Caroline Entwistle, Ark Boulton Academy, UK
This article shares an approach to leading the development of subject-specific pedagogy through establishing a professional learning community.
Our school mission is that ‘it takes a whole community to bring up a child’. From a leadership perspective, creating the time and space for our teaching community to learn together, for the benefit of students, is one way in which we can fulfil this mission. Working collaboratively to deepen our understanding of our subjects also matches our wider Abbreviated to MAT, a group of schools working in collaborat... (Multi-academy trust - a group of schools working in collabor...) values, which identify strongly with developing a culture of excellent teaching through investing in teacher education.
Creating the conditions for teachers to purposefully collaborate is challenging. Danielson (2006, p. 23) identifies that leaders, particularly in secondary schools, find it ‘virtually impossible’ to know all subjects and associated pedagogies to help develop their teachers. Yet our most effective teachers have a deep knowledge of their subject (Coe et al., 2014) and can communicate it clearly and in detail to their students (Rosenshine, 2010). Adapting MAT-wide approaches to reflect our school’s starting point, we set out to create a model that helps teachers to collaboratively develop pedagogical approaches in subject specialisms.
To support collaboration between teachers, leaders need to allocate resources and time. Literature indicates that this is a genuine issue in teacher development (Timperley et al., 2007; Greany, 2017; OECD, 2019). To give this work priority, all teaching staff attend a weekly session for one hour after school. This replaces the department meeting. To emphasise our identity as a professional learning community, we hold our sessions in the school hall and teachers sit in their specialisms.
Given the importance of our commitment in terms of time, research that shows the potential effects on student achievement gives our community context and purpose. This is shared with teachers to give them confidence in our approach. For example, we discuss how investing in teacher learning has an effect size of 0.84 on student achievement (Robinson, 2011). To put this into context, Hattie’s findings (2009) show a range of strategies used by teachers that are likely to have a positive impact on student achievement. The average effect size is 0.4. A number greater than 0.4 indicates that the strategy is likely to positively impact on student outcomes. These strategies help us to know where to direct our efforts as a teaching community.
With relevance for the development subject-specific pedagogy, Hattie’s research also shows that teacher clarity has an effect size of 0.90, with teacher credibility sitting at 0.75. In contrast, he concludes that using PowerPoint has an effect size of 0.26, with a reduction in class size standing at 0.21. This suggests that developing teacher clarity is a purposeful use of our time. To deliver lessons effectively, though, precision concerning explanations, worked examples and key questions matters. Therefore, creating the conditions for teachers to work together using a sustainable model is the responsibility of school leaders.
Collaboration in practice
To support teacher collaboration each week, subject leaders focus their teams on a single lesson to be taught the following week. This enables deep thinking, which could later be applied more widely. In working together, we concentrate on Key Stage 4 lessons. This is because developing a shared understanding of the relevant A-level and GCSE specifications enables teachers to have greater clarity surrounding the academic demands of their subject in students’ later years.
First, teachers identify an explicit link to the GCSE specification and identify the place of the lesson from the scheme of work to deepen understanding of how the lesson fits into a wider sequence of learning.
Teachers then write a model answer for the end-of-unit assessment task. In each weekly session thereafter, teams write a model answer together for the task that students would complete in the selected lesson. Model answers help teachers to reach a shared understanding of the knowledge that students need. Having been through the steps needed to produce the model answers themselves, teachers are able to give clear and detailed explanations and anticipate where misconceptions arise (Rosenshine, 2010; Coe et al., 2014). This also supports teachers in modelling live examples with their class, because the thinking processes and key content is already visible to them (Kirschner and Hendrick, 2020).
Through this, teachers collectively consider what students need to know, how this would be explained and what processes are required to complete the allocated tasks. Teachers discuss and name the crucial knowledge that students need to be taught, along with key questions to check for student understanding (Rosenshine, 2010) prior to independent practice.
Teachers complete a template to record their thinking during these discussions. They then use their notes to further refine planning and delivery in lessons.
Our professional learning community has taken three years to embed. Surveys are periodically used to gather data with a question consistently focused on our professional development offer. In one survey, 44 (68 per cent) teachers responded. Feedback from the rating scale question indicated that teachers agreed that leaders use professional development to encourage, challenge and support teacher improvement. In a different survey, open-ended questions sought teachers’ perspectives on our learning community. Nineteen teachers responded. They identified that collaboratively writing model answers and sharing subject knowledge were particular strengths.
Both surveys also indicated that time being effectively managed remains a priority for teacher wellbeing. As such, the senior leader responsible for curriculum provided teachers with timetabled opportunities to continue working together. This allows them to create model answers, script explanations and consider misconceptions across a range of year groups (Rosenshine, 2010; Coe et al., 2014).
Furthermore, during the COVID-19 pandemic, our approach necessarily took a new direction. Establishing our professional learning community virtually supports teachers in continuing to develop their practice through online collaboration. These relationships remain, as does our commitment to deepening our collective understanding of subject-specific pedagogy in practice.
Finally, while it is difficult to attribute specific actions to increased student achievement, student outcomes data in both key stages continue to improve on an upward trajectory over a three-year period.
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Greany T (2017) Collaboration, partnership and system leadership across schools. In: Earley P and Greany T (eds) School Leadership and Education System Reform. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 55–65.
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Timperley H, Wilson A, Barrar H et al. (2007) Teacher Professional Learning and Development: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration. Wellington: Ministry of Education. Available at: www.oecd.org/education/school/48727127.pdf (accessed March 2018).