Tuesday 22 January 2013

Practitioner-Led INSET: Casting the Net Wider

I have already blogged about last Monday's INSET Day here, but that was merely about the opening session of the day on Marginal Learning Gains.  Whilst that was a wonderful start to the day, I have to say that the real magic happened once I stopped speaking at the end of that session.

Up until last Monday our four Outstanding Pedagogy Project INSET Days since June 2012 had all been fabulous in terms of content and had been extremely favourably reviewed by our wonderful staff, but they had lacked two vital ingredients that I think make a truly exceptional INSET Day:  an element of choice for those on the receiving end and the corollary of wider engagement of in-school expertise in the delivery of the day's sessions.

And so it was that when I sat down with my Pedagogy Leader colleagues Aarti Sharma, Rebecca Howard (@MissHowardCHS) and Joe Freeman (@biomadhatter) to plan the details of the day late in November that there were only two elements of the day that I felt were non-negotiable. The first of these was the theme of 'Evaluation' (more on this below) and the second was that we ran enough sessions during the course of the day to enable our teachers to have a significant amount of choice about what it was that they went to see and hear and experience. They were, as Joe has said to me in the past, on it like tonic (No? Me neither!).

Having spent INSET time on the Accelerated Learning Cycle, on key classroom techniques for learning, upon collaborative planning and upon coaching for both pedagogy and leadership we had agreed that this last major planned INSET day would be on the topic of in-class evaluation. Earlier this year, and following two years of Masters study into assessment practices, I launched our school's "Evaluation, Appraisal and Assessment Policy". The three-pronged title of the policy was related to an underestimated document produced by the then Department for Children, Schools and Families on Assessment for Learning that identified three core timings of assessment: the day-to-day, the periodic and the transitional. My belief in writing the policy was that the focus in our classrooms had become too level or grade oriented and that there was a loss of focus on the qualitative nature of day-to-day assessment.

For this reason the policy includes the statement "we believe that the primary mode for helping students to improve their understanding and, as a consequence, their performance against national expectations, is day-to-day teacher, peer and self-evaluation".

Further to this the policy (which spans only two sides of a bright green sheet of paper) lists seven elements of what our priorities are for in-class evaluation of student performance. These are written in a form of preferences, and are:

- Qualitative information about achievement is more powerful than quantitative data

- Open-ended tasks offer better learning opportunities than closed-ended ones

- Collaborative working enables students to develop better than individual working

- Teacher observation of learning is more effective for students than teacher marking

- Instand feedback and feed-forward is more engaging than retrospective evaluation

- Self-discovery, through exploratory learning is more powerful than teacher-led learning

- Interdependent interactions stimulate learning better than independent thinking

The policy then warns against a 'false dichotomy' approach and says "while we value those features of teacher evaluation shown on the right hand side of each statement, we place more value on the features shown on the left hand side". For this reason we decided that our INSET Day on in-class evaluation should be practitioner-led (always the case these days at Canons) and about all those left hand side statements. Presented on the morning of the INSET they looked like this.

At that first meeting with the three Ped Leaders, having established the focus on evaluation and the principle of choice I left it up to them to identify how we would go about doing it. They decided that what they really wanted to do was throw it open to as many people as possible and create a series of four workshops with six choices: a total of 24 sessions for our teaching staff of 68. They like a challenge do our Ped Leaders!!

And so began the period of arm-twisting. Within a matter of a couple of weeks they had informed then discussed then persuaded then nagged then bribed then whatever else they could think of to get takers. We were helped by the fact that a number of our Heads of Departments wanted time with their teams in the afternoon and so we limited the workshop slots to three, meaning only 18 sessions were needed, but it was still some effort. Their main persuasive technique was to reassure staff that they weren't looking for something out of the ordinary in terms of either content or delivery style. Instead what they wanted was for the teachers involved in delivery to show what they do and in the way they do it: proper practitioner-led stuff.

Along the way we also decided that we wanted some mini-TeachMeets on the day, with 5 minute micro-presentations to complement the 45 minute workshop slots. We hoped we might get enough for one of these sessions but ended up with two (mainly because the Peds 'let people off' a longer session if they were willing to do a TeachMeet slot instead!!).

And so the running order for the workshop sessions ended up looking like this:

In all, including the TeachMeets, there were 19 members of staff (almost a third of our teachers) leading sessions to demonstrate their in-class evaluation strategies and techniques: from Punk Learning to Trajan's Column and from SOLO (at beginner and advanced levels) to CRESS feedback and from a Culture of Critique to Green Pen Policy. The contributions came from across the curriculum, across the range of experience and across the leadership spectrum and were all coordinated by three young teachers who had contributed to some of our previous INSETs but had never before led the organisation of one.

At the end of the day we asked staff to fill out two post it notes with What Went Wells and Even Better Ifs. Having had fabulous feedback from our previous three INSETs this was the bit that had me more than a little nervous. You see, when you cast the net wider in order to have more contributors to INSET in order to generate meaningful choice then you also have to let go: you have to sacrifice the certainty of tight quality control mechanisms and instead place your utter trust in the professionalism of your colleagues, all 19 of them.

When I saw the EBI flipchart sheet fill up my heart sank but I made myself (and my Ped Leader colleagues) look at the jam-packed WWW flipchart sheet first. What I saw there was amazing. Less sparkly than the praise for our previous INSET Days (although still sparkly enough) this praise was richer and deeper and altogether more satisfying. Twelve of the nineteen contributors were mentioned positively by name, eleven respondents mentioned the Punk Learning sessions and eight mentioned the TeachMeets as a positive part of the day.

On a more qualitative note, powerful phrases such as the day being a "chance to see excellent practitioners showing what they're good at" and being filled with "more hands on activity rather than listening to information" were extremely rewarding. Teachers repeatedly talked about the "variety" of workshops and the "thought-provoking" nature of them, with one colleague being particularly positive in saying "I would have liked another day to attend more sessions". The positive feedback fills two pages of a narrow-margined Word document and is a delight to read in terms if both immediate impact and phrases full of future intention such as "I felt that I had picked up bits of good practice that were marginal gains for my practice" and "some ideas that the English Department can definitely adapt".

Eventually I plucked up the confidence to turn to the EBIs. I needn't have been worried as fifteen of them were about departments being given more time "to put new ideas into practice" or "to develop the good ideas from today". This could hardly be called criticism and of the eighteen developmental comments not asking for more departmental time, seven were asking for more workshops or longer workshop sessions. Two others were asking for the materials for all the sessions to be made available and two others asking for outside speakers tonbe involved in the INSET. Only four of the comments were specifically negative about an aspect of the day. The old adage of not pleasing all the people all the time rings true, but this was as good as I've ever seen in terms of feedback for such a wide-ranging INSET Day.

So well done to the Ped Leader trio for their triumphant INSET Day. And well done too to the almost score of teachers who certainly hit the back of the net with their contributions to a fantastic piece of peer-led professional development.

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