Research School Network: Do you really do it already? ‘We do that already’, is a common response to professional development. Tom Martell asks if we really do already do things.


Do you really do it already?

‘We do that already’, is a common response to professional development. Tom Martell asks if we really do already do things.

by Shotton Hall Research School
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As we continue delivering the Early Career Framework (ECF) programme, we continue listening to our partner schools as well as the national debate. We are using this to both refine our work with schools, and to inform our engagement with national organisations.

One theme we have identified where we think we can clarify – and indeed even challenge schools – is the perception that we already do this’, we already know this’, or we learnt this during initial teacher training’.

As a science teacher, one issue I regularly encounter is that pupils recall doing practicals. They may have completed them at primary school, or perhaps earlier in their time at secondary school. One thing I point out is the difference between being familiar with something – like we remember doing this’ – and understanding something deeply.

My impression is that a similar phenomenon occurs with the ECF, which is not surprising given the overlap in content with the Core Content Framework that underpins ITT programmes. Indeed, I would argue that a similar phenomenon occurs with most teacher development. As teachers, we are often interested in the next big thing, but as Dylan Wiliam has argued, perhaps we should instead focus on doing the last big thing properly.

One way that I have previously tried to illustrate this point is with assessment for learning. These ideas were scaled up through various government initiatives since the late 1990s such that if you taught during this time, it is unlikely you did not have some professional development about it.

Given this, I sometimes cheekily ask teachers to define it. I might give them a blank sheet of paper and some time to discuss it. There are always some great explanations, but it is also fair to say that this normally challenges teachers. Typically, the features of that teachers first highlight are the more superficial aspects, such as asking lots of questions or using a random name generator.

No doubt given longer, we could reach better descriptions, but even experienced teachers can struggle to describe the deep structures of formative assessment, which Wiliam has described as his five principles. I have tried to summarise this by describing different levels of quality shown below. We could argue about what goes into each box – indeed, I think this would be an excellent conversation – but it hopefully illustrates that it is possible to use assessment for learning with different levels of quality.

In addition to these principles, there is also a deep craft to formative assessment. Arguably, this is what separates good from great formative assessment. Thus, it is not totally different things, but it is the sophistication and nuance that matters.

The need for repetition and deep engagement with ideas is not just my opinion, it is a key tenet of the EEF’s professional development guidance report. Further, the EEF evaluated a two-year programme focusing entirely on Embedding Formative Assessment, which led to improvements on GCSE outcomes, which are notoriously difficult to improve in research studies.

This project involved teachers meeting monthly to spend 90-minutes discussing key aspects of formative assessment. Unsurprisingly, some of these teachers too reported that they were familiar with the approach, yet the evidence is clear that this approach to improving teaching was effective.

Finally, there is some truth to the issues raised about repetition, and I think that ECTs and Mentors are right to protest that they have they have encountered some activities before. This is probably not very helpful. However, there is a big difference between just repeating activities and examining a topic in more depth. The DfE have committed to reviewing all programmes ahead of the next cohort in September, and I hope this distinction is recognised.

Levels of quality
Thomas Martell

Thomas Martell

Director, Shotton Hall Research School

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