The sky’s the limit with ‘supported experiments’

29th July 2016 at 00:00
How a model of CPD where staff explore and evaluate new ideas has proved inspirational in one college

A few years ago, Calderdale College was one of the first in the country to stop using graded observations. It’s something that I’m proud of and it was the start of a process to engage staff more actively in their own CPD and remove the focus on one-off grades as a measure of capability.

However, taking grades away doesn’t, in itself, lead to change, and it was important to come up with a model that allowed teachers to consider their practice and identify areas they wanted to develop. It also had to give them the freedom to take risks while ensuring that enough support was built in to make this possible.

The “supported experiments” model has been championed by Geoff Petty, an expert on teaching methods, and we have also been fortunate to have valuable input from Joanne Miles, a trainer and consultant.

Teachers think about the issues they want to address and spend time considering how to work on them with a focus on using evidence-based methods. They then carry out an experiment using a new approach or method and monitor progress over a period of time. Peer coaching is a key part of this process, as is collecting feedback and evidence relating to the impact of the experiment. At my college we have used learning coaches and learning groups to facilitate this model, with a dedicated meeting slot once a month.

The culmination of the initiative – for this year – was our Supported Experiment Festival, in which staff shared their experiments in all sorts of ways, including in presentations and displays. The event had a really positive feel to it. This was mainly because everyone was genuinely involved and also because it got people thinking and inspired about what they could take from the day into the next academic year.

Resources and evidence are being collected so that they can be used and developed further over the next year as we plan our second cycle of experiments.

A couple of quotes stood out from the day for me. One member of staff said: “I’ve got loads of ideas and I know where to go to do something about them.” The other was from Petty himself: “If you want to improve for your students, you have to change, so you have to experiment.” That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

Each learning group had a theme for their experiments, which were based on self-evaluation by teachers. Here are some of the ideas that they came up with.

Flipped/blended learning

For many people, the initial focus was on building their own confidence using technology, while for others it was about looking at broader definitions of flipped learning.

Construction staff found that the use of video tools like Zaption encouraged student engagement inside and outside class, while electrical and plumbing staff created a range of videos to support students with workshop tasks so that they could work more independently. English for speakers of other languages (Esol) students researched a topic at home, which got their families involved in their learning and helped to develop their reading skills and prepare them for assessments.


The experiments here covered a range of areas with many focusing on how to build in the necessary support for students to complete assignments effectively.

At the festival, people were keen to share results and build on these ideas. One project used gold, silver and bronze badges in Moodle to challenge students to develop their research skills. This experiment showed real progress for most students over the year, which will help them as they progress to level 3 courses.

English and maths

In one group, students were given a handbook by their vocational tutor to support their English development. This was referred back to regularly and students felt that it helped their English development in their vocational area as well as supporting GCSE study.

Another tutor used a carousel system in maths revision classes, with students accessing extra support videos and materials via tablets so that they could work at their own pace.

How to make the most of supported experiments

Give staff sufficient time to carry out the experiments.

Support and coaching are crucial – sharing ideas and problems supportively makes all the difference.

Experiments aren’t PhD projects – keep them small and manageable.

Collect evidence/feedback and use this to develop experiments further.

Share the results/resources – this may sound obvious, but do we always do this?

Bear in mind that things might not work as expected first time round. It’s a process to develop over time, not a quick fix.

Diana Tremayne teaches English for speakers of other languages, and is an advanced learning practitioner at Calderdale College in West Yorkshire @dianatremayne

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