Get the conversation going with a college ‘thinktank’

19th February 2016 at 00:00
Setting up a research and development group offers a great forum for staff and students to share ideas

A research and development action group is like a pedagogical thinktank. Do you want to share ideas and create a vibrant teaching and learning community with your colleagues? Do you want to create an organic discussion and dialogue with staff that is purely about developing rather than measuring? If you’ve answered yes, this approach could be the answer.

I created a research and development action group at my college in September. It proved to be a success, and we now meet for 30 minutes every Friday to discuss different methods and research. Here’s how I did it…

1 Creating interest

I started off by advertising the concept of a research and development group to a small number of colleagues. We facilitated developmental workshops with the idea of embedding and sharing best and innovative practice. This grew via flyers, emails and word-of-mouth.

At the recent research and development session on intervention, there were a number of different colleagues from an eclectic range of cross-college faculties. It is through the dialogue around teaching, learning and assessment that staff become inspired and motivated to take risks in the classroom.

I also sought the support and backing of the senior leadership team (SLT). It is imperative that staff and SLT need to see the purpose of this as a natural opportunity and trusted space for teacher dialogue and for staff-led innovation. Getting staff on board is key.

2 Empowering staff to take the lead and to facilitate

The research and development group is such a powerful vehicle for empowering staff to experiment with different methods and approaches, both inside and outside of the classroom. Creating a schedule with a variety of approaches is advisable at the outset. So far there have been sessions on:

What does “thinking” look like?

Hinge questioning

Peer- and self-assessment

Stretch and challenge

Memrise (the online learning tool)

Activating intervention strategies

Approaching the new A-level linear specification

Staff also use research with this, and experiment with different theoretical approaches such as those of by Dylan Wiliam and Geoff Petty. Staff will take a piece of research and challenge and experiment with it in the classroom. They will then give feedback on their findings in the next session and monitor the method and its effectiveness over time. It is key that the sessions have a developmental impact on teaching, learning and assessment.

3 Giving students a say

Student voice is essential in terms of feedback and experimentation with different techniques. Staff at my college have developed questionnaires and focus groups with students, in terms of the methods that they are experimenting with in class. Through asking carefully selected, specific questions, the teacher can take the method forward by adapting, tweaking and planning. Staff use the research in order to share with others and this has enabled team planning of lessons, pair-teaching and, most importantly, a host of opportunities for peer-observation. The key here is moving the idea forward. What impact is it having on teaching, learning and assessment? What other techniques could be effective? How do our students learn differently?

4 Spreading pedagogical practice in the wider community

The research group has gone from strength-to-strength and offers a space for dialogue, innovation and experimentation. Through the group, the sharing and cascading of ideas has developed and improved. The sessions have also empowered staff to take risks in the classroom and to work collaboratively as a team with colleagues. Two members of staff within the team have even continued their research and now share their ideas with a wider audience; one of them recently gave a lecture on peer and self-assessment at the UCL Institute for Education.

5 Offering a space for natural dialogue

Even though we initially created a schedule for workshops, the whole point of the group is that it also offers that space for natural and trusted open dialogue around the development of teaching, learning and assessment. Staff sometimes feel that they are continuously asked to complete RAG [red, amber, green] grids, or spreadsheets that are purely quality tasks and do not have a developmental impact. The group also naturally peer-observe each other and discuss feedback and ideas after the sessions over coffee. We are in the process of creating a “teaching and learning hub” for staff, complete with a coffee machine and comfy sofa.

Mark Chutter is curriculum leader for English and the humanities at Sussex Downs College

How to set up an R&D group

Encourage staff to take the lead and create a schedule for research

Move the research forward to take in student voice

Focus on the impact in terms of pedagogical practice

Remember that trust is at the centre of the group

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