Professional development: from answers to problems

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I’ve worked as a teacher educator now for almost 7 years. Here’s an account of how my mental model of training teachers has developed over that time, peppered with italicised realisations I wish I’d known sooner.

Answers

I started coaching teachers who were new to the profession. These teachers (like me when I trained) were placed in schools that often lacked the systems, processes, culture and leadership necessary to be effective places for pupils to learn and for new teachers to learn to teach.

Behaviour management was high on the agenda for their teacher training. For the most part, these teachers were pretty novice. This led me to coach in a didactic way where I gave the new teacher the answer:

I saw what was wrong in their lessons (at first, usually behaviour related).

I set them an action step (a small technique aimed at improving their teaching).

I modelled the action step.

They practised the action step again and again until it became more automatic.

I came back a few weeks later to see if the technique had stuck.

And sometimes this worked. More often than not actually. Their problems were suitably obvious at first that the answer I provided them with pretty much did the job.

But sometimes it didn’t work.

I remember one teacher who worked in a school that bucked the trend: great behaviour system, safe, predictable, polite environment. However, his classroom had behaviour issues. Pupils chatted during ‘silent’ work and sometimes, when he was talking. He was a brilliant teacher to work with. Every coaching session he listened to my feedback, watched my model, practised the behaviour technique I chose as ‘the answer’. Then I’d come back in and nothing had consistently changed.

Why?

It turns out he didn’t buy into the behaviour system. A few simple questions exposed that he believed it was natural for teenagers to be off task and talk. He didn’t feel it was right to tell them not to. He wasn’t motivated to do it.

The action step I chose was the answer to the wrong question.

I was asking, ‘what technique will get all pupils to pay attention when he speaks?’

When first, I needed to ask, ‘what will help this teacher see the value of the behaviour system?’

The answer to the second question looked very different to the first and to my typical answer-based coaching.

This is when I had a big realisation as a teacher educator:

All teachers come to teaching with mental models of what it is to be a teacher.

They’ve all been to school. They’ve all had teachers of their own. Teacher educators have to build from the mental models of their teachers. Even the ‘brand new’ ones. This means an answer-based approach doesn’t always work.

After working with new teachers, I started designing and delivering professional development to teacher educators (teaching and learning leads in their schools) who were training teachers with varied levels of experience. This was very different to training new teachers.

Often, these teacher educators wanted to change the culture of their schools to one where teachers were keen to incrementally improve, welcomed feedback and relished practice opportunities.

Very quickly I got push back on my ‘teacher educator has the answer’ approach. These teaching and learning leads quite rightly told me ‘some of my teachers don’t think they need to improve’ and ‘my teachers won’t be told what to do like that’.

This led to another realisation:

Just providing ‘the answer’ is not the answer.

Problems

A combination of things led me to problems. I now worked for Ambition Institute. The brilliant Peps Mccrea sent us all a primer on ‘persistent problems’. These were problems in a domain (like teaching) that all teachers face. I had also started reading Kennedy’s (2016) work around persistent challenges and I was reading expertise research:

Experts can be seen as those people that work tirelessly on the important problems in their domain (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993).

But it’s only over time that I’ve realised how practical the concept of persistent problems is.

Here’s a concrete example. Let’s say we frame persistent problems around memory. One persistent problem could be ‘how do we get all pupils to focus attention?’ This means we are saying:

All teachers are working to try to solve this problem, all the time.

Why is it useful for schools and teacher educators to frame professional development around persistent problems?

(1) It’s a more honest approach to professional development. There’s no ‘one’ answer. There’s not even an easy-to-solve problem!

(2) Persistent problems reoccur. I can be highly effective at focusing attention with year 8 but struggle with year 9. I can be highly effective at planning lessons that focus pupils’ attention on the key knowledge to be understood when teaching Macbeth but far less effective when teaching Hamlet. Expertise is highly domain specific.

The combo of classroom complexity and domain-specific expertise means teachers will never run out of things to improve. It’s the beauty and curse of the job.

(3) It maintains the professionalism of teachers. It’s not about handing down an answer. It’s about developing their understanding of persistent problems in teaching and potential solutions.

(4) It takes the ‘sting’ out of improvement. If we’re all working, all the time, to try to solve really challenging problems, then feedback isn’t because you’re a bad teacher. Feedback is because you are a teacher.

This last point has the potential to be the biggest win of the persistent problems approach:

Persistent problems can take the sting out of professional development.

Teachers, understandably, have often tied their teaching to who they are. It’s personal. This means:

Professional development can feel highly emotive.

When we give teachers feedback, we may be unwittingly saying ‘you know what you’ve been doing for 15 years? What you believe works? Well, it’s not the best approach for teaching your pupils.’

OUCH

Whereas a staff body that understand that they, like all teachers, are constantly working on a set of persistent problems can more easily hear feedback as necessary and ongoing development rather than criticism.

Taking a persistent problems approach is not a magic bullet though. You have to decide what they are (or use Kennedy’s). You have to make sure you and your staff understand what they mean. You have to work hard to explain and exemplify them to staff. (Often) you have to act to change a culture of high-stakes judgement in your school.

But the value is there to be had: all staff understanding that they are working to incrementally improve their practice around the same persistent problems.

So, what do I do with these problems?

I certainly don’t just tell teachers which problem I think they need to work on and leave them to it. I present the problem as a hypothesis: ‘This is what I saw in your lesson… I think you want to work on the persistent problem of ‘all pupils focusing attention’’. It’s my hunch.

I come to coaching prepared with a potential solution. Not the answer. A potential solution. I explain why this solution may help the teacher solve the part of the learning problem they are trying to tackle. I want to build my teacher’s mental model of the persistent problem and build their mental model of the features of a potential solution. This leads me to another another realisation:

Ultimately, coaching is not about creating automatic behaviours. It’s about building mental models.

I model the potential solution (a technique); they practise it. They may decide to tweak it or they may know a better solution. Often, they don’t. The reason is, great coaches not only diagnose problems well but they have excellent pedagogical knowledge. They can convey and break down techniques. It’s very rare a teacher would know exactly what action step they need and how to do it. If they did, they’d probably be doing it already.

And because it’s a persistent problem, we’ll probably work on facets of it over the next few weeks rather than jump from problem to problem.

Reframing from ‘an answer’ to ‘persistent problem’ has been really helpful for me. I believe it helps to build a culture of continual improvement, alleviates some of the sting, professionalises the teacher and provides a more honest approach to professional development. It also means that I, as coach, don’t narrowly focus on a technique. I aim to build the mental model of the teacher.

References

Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1993). Surpassing ourselves. An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Chicago: Open Court.

Kennedy, M. (2016). Parsing the practice of teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 67(1), 6-17.

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3 responses to “Professional development: from answers to problems”

  1. […] Professional development: from answers to problems — Evidence for Educators […]

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  2. […] Professional development: from answers to questions […]

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