Sharing practice sessions are a staple of CPD programmes in most of the colleges where I have worked as a teacher, trainer and coach and those in which I now work as a freelance consultant and trainer. There seems to be a widespread assumption that sharing practice from the classroom has value in and of itself, whereas I increasingly feel that the benefit is dependent on how it is done. For teachers to gain maximum benefit from these sessions, I think we need to move from simply sharing practice to a deeper and more focused reflection on practice.
Many sharing sessions that I have attended involve plenty of ‘show and tell’ elements, in which teachers describe their classroom approaches or activities and show resources to colleagues. This can become a process limited to basic narrative, telling the story of how teachers used the approach in class. Although it can be practical and useful to know how the activity or approach worked, the deeper professional dialogue comes from talking about how it affected the learners and the teacher and reflecting on glitches and potential enhancements. This deeper level of reflection can make these sessions rich, thought provoking and challenging for teachers. When these conversations have this kind of detail and depth, I have seen teachers debating the very nature of learning and what we can confidently say we know about how to facilitate it. Assumptions are made explicit and there is professional space to examine and challenge them in a respectful way. The session can then go way beyond conversations about how a checklist was used with level one in a speaking task, to the heart of our thinking processes, knowledge and professional practices.
This focus on reflection and professional critique also helps to tackle one of the other pitfalls of sharing practice sessions – the flawed but implicit notion that all approaches shared could be of value to you and worth adopting. Attendees at these sessions can feel a pressure to adopt wholesale some of the practices on show, whereas engagement with them as a critical friend for review, reflection and selective adaptation would be a more appropriate goal.
The way the session is configured can have a significant influence on the tone and style of the conversations that ensue. As the trainer or facilitator, it helps to create a space for high order critical thinking and encourage teachers to ask questions of each other and debate the benefits of the resources/activities on show. When you create a space for analysis and evaluation, teachers seem to feel more comfortable to offer challenges, critiques and even conflicting views, within a respectful professional dialogue. Subsequent conversations about evolving or adapting the ideas on show are so much richer and grounded in the teachers’ own knowledge and context. Without such critical space, I have watched sharing practice sessions stay on the surface limited to narrative, which for me is a lost opportunity to move our thinking on together.
For people who are thinking about ways to foster deeper reflection in their sharing practice slots, here are some food for thought questions:
- How reflective are the sharing practice sessions in your context? What shows you that?
- How could you encourage deeper professional reflection within them?
- What role could coaches or advanced practitioners play in this process?
- How could pre-session tasks help foster a spirit of reflection and debate in the conversations?
- What could happen after the sessions, to foster ongoing collaboration and reflection?