To paraphrase the great philosopher Karl Popper, ignorance lies not in the absence of knowledge, for it is natural for even the most esteemed scholar (or senior staff member) to have areas within which improvements can be made.
Instead, true ignorance is the refusal to acquire such knowledge: this has the most significant implications with regards to staff development and thus pupil outcomes.
In a previous blog, we discussed the importance of reflective practice and how it is an essential part of professional development at both a personal and organisational level.
We looked at Kolb’s reflective cycle and proposed that unless we are willing and able to see how our practice could be refined, we will never be better at what we do, ultimately meaning that pupils are not getting the best deal they can.
CPD: As a teacher, are you truly reflective?
At our pupil referral unit, our staff consider themselves to be reflective practitioners – a statement I’m sure most staff working in schools would agree with. They feel able to combine personal experiences and appropriate theoretical and research evidence to most effectively meet the needs of our pupils.
However, a disconnect became apparent when discussing the depth of reflective practice, centred around the key prompt: “How do you know when you’ve been reflective?”
Many staff members would offer examples that can be categorised as “surface” or “technical” reflection, providing perhaps short-term or experiential accounts.
Others offered deeper reflection, considering a wider perspective on the situation and even personal assumptions and biases within a more critically reflective framework.
These findings led us to focus on promoting staff awareness of personal areas for development, particularly focusing on highlighting the discrepancy between what they think they do and what they actually do as practitioners.
What we think we do (and what we actually do)
Donald Schon, whose theoretical framework on reflective practice is still widely used today, said that one of the most significant issues for any professional is understanding and recognising the difference between the day-to-day tacit knowledge developed in the workplace (the “swampy lowlands” – what we actually do) and the high peaks of espoused knowledge (what we think we do).
We may think that when we’ve said something to a fellow staff member, we were acting in their best interests and the situation has now improved.
However, because we said it in a certain way or we failed to consider the wider implications or second/third-order consequences of our actions, the situation has become more problematic.
For example, consider the classic decision made by staff all over the country at some point in their careers (myself included): as a teacher you have decided to allow a pupil to earn a behaviour warning off, as they have pleaded their case effectively and focused on their work since the incident in question.
In the short term, you reflect that the behaviour improved, and the class settled; you feel that you were vindicated in your decision and that you have been true to your values of promoting a focus on learning and positive relationships.
Of course, the implications of your action further down the line result in a blurring of the lines and a trickier prospect of maintaining equity in the group, as well as introducing the possibility of inconsistency with colleagues.
This is not to say this was the wrong decision – the example is simplistic and without context – but it is important to assess the ramifications of any such decision beyond the immediate. We thought we were doing right by the pupil, but perhaps the long-term outcome will be less promising.
Becoming effective at reflection
So how do we support staff to most effectively consider where they might need to focus their efforts to improve, ensuring the process is productive and mutually engaging for all?
Our staff have completed action research projects, which has provided significant agency in terms of ongoing professional development.
We also have weekly supervision sessions, a confidential space removed from monthly performance management meetings, in which reflection is supported by empathic and honest peers, guided through the use of prompts derived from the Model of Structured Reflection.
We are also working on implementing a 360-degree feedback process across the wider staff team, starting with our senior leaders. The aim is to offer the opportunity to promote ongoing constructive and strengths-based dialogue around identifying and developing specific areas of practice.
The journey in recognising the difference between the swampy lowlands and the high peaks of personal practice is never an easy one; I’ve had a 360-feedback completed by my colleagues regarding my practice recently and parts of it made for uncomfortable reading.
I found that things that I thought I did were misconstrued. Supervision sessions over the past year have led to assumptions that I have maintained for years being shattered in mere minutes.
But whatever discomfort I experience, I always try and keep the outcomes of the pupils in mind and recognise that this change is vital in improving my practice.
In the words of Carl Jung: “You are what you do, not what you’ll say you do."
Leanne Forde-Nassey is headteacher at The Key Education Centre, Hampshire, in Hampshire. Ollie Ward is outreach lead at The Key Education Centre, Hampshire