Content, Then Process
In professional development, the details matter. And process should always come after content. In previous blog posts, I’ve written a lot about the content of formative assessment; namely the five key strategies and associated practical techniques. But now is the time to start thinking about the process. In other words, we have to start thinking about how to support teachers in making these changes.
Teachers don’t lack knowledge. What they lack is support in working out how to integrate these ideas into their daily practice. The process that I’ve discovered works best consists of five components: choice, flexibility, small steps, accountability, and support. Let’s examine each in more detail.
It is often assumed that to improve, teachers should work to develop the weakest aspects of their practice, and for some teachers, these aspects may indeed be so weak that they should be the priority for professional development. But for most teachers, the greatest benefits to students are likely to come from teachers becoming even more expert in their strengths.
Furthermore, when teachers themselves make the decision about what it is that they wish to prioritize for their own professional development, they are more likely to “make it work”. In traditional “top-down” models of teacher professional development, educators are given ideas to try out in their own classrooms, but are not always successful with the implementation.
However, when the choice about the aspects of practice to develop is made by the teacher, then the responsibility for ensuring effective implementation is shared. Viewed from this perspective, choice is not a luxury, but a necessity.
As well as choice of what to prioritize in their development, teachers will also need to modify ideas developed by other teachers to make them work in their own classrooms. Part of the reason for this is differences between teachers in their teaching style, but it is also important to recognize that there are differences from school to school and class to class. What works in one context may not work in another because schools differ in their openness to experimentation and their appetite for risk.
The expectations of the students are also important. As a result, teachers may need to modify the way techniques are introduced. You therefore need the flexibility to be able to “morph” the classroom formative assessment techniques with which you are presented to fit your own classroom context. But you also must be careful not to so modify an idea that it is no longer effective.
It is important for schools to improve—and quickly. For that reason, it is hardly surprising that policymakers, politicians and administrators want to get teachers developing their formative assessment practices as quickly as possible. However, the research evidence shows that teachers are slow to change their classroom practice.
If we want to support teachers in developing their practice, it is important for us to understand why changes in practice are so slow. Is it just resistance to change, or something deeper?
The main reason for the slowness of teacher change is that it is genuinely difficult. High-level performance in a domain as complex as teaching requires automatizing a large proportion of the things that teachers do.
A few years ago, I was working with teachers in a school district in New Jersey. One fifth grade teacher was trying to use the “No hands up except to ask a question” technique, but she found it very difficult because every time she asked a question, she would begin the question by asking, “Does anyone…?” or “Has anyone…?” She asked me, “Why am I finding this so hard?”
We sat down and worked out that in the 22 years she had been teaching, she had probably asked more than a million questions in her classroom. When you’ve done something one way a million times, doing it any other way is going to be very difficult.
If we are going to help teachers change their classroom habits, we need to recognize that this is going to be immensely challenging, and is going to require both support and accountability, which are the subjects of the next two sections.
All teachers need to improve their practice—not because they are not good enough, but because they can be better. For that reason, we think it is entirely appropriate for teachers to be held accountable for making improvements in their practice.
We also believe that, in developing their practice, teachers should develop those aspects of their practice that are likely to be of the greatest benefit to their students; in other words, they should be accountable to the evidence about what is likely to benefit students.
This is not meant to imply a slavish following of the latest research findings, but that teachers should be literally accountable—they should accept that they should expect and be able to render an account of why they have chosen to develop one aspect of their practice rather than another.
In our work with teachers, we have found it helpful to engage them in detailed planning of what changes they plan to make in their teaching. This process could be called “action planning,” but it is important to note that our experience is that this is best done with a highly structured approach—very different from the tokenistic “action planning” that occurs at the end of many teacher professional development events.
Of course, there are many different protocols that might be adopted for action planning, but our experience of working with teachers developing their practice of formative assessment suggests that the following features are particularly important:
- The action plan should identify a small number of changes that the teacher will make in his or her teaching.
- The plan should be written down.
- The plan should focus on the five key strategies of formative assessment.
- The plan should identify what the teacher plans to reduce, or give up doing to make time for the changes.
The last process element, support, is closely related to accountability. The central idea is the creation of structures that, while making teachers accountable for developing their practice, also provide the support for them to do so. One way to provide this supportive accountability is to assign each teacher a coach, but this is expensive, and it is by no means clear that an adequate supply of appropriately skilled coaches would be available. For that reason, between 2003 and 2006 working with colleagues at the Educational Testing Service, I co-developed and piloted a number of models for supporting teachers. And today, as a result of this work, the Embedding Formative Assessment: a Two Year Professional Development Pack, co-authored with Siobhan Leahy, is distributed for the first time in the Americas through our partner Learning Sciences International.
Although we explored a number of possible different models over the years, the model presented below seems to be the most effective, and is currently being used successfully by thousands of teachers in hundreds of schools all over the world.
- Introduction (5 minutes):Agendas for the meeting are circulated and the learning intentions for the meeting are presented.
- Starter activity (5 minutes):Participants engage is a warm-up activity to help them focus on their own learning.
- Feedback (25 minutes):Each teacher gives a brief report on what he or she committed to try out during the “personal action planning” section at the previous meeting, while other participants listen appreciatively and then offer support to the individual in taking the plan forward.
- New learning about formative assessment (25 minutes):To provide an element of novelty into each TLC meeting and to provide a steady stream of new ideas, each meeting includes an activity that introduces new ideas about formative assessment.
- Personal action planning (15 minutes):The penultimate activity of each session involves each of the participants planning in detail what he or she hopes to accomplish before the next meeting.
- Summary of learning (5 minutes): In the last five minutes of the meeting, the group discusses whether participants have achieved the learning intentions they set for themselves at the beginning of the meeting.
These meetings are repeated monthly and provide both support and accountability. Many teachers have spoken about the usefulness of these meetings for providing advice about how they might move forward when they are “stuck,” but they also create a strong measure of accountability for teachers to actually implement their plans.
If you liked reading about embedding formative assessment into your classroom practice, be sure to sign up for my monthly newsletter. You can also pre-order our new book here, which was written to support good teachers in their quest to become even better teachers.