New style of CPD doing the rounds

18th June 2010 at 01:00
Teachers observing lessons in other schools is a surprise hit with North Ayrshire staff - hosts and visitors

It is never a good idea to arrive too early at a school. "You don't look busy," headteacher Agnes Starrs observes. "Give us a hand, please, putting out the coffee and pancakes for our visitors."

Half-an-hour later, those visitors - six teachers from neighbouring schools, a North Ayrshire quality improvement manager and a member of the national CPD team - arrive at St Winning's Primary for a morning of professional development.

An evolving model of CPD well-suited to education's straitened circumstances, Learning Rounds, gets teachers observing other teachers' lessons as a group, then discussing what they have seen, using "non- evaluative comments".

That's the hard part, they say.

"You can say `We saw this in most classes' or `We heard that in some classes,'" says Mrs Starrs, who has observed in another North Ayrshire school. "But you can't say `We saw very good interaction'.

"In the long run, it might be good if it were evaluative. The value at the moment is in seeing other teachers at work, which is useful. But we have to let them observe us in return."

The approach focuses on the whole system rather than isolated parts, says North Ayrshire's Gary Johnstone. "We started with secondary heads and deputes. It was partly about improving their skills through group discussion and bouncing ideas around. We were aiming for a collegiate approach, a way of building up the idea that as senior managers in the authority they had a responsibility beyond their own schools."

That shift in culture is the key for Harvard academic Richard Elmore, whose ideas have been adopted by the national CPD team and turned into a working model piloted in Edinburgh, Angus, North and South Ayrshire, East and West Lothian, and the Borders.

Research shows that schools possess one of two cultures, Elmore writes. The first admires autonomy and makes no attempt to develop "shared outcomes or methods of reaching them". In the second, continuous improvement is encouraged, seeking advice is "desirable, necessary and legitimate", and teaching is seen as "a body of skill and knowledge that can be learned and developed".

Creating this culture in a group of schools is what Learning Rounds is designed to do. As part of the process in North Ayrshire, the six teachers visiting St Winning's have a busy morning, observing, in two groups of three, six classes for 20-minute sessions, and focusing on active learning, a theme chosen by the school.

Varrie Smith's infants seem unfazed by the influx of visitors, with only a few turning to stare or offer tentative smiles. It is a language lesson with lots of interaction, learning and laughs. Two of the teachers stay seated. One moves in and chats with a group of wee ones.

That was to tackle the observation points in depth, Cathy Gilius, headteacher of Stanecastle School, explains at the group discussion later. "They were engaged in what they were doing and able to explain it to me. I saw evidence they were expected to give good answers. I asked how they remembered about `i' and `e', for instance, and they had a lot of strategies they had been taught."

The CPD team's Margaret Orr guides the teachers through the points for observation, such as peer-assessment, motivation, group work, teacher role. She then writes the consensus view - "some", "all" or "none" - on a flip chart in two columns, one about pupils, the other about classes. This summary chart is fed back to St Winning staff by their headteacher, who sits in as an observer.

It is complex and would not work for first-timers without the CPD team member who leads the discussions and distils separate points for reflection for school staff and visitors.

"People carry definitions in their mind - of what group work is, for instance - and talk about them," says Mrs Orr. "But it's only when you observe something and discuss it together, that you start to wonder if what is in your mind is the same as what's in other people's - and whether what happens in your classroom is what you think it is."

Agnes Starrs enjoyed the morning, she says. "You don't know what to expect. We talked as a staff about whether we would take part. In the end, all our teachers agreed. It's a positive experience."

It was daunting, says Varrie Smith. "I wasn't sure about adults coming in, watching, then leaving without a word. You did get feedback - you could see them smiling. It might have been easier if I had already been out observing. I'd do it again."

The visiting teachers leave St Winning's with lots to think about and plenty of ideas for their classrooms, they say.

"I'd like to see the whole model in our school," says Moorpark Primary teacher Gary Skinner. "We do go into each other's classes to observe, but as individuals. The professional discussion afterwards is what made this so valuable."

"My overall impression? It's the kind of thing you're not supposed to say during Learning Rounds, but you can't help noticing: this is a really nice school."

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