Monday, 12 November 2012

Are we there yet? - A journey to develop whole school Learning and Teaching

As a mother of a vivacious four year old (affectionately known as The Zoaster or Plaster Girl) the question 'are we there yet?' is one that has formed the background noise to my life. It has also been the question I have asked myself at key points over the last three years since  joining Canons High School to support the school in its journey towards outstanding learning and teaching. In this my first post I'm going to liken the journey we have been taking at Canons High to learning to drive (those who know me well will smile.. as I finally passed my test on the sixth attempt). Learning to drive (well) can be characterised by five stages.

 
Stage 1- Learn about your vehicle
Stage 2- Know the basic skills
Stage 3- Understanding how to interact with others and avoid distractions
Stage 4- Learn how to park and do other turns
Stage 5- Master the advanced skills

As a new colleague ( in other words an unknown quantity) and in my first appointment to SLT ( in other words an unknown quantity with no experience) and joining an established and successful team, I did feel like a learner driver along this road. With a few weeks grace to settle into my office, label my files, navigate my way around the many rooms I was to teach in ( thanks Mr Timetabler) I was thrown in at the deep end as a learner driver with a provisional licence into Canons Outstanding Pedagogy Project (OPP). With a very capable driving instructor in the form of @kevbartle I launched into a full day of INSET with a group of teachers who knew they were good but wanted to be better and be better consistently. So back to the learner driver. We set off as a group of teachers with our provisional licences and permission to begin change. We were keen and green and knew we wanted to move our practice in the classroom to a new level but we weren't totally sure what it would look like. The SLT like all good parents watching their children step into a car for the first time gave us the keys to the car and the green light to begin to make change happen, but wanted to know that we were prepared to learn and direct change in a coherent way that best met the needs of the learners and teachers.

We spent that first INSET day unpicking what outstanding teachers might say, do and feel, and what an outstanding learning experience might look like. We took the stance that pedagogy could be viewed as a Science, Art and Craft and set ourselves the task of exploring each of those areas. OPP continued to meet over the rest of the year and our ideas began to gain momentum. We rarely agreed on anything (WALT, WILF, TIBs or all, most, some) but the fruit of these sessions were that we began to become a school that increasingly talked about learning. Our discussions around pedagogy began to inform a new Learning and Teaching policy in which we began to lay out not only our philosophy for learning at Canons but the aspects of our school that enhanced learning and teaching.

As we made it to the end of the academic year we began to feel like we had pointed our car in the right direction, turned on the ignition and taken our first drive around the block.

Like all new models for improvement taking a bottom up approach was messy, but out of OPP emerged a small group of teachers who felt ready to take their discussion and debate to the wider staff body and more importantly to put themselves forward as leaders of pedagogy. July came and it was time to park the car over the summer but not before convincing SLT that although we had nothing quite concrete yet in the form of a Canons Pedagogy, they could trust OPP to launch their view of pedagogy Art, Science, Craft with all staff through the Teaching and Learning Communities (TLCs). The thinking being that in a similar way to OPP, teachers would deliver the Canons Pedagogy to the school themselves. Are we there yet? No. But we had found the ignition, turned the key and were getting a feel for how our car might work. Stage 1 complete.

The car pulled out again in September 2011 with our new TLC leaders/OPP members inviting all staff at Canons to join one of our TLCs. The question was do you want to develop the Art, Science or Craft of your practice? Once choices had been made it was a delight to watch colleagues train students to observe lessons and give feedback ( TLC Art), participate in peer observations and create a peer drop in observation sheet ( TLC Craft) and develop the use of Fronter to share good practice (TLC Science). There began to be a buzz around teaching and learning and it began to feel like we were learning the basics. We had got into our pedagogic cars, passed our test and picked up our full licences. We had to harness the gems from all areas of discussion around pedagogy and pick out what could work at Canons. What were they key features of the areas we were developing that would create a Canons Pedagogy or Canons way of learning and teaching? 2011-12 was a year in which we learnt how to manoeuvre our cars and show awareness of our surroundings; make safe turns, stop smoothly , shift gears, and when necessary reverse. It felt like we were gong in the right direction but we needed coherence. Are we there yet? No. But stage two complete.

OPP was still in full flow. So far all that we had done, tried and tested had come from OPP and its members so it made perfect sense to entrust the next steps of our journey to them. The key discussion questions for OPP as we entered the Spring term if 2011-12 were:
1. How can we structure learning?
2. What does effective learning and teaching at Canons High School look like?

OPP thrashed out the key features of two models of learning and agreed that the Accelerated Learning cycle (ALcycle) with it's clear,simple and logical four staged approach to structuring learning, would give us the framework upon which we might hang the different elements of the classroom practice we had been exploring. Okay that was question one addressed. But what of the second question? OPP had shown us that we had the talent from within our staff body, and we knew from lesson observations that elements of the proposed Canons Pedagogy were already being demonstrated to some extent in the classrooms of Canons High. Enter the Pedagogy Leaders  (AKA the Peds).  Six teachers promoted from our teaching pool, all judged as being able to demonstrate aspects of outstanding teaching and all wanting to contribute to the leadership of learning and teaching across the school. With growing confidence as we embarked on stage 3 our car was about to pick up speed.

Locked away in a tiny hotel conference room on their own (having asked myself and @kevbartle to leave) the newly appointed Pedagogy Leaders worked through what they saw as the strengths and weaknesses of learning and teaching at Canons. They grappled with the issues that Canons like all schools face and identified the systems we already had in place and the ones we might need in order to speed up the pace of improving our practice. They also reflected on their practice and areas of specialism and how they might be interwoven into the areas of whole school practice that needed development. With the ideas from this initial session flowing into subsequent meetings what emerged was the Canons Pedagogy. The AL cycle upon which to structure learning (the science), six learning themes that could be demonstrated through our practice (the craft), and the Canons High School 8 teaching techniques that teachers could master (the art). As they took us through stage 3 the Pedagogy Leaders had to learn how interact with their colleagues; support them, lead them and gain their trust and respect. Of equal importance was their determination to avoid the inevitable distractions; it was and will always be about learning for them. Are we there yet? No. But stage 3 complete.

As we moved towards the of the end of the summer term the main objective of the Pedagogy Leaders was to present the Canons Pedagogy to the wider teaching body. As leaders of learning we knew that some among us were waiting to see what these Peds had been up to since they were appointed seven weeks earlier. We knew that most would welcome a clear and transparent model for learning that was personalised to the needs of our school, but equally we knew that there would be one or two who would feel they had nothing new to learn.

The Lazy Teacher INSET day (used with permission after the event- thanks Jim Smith) pushed the idea that students learn best when they do more in the classroom and teachers do less. By carefully planning learning in a structured way using the AL cycle and employing a number of simple techniques like SOLO, Forum theatre and the Flipped Classroom the Pedagogy Leaders demonstrated how as teachers we can ensure learning and progress. The teaching techniques were helpful and as colleagues carouseled around workshops and focussed on each phase of the AL cycle, new methods were embraced and old ones were tweaked. This practitioner-led INSET was a key moment on our journey because it gave us a common vocabulary around which to talk about learning but left us with the freedom to create varied learning experiences based on our different characters, experience and the resources we had to hand. Colleagues saw how they could graft their skills, talents and experience into the AL cycle. The summer break was upon us and inevitably we had to park our car sensibly in order to continue our journey in September. Are we there yet? Not quite. But stage 4 complete.

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