by Rebekah Hawthornthwaite, Assistant Principal and Assistant Director of Manchester Communication Research School.
One of the many implications of the global pandemic has been the impact it has had on schools’ capacity to implement and facilitate high-quality professional development. Not only are we juggling staggered timetables and social distancing, but the impact of school closures and the need for quality remote learning provision has also changed the nature of what professional development might need to include.
- What do our teachers most need to know and be able to do at this time that we haven’t done before?
- How is this different to the knowledge and skills in previous professional development and what remains the same?
- How can PD be effectively facilitated in the ever-changing landscape of localised and national lockdowns, and with staff sometimes needing to self-isolate at a moment’s notice?
These are just some of the many, many questions that buzzed around my head as I took my first steps into MCA this September. Newly appointed to senior leadership, in a new school, and facing the challenges we all face as teachers during this pandemic, I certainly felt that I had more questions than answers.
More importantly, with the EEF’s rapid evidence assessment into the potential impact of school closures suggesting that the disadvantaged gap would have widened by a median estimate of 36%, I knew that the stakes were high. The evidence suggests that good teaching is the most important lever schools have to improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. (EEF’s Pupil Premium Guide, p.5) so ensuring that PD effectively addressed elements of good teaching was crucial. Clear explanations, scaffolding, guided practice and feedback need to be secure in both classroom and remote provision. It sounds obvious, really. But with so much noise around schools re-opening, it is easy to see how school leaders have to struggle to keep teaching and learning at the forefront of the conversation.
During the first lockdown, I was aware of the many examples of excellent remote PD that had risen to the challenge. Twitter was alive with inspiring examples of everything from learning to optimise the use of new technology to developing subject-specific communities. Now that we were back in school, how could we maintain this momentum? Being back meant that people’s time was less flexible and that all of the other day-to-day priorities (not least the lingering anticipation of a positive case) would impact on our capacity to deliver. Luckily, the EEF’s rapid evidence assessment of remote professional development was hot off the press as I began my new role.
You can read the report here:https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Remote_PD_Evidence_Assessment.pdf
Finding 1 in the report was especially reassuring. Whilst I had worried about finding a space big enough to get everyone together but socially-distanced, the report found that the evidence was mixed as to whether remotely delivered PD is more or less effective than face-to-face. Crucially, it found that other design features are likely to be more important to PD outcomes than whether the delivery is undertaken face-to-face or remotely. As a key priority, I was grateful to see that the hour-long slot on a Friday had been protected for PD, which meant that all teachers can access pre-recorded videos, virtual meetings and reading at the same time without being in the same room.
Whilst the findings indicate that synchronous and asynchronous PD can both be effective for different reasons, I have found that synchronous has generally worked for us – not because it is synchronous per ser, but because it has carved-out time within the school day to enable staff to participate whilst balancing the rest of their workload. I can certainly see the benefit of asynchronous sessions but, as Finding 6 of the report advocates, school leaders need to support staff to prioritise their PD and providing protected time for this is one of the ways they can do this effectively.
The other findings in the report have also informed the development of our PD model, as well as the training we offer as a Research School. Notably, Finding 4 of the report: providing opportunities for collaboration has been important to us. We have continued to operate learning communities that are focused on our teaching and learning priorities and these provide colleagues with rich opportunities to share good practice. Likewise, we are expanding our capacity for coaching and increasingly using IRIS as a means to collect classroom examples without breaching restrictions.
So, whilst questions still buzz around my head, I can reassure them with evidence-informed responses and the inspiring enthusiasm of a teaching community that never gives up on getting better.