their teaching and have been encouraged to “think outside of the box.” They have had the opportunity to share resources and use technology
Working on this project gave the chance to extend the work of the ILT team into other areas of college
Controlled experiments encouraged colleagues to try new activities rather than relying on “tried and tested” methods in the classroom…there was a feeling that the new, innovative strategies did indeed have a positive impact on the attainment of learners
3. Tangible outcomes: resources and procedures
Many colleges shared classroom resources that will be invaluable for future CPD and use in practice, extending the embedding of EBT methods across institutions. There were toolkits for numeracy and assessment, a pack of rich and varied EBT approaches to giving feedback, a range of approaches to questioning for teachers to explore, a bank of videos and apps accessed via QR code (a clever way to encourage the less technologically inclined amongst us to add a QR reader to our Smartphones!) I saw a demonstration of how easy it is to use Poodll for recording verbal feedback comments for students’ work, on the Moodle platform.
For teachers starting or continuing work in these colleges next year, there will be an invaluable bank of practical, thoughtful practitioner-created resources to consider, explore and harness. Nobody is suggesting we need to copy others’ work wholesale – teachers in my experience are keen to identify how they can adapt, enhance and embed approaches and methods, thinking as a professional about their learning context. Of course, colleges with a dynamic coaching and mentoring network have a real advantage here, in their ability to accelerate and focus this implementation through peer coaching conversations. For more details of how coaching approaches can enhance experiments and peer dialogue, click
I know that I will be able to share some practical resources from these experiments in future so if you would like to access those, please follow this blog so you catch the relevant posting. Thanks to everyone involved in the exciting experiments in Wales this year and I look forward to seeing where the work goes on the next stage of the journey.
If you want to keep up to date with evidence-based teaching research and practice, I would strongly recommend joining EBTN.