“I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught” Winston Churchill
This quotation from Churchill seemed particularly relevant this week, as teachers across the country began the new academic year with at least one INSET day. As teachers, it is hopefully fair to make the assumption that we appreciate and have enjoyed learning. For many, it’s our passion and increasingly, teachers engage in their own professional learning throughout their career. However, INSET days as a learning opportunity are not always received or perceived as truly developmental or enriching. Why is that? Is it because at the start of the term our brains are occupied with the apprehension, possibly anxiety of those first few moments, hours, days in the classroom? Is it because after a restful summer, it is difficult to shift gears back into our learning zone? Or is it because our experience of INSET may not have offered us a chance to think hard or reflect in a way that moves our own professional practice forward?
Whatever the reason, it poses a challenge for those of us who lead on CPD in our schools and spend months designing, planning and preparing to deliver INSET days. How do we set the tone for the coming year and meet the learning needs of a large and diverse group of professionals? That’s not to say we don’t revel in the challenge!
At Manchester Communication Academy, we have two INSET days at the start of the new year before the students arrive. This year, our theme was ‘Architects of the Extraordinary’. We themed our table plans around extraordinary Mancunians; we shared stories of our extraordinary students who had achieved against the odds; we celebrated our extraordinary teams with a ‘Watch this Space’ showcase from each department, and we focused on how we become architects of the extraordinary through our application of some key principles of cognitive science and our understanding of memory. Teachers and TAs attended workshops that were bespoke to their own misconceptions and with deliberate practice and peer feedback, they hoped to create extraordinary lessons.
It’s important to say that as a school and a Research School we have spent a lot of staff training time on developing our understanding of how learning happens and cognitive science. At the beginning of our planning for these days, we were concerned that for our more experienced staff, they may see this as repetition and not a chance to learn something new. We hoped to address this with the inclusion of deliberate practice and the increase in complexity of knowledge and research. Also with the explicit acknowledgement that some of this we have covered before, but this doesn’t necessarily account for long term learning.
Evaluation of CPD is difficult and as a Research School, it is a big focus for us this year: How do we know that any training and development opportunities that we offer leads to a change in learning that leads to a change in practice that ultimately leads to an improvement of student outcomes? Evaluation of CPD is not about how good the lunch was or how much you liked the presenter-although these things are important!
So as a starting point, I asked some of our teachers to reflect on their learning from our INSET days. What new learning did they acquire? What misconceptions were corrected? What difference will this make? Some of these reflections are below:
- I always thought having a good memory was something you either had or didn’t have – you were either good at recalling information or you weren’t. Paradoxically, it’s the act of recalling the information that gives you a ‘good memory’
- It is important to make meaningful connections to new and existing information and make this connection explicit to move learning forward and create a deep and meaningful schema that will continue to grow and evolve.
- Students often already know a large amount of the content they’re being taught (estimated by Nuthall to be as much as 50%). This means that sometimes what we think is a link to prior knowledge is really repetition. Therefore, we must carefully consider how to build on the existing knowledge. What we sometimes mistake for good learning e.g quick responses, tasks being begun immediately etc. often indicates that the student doesn’t need to think hard enough to complete the work. Students should have to pause and deliberate.
- Selecting the most important knowledge to practice is key when thinking about retrieval practice. This will allow the practice to be most effective and have the biggest impact. This is also key when we are thinking about students’ cognitive load on the working memory. We do not want this to be overloaded with information that won’t have a big impact. Think about the highest leverage knowledge (Most important).
Alongside these, I asked some of the Teaching and Learning team to reflect on the process of designing and delivering effective professional development and the experience of being a delegate. These reflections included:
- It was great to be given time to refine an upcoming lesson during our ‘How learning happens’ breakout session. This allowed us to apply the training delivered to ensure our upcoming lesson effectively managed student’s attention effectively with clear and concise instructions. Using feedback, it changed my approach of delivering an aspect of this lesson to ensure the student’s attention was directed at the key information delivered.
- Multiple choice questions for staff are a great way to pull out nuances in misconceptions.
- Pairing staff for practice from different subjects helps make the feedback less threatening – non-specialists are great proxies for novice students.
The next stage for evaluation is linked to our quality assurance processes-what do we see in the classroom and how does this impact on student learning? Watch this space.