The disagreement dissolver: a check-list for stamping out misunderstanding at work

Updated 13:30 17th January with another checklist!

So many conversations leave leave people with more misunderstanding than they started. Workplaces are rife with suspicion about hidden agendas, lack of trust, and brewing resentments because the quality of discussion is so poor that we read (and often mis-read) between the lines to figure out what is really happening.

discussing the undiscussableI’ve recently been reading around the work of communication guru Chris Argyris and came across a brilliant book, Discussing the undiscussable by William R. Noonan. In it, Noonan discusses one of Argyris’ key ideas, the Ladder of Inference. Essentially it’s a way of analysing the way you’ve reached a conclusion and helping to ‘re-trace your steps’ so that you can check out where you might be creating a misunderstanding at the root of a disagreement. I’ve already found it so incredibly useful and exciting that I wanted to blog. It won’t solve every disagreement but I think it’s a really helpful way to break down some of the defensiveness and resentment and reframe the discussion.

The Ladder of Inference

Argyris suggests we consider our reasoning as a 3-part process.

  1. We select our facts or data
  • We filter the things that we see, hear, or remember and select or highly-weight useful items (generally ones that confirm existing thinking or assumptions). This process is partly conscious (e.g. filtering out or minimising items that we deem boring/ridiculous/irrelevant, or where we believe the source is unreliable/biased/foolish/annoying)  or unconscious (we’ll notice words or pictures of people/things we have a stronger emotion about – e.g fear/excitement).
  • We bring a particular lens to the filtering process – e.g. we may be typically more sensitive to positive emotions, or perhaps we’re more cynical and look for the worst.
  • Our emotions us can restrict our ability to ‘cast the net wide’ – we ‘amp up’ some facts and ‘drown out’ others while our nerves are jangling. [See more in this blog about emotional blindness]
  • We aren’t aware of what we aren’t aware of – we don’t know what data are out there, what events have occurred, that we aren’t aware of. We can only begin to reason from the small subset of information we read, hear, or see – missing out enormous amounts that others have read, heard or seen.

2. We interpret the facts

  • We ascribe our own meaning to items of evidence based on our mood, our previous experience, culture (organisational, personal, national, etc) and understanding. It is inevitable that elements of nuance (or even major aspects) or meaning that were intended by the author/speaker are missed, and that we superimpose feelings and ideas that were also not intended.
  • Words have associations to us that they may not have to others – each word or idea is tainted with different positives and negatives to us than it is to another person.

3. We draw conclusions

  • We summarise our filtered, re-interpreted data and select a concluding thought
  • We unconsciously connect an emotion to it through our own interpretation – again based on where it came from, our current situation, our past, our mood, our feelings about the other person or people involved.
  • We focus on the conclusion and tend to allow the data and interpretation process to fade from memory.

We’re prone to reach conclusions that conform to our existing views, filtering and interpreting the data to help us achieve this. Challenging views which may lead to us feeling embarrassed or angry tend to result in us drawing a conclusion that the other person is hostile, unreliable, untrustworthy, etc.

On the other hand, if we like someone then we cast even unreasonable data in a more favourable light, reaching less negative conclusions. We may choose to minimise or water-down any conclusion, and pussy-foot around its presentation to avoid presenting data that we believe could harm our relationship. [See more about communication issues and techniques here]

Argyris noted that, once we reach a conclusion, we tend to cling to it. However, most people reach conclusions while missing a significant number of other views, interpretations and facts.

The check-list

To dramatically reduce miscommunication, Argyris and Noonan suggest that we carefully check our assumptions and those of others, systematically checking facts, observations and inferences.

Key ideas:

  • Interrupt the action:
    As soon as you realise that you’re engaged in debate that is mainly abstract conclusions and misunderstandings, interrupt your thought pattern and emotional response to take a step back.
  • Engage your curiosity:
    Rather than focusing on ‘being right’ and trying to persuade, focus on trying to fully understand the other person or people’s position. What may be obvious to one of you may not be obvious to the others.
  • Shine a light on your differences:
    Publicly note that you’ve spotted a misunderstanding and different point of view. Tentatively paraphrase what you’ve understood of the other position(s) – both final conclusions and observations – inviting clarifications and additions to clear up what you’ve missed.
  • Pursue a line of enquiry
    Importantly, these authors state that you must begin with a brutally honest reflection on your own conclusions or opinions, interrupting any impulsive or emotional reaction to check your facts. This needs to happen before you approach someone else to challenge their own beliefs or conclusions. You can then follow a respectful enquiry approach with the other person, as follows.
  1. What facts or observations have you and I selected to make our cases?
  2. Is there anything that I’ve deliberately chosen to ignore, reject or minimise? Is it worth re-checking its value? What about the other person?
  3. What might we have missed? Is there something that one person has observed that the other is unaware of? How might we find out?
  4. Are these facts or observations truly objective or have we layered on our own interpretations about meaning? What would they look like in a purely objective way with no interpretation?
  5. Is it possible to reasonably come to a different conclusion?
  6. What extra information will we need to seek in order to check our conclusions?

Use this checklist to, as Argyris and Noonan would put it, “climb down your ladder of inference” to check for misunderstanding. This may be needed quite rapidly, in a meeting or conversation. Social media arguments may seem fast-paced but their brevity makes them particularly prone to a self-reinforcing cycle of misunderstanding on both sides. Emails can very often appear colder and more aggressive than the sender intended – hence it is important to check your reading of what is ‘between the lines’ and the intended tone.

The same techniques can be used both to check your understanding of someone else’s assertions or opinions. Work back carefully, asking questions to understand what led the other person to a conclusion, and the underlying observations or facts. This can help gain an insight into the person’s real meaning, or uncover a relatively easy-to-resolve misunderstanding at the heart of a disagreement.

You can also use this approach to present your own ideas and conclusions more effectively. By carefully layering up from selected data, adding your interpretations then presenting your idea, you have time to check for understanding and missing data/facts along the way and present a cogent case with less chance of misinterpretation and more chance to learn and improve the conclusions along the way. You also present ideas in an open way, able to be both clear and authoritative while also showing a trust-inducing openness and ability to listen.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg of Argyris and Noonan’s work and I’ll try and blog more of the approaches in future.

What are your reactions to this? Have you used these techniques? Am I missing other ideas or approaches that would help? Is there a flaw in this that I haven’t spotted? Please do help me explore this.

 

The art of being level-headed, not emotionally blinded

Imagine it: your face flushes red, your shoulders tense, your skin prickles and your stomach sinks. Stress, anxiety, anger – it’s your body’s fight or flight response.

When we’re young these emotions are all-consuming and lead to regular emotional breakdown. As we get older, we gain an increasing ability to separate ourselves from the emotion – to see that it is temporary, to slightly detach from it and explore it with some curiosity.

Both as a teacher and an organisation leader, this ability has been completely critical. When I’ve allowed emotions to go unchecked then I’ve compromised my abilities to control classes and dealt badly with meetings. Stress reactions spiral out of control, they are exhausting and destructive.

When we are stressed a number of effects occur:

  • We zoom in on the stress – our attention is drawn closely to the stimulus that is causing us anxiety or anger. This might be the person who is being threatening or the particular thought going around our head that is worrying us. Other things around us and other thoughts recede into the background. We lose sight of the bigger picture, losing perspective and becoming, quite literally, narrow minded. Conversely, but also harmfully, we are also much more easily distracted, finding it harder to filter stimuli and thoughts that are irrelevant to our goal. This is a particular problem if the source of stress is not the thing we’re supposed to be focusing on – e.g. trying to engage in a calm, thoughtful conversation after an emotionally stressful event.
  • We are more likely to be aggressive (the fight response) and competitive or alternative we may feel compelled to withdraw – physically or emotionally. We are less likely to think things through calmly and logically. Our decision-making is more haphazard and more likely to be sub-optimal.
  • Due to paying attention much more selectively, we are likely to form narrower memories from the event which focus on the emotional content and the stressful stimulus – we will remember different things differently to someone who was calm. We are much less effective at tasks that require integrating different inputs or ideas – processes and tasks requiring divided attention or focus is impaired. More generally, our working memory is impaired. Not only makes this harder to think about the current situation, this also impairs retrieval of past events
  • Our risk-taking behaviour is modified. On average, we all tend to be more keen to pursue reward with less avoidance of possible negative outcomes. However, stress also amplifies gender differences. On average, men’s risk-taking is ramped up much more strongly than women’s.
  • We are less likely to take a team perspective in groups, leading to lower performance as a team more generally.

All of this is pretty disastrous if you are trying to remain calm in the face of a class that needs calm authority, or a stressful meeting which requires strategic decision-making and careful person-management.

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So, what’s to be done? I personally use a few key principles. Apologies if they sound a little fluffy or odd, but they seem to work for me!

  1. Practice noticing your own emotions. Get used to spotting the first flush of adrenaline and making a note that you are getting an emotional reaction. Check your mental state and the tension in your muscles at regular intervals to see how tense or stressed you are feeling. This is the vital first step in dealing with the emotion and detaching yourself from it.
  2. Allow the emotion to subside and pass. Take a moment to pause. Drop your shoulders. Take a deep breath. Slow your rate of speaking.
  3. Also notice the emotional state of others. Spot when they go red, look for tension in their faces, particularly around the eyes. Remember that it is temporary. Recognise that it may cause an empathy reaction in you and look for this.
  4. Most importantly, zoom out and see this is as a small and possibly even helpful emotional blip in a successful extended process. Emotion can lead to opening up, and to learning. Think of the big picture and the long game. Use the words curiosity and design to trigger calmer, more logical thoughts, more detached, giving yourself space to see wider solutions.

Outside of the stressful episodes you need to try and encourage yourself to be better at coping. Practice noticing your emotional state regularly. Ensure you get enough sleep. Even one late night can have knock on effects for the rest of the week. Sleep deprivation makes you emotionally less resilient, less able to detach, more liable to stress. Give yourself space to unwind and relax. I personally find mindfulness techniques help me both with the noticing of my emotional state as well as helping to put aside nagging or stressful thoughts, though I don’t have the patience to practice at all regularly.

What works for you? Am I missing some techniques or ideas? I’m keen to learn from you, please do leave a comment.

9 ways for leaders to be better at communication

Poor communication sucks the life out of organisations. Many teams are full of uncomfortable issues, awkward misunderstandings and confusing meetings where everyone leaves with a different idea of what is going on. This leads to frustration, reduced trust, reduced respect and reduced sense of each other’s competency. It leads to suspicion about whether real intentions match stated intentions and it generated lots of unnecessary stress.

I’ve enjoyed reading through some great blogs and books on leadership and communication. In the spirit of sharing and to help my own learning, I’d like to suggest an initial 9 ideas for leaders that you can use to transform communication. Do you agree or disagree with these? Can you improve on them? Please do comment and share.  I’d love to hear your ideas, challenges and reflections. I’ve included links to some of my reading at the bottom of this blog.

1. Approach with a spirit of respect, curiosity and enquiry
Your mental state at the start of the conversation is vital. Note and acknowledge your own emotional state while focusing on your curiosity about what the final solution might look like. Be prepared to learn something about (and potentially to change) the assumptions you’re bringing, and to learn more about the other person and their context. Avoid bringing a laundry list of ideas to impose. Imagine a blank space in which you will create a way forward, where the other person will also bring some building blocks and some ideas.

2. Don’t fluff, don’t pussy-foot, don’t ease-in
Good leaders build and maintain trusting relationships, but this doesn’t stop them getting to the heart of an issue. Fear of causing stress can make us spontaneously water down or ‘fluff’ the discussion of challenging facts, or spend far too long ‘easing in’ or ‘pussy-footing around’ a challenging conversation so that the point gets lost. Even though the intention was to maintain the relationship the other person will probably realise you’re not saying what you really think and this leads to suspicion and lack of trust and, ultimately, does more harm than good. Prioritising short-term emotional comfort over long-term goals and genuine, trusting relationships is damaging, and can lead to watering down expectations/challenge which, ultimately, harms everyone in the organisation. However, the flip side is that systematically creating insecurity and reducing trust will also lead to organisation breakdown! Great conversations aim to maintain and build relationships while addressing challenges and moving things forwards.

3. Check your assumptions, bring your view as just one possibility
The relationship with the other person is very important too! Respect and understanding can be built together when you check your assumptions about the situation. Simply starting by saying “I’ve made some assumptions here and I would like to check them with you” invites the other person to contribute and shows you are open to listening. Maintain your alertness to your assumptions throughout the conversation and try and discuss them openly.

4. Restate and summarise
Every element of a conversation is being interpreted and heard differently by each party. We bring our own feelings and understanding and we’re constantly reinterpreting what we hear to fit our own mental models of the world. To avoid the worst of this, use phrases such as ‘I’d like to pause and double check I’ve understood what you mean’ or ‘Can I summarise what you’ve said as’. Follow this with a question like ‘Have I captured the key points you were making or is there anything I’ve missed or misrepresented?’ Invite the other person to summarise too, e.g. ‘I don’t know how clear I’m being – please could you play back what I’ve just said to make sure we’re on the same page and help me ensure I’m not being confusing?’

5. Be alert to your emotional cues
Every time you get a little burst of adrenaline you feel it in your stomach, you may feel yourself going red, and you may feel your muscles tense. This typically happens when you get an emotional ‘fight or flight’ reaction within the conversation. Use these as clues to unspoken assumptions or issues you’re bringing to the table. When you notice this reaction then you also need to work twice as hard to check assumptions, listen openly and check for understanding as the adrenaline will be working against your ability to think logically and openly. This commonly happens when the other person says something that threatens our own feelings of competency, our safety or our social standing. If necessary, pause the conversation. ‘I had an emotional reaction to that last question/idea which makes me realise that I am worried about X’ or ‘I’ve realised I got a bit tense, can we resume [in a few minutes]/[later today] so that I can make sure I’m listening openly?’ or ‘When you said that it made me feel tense – I’m reflecting on why and I think I’m worried that…’

6. Check their assumptions too
Not only are you bringing assumptions to the conversation, the other person is too. Questions that the other person asks may not always be the ones that are addressing the real issue, only tangential issues. They may also be forming assumptions behind what you’re saying that may not be true. This is a real test of your leadership qualities as some of their assumptions may be questioning your competency or character – be very careful aware of your emotional reactions and be open to exploring and learning about yourself. Use questions like ‘so that I can answer your question better, could you explain why you’re asking it?’ and ‘do you think there’s an important or difficult issue here that we’re not talking about? I’m really open to hearing your thinking even if it’s critical of me’. By showing you listen and making yourself a little vulnerable you can learn a lot and build trust. It can also raise your standing as a genuinely respected leader rather than having to rely on ‘hard’ power and risk reducing trust.

7. Make space – don’t fill all the conversations space, ask questions and wait
When you’re anxious or stressed you tend to talk more and listen less. As a leader you have more ‘presence’ and ‘weight’ in the conversation than you often realise. Leave silences at the end of the other person’s contributions. This allows you to be more thoughtful, and allows the other person to add other points they may have forgotten. Follow questions with longer pauses than normal. Imagine that each question creates a space between the two of you – don’t shut down this space by pushing your own answers in. Open body language, e.g. relaxed stance and palms up, can help create this conversational space. Sometimes you can explicitly acknowledge the space – e.g. ‘in this space here between us we’re going to create the solution to this – what does it look like?’

8. Be careful with suggestions, label their ‘power’
Your inherent power as a leader can overwhelm the other person’s ideas and suggestions. Every time you say ‘what about ….’ then it can come across as ‘I want us to do this and I will be annoyed if I don’t get my way’. You need to preface and caveat every suggestion with clarity about whether it is a firm idea that should be accepted, or merely a contribution that can be ignored or changed. Use phrase such as ‘This is just a tentative suggestion to build on – feel free to reject it’. Be extremely sparing about your own contributions. Ideally you want to seed the conversation with sufficient space and challenge that colleagues can start generating their own solutions.

9. Integrity builds trust
Make sure your deeds match your words. If you say you are open to listening, you need to make sure you don’t punish the other person for speaking, suggesting or criticising. If you say you are open to their contributions and ideas, you need to follow through and not end up systematically rejecting them all. If you say you are making the other person responsible for the next step, recognise that stepping in or taking back control will undermine both them and you. If you say you will follow up with an action, failing to do so makes you look untrustworthy.

No amount of great dialogue can overcome the damage done by lack of integrity – indeed, failure to follow through or match deeds to your words makes it orders of magnitude harder to communicate effectively later. Where trust is low, aim for smaller, quicker wins to show that you will follow through.


These are all really tough, and it’s through making (many) mistakes with pretty much all of the above points that I’ve been learning to develop my own leadership. I’m going to try and blog more frequently and share some of the interesting ideas I’ve been reading. In my next blog I want to explore how to raise the level of challenge and expectation while improving buy-in and avoiding becoming top-down.

Pages 171-199 of the Best Evidence Synthesis: School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why. Viviane Robinson, Margie Hohepa, and Claire Lloyd, The University of Auckland

Open-to-learning conversations – a presentation by Viviane Robinson

Chris Argyris – Teaching Smart People How To Learn, Harvard Business Review

PS In a spectacular mathematics teacher fail, my original post was called “8 ways…” when in fact there are 9. Oops!

My year in review #Nurture1516

Things I’m grateful for in 2015:

January – Schools week very kindly published a profile of me. A very strange but touching process.
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February  – I appeared on BBC Newsnight to debate LGBT teachers being out in school. [Video no longer online, alas]
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February – I made friends for life with Debra Kidd and Lisa Jane Ashes in a wonderful week teaching physics at (what was then called) Park View school. I also remembered how much I love teaching.

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March – I was announced as Chair of the DfE CPD Expert Group. A huge responsibility – very humbling and exciting.
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April – My inspirational Dad’s 80th birthday.
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May – I was flown to the US where I visited NYC for the first time and then went on to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to speak at their TEDx event. Hard to express how excited and honoured I was.

David Weston speaks at TedXGrandRapids on May 7, 2015. Photo by Bud Kibby
David Weston speaks at TedXGrandRapids on May 7, 2015. Photo by Bud Kibby

June – my charity, the Teacher Development Trust, launched our joint massive new review (with TES) of what works in effective teacher development, by Cordingley et al

June – I had a piece published in The Guardian about homophobia in schools

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Photograph: David Poller/ZUMA Press/Corbis – from Guardian article

August – my amazing husband was nominated as best brand for Muscat Bridal in one of the world’s top bridal wear trade shows.
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September – Over 6 and a half years after my life-saving liver transplant, I was honoured to be featured by the national NHS organ donation campaign.
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October – a culmination of huge amounts of blood, sweat and tears as the amazing new board of trustees for the College of Teaching took their places for the first time. I so strongly believe this is going to be beneficial for the profession, I’m so proud of having helped this.
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November – felt hugely proud of my sister-in-law who graduated from her MBA in Edinburgh after studying for 6 years from Malta. A really touching visit.
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That’s just a few of my highlights, but there’s so much more I could say about family, friends, work and life. Can’t wait to see where 2016 takes me, my colleagues, friends and family.

Teachers must be learners

This article appears in the May edition of Education Investor magazine and the Teacher Development Trust blog

Better schools will need better teachers. And that means better CPD, says David Weston.

Research has repeatedly shown that the number one influence on the quality of student attainment isn’t leadership, buildings or IT: it’s the quality of teaching. Student background and quality of parenting are hugely important, too, of course – but schools struggle to affect such external factors. The most effective thing a school can do to improve the lot of its students is to improve the quality of its teachers.

However, most schools spend only small quantities of money and time on staff development. What’s more, the training they choose is often poorly chosen and ineffective, and the evidence about how to fix this is not widely known or understood. Here at the Teacher Development Trust we’ve been doing some digging to illustrate the scale of the problem.

English schools reported spending just under £200 million on staff development last year – equating to only £25 per student, or 0.5% of the national education budget. Of that, around half the money spent went on supply cover costs to free teachers from the classroom. In other words, just a quarter of one percent of the national education budget was spent on actual training or coaching.

As to how this money was spent, teachers most commonly reported they chose whatever course they fancied. (The next most common answer was that they went on whatever course they were told to.) The majority of these courses weren’t even very effective: of the training courses sampled by the recently-closed Teacher Development Agency, just 10% were able to embed new ideas in the long term, and just 1% were of the quality that could transform poor practice into more effective teaching. The most commonly reported method of training was sitting passively listening to a lecture or presentation – exactly the sort of thing teachers are taught to avoid doing with their own classrooms.

Once training was completed only 63% of schools evaluated its effectiveness. And just 7% of schools – and 3% of secondaries – considered the impact on student attainment.

It’s a grim picture – but it doesn’t have to be that way. We now have a strong evidence base for what constitutes good teacher development, and it doesn’t require vast sums to be spent.

First of all, let’s be clear about what good practice doesn’t look like. It doesn’t mean:

  • forcing teachers to follow lists of ‘best practice’ methods and checking compliance through repeated observations and scrutiny of lesson plans;
  • mandating fixed structures for lessons;
  • bolting on ‘tips and tricks’ to existing teaching;
  • buying in and parroting pre-prepared schemes of work and lesson plans.

Any one of the above methods could produce a short-term and limited ‘bump’ in student attainment. But what they won’t do is to create self-sustaining improvement. Ultimately, they just lead to lower staff morale.

Fortunately, there’s an increasing body of research to suggest that truly effective professional development follows fairly specific rules.

  • It must begin by identifying teacher development needs based on the learning needs of the students being taught, and it must build on teachers’ existing skill.
  • The coaching or training must maintain a balance of focusing on ways for the teacher to help these students while providing skills that transfer to the rest of the teacher’s work.
  • The development process must be collaborative, with teachers of similar skill and confidence supporting, observing and coaching each other.
  • The development process must be actively sustained for at least two terms for a large number of hours (i.e. more than 40). And it must follow cycles of trying, reflecting, and adjusting, while maintaining the focus on improved student learning – and not teacher behaviour.
  • External expertise is vital to keep the improvement on track, avoid false glass-ceilings and disrupt ‘group-think’ that can develop in departments and schools. This could be an expert teacher from a nearby school, or an external consultant.

Schools need to deeply embed these ideas in the day-to-day running of their schools. Time spent by school leaders engaging with teaching and learning is significantly more productive than any other activity in raising student attainment, so it follows that teachers should be viewing their own development as a much higher priority. However, it’s easy for such processes to be subsumed beneath every-day planning, marking, discipline, and bureaucracy.

At the Teacher Development Trust we’re putting in place three strands of work to support the education sector in adopting these practices. Firstly we’ve created the free GoodCPDGuide.com website, a quality-assured database of training and coaching that helps teachers assess their needs and evaluate the impact of training. Secondly, we are working with training providers to help them deliver higher quality courses, with resources, training and inspection processes.

Finally, we are working with schools to support them to change their working practices. The goal is to put high-quality teacher development at the heart of everything they do and create reflective, adaptive professionals who are confident and effective in their classrooms. That could do more to improve schools than any structural change.

David Weston is a former teacher, and the founder and chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust.

Building excellence in education.

How do you improve education? Everyone has a theory, arguments rage. Governments around the world are trying all sorts of exciting schemes, and we can all see that there are a few different possible levers we can try and pull. So, which to choose?
Do we crank up accountability? This is a great short-term solution for a sluggish education system. Every new measure results in a short fear-induced jump with people scrabbling to get out of the ‘danger zone’. Ultimately of course the majority of those in safety can and will revert to being just as sluggish as before. Witness the current scrabble to reinstate humanities and language teaching due to EBacc and drop the now frowned-upon vocational qualifications after the previous 5A*-C panic caused the opposite. This method of improvement is something akin to prodding a sleepy animal with a pointy stick, I think. The animal will rearrange itself to move out of the way of the prods where possible, and then settle back to sleep. Should it have a place in the system? Yes. Is it vastly and painfully over-used? Undoubtedly.o we crank up accountability?

How about imposing new rules and methods? The last government loved this one. We had national strategies and literacy hours, an upsurge in bureaucracy and teachers generally slapped about the face unless they were doing nice three part lessons with starters and plenaries with Assessment for Learning in place (even though most of them didn’t really know what this meant). This is another great method for producing a bump in results. Your lazy bottom 10% of teachers will probably improve a wee bit, and the top 10% of enthusiasts will see the potential and incorporate it relatively happily. The rest will wearily comply just enough to avoid being prodded by the pointy stick and carry on the same as before. There will be dark mutterings and resentment at the imposition into teachers’ ‘personal space’, and huge amounts of energy wasted on oodles of utterly superficial change nationwide. Effect on learning outcomes, minimal.

A current favourite is autonomy of course. How about this one? This is fantastic for all those innovative types who were straining at the leashes of all the bureaucracy and compliance. The enthusiasts will rejoice and start doing things differently. Some of them will try new and foolish ideas that turn out to be a bit rubbish, and some will hit on brilliant ones that will be revolutionary. The weary middle will look suspiciously around waiting for the next inevitable pointy stick and carry on teaching the old way. The lazy ones will sink gently bag into the bog of incompetence with a smile on their faces.

Everyone’s favourite though is structural change. Create whole new categories of schools, change legal designations, alter funding streams, add or remove layers of management. This is stunningly helpful for the small minority who were genuinely trying to innovate and enthuse but were blocked by bureaucracy (probably the ones who were shouting most loudly at the government when they came in to power). Some of the existing enthusiasts and innovators will dismay as they discover their existing growth base has shifted, while others will attempt to adapt. Plans will go on hold all over the country as people try to re-engineer their working practice, finances and development plans. Some of the enthusiasts will adore the new systems, the weary middle will grumble at being made the change, again, and assume that it’s a way of making a new type of pointy stick, and the lazy incompetents will remain blissfully ignorant. Potential for improvement for some? Yes.  Improvement for all? a guaranteed no. Lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth about ideology, rights, politics and change? You betcha!

So how do you actually improve education? Is it by tinkering, foisting, poking or restructuring? Well, ultimately each of these imposed top-down things either unleashes a small pent up need at one end of the spectrum or vaguely squashes a section of incompetence at the other. The only real way you can really improve things is by getting as many teachers as possible on board with improving themselves in a self-sustaining way.

I don’t mean smile winningly and say “off you go lads ‘n lasses” and hope the teachers will improve by magic, I mean system-wide evidence-driven change with teachers in the driving seat.

There are some great examples of all types of change, of course. Laptops for Teachers unbunged the improvement pipe who just needed the kit to get on with it. Banning corporal punishment stamped out an outdated and harmful practice. The London Challenge (and similar projects under the Excellence in Cities banner) created structures, funding and time with which schools could identify problems, collaborate, share expertise, and continuously work to improve outcomes for students. And it is this last one that I think provides the real model for radical school improvement for the UK.

We’ve all seen countless studies that show, time and again, that the biggest thing a school can do to improve outcomes for its kids is to improve its teachers. Apart from the statistically insane and wilfully stupid we’ve discounted the idea that we can simply fire all the incompetent ones and hire new ones. The weary middle, who grow remarkably tired of being poked with a pointy stick will shout about making parents sort it out, but the answer is actually really rather clear. We need systems in place that promote teacher professionalism, systematically grow and develop teacher expertise and sustain this in the long term. Teaching Schools, while a nice idea, are a drop in the ocean. Every school needs to embark on the journey to put in place proper professional development, and fortunately there is a very strong evidence base to tell us just what this looks like. I’ll be blogging more about what this means for schools, teachers and training providers quite soon over at the Teacher Development Trust.

Ok, clearly you still need the right number of working schools with non-leaking buildings, decent finance, a steady stream of new recruits and all the other bits. But on the whole, the English education system is doing reasonably well at those things. You could tweak of course, and I’m sure people will, but the really big changes in outcomes won’t come until leaders, teachers and administrators all start focusing heavily on creating better student outcomes using the lever of teacher professional development combined with the research on how to use it effectively.

Just, please, no more tinkering, prodding and poking.

As always, your thoughts and opinions are most welcome. Let’s start a discussion.

PS Here’s a link to a great recent Harvard research paper suggesting that the key factors affecting student outcomes are (wait for it)…. teaching and learning factors. http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/fryer/files/effective_schools.pdf

How effective is the professional development undertaken by teachers?

This blog piece originally appeared in The Guardian on Monday 26th March 2012

Two hundred million pounds is a lot of money to spend every year. It’s the equivalent of five thousand experienced teachers, forty secondary schools, or half a million new computers.

It also happens to be a rather conservative estimate of the amount of money that English schools reportedly spend every year on professional development for teachers (the real value could well be a significant multiple of this).

Any national programme that costs this much money would (or should) come with strings attached. We’d would expect to see a fair old amount of bang for our taxpayer buck. We’d insist that good practice was followed and that bad providers would be hounded out.

So here’s the rub. A fair amount of teacher professional development (also known variously as teacher training, inset, CPD or professional learning) is really bad. I don’t just mean that it’s poor value for money or insufficiently effective – it’s much worse than that. A large swathe of training has no effect whatsoever on pupil outcomes.

In fact, in some cases, teachers come away from irrelevant away-days having made poorly-understood and superficial changes to their teaching that not only make the lessons worse but also leaving them with the impression that they are now better teachers who require less training in future.

Of course you’d expect that this sort of ruse would soon be rumbled and that ineffective provision would be blacklisted, right? Wrong. Many schools still select training and consultancy from a single dominant supplier (often the local authority) or from a folder of assorted fliers that have arrived in the post.

So what does effective professional development look like, and how can schools make good practice stick? Fortunately there have been a raft of reports (e.g. from EPPI and from Ofsted, among many others) that tell us exactly what to look for, and the good news is that great teacher learning is a remarkably similar beast to the great pupil learning.

Philippa Cordingley from the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE) has for twelve years been leading reviews of research about what really makes a difference in CPD for teachers and for their pupils. She has recently evaluated the provision of 75 CPD providers from across the country, and points out that “the international and national evidence is clear – you have to look at both the support that makes a difference and what teachers contribute to their own and each others’ professional learning.

Too much attention in CPD goes into the content of courses and the things CPD providers do to or for teachers. There isn’t nearly enough thought given to ways of making the learning process sustained, stimulating and connected with pupil learning”.

There are some key principles to follow to improve CPD. Firstly, the process of training must start with a clear identification of need. Pupils work better knowing the purpose of learning, and so do we! Teachers need to be able to identify the cohorts that are under-performing, which topics are being taught less effectively, and which skills their pupils are acquiring less fluently.

Once the needs of the pupils have been identified then the effectiveness of the training can be truly judged. This should be a professional judgement using suitable assessments and other data – an investigative process that begins with aspirations for pupils and teacher engagement.

Secondly, once the need is clearly identified, teachers need to access expertise both within school and from outside. Training that fails to take in to account local knowledge and context is likely to be irrelevant, less effective, and poorly received in the same way that teaching that ignores pupil’s own knowledge is ineffective.

External expertise matters to avoid group think and false glass ceilings, and to make sure precious development time is focused on genuinely effective approaches. This expertise needs to be quality-assured and peer-reviewed – there is no point paying good money for training that others have already found lacking, or which fails to live up to its promises.

Thirdly, training has to be sustained. A one-off jolly to the local hotel may be a fun day full of “tricks” to plonk into your lesson plan; let’s be honest, we’ve all got folders full of notes from such courses that we’ve never looked at again.

You wouldn’t expect a pupil to clear up misconceptions, grasp a new theory, and learn how to apply it in one session, and once again the same is absolutely true of teachers. Great training challenges teachers’ practical theories about learning, helps teachers learn and practice new approaches, and sends them away with ideas to experiment with and refine over time.

Once they’ve tried it out they need to access the expertise again on several occasions to build their own confidence, correct misunderstandings, and overcome barriers.

Lastly, professional development has to be active and collaborative. Us teachers are just as prone to tuning out of a “lecture” and contemplating lunch instead as any pupil. This most certainly doesn’t mean yet more A2 posters with coloured pens though!

New ideas need to be put in to practice, observed, discussed and re-evaluated. Teachers need to work in groups to share ideas, breakthroughs and problems. If one person is going off at a tangent then a group is more likely to bring them back to the core principles. Where one person is having a bad week and tempted to discard the new approach in the face of particularly recalcitrant pupils, the others can offer ideas and support.

Reciprocal vulnerability builds teamwork – if I risk looking silly by trying something new and you do the same we won’t want to let each other down so we keep on going in the face of distractions. Peer observations, focused on the new approach and its effect on the target groups of pupils, become a helpful and welcome way of learning rather than part of an imposed accountability system. The external expert should be brought back in or referred to regularly to ensure the new practice is developing in the most effective way.

It’s a big cultural shift, but endless reports and international comparisons have shown us that teacher professional development is one of the cornerstones to improve education for our pupils. Not only does it improve learning but it increases teacher retention and morale and raises the status of the profession.

The Teacher Development Trust, aims to help everyone in education to use these ideas in their own work. One of our tools, GoodCPDGuide, is a national database of CPD where teachers can review each course, consultant, or event for impact on their own practice, and where providers can apply for quality marks from CUREE to prove that their training really works.

We also work closely with CUREE to help support schools and training providers to build better identification of need, to make training more relevant and transformative, and to improve the dissemination and collaboration around new ideas once back in school.

• David Weston is the founder of the Teacher Development Trust andInformed Education Ltd., and a Maths and Physics teacher at a secondary school in Hertfordshire. Follow David on Twitter:@TeacherDevTrust and @Informed_Edu.