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Tips for turning specialist theory into practical teaching

Written By: CUREE
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Specialists have some great ideas, but how can you translate them to classroom practice?

Teachers can usually find out about approaches that may be working well for their colleagues, but finding out about the wider evidence is challenging. The problem is that knowing something works isn’t enough – teachers need to be able understand the rationale underpinning a strategy through continuous professional development and learning (CPDL), and use that understanding to refine their teaching and support implementation. In this way, teachers will develop a practical theory for their teaching and learning activities that helps them to contextualise new approaches for their own learners, subjects and contexts.

By developing this understanding of knowledge and practice, teachers will be able to use a range of approaches in their practice and connect them with different areas of their subject. Teachers should make use of both internal and external specialists to develop their knowledge and understanding, including the theory behind the practice.

Pedagogy and subject knowledge are equally important in this. CPDL that just focuses on generic pedagogic strategies is not enough – practical, subject-based evidence theory is needed too. This needs to be linked to understanding about how students learn in general, as well as in specific subject areas.

Specialists are particularly well placed to help teachers understand the theory and evidence about pedagogy, as well as ways to extend subject knowledge. Teachers also need the knowledge and skills to translate CPDL into the classrooms – in fact, effective CPDL will help teachers make the link between their professional learning and pupil learning. To do this, teachers need to do two things:

  • Experiment – teachers on successful CPDL courses implement what they learned by experimenting in the classroom
  • Reflect – teachers on successful CPDL analyse and reflect on the underpinning rationale, evidence and assessment data.  This reflection and analysis – and particularly discussion with other teachers – is important for bringing about and embedding a change in practice.

How can teachers triangulate CPDL with evidence?

It is important that teachers can plan and focus professional learning in a way that enables them to translate ideas learnt from internal and external specialists and turn the evidence into changes in their own teaching practice in the classroom.

These five steps could help you incorporate approaches provided by specialists and classroom theory into practical teaching practices:

  1. Pick a focus. All good CPDL should be focused on addressing students’ needs. Take time to reflect on these: what data is available that will help you understand where your students need further support?
  2. Read around the topic. Once you’ve chosen a focus, research the topic to give you an introduction to the key themes. Next, deepen your understanding by reading a range of books, articles, papers and research summaries on the topic. Look at the topic from a variety of standpoints and take time to understand the key principles that underpin the theory.
  3. Plan. Consider how the theory or approach will relate to your own classroom practice. Careful planning to make a change in line with the research you’ve read is key to its success.
  4. Find support while you make the change. It can be useful to work with a colleague for ongoing support and challenge. Find a trusted colleague to give non-judgemental advice and support as you make changes to your practice.
  5. The findings. Over time you’ll start to collect the data that will tell you more about the impact your practice has had on the learning need you first identified.

Things to consider

  • Who in your school/network can offer you specialist support and access to specialist resources and evidence?
  • How could you use opportunities to work with specialists on, for example, planning a scheme of learning to explore the underpinning rationale more explicitly?
  • How will you know that developing your understanding of the rationale behind practical approaches is helping your students?
  • How could the evidence that helps you refine your practice, help future groups of students?

Questions for reflection and discussion

  • In what ways do you think the evidence you have learned about from a specialist could help your students build on what you and they already know?
  • How has your thinking about (or experimenting with) ideas from a specialist worked with different groups of students?
  • What would help you, your colleagues and the specialists you work with give time and priority to exploring why things do and don’t work for different groups of students alongside how they work?

Further reading

1: CPD and your subject

This is a short blog piece from David Weston, chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust. Weston discusses the value in moving towards a more subject-specific professional development and the difficulties of translating generic ‘good practices’.

In the second section on ‘Transforming training sessions’ he gives a detailed example of how to transform a generic good practice session on feedback into one that connects more strongly with teachers’ specific subjects and the needs of their learners. The example also discusses the role of a teacher (or perhaps consultant) with specialist expertise in the subject pedagogy and how to make the most of this.

2: What makes great teaching?

This resource is an authoritative and recent review of research into what makes great teaching. Of particular relevance for considering specialist evidence is the section starting on page 18, ‘Pedagogical Content Knowledge’. This reviews evidence into how pedagogical content knowledge relates to effective teaching and how a subject specialist’s ability to identify common misconceptions – and their understanding of specific content – relates to student learning.

3: Developing Great Teaching

The Developing Great Teaching report (2015) reviews the evidence on effective professional development from international reviews. Of particular interest for understanding the role of experts, specialist subject knowledge and the implications of evidence for practitioners are the sections beginning on pages 6, 8 and 11.

The first of these sections (p. 6) identifies five important contributions that specialists can make to professional development and discusses the nature of their role. The second of these sections (p. 8) separates aspects of effective professional development that seem common to all subjects before discussing the differences between effective CPDL in science, maths and literacy – and the links between them. The third relevant section is the summary of implications of the evidence reviewed for practitioners (p. 11). As well as being a clear summary of the overall evidence, points are made in this summary section about the importance of contextualising professional development to be subject- and content-specific.

4: The Reflective Teacher

This is a book chapter that discusses the value of reflective practice, how it works and gives concrete examples of how to do it. Although the book is addressed at trainee teachers, it is a valuable resource for any professionals or leaders looking to develop more reflective practice.

The chapter starts by describing the theory behind reflection and what makes it so powerful for teachers. This includes distinguishing reflection in action (i.e. while teaching) and on action (i.e. after or before teaching). There are several activities that could be used as part of CPDL sessions. From page 15, the chapter moves to discuss how to actually ‘do’ reflective practice. Tools such as professional development journal and individual learning plans are described and discussed. The chapter closes by reflecting on what makes a good teacher and how lifelong learning and reflection are vital professional characteristics for teachers.

5: The role of the specialist in the teacher’s CPD

This summarises a review into the contribution of specialists in CPDL. It is organised by a series of questions including sections on, for example, key findings about the different benefits teachers get from working with specialists and how specialists link teacher learning and embedding evidence and research.

The summary is followed by five case studies where specialists were instrumental in making teachers aware of theory and research evidence on:

  • Particular aspects of teaching and learning
  • Content-related strategies
  • Generic teaching and learning strategies.
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