5 ways to build rapport and have better conversations

When it comes to conversation, relationships matter. So how can you use conversation to make relationships better, improve trust and really get things done?

Clearly, a good relationship with others makes your life easier. But, as Kim Scott says in her excellent book, Radical Candor, it’s a two way street:

“there’s a chicken-and-egg interaction between your relationships and your responsibilities. You can’t fulfill your responsibilities without good relationships, but the way in which you fulfill your responsibilities is integral to those relationships. They’re built from the outside in and the inside out.”

Great communication both rests on good relationships and builds better relationships. By improving the way you have conversations then you create a virtuous circle for everyone around you.

Good conversations build rapport, but that doesn’t mean you must avoid saying anything challenging. Indeed, uncomfortable conversations can improve relationships, although I’ve previously written about eight ways that we desperately try to avoid them and cause more problems in the long-run.

There’s five simple ideas you can use within conversation to build rapport and get things done.

Just this week, I helped a colleague use these ideas to tackle a tricky issue with their CEO. Their verdict:

“Well that worked. […] I feel like Derren blummin Brown

So here they are:

Pay attention to the whole conversation. Loads of articles tell you ‘don’t sit there thinking of what you’re going to say next, but listen to what they’re saying‘. This is decent advice but it’s not enough. Paying attention means not glancing at your phone, not looking over the person’s shoulder, not thinking about your next meeting and not formulating your next response. And yet, these are all absolutely necessary, but also deeply insufficient. If you’re only listening to the words being said, you’re only listening to a third of the conversation. People communicate in three ways in a conversation.

  1. Verbal: the words being said
  2. Paraverbal: the way the words are being spoken
  3. Nonverbal: the body language, movement, facial expression, gestures, blushing, sweating, gaze etc.

When you’re really paying attention, you’re taking careful note of all three, looking out for interesting choices of word or phrase, for pauses, fluidity and intonation as well as the physical clues of what the person feels about what they’re saying or hearing.

You can only build rapport when you are really paying attention. Rapport is built when the other person thinks they’re being listened to, being validated, trusted and made to feel safe. None of that is possible unless your attention is on your partner.

Radiate openness, warmth and engagement. Whether you’re actually speaking or not, you are broadcasting non-verbal signals at all times.

Match your signals to your partner’s mood as much as possible – a warm, relaxed face and body language with regular smiles and nods feels very encouraging. If the other person is expressing anxiety, pain or anger then a gently, warmly compassionate face – gently furrowed eyebrows, slightly tilted head – shows you care. Use neutral words and phrases such as “Mmm”, “I see”, “Ah right”, “Oh wow”, etc. to signal that you’re listening, though use them sparingly and don’t interrupt – silence and open body language and facial expression can be just as good.

Try and avoid crossed arms and do keep your body toward the other person – if you’re taking notes then try to avoid like your body and face’s main focus is the computer or paper – keep your eyes as much as possible on your partner.

Invite more detail. Questions and invitations can encourage your partner to reflect and add detail. “Could you tell me more about…” or “Wow, what’s the story there?” demonstrate interest. Open questions are really helpful – i.e. questions that encourage extended responses not one-word answers. How is always a particularly good way to start a question – ‘how did you come to that conclusion‘ can seem less judgemental than ‘why did you do that?’ Other good questions could include “How had you imagined it” or “How could we make this work?

Avoid judgements wrapped in questions! ‘How did you think that was a good idea?‘ isn’t actually a question, it’s a slap-down wrapped around your opinion…

Demonstrate your listening and understanding. We connect better with people who seem like us, who really get us. There are several little tools here.

One is labelling where you name the emotion your partner is feeling. “It seems like you’re frustrated” or “that’s probably disappointing” or “it sounds like you are really excited” are good examples – they suggest an emotion which lets your partner accept, correct or reject it. Avoid adding in the personal pronoun – “I think you’re happy” makes it about you, not them. Avoid insisting on a label they might reject – “You’re clearly upset” suggests you know them better than they know themselves and is a risky tactic.

Two related tools are paraphrasing and summarising. Paraphrasing is repeating back an idea or phrase in different words – typically using a similar amount of words. Summarising takes a much longer chunk of what’s been said and distils it down to fewer words. It’s always better to offer your paraphrase or summary tentatively or leave room for them to correct you – you can learn a lot by offering your understanding and letting them add detail and correct things.

A final tool is mirroring. The simplest approach is listen to the last few words the person just said and use them in your question or summary. E.g. them: ‘… and after all of that I ended up feeling incredibly frustrated’you: ‘it’s not surprising that you felt incredibly frustrated, in the circumstances’. It can feel a bit wierd at first but this simple tool works. Some people also suggest mirroring some of your partner’s nonverbal signals – if they smile, you smile, if they lean back in their chair, you do the same briefly after. However, use this sparingly as it can be odd.

Use silence. Susan Scott uses the lovely phrase “let silence do the heavy lifting” in her book Fierce Conversations. Chris Voss, in Never Split the Difference, suggests using silence as a powerful tool after every time you use open questions, mirroring and labelling, leaving the powerful tool to work its magic.

Silence helps the conversation slow down. A pause before you respond gives your partner more time to add more thought. It suggests that you’ve thought carefully about what they’ve said before speaking. You can fill a silence with a slow, relaxed exhale or with a “hmmm” and a nod.

Each time you’re silent, you’re signalling that you’ve chosen not to give your interpretation or opinion. Instead of jumping in, you’re giving thinking time. However, we can also get very uncomfortable with silence, and it makes your partner’s mind start racing to think “what else could or should I say here?” Do use this powerful tool, but do be aware of the impact it can have, especially if the other person is nervous of you and of what you’re really thinking.


All of these five approaches can ensure that each conversation builds more rapport. Not only will you get much more from each conversation as you’re noticing and reflecting on more that’s being said (and not said), but the other person will feel more listened to, more appreciated, more understood, even if the conversation eventually gets to a point of challenge or disagreement.

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to build rapport and trust outside of conversation: doing activities together, sharing personal stories or recounting stories of former experiences together and asking for help and guidance from each other. Trust and rapport are also built through competence, benevolence and integrity. I’ll return to some of these topics in a later blog.

For now, find times to work these ideas into your conversation. I’d recommend a couple of interesting books on the topic for further reading:

  1. Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott
  2. Never Split the Difference, by Chris Voss

You might also be interested in some other blogs of mine on communication:

Necessary, tough conversations often fail. Here’s 8 reasons why.
7 powerful questions for leaders: creating a culture of ideas
The disagreement dissolver: a check-list for stamping out misunderstanding at work
The art of being level-headed, not emotionally blinded
9 ways for leaders to be better at communication

Necessary, tough conversations often fail. Here’s 8 reasons why.

In great work-places, it’s okay to have tough conversations. In fact, not just okay, it’s an essential habit. Negativity thrives in the spaces that honesty and openness vacate. Bad cultures build where people learn that they can’t speak up, that others won’t speak up, or that under-performance and problems get swept under the rug.

A key starting point for good conversation and culture is to talk about difficult issues and tackle problems early. But it’s hard to confront a problem and improve things.

Improvement requires listening – on both sides. It requires rapport – trust and confidence in each other. If successful, everyone accepts their contribution to the issue and resolves to take responsibility to learn and improve.

But it’s tough to have these conversations and we often avoid the issue, reject any contribution or refuse to take action.

Here’s five signs that your conversation partner is not engaging and owning the issue. (the first three of these come originally from ‘Fierce Conversations‘, I believe.)

  1. Deflect: they raise an issue about someone else (or something else), instead of focusing on this issue and their contribution to it. “But he did something even worse” or “You’re picking on me” or “Why are you talking about this when the real issue is…”
  2. Deny: they flat out refuse to accept that they contributed to the issue. “That’s just not true, I didn’t do that” or “Yes, I did that, but I don’t agree that it’s a sign of poor performance
  3. Defend: they insist that their actions were justified, reasonable or inevitable. “Well, she had it coming.” or “I think anyone would have done the same” or “I have a temper, there’s nothing I can do”
  4. Diminish: they claim that the issue is minor, irrelevant, unremarkable or that their contribution was insignificant. “I think I was barely late, and only a couple of times at that” or “I don’t know why you think this is such a big deal
  5. Disengage: they ‘check out’ of the conversation, refusing to engage. “Fine, have we finished?” or “Okay, I get it, I’m sorry, can we move on?”

All five tactics move us away from the important discussion and prevent ownership and resolution. They’re easy to spot when someone else seems to be evading the issue, but much harder to spot and deal with when we use the same tactics to avoid admitting our own contribution to an issue.

Too many difficult conversations fail to even begin. We use the same five tactics in our own head to justify not having ‘the talk’.

  • “There’s something more important going on right now, best save my energy” or “let’s not rock the boat right now”
  • “Maybe it didn’t really happen”
  • “I mean, they’re only human, I should cut them some slack”
  • “I guess it’s not that bad really”
  • “This procrastination feels really important right now!”

Other times, we do set up the meeting, but then go wrong by:

  • pussyfooting around with small-talk and niceties and never actually have the conversation that’s needed,
  • being so incredibly vague, unspecific and rushed that the other person never really understands what it’s about, or
  • back-peddling: hastily blurting out the issue and then immediately showering the other person with praise and excuses plus diminishing the severity of the issue, all in order to reduce our own feelings of discomfort.

With so many reasons that the discussion can go off track, it’s no surprise that necessary, tough conversations frequently fail to happen.

In a future blog, I’ll discuss some keys to successful tough conversations. In the meantime, I recommend the following books:

  • Radical Candor, by Kim Scott
  • Fierce Conversations, by Susan Scott
  • Discussing the undiscussable by William Noonan

All the above reflections are my attempt to synthesise some of my own learning, reading and experiences in order to help me clarify my own thoughts. I want to publicly express my gratitude to Nicole Fowles (@nfowles5) whose advice, coaching and book recommendations have been transformational! Thank you also to Kathryn Morgan (@KLMorgan_2) for getting me enthusiastic about Fierce Conversations. Please do leave questions, ideas or suggestions for improvement in the comments below!

Why I believe in high stakes testing… in the right context

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Teachers are exceptionally good at creating strong relationships with classes of children and young adults. As knowledgeable, fascinating figures who beam out a sense of ‘I know you can do it’, they are able to use their positive relationships to challenge students to push through difficult and troublesome learning, achieving more than they thought was possible and exploring skills and understanding that they’d have never had access to before.

Learning isn’t always a comfortable process, and wise teachers know that they need to fine-tune the level of difficulty to hover around the edge of students’ comfort zones. Occasionally they need to consolidate and build confidence, sometimes they need to push and take a leap. Sometimes they will pursue a student’s own fascination with a topic and help them achieve amazing things. In other cases they will carefully and lovingly push them in an uncomfortable direction, nurturing a resilience and drive for future life to take on tough challenges with gusto, while enabling students to experience and learn things they’d have never got access to on their own accord.

Learning that isn’t challenging can become dull and uninteresting. As a species, humans love puzzles, challenges and a bit of challenge. We revel in having the hard task of ‘climbing the mountain’ rewarded when we have an opportunity to look at how high we’ve climbed and admire the view. We feel pride and joy as we grow and develop.

There are many ways to create this challenge, of course, so what role do tests play? A solid body research tells us, perhaps surprisingly, that an entirely low-stakes test can be enormously beneficial to the learning process itself. The latest science about how learning occurs in the brain demonstrates that the challenge of remembering and recalling knowledge builds long term memory.

However, not all tests are low stakes. Some test, like public examinations and national assessments may be a little more daunting. Done well, schools can engender a feeling of excitement and challenge in students. Here is a bar for you to leap over, a way to demonstrate how far you’ve climbed, an opportunity to feel proud and gain a recognition of your progress that no-one can ever take away. Done badly, these can make students feel demotivated and scared, leading to a lifetime of bad memories.

Professor Marc Jones studies the different ways that a challenge can affect us physiologically, in different organisations and teams. He notes that stressful situations can be both good for us or bad for us, depending on context.

“The belief in our ability to perform well is clearly a crucial element in being able to perform under pressure. A high level of confidence is important for a challenge state. Second is a feeling of control. Believing you have control over factors that may affect performance and how you perform under pressure is important for a challenge state. Going into pressure situations focusing on factors that cannot be controlled, such as a footballer worrying about match officials, is associated with a threat state. Finally, being focused on what can be achieved – an approach focus is important. Individuals who are challenged are focused on what can be achieved while those that are threatened are focused on what might go wrong.”

So, we can help students associate future challenge with excitement, rather than terror, by carefully building them up for well-calibrated, high-stakes tests such that they feel confident, in-control and focused on the positive. We can support this through a shared ethos of positivity, of belonging and support. It’s the thrill of the high-jump, the heart-pounding excitement of not quite knowing if you’ll make it, followed by the pay-off of practice and dedication – the glow of success.

There is, of course, a constant and very human temptation to avoid challenging students. After all, even if 9 out of 10 students benefit, we may leave 1 out of 10 with a sense of failure. Given how highly attuned we are to their feelings, this can lead to very well-meaning temptation to reduce challenge and ensure that students never feel any stress. The unhappy corollary is that lower challenge can often mean less learning and fewer opportunities for pride and success. hard work with occasional stress followed by success is so much better for young people than a lifetime of well-meaning low bars and low expectations.

The balance to be struck is to keep the challenge high enough that there is some risk, or else the challenge becomes too low. However, we also need to quickly pick students up after a fall, dust them off and engineer another challenge where they can succeed, learn to be resilient, and get their pride back. It’s something that we naturally do with children as they learn to ride their bikes, and teachers are immensely skilled at doing this in the classroom.

Another startling finding is that tests can actually help the most vulnerable students to succeed. Studies have shown that humans are not very good at making objective judgements and will often by fooled by stereotypes. Entirely inadvertently teachers (like all human beings) have often been found to make more negative judgements compared to test scores, for example, with girls in maths, boys in English, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds in all subjects. This is not due to any ill intent, it is merely a limitation of the way our brains work. When we acknowledge and recognise this natural limitation, a well-designed test can help the profession and the school system to overcome these entirely human and inevitable biases and even out entrenched inequality. And that, of course, is what we want for all young people.

Great tests can also be part of the suite of powerful tools to help teachers to learn more about students’ needs. Where teachers use formative assessment in their own professional development, we know that it helps them grow and improve more effectively and ensure they can help future generations achieve even more. A mix of professional judgement and skilfully designed tests helps us grow and become ever better at supporting young people’s learning. Not only that, both low, medium and high-stakes assessments can give us rich and powerful insights into our learners thinking, with pointers to how we can plan future lessons and tasks to help them most effectively and personally.

In so many classrooms, students will do so much for the teachers they respect – they want to please them, feel proud, and do well. However, we live in in a world of high-stakes inspections, performance related pay, performance management and league tables. If teachers are made to feel not only stressed and anxious about students achieving, but if they also lack confidence and support, then this will inevitably be picked up by the students as well. This could, of course, negate many positives from high challenge tests. Not only that , badly designed tests in a low-trust culture leads to a toxic environment, gaming and teacher burn-out. It leads to superficial teaching to try and desperately ‘drill’ the learning into students heads, no matter how short term, out of survival desperation. This is the very antithesis of what we aspire for our students – I do understand why there is so much anger around and why it’s so tempting to aim this fury at tests themselves.

For high stake assessment to work, therefore, we not only need to focus on the conditions for students but also to focus on the conditions for the teachers.

We need every teacher to feel confident, in control, well supported and focused on the positive. This requires accountability systems that are paired with support and warmth, where success is shared and the right level challenge remains positive and keeps us excitingly hovering around the edge of our own comfort zones. It requires school leaders who have positive, trusted relationships with teachers and, by extension, who have similar relationships with those who hold them to account as well. It requires a faith that, if a high bar is not jumped, there will be support and encouragement from peers and leaders to pick schools and teachers back up and help them try again. Everyone deserves more than one shot, especially when an increasing number of teachers and heads are considering whether they even want to stay in this great profession.

Testing is no panacea, and tests are too often accompanied by crude carrots and painful sticks in a low trust, punitive approach that tries to get performance through fear. It is right to reject such a system that causes bad stress and propagates too much fear and provides too little support. However, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Great testing is one of the most powerful implements in a teacher’s toolbox. Let’s fix the system, provide the right support, and use this tool to provide powerful learning, memorable success and a deep well of pride for every student that provides a solid foundation for a happy, fulfilled and successful life.

Article image from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ATC_Admission_Exam.JPG

How learning science might inform dance: A cognitive psychologist responds

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Dr Yana Weinstein (@DoctorWhy) responds to my speculative post about cognitive science and ballroom/latin dance.

I’ve been a professional cognitive psychologist for 10 years and an amateur Latin dancer for 2, so I couldn’t not get over-excited when I saw this post. Unfortunately, none of the cognitive psychology research has been carried out with dancers (at least, to our knowledge), and I’m currently suppressing a very impractical urge to go in this direction! (I’ve already gotten myself in trouble with a project on music memorization – you have no idea how hard it is to branch out beyond generic cognitive tasks to this kind of applied work).

So all we have are the rather well-informed speculations discussed here. Let me speculate further.

1. Chunking – I wonder if it’s not an accident that my teacher always breaks up new choreography into 15-30 second chunks for us. I’m sure she’s not aware that this is the duration of working memory, but maybe she naturally defaulted to this duration.

For this part of the suggestion – “dancing with a partner or being aware of others watching you may be factors that overwhelm or impede learning” – there is also some relevant research. For example, it has been suggested that certain types of test anxiety may lead to off-task thoughts that take up part of working memory resources.

2. Interleaved vs. Massed practice – so much to say here. First of all, don’t confuse spacing with interleaving (it is extremely easy to confuse the two, and honestly, I still do myself sometimes even though I co-wrote a chapter with a large section on each one ). For example, in the main point, “you’ll end up with stronger memory of routines if you interleave dances” is about interleaving, but in the suggestion, “it has been shown that by giving ourselves a bit of time to forget an idea then […] the long-term strengthening of memory of this approach is much greater” is about spacing.

Spacing is more about how you would distribute practice over a period of time. If your performance is in a week, should you practice for an hour every day, or 7 hours the day before? I think we all know the answer.

Interleaving has been most commonly studied with math problems: should you do 10 of the same type of problem, or mix it up? What’s tricky and confusing about the two is that interleaving naturally adds in spacing, so it is hard to have a pure measure of the effectiveness of interleaving without also implicating spacing. However, this paper  attempts to hold spacing constant and still finds a long-term benefit of interleaving.

I don’t know if this has been explicitly specified, but my strong suspicion is that the reason interleaving is helpful is that it enables you to practice doing a problem “cold” (i.e., without the carry-over effect of having just done a similar problem). It’s important, though, to consider what your goal is. If you tend to go to dances where you’re expected to dance salsa and then bachata, interleaved (as I do), then yes – practice them interleaved. But if the two dances tend to be danced in separate parties (e.g., salsa and tango), then I’m not sure interleaving is going to be as necessary, because you will always get to warm up and then after that you’re in a massed testing situation. The grain size of what you are interleaving also matters. You could take this to the absurd: do you need to interleave practicing one rumba dance with doing one yoga pose? Probably not.

Also, I suspect that level of familiarity with the material is also a factor, and some massing is necessary before interleaving can be useful. Have you noticed how a teacher will always introduce a small chunk (cf., chunking), and then you will mass-practice it until it feels comfortable, and only then practice it with whatever comes before and after? It seems obvious now that I think about it, but clearly what this is doing is getting the information from working memory into long-term memory! Think about how the first few times you run through a new chunk, you’re really just copying the teacher in the moment, so you’re not really using your long-term memory. So maybe the ideal practice protocol includes some massing to transfer information to LTM, and then lots of interleaving. But does this mean you should scramble the order of chunks within a choreography and practice them in different orders? This is the same as the rumba vs. yoga pose question, and I’m honestly not sure.

3. Transfer – the suggestions are great, but the main point is more about context than transfer. When we talk about transfer, we usually mean to a new problem (rather than the same problem in a different environment). For example, if you know salsa, how well will you dance bachata? Probably pretty badly until you get taught at least the basic step and some basic moves – and then you’ll probably pick it up faster than a novice dancer, showing some transfer. A more subtle example of transfer might be: say you were taught musicality with a particular song (e.g., here’s a good part of the song to do a dip). An example of transfer would be noticing those moments in a different song.

4. Still images and attentional focus – the point about learning from still images better surprises me, but I must not know the research on moving vs. still images. I just can’t imagine that any better way of demonstrating a dance move could involve still images, but I’m willing to consider the possibility. I suspect, though, that some research (that I either do not know, or cannot recognize from the description) is being misapplied because the learning outcome (what we call “criterion test”) of the study was not mimicry of a physical movement. The idea of attentional focus during learning is also fairly unfamiliar to me, although it definitely makes sense, and perhaps could be addressed by having the dancer wear bright red shoes or bright red gloves depending on whether they were demonstrating feet or arms??

5. Self-explanation – this seems reasonable, and on a totally personal level, I have to say my instructor doesn’t really let us ask questions. I mean, of course she clarifies specific points, but I tend to ask a lot of questions, and she has more or less shut me down on some occasions because it was slowing down the class. Now, as a teacher I completely appreciate the frustration of tangential, time-consuming questions, but I like to think (probably erroneously!) that my questions are relevant. It just feels as though she has a certain amount of material to get through each class, and any elaborative interrogation (and it’s really not that elaborative – I’m usually just trying to figure out exactly how something fits together) cuts into that time. Perhaps a discussion session after class would be valuable.

6. I don’t know the research on putting two concrete examples side-by-side, but I feel that this point also addresses the value of feedback. To which point, maybe it’s useful to mention that the jury is still out on whether immediate or delayed feedback is best for learning.

Overall, though, here’s my take on learning dance: I feel like we are generally pretty well aligned with the cognitive principles. Most importantly, I think – and David didn’t mention this in his post, possibly because it’s too obvious – we make constant use of the testing effect. We learn by doing the dance, over and over, from memory. We don’t sit for an hour listening to our dance teacher describe the moves and taking notes; we don’t practice by watching the teacher’s performance video over and over again (though we do consult it in between attempts to get it right); and the teacher doesn’t just call on one student at a time to do one small part of the routine while others watch passively. Why, then, is the same not true in a typical school classroom? Why aren’t our kids repeatedly practicing retrieval of the information the teacher is trying to teach?

And here is a dress rehearsal of my latest routine with Leah’s Chicas! 🙂

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.

 

ICT spending: proceed with caution

This article first appeared on the Guardian Teacher Blog on 20th February.

ICT spending: proceed with caution

Technology doesn’t guarantee improved learning outcomes – put the pedagogy first

Schools love to show off their new gadgets. In a non-scientific survey of sixteen school prospectuses, I found fourteen of them had prominent images of computer-suites or classrooms with interactive whiteboards. These images of shiny new technology say “our teaching is modern, we’re preparing your kids for the future”.

The last government certainly thought so, with record levels of ICT investment in schools that ran up to £0.5 billion a year. Vast sums have been spent on new computer labs, interactive whiteboards, wireless networks and laptops. In many cases this has had great effects on attendance and behaviour monitoring, but the evidence that it has led to improvements in learning outcomes is thin.

There were, I think, many cases where the technology cart was put before the learning horse, if you’ll excuse the tortured metaphor. Even in today’s frugal climate you still hear stories such as the school which excitedly went out and bought 30 iPads, only for them to sit in a cupboard while the deputy head appealed to colleagues for some ideas of how to use them. A classic tale of technology trumping pedagogy.

As teachers, we all know that learning happens most effectively when students are engaged in an activity that allows them to receive frequent, formative feedback about their skill level, with suitably challenging and varied tasks that sustain their interest. This has to be the primary objective of any lesson, and sometimes it can be aided by careful use of classroom technology. A great example of this is a maths lesson I saw last week where one student was at the front manipulating an interactive online activity on angles, while the rest predicted results and gave feedback via a set of wonderful low-tech mini whiteboards. They had fun, the teacher managed to pinpoint misunderstandings, and everyone progressed.

The trouble is, technology is not always the answer, and it can even harm the learning when used badly. I was recently told about a rather nervous teacher who used to stay glued to the front of the class, with very little chance for interaction with the students, and consequently a number of behaviour problems. The school was working hard to encourage her to venture out among the students, and there were clear improvements being made. The school then installed an interactive whiteboard in her class and in encouraging her to use it, unfortunately exacerbated the original problem as she started to rely on slides and activities that kept her stuck behind her desk once again.

Even the best technology can also cause real trouble when the reliability isn’t 100%. I mentored a PGCE student last year who planned an interesting lesson where students would use laptops to create summary-presentations of an algebra topic. Sadly for him the gremlins struck, and the wireless network failed in the classroom. After a brave struggle to get things fixed, he eventually abandoned the lesson and dived in to some dependable-but-stodgy textbook questions to save the day, and his sanity.

The message here is that technology is not a guaranteed vehicle for improvement. I’ve heard of well-intentioned schemes to buy laptops for all students that have ended in expensive disaster, and of course everyone has seen interactive whiteboards that get ruined when frustrated teachers find they’re not working and try using dry-wipe pens on them. In almost all cases the problem boils down to failure to satisfactorily answer a few key questions.

First, and most importantly, will the purchase enable better quality learning? Things to consider include whether it helps teachers assess and feed-back, whether it encourages active lesson participation from more students, whether it allows students to tackle more higher-order, open-ended questions, and whether it allows students to work more independently and/or collaboratively.

Secondly (and, I suspect, most commonly neglected) is to ask yourself whether you’ve budgeted for the time and resources that teachers absolutely have to have in order to integrate the new technology in to their everyday classroom practice. It isn’t enough to simply run one how-to session. There must be time put aside to modify schemes of work, try out new ideas, observe colleagues in action, feed back, discuss, problem-solve and create new resources. Perhaps you could spend a chunk of your ICT budget to allocate time for these activities for a couple of years. Pedagogy takes time to develop, and is the key to successful classrooms.

Thirdly, is the infrastructure and support present? Teachers require technology to be ultra-reliable. Cutting corners on your network servers and IT technicians could be a major own-goal. Is your purchase rugged and reliable, or will half the set have broken screens and missing keys within months? Perhaps you could improve learning much better by investing this year’s budget on repairing current gadgets and instituting collaborative-planning sessions?

New technology is very tempting, and it’s really important that schools avoid the magpie-effect, ie “ooh look, it’s shiny!”  Put the pedagogy first, give the teachers time, and the learning should follow. As with everything in education, ICT alone is no panacea.

• David Weston is a secondary school teacher and an education consultant at Informed Education. You can follow him on Twitter@informed_edu.

How to create a positive culture in schools and classrooms

Leading a group of people, whether in industry, as a school leader, or as a teacher in a class, you encounter people who are supportive and some who are in general opposition to what you want to do. Anthony Muhammad captures this idea very clearly in his book Transforming School Culture although it is applicable in every situation where you have to manage a group of people.

The key idea is that you can categorise people in three broad groups: believers, inbetweeners and opposers.

The believers are the ones who engage with your ideas and are optimistic about the chances of everyone improving as a result. They will typically engage with their work quietly but enthusiastically, often avoiding challenging more negative people around them as their energy tends to be focused on the task in hand.

Inbetweeners are those who are new in to the group. If it is a completely new role for them then they may take many months to decide where their loyalties lie and the level of their engagement and enthusiasm. Those who have come from a previous establishment will take less time to decide whether to assume a new position or whether to revert to the same type as they were previously.

Finally there are those who fall generally in to the opposition camp. They may be reluctant to follow your ideas and may complain and undermine your leadership or authority. Broadly, this group can be grouped in these four categories:

  • those who oppose some or all of the current ideas and policies because they do not know or believe the reason behind them,
  • those who will not engage with new initiatives due to a lack of trust or belief in the leadership,
  • those who are too anxious to engage with any new ideas due to their own stress or lack of ability to cope,
  • those who define themselves by their opposition to certain ideology, to leadership, or to change.

I’m sure you can identify people in your organisation or students in your class who are clear examples of these types, and others who take up different roles in different situations.

For any leader or teacher it is vitally important that you gradually change the culture of your organisation or class so that the believers hold sway. If the opposition becomes dominant then everything becomes a battle of will – an unpleasant and unproductive situation.

The first important step in improving this balance is to identity your believers. Publicly and privately support and praise these positive individuals and put them with new members of the group or class (the inbetweeners). If you can give your believers the confidence to stand up to the destructive negativity of the opposition then it makes a massive difference to the culture of the group. In fact if someone who is being negative realises that they are losing social status by doing so then it is one of the most powerful ways to change their behaviour. This will only happen following your lead. It is very important that every leader and teacher stands up firmly to reject back-biting and destructive negativity, while being entirely open to reasonable discussion and criticism.

The next step is to try and win round your opposition. The first type simply need to be heard and engaged openly. Often an honest discussion and explanation of both the reasons and long term plan behind any new ideas will be enough to win these people round. When teachers make a change in working style they often have to appeal to the students to be patient, try out the new style, and take it on trust that things will improve. When management impose new requirements that will be initially difficult then once again they may need to draw on trust that has been built up.

The second type are opposing things precisely because they don’t trust the person leading them. Every teacher has experienced a class of students who have low levels of trust and refuse to cooperate with any new ideas as they don’t feel valued and don’t believe that their interests are being considered. The key here is to genuinely and honestly engage and listen, to try and make amends for previous breaches of trust, to demonstrate your trust in your students or colleagues, and to recognise their hard work and effort through both structured and spontaneous praise/recognition. It takes a long time to build trust, but only a short time to lose it. A key task of any teacher or leader is to try and build good rapport and a high level of trust so that at difficult moments of change or stress they can draw on this. The best teachers are seen as fair and trustworthy and their students genuinely believe that they are doing their best for them. This will have been demonstrated repeatedly. The same is entirely true of leaders of adults.

The third group may or may not feel that the leader or teacher is trustworthy and that the rules are sound but they simply don’t believe in their own ability to succeed, and would rather stand in opposition rather than be exposed. Some students typically truant or misbehave when they don’t believe they can do the work required of them. Fear of failure leads to a failure to engage. In some schools you see teachers who are afraid to try new things as they are so lacking in confidence in their own existing abilities that they dare not move away from their existing practice which is marginally less terrifying and depressing than something new. This is a difficult group to win around as you have to first of all build up their own ability and self-confidence. This requires a large amount of trust, commitment and belief from a mentor, teacher or leader. There are deeply psychological elements to be dealt with here, both to gradually build a sense of greater wellbeing and to instil an ability to recognise and deal with internal negativity.

The final type of opposition will usually have started out as one of the previous three types, but in an absence of any suitable engagement they have begun to define themselves as a ‘rebel’ or as someone whose duty it is to oppose leadership or certain ideology. Once in this state of mind it is incredibly difficult for leaders and teachers to engage with this type of person as they (the leader) are viewed as the source of all problems. In order for this sort of person to engage they would have to give up part of their identity, to admit they are wrong, and to effectively apologise for much that they have done. This is incredibly difficult to do. Often the best solution here is to give someone a brand new start elsewhere (as an inbetweener) with a lot of hard work to pair them with believers and build trust. If these students or colleagues have to stay in place then the only other way is to attempt to positively define them in other ways in the hope that they take this new identity on board. For a persistent rebellious student this may be by finding opportunities for them to succeed, by trying new activities, or by encouraging peers to engage first. This type of person will be naturally suspicious that any engagement will be an attempt to get them to give up their identity though.

Leadership roles (including teaching) are incredibly demanding even before these people-management skills are considered, but with a little conscious thought about the type of people you lead or teach you can find more appropriate ways to bring about positive change.