In Part 1, I wrote about why it’s so important to get professional learning (PL) right, but also what the difficulties are. The article went over how we created a PL Curriculum and followed the High Impact Professional Learning (HIPL) model, NSW Department of Education.
This post will look at what we actually used, how we used it and how it measured up against the Education Endowment Foundations Effective Professional Development guidance report. Finally, I reflect on how effective it actually was and what future recommendations I have.
What did we use?
At the time of creating this resource, schools in NSW were still in lockdown due to COVID-19. So, I created a website for teachers to look at the research on. I tried to give overviews and keep it brief with links for those who wanted to read more.
The first page went through what the purpose of the program was, how to use the website, being aware of any cognitive biases that might be affecting them and what the requirements would be. I also included what proficient teaching standards it met and how it was supported by research.
You can check it out on the video below 👇
I’ve published all the info on Retrieval Practice here just without the Walkthrus Slides from Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli because that’s a part of a paid subscription I purchased through the school (I’d highly recommend this).
How was it run?
I first came across Simon Breakspear’s Teaching Sprints or as it was previously known as, Learning Sprints at my previous school and mentioned it to my principal when I started at my new school as an effective method for running PL.
Of course, COVID hit us and ruined a lot of plans that schools had put in place (amongst other things). For us, this meant pushing back idea of going through this professional learning process.
And that’s what it is. Teaching Sprints is a process. It’s not what to do, but how to do it.
Teaching Sprints is an evidence-informed process that applies the research on how we learn, behaviour science and change management. It has 3 Big Ideas:
- Start with the best bets
- Practice makes progress
- Focus on tiny shifts
It supports time-poor teachers through protocols that can be used at different points within the process. By focussing on the research and following the protocols, it takes the pressure off teachers having to be the experts and lead PL sessions. It also reduces the danger of ‘fundamental attribution error’ or the ‘halo effect’ that can be experienced when an individual presents new information. This leads to us basing our judgement on the presenter rather than the information.
How did the program stack up against the EEF guidance report on Effective PL?
There are a number of guides that support the implementation of effective professional development. The one that I have found really useful is the new theory from Sims et al. (2022), on designing and selecting effective professional development, with their findings and recommendations published in the Education Endowment Foundation’s Effective Professional Development Guidance Report. After conducting a systematic review and meta-analysis on 104 evaluated PD programs, Sims et al. (2022) summarised their findings in terms of four necessary building blocks:
- Insight: Teachers gaining an enhanced or expanded understanding of teaching and learning.
- Goals: Motivating a teacher to consciously pursue a specific change in their practice
- Technique: Helping a teacher to utilise a new teaching practice.
- Practice: Supporting a teacher to consistently make use of some technique in the classroom.
Each of the building blocks has active components that the report refers to as ‘mechanisms’, which are defined as “empirically evidenced general principles about how people learn and change their practice.” (Sims et al. 2021, p.5). These mechanisms, such as ‘managing cognitive load’, ‘modelling’ and ‘prompting action planning’ form the essential ingredients of the building blocks.
Ollie Lovell recorded a great interview with Dr. Sam Sims for the ERRR podcast here.
The mechanisms in action
Insight – Building Knowledge
Managing Cognitive Load
Cognitive Load was managed by providing information in an accessible manner that was sequential. e.g. giving an overview of what retrieval practice is, then how to make it more effective through understanding spacing, interleaving, generative and elaboration. This was followed up with how to use it in the classroom.
Dual coding was used alongside explicit instruction during presentations. This helped teachers pay attention to what they need to focus on.
Revisiting Prior Learning
While we had been learning about Retrieval Practice, we also practised it during our PL sessions with “low-stakes” quizzes being completed and “brain-dumps”. e.g. I had staff write down everything they knew about retrieval practice and then cold-called some of them to share with the group.
These were completed either at the start of meeting times or at the completion of sections from the website.
Goals – Motivating Teachers
Setting and agreeing on goals
After learning about Retrieval Practice during the Prepare Phase, staff set goals using the protocols on what they were going to practice and how they would show evidence of it working. They had to submit this through a Google Form.
Presenting information from a credible source
Retrieval Practice is supported by numerous studies both locally and internationally. This was summarised in the website with links to the original sources provided.
Technique – Developing teacher techniques
Instructing teachers on how to perform a technique
Background knowledge was built up through teachers engaging with the website, before I used explicit instruction to revisit information, check for understanding and provide feedback. This included practical examples and possible misconceptions. I also demonstrated this on them through the quizzes and brain dumps.
Arranging practical social support
Teachers had opportunities to discuss strategies and ask questions during check-in chats in small groups. By working in small groups, novice teachers were supported by expert colleagues during the learning process.
Rehearsing the technique
Teachers were given the task of deliberately practising retrieval practice in the classroom. By intentionally working on one specific element of their teaching practice, this reduces the range of things that the teacher has to think about. Habits are hard to break, especially if we are not intentional. Teachers were given a 4-week block to apply retrieval practice in the classroom and report back during check-in meetings.
Practice – Embedding practice
Providing prompts and cues
Follow-up e-mails and check-in meeting times were delivered to remind teachers to change their behaviour.
Prompting action planning
Teachers were required to write down concisely what and how they would be embedding retrieval practice using the Teaching Sprints protocols.
If professional learning was a box-ticking exercise, then I ticked all the boxes with how I ran this program. However, changing behaviour is a lot more complex than that and there were certain areas that were not as effective as they could have been.
The biggest challenge of implementing this PL block was the timing. We were beginning to come out of lockdown, so we had some teachers at school and others still working remotely. It was also the first bit of organised whole school PL since returning.
This made things difficult because some teachers were feeling refreshed and ready to return, while others felt quite overwhelmed. Like with our students, if adults are not in the right headspace to pay attention to the new learning, it won’t happen.
To try and counteract the negatives of professional development sessions being run after school, we decided to have it before school. While this allowed teachers to be in a better thinking space, it still presented problems and we had to cut sessions short.
Due to the time-constraints we were unable to get into the nitty-gritty of understanding what teachers understood and what their “picture of practice” was. This meant that building their knowledge in the Prepare Phase was not as effective as it could have been.
I did realise that we needed more time and pushed our meeting time forward, but by this stage we had moved on from the Prepare Phase. I made the same mistake we often make in the classroom, moving on because we feel the need to, rather than moving on because we are ready to.
Learning as an adult is similar to learning as a child
Just like with our students, explicit instruction is the most effective way of delivering new information to adults. Likewise, trying to teach distracted adults, unsurprisingly, doesn’t work. Trying to run PL over a Zoom, while teachers are thinking about their upcoming day, means that their schemas aren’t being strengthened due to their inability to pay attention.
While we went with retrieval practice because we thought it was an achievable shift for teachers to make, because some teachers thought they already knew what it was (Dunning-Kruger effect), they probably didn’t “buy-into” it as much as they may have needed to.
Deeply understand current practices
As Viviane Robinson writes about in Reduce Change to Increase Improvement, we need to understand the practices we seek to change, not just what we want to change. I tried to assess prior knowledge through a quiz, but I probably needed to dig a bit deeper by asking some open-ended questions to find out what they really knew about retrieval practice.
Naturally, most teachers already do a form of retrieval practice, but this feeling of familiarity was also detrimental because some believed that they didn’t have anything to learn. In Intelligent Accountability, David Didau writes about how we “pattern match” and automatically compare situations to previous problems that we have encountered. We fail to recognise the complex details because we get caught up in the superficial links.
What we wanted was for teachers to have a better understanding as to why retrieval practice was important, how they could do it in a meaningful and efficient manner and making it more impactful through the effects of spacing, interleaving, elaboration and generative learning.
This was the stuff that I needed to emphasise, but didn’t do so until after teachers were already in the Sprint phase.
Did teachers feel a part of the decision-making process?
Robinson also writes about engaging teachers in the change process rather than bypassing them. When deciding to focus on retrieval practice, I had engaged with school leaders, and we had used feedback from the rest of the staff where they commented that information was not being retained by our students. However, I feel I didn’t make this decision-making process transparent enough.
This meant that some staff would have felt bypassed and not a part of a shared agreement that there was a problem that needed to be fixed.
Unable to take advantage of learning communities
Probably the biggest fault of this program was the ineffectiveness of the group leaders and small groups as learning communities due to meetings being cut short. I feel if it had been more effective, the small percentage of disengaged teachers or misconceptions would have been addressed.
This was highlighted when we were finally able to meet face-to-face later in the term and we were able to see and feel the effects of learning communities take place. I was able to circulate the room and probe for more in-depth responses to how retrieval practice was actually being used.
We also weren’t able to make use of observations, another key way of learning from each other.
Teachers need more time
There’s no-doubt that one of the biggest issues for many schools is time. To set-up this program it took a lot of time! More time than I would usually have, as one of the “positives” to come from the isolation period was that I personally spent less time teaching. This gave me the opportunity to research, think and collaborate – all teachers should have this time, all the time.
Policy makers, giving teachers more time, needs to be a priority. School leaders, systems and processes need to be optimised (written about it here) to ensure teachers can be effective. Also, teachers, can improve their organisation by making every minute matter.
Any Professional Learning requires teachers to change what they are doing
This is important to remember for a few reasons. Firstly, to ensure that you include staff in the decision-making process and understand that some staff will resist the change and may not even be considering that the change is needed. Secondly, this means that you need to take the time to research and take the “best-bets” approach in deciding what you will focus on. Lastly, you need to remember that a practice phase needs to be incorporated into the program in order for changes to happen.
Personalised professional learning
I feel the next step in teacher PL will be making it more individualised. Traditionally, most schools have regular whole school meeting times for professional development. I feel this is where we have developed negative attitudes towards PL, with teachers not being provided with the lessons that are relevant to them. Rebecca Birch has also recently written an article, “Worthless PD, sub-optimal ITE training have built a distrust of non-teaching providers” and I wrote about it in, “Teacher attitudes towards professional learning“.
With teacher morale and time already at all time lows, we don’t want to be adding to the list of negatives. So, as a school are you able to make use of resources like the ones below and use them as the starting point?
- Tips for teachers: This is a free new resource created by the amazing Craig Barton and includes links to podcasts and videos from people such as Dylan Wiliam, Harry Fletcher-Wood, Kate Jones, Tom Sherrington, Adam Boxer and many more. There are topics such as lesson planning, assessment, questioning, learning and remembering, behaviour and relationships. Did I mention that it’s free?
- What does the Science of Reading actually look like in the classroom? I created this earlier in the year as a way of providing teachers with a collection of examples of what the Science of Reading looks like in the classroom.
- The Great Teaching Toolkit: I haven’t personally used the training part of this website, but it looks and sounds like a great way of delivering an online personalised evidence-informed PL curriculum.
- AERO: Is an Australian organisation trying to bridge the gap between research and practice. It is constantly publishing new resources in the practice hub.
- Steplab: Another one that I haven’t used, but think it sounds it promising. It includes: “Tools for whole-school instructional coaching, right out of the box and tasks and targets for every teacher at every level of expertise.”
- Teaching Walkthrus: As I mentioned earlier, this is one that is I have used. Whether you just use the books (there are now three of them) or sign up to have access to the website full of videos, slides, trainer notes and workbooks; this really is the complete package. Originally designed more for Instructional Coaching, I’ve used the slides in presentations and included it on the original website for retrieval practice I created for my school.
How could these be used?
Thinking about the Sherrington’s three streams of PL that I wrote about in my previous post, there could be a curriculum that staff work through in teams based on experience and/or focus area and individually they could pick and choose areas of improvement/interest.
This could still be supported by Instructional Leaders or learning communities, but teachers would connect more to the content due to it being more targeted. Teachers are now comfortable learning online, however I feel that we can’t just say, “Here are some good places to go to for PL,” the human aspect still needs to be there to support and motivate teachers as learners.
Finally, we want them to feel the meaningfulness of it by having an action plan after they have done it. The process of learning, then applying in the classroom and knowing if it made a difference are steps that need to be included.
Overall, the majority of teachers demonstrated and reported that they were using retrieval practice in the classroom and felt that it was making a difference. All of the respondents that completed the final feedback form said that they were using retrieval practice either daily or weekly. While I have brought up a few areas to improve, the positives far outweighed the negatives.
I found both the Teaching Sprints process and looking at the list of mechanisms from the EEF guidance report really useful in helping design effective professional learning programs for teachers.
We now have a pretty good understanding on what the evidence says for effective teaching and learning. The next step, is ensuring that the evidence is passed onto teachers, so that it can be used in the classrooms.
As you can see from these two posts, planning effective professional learning for teachers is not simple and requires a lot of planning and collaborating. But, it deserves to be prioritised, because otherwise we are choosing to neglect what works best.
* Many of the points in these two posts on, “Can we create professional learning that works for teachers?” have been taken from a recent article that I wrote for Learning Difficulties Australia in their special Bulletin on Teaching Teachers. It can be accessed here.
Breakspear, S. & Ryrie Jones, B. (2020). Teaching Sprints: How Overloaded Educators Can Keep Getting Better. Corwin.
Didau, David. (2020) Intelligent Accountability: Creating the Conditions for Teachers to Thrive. John Catt Ed. Ltd
Robinson, Viviane M J. (2017) Reduce Change to Increase Improvement (Corwin Impact Leadership Series). SAGE Publications
Sims, S., Fletcher-Wood, H., O’Mara-Eves, A., Cottingham, S., Stansfield, C., Goodrich, J., Jo Van Herwegen, J., & Anders, J. (2022). Effective teacher professional development: New theory and a meta-analytic test. EdWorkingPaper: 22-507 . Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: https://doi.org/10.26300/rzet-bf74