A Culture of Practice

Practice plays a huge part in teacher development in our school and this week I was reminded of just how effective it can be. Doug Lemov, in Practice Perfect, writes that “Great practice…is not merely a triumph of design and engineering, but a triumph of culture.” Here I share five examples from the last week which exemplify how powerful a culture of practice can be.

Practising our questioning

We want our CPD to have a lasting impact, so we will often organise a practice session to follow on from a more theoretical session the previous week. Last week we had Principal Teachers from various subjects delivering questioning training as part of a carousel for staff. Following this, we asked teachers which strategies they would like to practise. This meant that we focussed on wait time and stretching students with follow-up questions.

DKA Practice 1My colleague Simon has put a great deal of effort into designing and refining a model of practice which works. We always start with a good model, so in this instance I used Teach Like a Champion videos to show narrated and silent wait time and effective deeper questioning. Before practising, I asked staff to script possible questions/ phrases they might use and to reflect on how they would ensure wait time was effective. Because practice is so common in our CPD sessions, we don’t need to spend too much time explaining what everyone has to do. Everyone practises; everyone feeds back. The only problem this week-if this can even be considered a problem-was that some groups became far too interested in discussing questioning strategies that they didn’t all get to practise. I saw many of the strategies used in lessons later in the week and I am sure that I’ll continue to see them over time.

Practising our coaching

On Tuesday Simon led a session on giving coaching feedback with our Heads of Faculty and Principal Teachers. We have a whole half term dedicated to ensuring that our coaching is high quality and consistent, which gives us the luxury of spending time practising. (Coaching involves weekly low-stakes observations and short feedback meetings.) We practised how we might ‘tease out’ a coaching target from a coachee, ensuring they retained ownership of it, and also the key idea of linking praise to concrete examples. I obviously buy in to these practice sessions, but the culture feels so embedded that all leaders participate fully and this can only be a good thing. Practising coaching doesn’t just help us to coach others; it can help us to become better at coaching ourselves.

Practising our meetings

As this session was going on, Heads of Year were in the room on the opposite side of the corridor, practising  for the meetings they would each be having with form tutors the following day. There are some important changes happening to tutor time and they wanted to be clear and consistent in the message. I am a year eleven form tutor and on Wednesday I was in the year team meeting where the impact of the practice was obvious. The presentation was clear and every part of it made sense. For me, the presentation was excellent, not only because of the content (sensible changes that removed any unnecessary admin and focused on the core roles of form tutors) but because of the way the explanation was delivered by Nick, the HoY. Talking to another Head of Year, he felt that this practice session had been incredibly useful and that we should arrange more of them. Which we will.

Practising our routines

This week a new senior leader joined us and was immediately given a practice session on school routines, along with a cover supervisor. Practice can be difficult and uncomfortable for some, so there is often a sense that we might have to sell it. But the best way to get ‘buy in’ is often just to practise and then the benefits are tangible. Not only do these introductory sessions mean that certain school routines are embedded quickly, but an appreciation of practice can happen too. I believe that practising classroom routines on the first day back was such a fundamental part of establishing the positive school atmosphere that we have at Dixons Kings. Far more useful than a school policy document, far more hands on than a powerpoint, practice works.

Practising in coaching

In our weekly coaching feedback meetings, there is often a chance to practise. This won’t necessarily always happen, but the opportunity can be taken. This is certainly the area where practice is not yet fully embedded, and we have a CPD session on Tuesday with coaches looking at this. As a coach, I have found that practice and rehearsal works well with all teachers, whatever their level of expertise and experience. I work with some excellent teachers and with them practice means that we can have a very precise focus and get it right. For example, one great teacher I have been working with has been focussing on her tone of voice during errors, experimenting to avoid a tone of disapproval while indicating that we must be fastidious in avoiding errors. Practice is great for this kind of thing.

On Tuesday we will be practising practising. I know that today Simon will be rehearsing his session, which means that he will be practising practising practising. And you don’t get more committed than that!

See also these two posts on practising in subject teams:

Subject specific practice

Practice: a collaborative approach to successfully tackling curriculum changes (written by my head of department)

Mini whiteboards- the essential classroom tool

I have not always seen eye to eye with mini whiteboards. I hated handing them out, storing them, pens running out, pens going missing, not having enough, doodles, scribbles, drawings of inappropriate things, drawings of me, inappropriate drawings of me. In the past I would trot them out every so often before inevitably dismissing them as just too much of a hassle. Yet now I use mini whiteboards in every lesson and I can’t imagine teaching without them. Perhaps these are not the most fashionable tools in the education world, but here are the reasons why I find them indispensable.

Whiteboards are a way of getting immediate feedback about student understanding, with an effective sequence always starting with a well-designed task or question. Rather than just waiting as students write, this time can be used to seek the most useful responses. Do most students get it or not? Where are the great examples that can be used as models? Where are the examples of common errors that students can learn from? Which students are making the same errors?

Depending in what our checking tells us, there are many options:

  • Stop the task and reteach something immediately.
  • Give a simple piece of corrective advice to address a common problem e.g. ‘remember to mention the writer’.
  • Choose a range of responses (usually three) for students to compare.
  • Pick one example that is ‘nearly there’ and ask the class to improve it.
  • Sequence the responses shared so that they become increasingly more sophisticated.
  • Find answers with a common thread and ask students to connect them (really useful for language analysis).
  • Find three errors and ask students to connect them.
  • Teach the students who don’t understand in a small group. See in-class interventions.

MWBIf the first board I checked was this one, I would be thinking about spelling, particularly character names. Is this student the only one getting these wrong? I know that in this lesson I shared a model paragraph on the board and the phrase ‘ultimately lead to’ has been lifted from that and used incorrectly, so I need to know if others have made the same error. I could choose this board to look at the spelling of ‘ultimately’. We could use it as a fairly decent first attempt at an opening paragraph and ask students to rework it to make it better. I could seek out another contrasting set of adjectives used to describe Sheila and ask students to compare. Or I might not use this board at all-there are plenty of others to choose from! The main thing is, I don’t want to leave it to a randomly selected student response and hope it tells me something. By getting every student to write a response to a clear and unambiguous question (not ‘hands up if you don’t understand’), I can be reasonably sure of the class picture and do something about it.

There are other benefits of using whiteboards too. One of the issues that we have, as I am sure many schools do, is the use of unnecessary fillers in spoken responses. Part of the reason for this is, I feel, is students’ lack of confidence in what they are saying. Or that they don’t know what they are going to say before they start saying it. The few seconds it takes to write a couple of ideas down on a whiteboard can help to eliminate both of these. Add in grammar issues, not answering in sentences and the ubiquitous ‘innit’, and we have a number of elements that a quickly prepared written response can help to eliminate.

I want my students to develop excellent habits of editing, proofreading and redrafting. Whiteboards help me to create a culture where this is expected. It starts with making sure the first thing they write is high quality, and there’s an increased accountability when students write on whiteboards. When they know it will be held up and discussed, there is an incentive for it to be their best work. It’s easy to edit work quickly on a whiteboard and far less messy. With a constant focus on the quality of these short responses, students start to self edit, even as they are reading out their answers. They can spot the errors in other students’ answers and then fix their own. It’s easy for the teacher to correct the spelling of the word ‘beginning’ on a board and then instruct others in the class to fix it if they made that mistake. It’s great for adding commas or colons in the right place. Even as students write in their exercise books, they can make notes on whiteboards.

AOS 3Every lesson at our school starts with a Do Now which is completed on the whiteboards. It means that lessons start in a calm and prompt manner and it is efficient when we don’t have to wait for books to be handed out. The ability to immediately write something down on whiteboards can also help to eliminate the ridiculous amount of time it takes for some students to write the title and date.

Some argue that teachers might only do work on whiteboards in order to avoid marking books. Well, of course! And there’s nothing wrong with that. The fact is, I’m not going to mark everything students write in their book and I can’t mark it if it is only in their head. If it is written on a whiteboard, I am giving immediate feedback and in a fraction of the time it takes to mark books- in many ways it is more beneficial than marking books.

But what about the problems that I listed before? Surely these won’t go away. Much of what we try and do at Dixons Kings is to make it easy for teachers to teach and students to learn, so behaviour systems and classroom routines are crucial to ensure students don’t often exhibit those off-task behaviours. As for the equipment issues, every classroom has a set of whiteboards on desks and students must carry a pen with them as part of their essential equipment. Without these systems, I wouldn’t use whiteboards, especially as I don’t have my own classroom.

We designed a mini whiteboard routine which is used by all teachers in the school. When we want students to hold up their boards, we say, “3-2-1… show me.” They hold boards up with two hands then we say “track student x” and that student reads their answer out. We come back to these routines in our practice sessions to ensure they are consistent. There are some who might argue that these routines reduce creativity or lead to ‘robotic’ teaching. Yet they have allowed me to be the most creative I have ever been as a teacher and I would welcome anyone to come and visit to see just how much this routine and some of the others free teachers up to actually teach. Without these whole school approaches, you can still design a whiteboard routine that works for you. Consider in advance how equipment is stored and handed out and expectations during the sequence.

So, have a rummage in your stock cupboard, find the discarded whiteboards (I guarantee there will be some) and start using them.

Driving your own CPD

CPD1The drive to work is a nuisance that we would all rather do without. Instead of letting it become dead time, there are ways that your commute can become a productive way to develop teaching. Here are three ideas to use the car journey to get your CPD in gear. (Ok, that is the last pun, I promise.)

Practice and rehearsal

Teachers can improve by practice and rehearsal and the car is a great place to do this. We can practise explanations to ensure that what we say in class is precise and effective. We can think about and prepare responses for the lesson derailing comments that students typically make: “Can we have a fun lesson?”; “I was only talking about the work!”; “When am I ever going to need Shakespeare?” If you deliver training sessions, it helps to rehearse them. When you don’t practise them, like a recent presentation I delivered on threshold concepts, there can be unnecessary confusion. Another thing worth practising is the difficult conversation: with students, with parents and sometimes with colleagues. You might get some funny looks if caught in traffic, but you will get worse looks singing along to ABBA. See this post on Talking to Myself for more.

Audiobooks

If you feel that you never have enough time to read books, audiobooks are priceless. Before you know it, you will have listened to several books on the commute. I tend to choose books that I might not otherwise read in my free time such as those on leadership, organisation and history. My ‘reads’ this year have included Practice Perfect, Getting Things Done (both books I had already read and wanted to recap), The Advantage, Built on Values (both about values driven organisations), The Great Courses: Victorian Britain and Just Listen. All of these have been very useful but I’m not sure if I would have read them were it not for my drive to work. Get a free trial with Audible and give it a go.

Podcasts

While I am not ready to replace Shakespeare with Serial, as one English teacher did, I do love a good podcast. There are none that I listen to that are specifically about teaching, but there are many that focus on things that we often overlook in teacher development such as organisation, productivity, health and wellbeing. Beyond the To Do List, the 5am Miracle, Cool Tools and This is Your Life with Michael Hyatt are some that I have found useful. I also like Steal the Show, which offers advice on how to present to audiences. Podcasts are free, so you can experiment with a few. Mystery Show will do nothing to improve your teaching but you should listen to it anyway.

Not all CPD can take place in a car- don’t try and host a teachmeet in a Corsa.

Subject specific practice

Last week I wrote about how we practised classroom routines on the very first day back at Dixons Kings Academy and the benefits are still clear two weeks in. But while whole school routines undoubtedly have value, they aren’t the only things worth practising. That is why we followed up that first practice session with one designed by individual departments.

Some departments chose to continue to develop routines unique to their settings, with Science looking at practical lesson routines and P.E. focusing on changing rooms. In English, we considered the teaching of structure in the new GCSE.

The MFL department focused on getting better at using target language and they invited me in to watch a follow up practice session this week. The session was designed by the Principal Teacher of MFL, Amy Evans, following the method designed by Simon Gayle, who leads on practice across school. It was a joy to witness and I thought it would serve as a good model to illustrate the key elements of practice.

Create an effective model

MFL PracticeThe model is crucial, because if you practise something that isn’t good enough, then you are getting better at the wrong thing. In this instance, the MFL department were looking at the language that they would use to manage lesson transitions, explanations of tasks and mini white board work.

While the pre-planned model was strong, the team identified some things they would still need to translate e.g. the best name for working in pairs. It wasn’t as simple as translating word for word because they needed to use cognates, words in the target language (in this case Spanish) which sound similar to their English counterparts. Often, with practice sessions, this discussion would occur after the model had been practised and suggested improvements come to light, but here it was an important part of ensuring that they were practising the right things in the first place.

Practise

Now that the model has been established, one teacher practises. They are the teacher and the others are the students. This is the part where purposeful practice might descend into horrible role-play if we let it. It definitely isn’t about pretending to be kids and acting in a childish manner- there is nothing more cringe-worthy than an adult pretending to be Kevin the Teenager (unless the adult is Harry Enfield). We should be experiencing something that is likely to occur in the classroom- the whole purpose of practise means to effectively rehearse for regular classroom situations. Of course it can never be exactly like a classroom but David Beckham didn’t practise free kicks because the practice was exactly like a game; he practised because when a free kick inevitably came up in a game, he was drilled in exactly what to do.

MFL4The teacher practising needs to try to eliminate self-consciousness, which I know is difficult for some. Once the first tentative steps are made, practising becomes easy and routine. The MFL team, with a shared purpose, were able to put this self-consciousness to one side so they could focus completely on making speaking in target language second nature.

MFL3Like any department, the MFL team has a range of teachers with different levels of experience and different areas of specialism. We have the experienced Head of Faculty still striving to improve their teaching, the Teach First participant developing their craft, the French specialist benefitting from practice in Spanish, the native Spanish speaker reflecting on a novice’s perspective. Well designed practice will have something for everyone.

Throw a spanner in the works

Each round of practice has a ‘spanner in the works’. We felt that an unpredictable element in practice sessions would be beneficial, and the ‘spanners’ are designed to ensure that. They should be about testing the model, rather than just throwing in something ridiculous like a bumblebee in the room (hay un abejorro en el aula). Two examples of ‘spanners’ for this practice session were:

‘Purposefully use the wrong gender when completing the Do Now activity for person 2.’

‘Use ‘me gusta’ + verb in the ‘I form’ e.g. ‘me gusta nado’ for person 3.’

Most of the time, teachers make mistakes practising anyway, so there are always plenty of spanners.

Give feedback

After the teacher has practised, somebody feeds back. Ideally, they then practise again following the feedback, although this isn’t always possible. In many cases, the one practising has already given their own feedback! It’s not unusual to see someone pop out of practice mode to reflect: ‘I wonder if it might be best to…’ or ‘Can I try that again because…’. It was great to see the MFL teachers do this because  this means that they can practise on their own, and can reflect quickly in a real classroom situation.

MFL2Feedback can and should be ‘nitpicky’. In this case, a mispronunciation or a grammatical error here and there needed to be picked up. If a ‘student’ makes an error, accidentally or on purpose, and the teacher didn’t spot it, it must be identified. Here, in this supportive environment, with a focus on a tiny sequence of teaching, the MFL teachers were getting the most helpful subject-specific feedback. Honestly, they won’t get this highly focused feedback from non-specialists.

I hope this is a clear portrayal of the habits and benefits of subject-specific practice. The team clearly value practice, because this actually took place in the time allocated for department meetings, and they had not been ‘directed’ to practise. All admin had been taken care of so they could concentrate solely on improving their teaching. If only all department meetings were like this.

 

 

 

 

Practising classroom routines

On Thursday I took a walk around the school during a lesson changeover. Students were walking out of lessons quietly and calmly, teachers were greeting their new classes as they arrived, and within 3 minutes work was taking place. Every lesson was different, but there was a consistency that meant that it was easy for students to learn. This wasn’t left to chance; it was the result of two hours of dedicated practice of classroom routines seven days earlier.

Our routines are so important, but when systems and routines are the sole preserve of the classroom teacher, we get inconsistency. And inconsistency is unfair. It’s especially unfair on the students, because they don’t know what to expect. Behaviour that is acceptable in one lesson suddenly merits a sanction in another lesson. It’s unfair on the experienced teacher who works tirelessly on developing their own classroom routines that are not followed elsewhere. It’s unfair on the new teacher, who needs to create classroom routines on top of the many many other things they must do. It’s unfair on the Teach First participant or the cover supervisor, who haven’t got the benefit of established routines.

So a school approach to classroom routines helps to ensure that consistency. At Dixons Kings Academy, we have tried to unpick the moments in lessons that could benefit from shared expectations and routines, from the habits for individual, paired and group work to the shared routines for mini whiteboard use. Yes, some elements are prescriptive – scripting of how we bring a class to silence for example- but these routines are designed to make it easier for teachers to teach the way that works best.

If we say a routine or expectation is important, then it can’t just be sent out in an email or relayed as a ‘policy’. It needs to be exemplified and practised, which is why we dedicated time to practising our entry and exit routines on our first day back. In addition to building consistency, practice shows us where we are going wrong (or where we might go wrong) and need to improve, but also helps reinforce what we are doing well, making us more confident and comfortable in the classroom.

We practised how teachers line students up, how they greet them, the way they bring them into the classroom, and complete the Do Now activity. We then practised how to end lessons (standing behind chairs in silence, teacher scanning the room to ensure that it is tidy, an orderly dismissal).

It’s a simple practice method. We share a model of what is expected, staff practise once through in groups of about six, receive feedback then repeat. Everyone practises, and everyone feeds back at least once. While the models that we practise are carefully considered, they are open to feedback, and practising will often identify the flaws, creating better models in future.

The group that I practised with had a couple of new members of staff. The practice was useful for them in internalising everything they had been told about- and as you might expect on the first day back- they had been told a lot. Think of that first lesson when students are sizing up their new teacher and the teacher starts the lesson just like the experienced senior leader. Immediately, the new teacher carries just a little more authority. For me, as someone who seems to forget completely how to teach by September, it was great to warm up. I won’t have my own classroom this year, so my entry and exit routines have become even more important. The practice session allowed me to consider things that I may have otherwise left to chance. For example, where do you stand at the end of the lesson? How do you move around the room? How do you dismiss classes from your classroom? How does this change in a completely different room? I don’t think that these are trivial questions at all.

There are more things to practise of course, and we won’t spend every session on the absolute basics, although we should never become complacent. With a relatively small amount of time spent on embedding simple whole school routines, we free teachers up to concentrate on the complex art of teaching.

Next week: how we practise in subjects.

Talking to myself

Teaching is a job where what we say matters. Our explanations, our questioning, our modelling, our interactions- they all rely on our talk being focussed and effective. We need clear explanations that bring students who know little about something closer to the level of experts and we need to often say just the right thing in just the right way to ensure that students respond in the way we need. We plan powerpoints, create beautiful resources, mark exhaustively, but nobody has ever asked me to practise what I’m going to say.

Over the last couple of years, I have started talking to myself. In the car, in my house, in my classroom. Here’s why.

Clarity of explanation

Above all, I think that we should practise our explanations. For example, this half term my students in year 10 are studying Romeo and Juliet and I recently taught a lesson which was just me and a visualiser. I explained, discussed, questioned and the students and I annotated. Act 3 Scene 1 is a scene most English teachers know well and I am no exception, so I certainly could have winged it. Instead, as part of my preparation, I practised what I was going to do and what I was going to say. I literally sat at my desk at home, annotated the scene and explained it as I would have explained it to students.

This rehearsal allowed me to do a number of things. It meant that I would not be blindsided by phrases such as ‘alla staccato carries it away’ and I could think of my discussion of the tricky layers of meanings of words like ‘consort’ and avoid saying things that I would have to clarify later. It meant that we could focus on Romeo’s response to loss, the essay topic, and avoid too many tangents (I just can’t manage no tangents). Instead of my questions being improvised, I knew exactly where I would ask which questions to which students.

Now, we cannot reasonably be expected to do this for every single part of every single lesson but I know that my students’ understanding of this scene is far stronger than if I had not rehearsed. Most of my practising takes place in the car on the way to work anyway, making the most of that ‘dead time’, so does not add extra hours to my busy day.

Sometimes they call you Sheamus- or is that just me?

Sometimes they call you ‘Sheamus’- or is that just me?

Be prepared

I do love the unpredictable nature of students (mostly), but there are things that they say again and again. Sometimes I see teachers who have the perfect response to certain behaviours and comments and I wish I was as quick. Except, I don’t have to be quick-witted enough to come up with the perfect response in the moment– I can script it and practise it in advance.

So what are the things that students always say?

“Can we have a fun lesson?”

“I wish we still had Miss…”

“This is boring.”

“Other teachers let us…”

“What do we have to do again?”

“I don’t get it.”

I’m sure that list could go on. If we don’t practise responses, we have to rely on conjuring up the perfect comeback or reply instantly. And if we don’t deescalate these things, they can build up and destroy lessons. I have polished how I reply to “Can we have a fun lesson?” to such a fine art that we can always quickly move on.

It isn’t just what they say. It could be dealing effectively with a late student or someone swinging on a chair. Dare I say it, we might even admit that sometimes behaviour across the class is not acceptable and they need a stern reminder. Practising this is not saying that we want it to happen, or that telling off a class is something great, but that if it has to happen we don’t need to be angry and frustrated, making things worse with an improvised speech.

Training sessions

When I deliver a training session to staff, I like to rehearse it at least once as it makes me familiar with the material. My main reason for saying the thing out loud is it often forces me to consider how what I say is received and allows me to explore whether what I am saying is, well, nonsense. We can often write eduspeak and add received wisdom into what we say. Sometimes I catch myself saying something that I don’t actually think or couldn’t justify.  And there is also the unfortunate business of that extra bullet point on a list that you had forgotten about…

Difficult conversations

Sometimes a difficult conversation needs to be had. There’s nothing worse than addressing a legitimate concern but phrasing it wrong or waffling on to another topic. Before you know it, the conversation is no longer about the one thing that it probably needs to be about. Whether this is with a colleague, a student or a parent, a little bit of practice beforehand will ultimately help the conversation to go where it needs to.

When I attended Teach Like a Champion training in October, these principles of practising talk were clarified and focussed for me. Teaching is a profession where saying the right thing is crucial. From our lessons to our meetings, our training sessions to our calls to parents, talking is teaching. So why leave it all to chance?

Further reading:

Michael Slavinsky’s write up of the first TLAC training day explores similar ideas: Uncommon Schools Training – practising to perform

Julie Ryder discusses the same training here: Teach Like a Champion Part 2: Training the Trainers