‘Doing’ Pedagogy as a Member of SLT

Posted on February 17, 2013


This is the ‘doing’ post that I most feel the need to write. It is the part of my work on two Senior Leadership Teams of which I am most proud, mainly because it is the thing I most believe in as a way to make schools better. Curriculum reform is interesting but soulless. Staff development is heartwarming at its best but is messy and heartbreaking at its worst. Data management is incisive and generates vital questions, but lacks a sense of connectedness and validity.

Yes, pedagogy is what floats my boat, puts wind in my sails and navigates my voyage. But why the archaic concept of pedagogy? Why not the seemingly more precise teaching and learning?

pedagogy[ ped-uh-goh-jee, -goj-ee ]
noun plural ped·a·go·gies.
1. the function or work of a teacher; teaching.
2. the art or science of teaching; education; instructional methods.

I guess it’s because of that second element that I prefer the word pedagogy: the idea that teachers are sometimes artists within their classrooms and, at other times, mad scientists. It gives the sense of teaching as more than just an act. It gives the sense of it as a belief system, which of course it is when it is done well and led well.

Another reason I love the word pedagogy is its very sound: all hard consonants and short vowels for the first three syllables and then that slow final syllable with its softer consonant and long vowel sound. It’s an odd word, but I adore it’s oddness and the fact that the inflected ee sound at the end sounds good with a vaguely mackem accent is a bonus too.

So pedagogy it is and pedagogy it will always be with me. This post is what I think great pedagogy should be. It is not intended as a blueprint, partly because I’d never presume to tell anyone else how to do this job but mainly because, as I’ve shown below, to make a school-wide approach to pedagogical improvement effective and authentic it has to be deeply rooted in the context of the school. So take this post for what it is, my experiences and opinions: nothing more and nothing less.

Know your school’s ethos and don’t try and circumvent it
A school’s ethos is the most tangible intangible a senior leader will ever come across, especially those members of SLT promoted from another school. It is so very easy to try to bring everything with you, especially if it was successful at that school, but it is the biggest mistake you can make in terms of developing pedagogy.

Similarly it is very easy for an NCSL graduate making their way in their first SLT post to believe that if you push button A and pull lever B then – hey presto – out pops progress X and attainment Y. The ‘Pedagogy by Numbers’ approach, where teaching and learning is subsumed in data, curriculum and monitoring is even less of an answer than importing pedagogy from a different context.

Instead it is vital that you allow yourself, as the member of SLT in charge of pedagogy the time to listen, the space to see and the opportunity to understand what makes your school tick. Consider your context so that you can fully grasp the areas in most need of development but also (and more importantly) the areas of pedagogy most in need of retention, the foundations upon which you can build.

If this is missing then your work is doomed to failure because pedagogy is, in my humble opinion, the aspect of school life that most closely comes to resemble the suffused ethos of the place and is therefore the hardest aspect of school life to be transformed if it does not have that sense of authenticity that comes from a true listening and seeing understanding.

Have a long-term plan and don’t subscribe to short-termism
Once you have listened it is vital that you plan and plan well. Let me be really clear about this: a plan to improve teaching and learning by a one-off INSET day to ‘do’ pedagogy, or a regular T&L slot in staff briefing, or a voluntary extra-meeting working party, or asking every department to nominate a ‘champion’, or the creation of a staff CPD library, or issuing every teacher with a copy of the latest Pedaguru’s book (£19.99 from all good online retailers) is not going to work.

That’s not to say there is anything wrong in any of the above strategies or techniques. It’s just that they are strategies and techniques only, contributing in their own little way to a grand plan, but not a grand plan in and of themselves. I’ve probably used them all at one time or another, but they’re too tricksy and too shallow to win the hearts and minds of teachers across every department. And they wither like daffodils long before the summer arrives, but unlike daffodils they need replanting every year which is never good.

The plan we have been working to is a plan to make pedagogy beyond outstanding and to find our way to the same kind of place as Cramlington High School, where nearly two decades of focus on teaching and learning has seen inspection teams come and go but outstanding judgments remain. It is a school that holds its own learning festival every year: a school with pedagogy running through it like the sticks of rock they give out as metaphors of their ethos. It is not a school we necessarily want to be, but a school that knows what it wants to be and works towards it coherently.

In schools like Cramlington, and eleven others mentioned in this Ofsted report from 2009, excellence in pedagogy is achieved, sustained and shared, showing that they care above and beyond the narrow vested interests of their exam results. Instead they see tremendous value in sharing all that has made them what they are, knowing well that giving is an unselfishly selfish act: the more their teachers show others how it can be done, the more they embed their own pedagogy. Now that’s what I call a plan. It certainly beats lollipop sticks.

Have faith that every teacher in your school can be at least outstanding
I’ve blogged about this a number of times (here and here for instance) and have had a series of arguments about it. I refer to it as a ‘surplus’ rather than ‘deficit’ approach and I think it should be the most important undergirder for success in improving pedagogy across a school.

In the same way as we have to believe that every child, with our support, has the potential and capacity to achieve success in whatever way that is defined for that child then the same should hold true for adults within our care too. This means building upon their pedagogic strengths, whether that be relationships or classroom management or eagerness to develop or planning skills or organisation. But we can’t expect them each to have all of these aptitudes in abundance from the very start of their careers, or even at the very end.

But what we can expect is that the teachers we work with have a willingness to develop, to learn and to become better teachers. We can expect them to put in the time and energy towards their professional development. We can expect them to be reflective about their own practice, and question things that aren’t going right.

But for each of these things that we can expect of teachers, the member of SLT in charge of ‘doing’ pedagogy has to create the conditions in which these expectations can be met. If we expect a willingness to improve then we need to provide a sense of pedagogic direction and purpose. If we expect them to commit to their development then we need to provide a structured and responsive programme of pedagogy-driven CPD for them. And if we expect them to be reflective, we sure as hell need to provide good role models (in terms of reflection) from the top down and an observation schedule for pedagogic development, not just progress monitoring.

Remember that great pedagogy comes from the classroom
This is the pedagogic point upon which I most depart from received and conventional wisdom. And it is the pedagogic point upon which I most fall out with people on twitter, senior leaders and teachers almost alike. My position is crystal clear and unequivocal: we need to abandon the cultish idea that senior leaders MUST be outstanding practitioners because it skews pedagogic priorities to make the focus top-down and boardroom-based when it should be bottom-up and classroom-based.

Let me deal first of all with the belief that members of SLT have greater credibility if they are outstanding teachers. It is not true. Being outstanding on a reduced timetable is easier than doing it on a full one. Yes, SLT have other responsibilities to fill that timetable but when the push of a formal observation comes to the shove of expected outstandingness then other responsibilities can be nudged in a way that they can’t with full-time classroom practitioners. Credit also doesn’t fully get given when the people doing the observations are members of your own team and when you have been intimately involved in planning the observation cycle, the observation focus and the wider school improvement framework.

But most importantly this focus on outstanding SLT teachers misses the point because it inculcates an heroic posturing that, quite frankly, many senior leaders need to starve rather than nourish. It is an heroic stance that serves only to intimidate the people who really ought to be recognised as pedagogic heroes. All I want from senior leaders as teachers is exactly the same as for all other teachers, as outlined in the section above: willingness to improve as teachers, commitment to taking opportunities, and a healthy pattern of self-reflection.

When schools (leaders and teachers) fall into the trap of heroic role-modelling I would contend that they doom their schools to a trickle-down approach that serves nobody very well. Let me put it this way; if the people who decide on the strategic direction of pedagogy have a vested interest in being seen to be its most effective practitioners then the perverse incentives to develop an SLT-friendly pedagogy rather than a classroom practitioner friendly one.

The logical conclusion to all of this can be seen daily in many of our schools. They include marking policies that only those with a reduced timetable can keep up with, a manic magpie-like approach to embracing new pedagogic initiatives that sparkle in other schools, and an emphasis on time-heavy, impact-lite teaching strategies that involve cut-up cards in envelopes and suchlike during INSET days. I’ve been guilty of them all in the past in my quest to be an outstanding practitioner that everyone told me I had to be. Nowadays I’ve come to realise that I’ll happily be the worst teacher in my school provided that I am the best member of SLT in charge of ‘doing’ pedagogy that I can be.

Get the blend between the art, craft and science of pedagogy right
Before its demise the much-maligned GTCE teamed up with the Teaching and Learning Research Project (TLRP) to produce one of the best reads of my recent career, Professionalism and Pedagogy, in which they talked about pedagogy as an art, a craft and a science. It is something that resonated deeply with me, the Assistant Head I line manage and the initial twenty teachers who signed up for our first Outstanding Pedagogy Project group in 2010. It remains as a key part of our Learning and Teaching policy and it has subtly underscored all of our work since.

By art we mean the pedagogy that is almost indescribable in its effectiveness: the musicality and magicality that some teachers have in their DNA and which others, myself included, welcome into our classrooms only once in a while when the stars align and heaven smiles down. It is a joyous thing to see, but is often imprecise, hard to learn and sometimes mystifying. Unfortunately (and wrongly) it has too often been seen as the default mode of outstanding practitioners, making those of us for whom it doesn’t come naturally insecure and self-doubting.

Then there is the craft of pedagogy: the practice-driven, peer-learnt, day-to-day development of strategies that have proven themselves to work for countless teachers in countless classrooms in countless schools over countless years. This is the stuff of trial and error, blogreading, staffroom banter and department meetings at their best. The problem with this mode of pedagogy is that it takes time to pick up (so not fully embedded for newly and recently qualified teachers) and can be easily lost in the current trend for staggered lunches and staffroomless schools.

And finally we have pedagogy as a science; a body of professional learning that can be accessed through Masters level study, academic reading, and classroom-focused action research. It is the conscious process of seeking improvements that have been ‘proven’ (inverted commas quite deliberately placed) to work in other contexts and other classrooms. It can be problematic for teachers to find the time for this form of professional learning about pedagogy and it can lead to a reductive approach whereby what works elsewhere is implemented against the grain of the school specific ethos mentioned above.

The senior leader in charge of pedagogy needs to ensure that there is a rich blend of these different forms of professional development within their school, all aligned to the same ethos and grand plan for the holistic development of the school. Teachers need to be given the opportunity to showcase their ‘surplus’ strengths in one or more of these areas, but also deal with their self-perceived areas of ‘deficit’ in one of the others. The ideal should be to help teachers become artists, artisans and scientists in their classrooms.

Be agile and follow serendipity rather than a fixed plan of action
I have blogged about the AGILE methodology stolen from the world of software development before, but here I just want to acknowledge the importance of not having too fixed a grand plan for the school-wide improvement of pedagogy. Schools are way too rooted in large, clunky and sometimes woeful planning cycles that are highly bureaucratic and inefficient. They have a top-down quality in that the school improvement plan normally informs the department improvement plan which in its turn normally informs the individual performance management targets. In a good school this creates coherence and ensures buy in to a top-down, one-size-fits-all training plan.

But in a school that seeks to build on the individual strengths of teachers to achieve something special with pedagogy these structures and systems are not enough. Instead of an annual review once a year, a set piece INSET or two, a management observation rooted in Ofsted accountability and grading, and a meeting cycle focused on managing the school not leading learning we need to develop the capacity for individuals and teams to have ongoing and incessant conversations about learning that are purely developmental.

I’m not saying that I have got this right at my current school. There have been small-scale pilots of this way of working with certain groups that have yielded exciting results and hinted at the possibility of large-scale or even institution-wide systems at some point in the future. But a genuinely classroom-focused, bottom-up, responsive and dynamic approach to developing pedagogy (or any other element of school improvement, by the way) needs a different set of systems and processes in which to function. These need to be ones that allow all teachers to follow their intuition and rely upon their instinctive feel for what will work with their classes, not be buckled into a set of performance management objectives for the year based upon school results the previous year.

Develop a coherent but flexible architecture for learning on which to hang the pedagogy
I suspect that this will sound contradictory, but in the same way that I think school systems should be clear and coherent to allow creativity and experimentation to flourish within them so I believe that a school-wide architecture for learning can do the same for pedagogy. In my school this architecture includes a promoted learning cycle, some key overarching themes related to our context and some recommended strategies that were corralled from practice already established within the school. None of these are mandatory for teachers, but they provide a “how we do it here” approach to help inform the training of student teachers and the induction of newly qualified ones.

I have blogged about this coherent architecture for learning before and don’t want to repeat myself here, but I do want to explain its contribution to a practitioner-led pedagogy. The first thing to say is that it came from the classroom in terms of the key strategies and the key themes (which include a commitment to interdependent learning and developing language for learning). The only element that came from outside was the accelerated learning cycle, which was adopted from the Cramlington model but only after being evaluated and trialled by a number of our classroom-based teachers.

The second thing to say is that the elements of this architecture are designed specifically (and shared explicitly) as things that can be adapted to meet the needs of teachers: the accelerated learning cycle, for example, can describe a part of a lesson, a whole lesson or a sequence of lessons and is not, therefore, a lesson plan. There is no point whatsoever in senior leaders seeking to replicate the worthy-but-ultimately-failed National Strategies by telling teachers how to teach and how to structure a lesson. Instead our architecture for learning has been developed in order to give some common touchstones for teachers and students to help inform professional discussions about pedagogic development. A trawl through our school blogsite for teachers, Canons Broadside, will show how one of our core themes (interdependent learning) has been approached in a number of different ways by a number of different teachers. In such a way the creativity of individual teachers is enhanced as a collaborative experience by the provision of an architecture for learning.

The member of SLT with responsibility for ‘doing’ pedagogy therefore needs to work through with teachers what elements of their pedagogic approach need to be coherent across the institution and then plan carefully to ensure that these do not become a straitjacket for creativity, experimentation and the entrepreneurial imagination of teachers. This is not an easy thing to get right, but I believe it to be essential for a bottom-up pedagogic approach to work: if it is not done well it will either drown the creature at birth or, perhaps more scarily, make an unregulated, unloved and unsuccessful Frankenstein’s monster of it.

Have an experimental group who are allowed to blaze a trail for others to follow
Call them what you want; pathfinders, trailblazers, avant garde, OPP (Outstanding Pedagogy Project – our moniker) or whatever. The very first strand in our work was to create some time for people who wanted to play with pedagogy at a whole school level, and it remains the focal point for innovation and experimentation. Each year they form around a very vague ambition for the school emerging from the previous year’s bottom-up whole school review (yes that is indeed how we roll). They then develop that vague ambition into something specific that they can research in each others’ classrooms, in other schools and in professional development literature. By the end of the year they feedback about their work and make some recommendations for how the focus can move from them to our Teacher Learning Communities (TLCs), pedagogic development meetings for all staff that are calendared. And then they disband and another OPP group forms with another bottom-up focus.

The point is that this OPP group has permission to do what it wants, go where it wants and research what it wants. It sits at a complete remove from all our other systems for pedagogy. I’d call it a ‘blue sky thinking’ group but that doesn’t do it justice. Nor is it an action-research group in the truest sense of the word. It is instead an intuitive and instinctive group of people who follow their hearts and heads in being ambitious for their colleagues, the students and the school generally. There are probably more failures than successes emerging from this group, whose volunteering members change every year, but where it has been successful it has made a difference to all in the school. I would strongly recommend it to all SLT members with responsibility for ‘doing’ pedagogy.

Appoint Pedagogy Leaders or Pedagogy Coaches from your classrooms to lead learning
Ped Leaders were our pedagogic “rocket boosters” and I thoroughly recommend them to anyone who cares to listen. Quite simply they are the best staffing decision I have ever been a party to. Having created an ethos around bottom-up, practitioner-led pedagogy this was where we put our money where our mouth was and offered a substantial sum to any teacher (their pay sits on top of their existing salary) who wanted to shape and lead the future direction of pedagogy at the school.

The post is a fixed-term project management role with some overarching ambitions for the school and some termly milestone markers, although the end goals and markers are subject to change in keeping with our AGILE approach. We appointed six of them in the first cohort from eighteen applicants based upon their capacity to deliver an outstanding lesson on demand and their letter of application, a manifesto for what they thought were the key priorities for developing pedagogy across the school.

In post they have led the development of our coherent architecture for learning, have planned, delivered and commissioned our INSET programme (including our first Student Pedagogy Day) and have led our whole staff ‘joint practice development’ groups. Composed of three TLR holders and three recently qualified teachers they have become a dynamic, skilful and successful team that have changed the shape of pedagogy within the school by ensuring it is by teachers and for teachers. In doing so they have, from the very start, challenged the expectations and actions of members of the leadership team, including those nominally responsible for pedagogy.

If you are the person with responsibility for ‘doing’ pedagogy at your school then I couldn’t recommend this model any more. Engaging staff in voluntary groups is all well and good, but without time or money there is only so much they can reasonably be expected to do. Instead schools need to offer those members of staff the opportunity to play an active role in the strategic direction of pedagogic development and validate this by giving the time and/or money needed to actually do the job. If this isn’t done then a bottom-up, practitioner-led approach will always stall, forcing senior leaders to step in and take the reins again.

Use social networks to connect your teachers to the best pedagogical approaches
I’m not going to say any more about twitter than I need to, as it is very well documented what a fabulous tool it is for connecting teachers. About a year ago I set up a school account with a view to disseminating interesting reading and allowing members of our OPP group to communicate with one another (and the world beyond) about what was happening in the school. What has happened since then is that some staff signed up and never used their account. Others signed up and remain as twitter lurkers (or skulkers, I can never remember the terminology) whilst others have blossomed and become quite prominent members of the teacher twitterati. The point is that having a focal point with a school twitter account meant that people could dip their toes into the water and see if they liked it. Where it has worked it has transformed some of our work on pedagogy: SOLO was introduced to the school via the back door of twitter and has made significant inroads to our classrooms. And where it has worked nothing has been lost.

Shortly after establishing the twitter account we set up a pedagogy themed blogsite, some posts from which are included as links from this post. At first this was entirely made up of posts by me extolling our pedagogic approach as a way of setting the mood music and giving staff the ‘permission’ to hold our approach to account if it fell short of the theory. And then two other senior leaders joined in, blogging about their role on leading pedagogy within the school which conveniently allowed me to begin blogging about my classroom, again to give ‘permission’ to staff to do the same. And then two of the Ped Leaders joined in blogging about their classrooms, allowing me to shift the focus of my posts to our CPD programme, giving ‘permission’ to people in other schools to come and look at what we are doing and sending messages to our staff about how proud we are of their work. And now teachers beyond the team leading on pedagogy have started to blog on this site and it has the potential to become a glorious cacophony of shared ethos and shared practice and shared pedagogy.

This year I attended my first TeachMeet, and then another and then another, and became thrilled at how the virtual community of tweeting and blogging teachers was starting to become a very real community of people happy and willing to share their practice and learn from one another for free during school evenings and Saturdays. A few months later and more of our staff have attended these events, we have hosted a subject specialist one and are providing four speakers to one of the biggest TeachMeet events yet organised.

The result of all these tweets, blogs and TeachMeets for our school, teachers and students is far-reaching and is both directly and indirectly achieved. In terms of direct influence our teachers are seeing things that they could never see in our own school, opening their pedagogic horizons further and further. They are also rubbing shoulders at these meetings with virtual colleagues and are strengthening the bonds, swapping email addresses, sharing resources and visiting interesting schools elsewhere in some of the best professional development there is. Indirectly the staff at our school, tweeters and non-tweeters alike, are starting to hear and see the influence that their school is having on others. They are starting to understand that what we are doing is well-regarded regionally, nationally and even internationally. This brings with it a sense of pride and belief and, because our pedagogy as preached to the outside is a bottom-up, practitioner-led one, it is a clear validation of them as teachers not just of a handful of people on the leadership team. I really couldn’t ask for anything more than that.

If you are the member of SLT with responsibility for ‘doing’ pedagogy then building up networks between your teachers and beyond your school walls really is an opportunity that cannot be missed. The virtual staffroom is vibrant, vivacious and full of pedagogical va-va-voom which, coupled with the system-wide pressures of declining budgets, increased autonomy and unwavering accountability, offer us all the best way forward. It is a way forward that recognises that we are stronger together outside of our pedagogic eggboxes even as we inhabit them. It is a bottom-up, practitioner-led way forward on a national scale that just may put classroom teachers at the heart of pedagogic improvement.