Challenge is More Effective Than Praise

This week I started a Masters level course on Supporting Teacher Learning. I signed up for a couple of reasons: first of all to develop my mentoring skills and my ability to help develop peer learning networks, something I think is more and more important in the post-Donaldson Report age. Secondly, I had been beginning to question the impact things like Twitter and blogging were having on my practice (has all this time spent on social media made me a better teacher?)  and I’m becoming more interested in how teachers improve. Perhaps some fruitful study and discussion of how teachers learn could help me out with some answers.IMG_0217

I’ve generally had an incredibly positive experience with Twitter over the last couple of years. While I wouldn’t now echo the sentiments of some that it is ‘the best CPD I have ever had’ it has without doubt changed my view of Professional Development in both good ways and bad. What it has done, to my great shame, is, at times, inflate my ego way beyond my true abilities. I was recently challenged by a colleague about something I wanted to do in class and immediately adopted a defensive stance. ‘Don’t you know I have two and  a half thousand followers on Twitter? How can I be wrong?’ I definitely didn’t say. He was right of course. I had temporarily lost the ability to accept criticism without taking it personally.

One of the things I hope to work on in the class is that prickly question of challenging the views and beliefs of others without escalating situations into lifelong personal vendettas. In many ways we have been conditioned to deal defensively with criticism, mostly but not always from above, so it is perfectly understandable to be wary of challenge. However, challenging each others beliefs in a constructive manner and working together to achieve better outcomes is at the heart of Professional Development. It’s fine to be praised on Twitter and pleasing when others compliment your blog but challenge is far more effective than praise.

I’m hoping that the next few months of classes will be challenging and will expose me to others who will question my educational stance. I hope I will have heated discussions which will help refine my thoughts. However, what I hope for most is the space to question the impact of a lot of things we do in schools. I waste too much time patting myself on the back over great new ideas and resources but that word ‘impact’ needs to be at the heart of what I do and I need others to help me with that. Twitter and its often self-congratulatory tone isn’t always the answer.

Social media is a great space for great CPD, and Twitter is an amazing way to connect but it can never replace quality collaboration. It is a great place to find and share ideas and wonderful resources but implementing them to achieve their full impact will only occur through collaboration and questioning. Challenging each other in a professional and constructive manner has been the best way for me to improve. Twitter is amazing in allowing me to meet some amazing teachers but nothing beats a group of teachers in a room challenging each other and working together to improve. And I should know. I’ve got two and a half thousand followers. How could I possibly be wrong?

Teaching Adolescent Writers

In his 2007 book, ‘Teaching Adolescent Writers’, Kelly Gallagher discusses his ‘Top Ten Writing Wrongs in Secondary Schools’. He teaches in California but most of his points are relevant to my experience in a state school just outside of Glasgow, Scotland. After spending much of last session working on my teaching of reading and promotion of personal reading, I’ve been turning my focus increasingly onto my teaching of writing. I returned to this book over the summer as it had a profound effect on me when I first read it and I needed a refresher course. It surprised me how much my views had changed.teaching writers

Now I want to write a series of posts dealing with as many of the ten points as possible. As always, I begin with the selfish purpose of reflecting on my own practice, attempting to pin down any thoughts or strategies in time for next session. I’ll see how that goes. I may merge two, even three, of the points together. what would be even better would be if, as I don’t have all the answers and am nowhere near them, the posts could open a debate or discussion amongst English teachers, or anyone else who has an opinion. I’d be interested to hear your comments on each. Anyway, here is the list:

Top Ten Writing Wrongs In Secondary Schools

1. Students are not doing enough writing.

2. Writing is sometimes assigned rather than taught.

3. Below grade level writers are asked to write less that others instead of more than others.

4. English language learners are often short-changed as well.

5. Grammar instruction is ineffective or ignored.

6. Students are not given enough timed writing instruction or practice.

7. Some teachers have little or no knowledge of district and state writing standards.

8. Writing topics are often mandated with little thought about the prior knowledge and interests of the students.

9. Teachers are doing too much of the work. Students are not doing enough work.

10. Teachers need help assessing student writing.


It’s All About the Impact, Stupid!

I suppose it was my own fault for spending my summer holidays re-reading (yes, that’s RE-reading, folks) the Donaldson report from 2010. I know I should be avoiding work but I return to school on August 12 and I’m starting to think about what I want to achieve next year, in and out of the classroom, and I thought this might be a good place to start. It has been nearly three years since the publication of this fairly significant piece of work and I’m unsure how much my teaching has changed as a result. Even so, reading the fifty recommendations was a wee eye-opener at times.

One of the many issues Donaldson discusses is the problem of having created a culture of CPD which is evaluated in terms of its quality of provision rather than its impact. We comment on the presentation or the book or the venue or even the materials with which we are provided. We compliment the speaker or the writer. What we don’t do is spend enough time discussing the impact any of that has on our classroom practice and, consequently, the education of the students in front of us. And that is the elephant in the room isn’t it? The numbers of hours wasted on CPD activities which have very little follow up is frightening and when I think of the time which could have been used more constructively over the last fourteen years I could scream: at my own stupidity if nothing else.

I’ve been on Twitter for three years now. In that time I think I can say that my practice has improved because of that. But, perhaps, when I consider the amount of time I spend reading blog posts and educational texts, it hasn’t improved enough. My teaching still lacks the peer collaboration and observation required to truly take advantage of everything I learn. I’m, more or less, left to get on with it and hope for the best; and that must include an analysis and reflection of the impact of any changes I make in my practice.

So now, when I’m feeling very pleased with myself – perhaps I’ve written a blog post which other people compliment; or I’ve completed a new unit of work for a new class; or I’ve been given a great resource for that difficult S4 group of boys – I first need to to consider the impact I want to see before I say how wonderful it is. We can be mesmerised, seduced even, by the abundance of clever ideas we are exposed to on Twitter, via blogging, at CPD events even. But until we implement them successfully – and have a thorough system which allows us to do that – they are more than likely to remain just that. Clever ideas.

In his report, Donaldson claims that:

‘…it is critical that a wide range of evidence about the quality and impact of teacher education is gathered and used to create a culture of continuous improvement.’ Page 56

Until we develop a culture of collaboration and evaluation of what we do in our classes, in all of our schools – not exam results, not HMI, not management observations – then much of our Professional Development will fail to achieve its true potential impact. I think our CPD time this year should deal with that as much as our preparation and training. Spending an Inservice Day following up a Development Day might prove much more useful than  another day of hastily cobbled together meetings.

Like many of you in Scotland, I am on the verge of a new school year. I would confidently predict that on the first of two In-service Days, I, along with my colleagues, at some point during the day will be sitting in the school assembly area, on plastic seats, for a ‘good’ hour, listening to a very nice person delivering ‘Authority sanctioned’ information disguised as training. I’ll likely forget it about an hour after; not because the person isn’t a good speaker but because the information is not followed up or acted upon. I’m expected to assimilate it into my practice. This sort of thing needs to stop. Let this year be the year when we spend more time reflecting on the impact of what we do as much as simply discussing what we do.