Don’t go chasing waterfalls, try a TLC instead

Shortly after joining Twitter 16 months ago, I spotted a tweet from Dylan Wiliam explaining that he would shortly be leading a webinar from the United States promoting formative assessment strategies. I was new to Twitter at this stage and the idea of engaging in live professional development online with hundreds of other teachers across the world was interesting enough to get me out of bed to take part in the webinar. This was despite the fact that it was starting at 5am Seoul time.

The webinar was suitably interesting enough for me to order his most recent book at the time, Embedded Formative Assessment. It was this book, along with lots of other research that I engaged with as a result of joining twitter, that was to have a profound impact on my understanding of the teaching and learning process. Many of the ideas that I had previously held about teaching and learning were steadily being eroded away in the face of evidence presented to me by writers and teachers online. The thing that really impressed me about Embedded Formative Assessment was that Wiliam used research evidence all the way through the book to justify his ideas and claims. This made it easy to follow up the research and get to the source of some of the ideas.

The fact that the ideas were all clearly referenced and based on research evidence meant that from my perspective, the claims that are made about formative assessment in the book are that much more reliable.

I had previously had experience of the Assessment for Learning strategy as it had been promoted in UK schools. I was surprised to read that the formulaic processes I had come to understand as AfL were not what was originally intended by formative assessment as promoted by Dylan Wiliam.

I was so impressed with the simple ideas presented in the book and also surprised at the lack of evidence behind some the ideas I had previously promoted as a teacher and leader in schools, that I decided to summarise the book into two twilight workshops. In April 2015 I ran the workshops based on the book for 8 volunteer teachers who had signed up. This experience proved to be a good opportunity for me to really get to grips with the strategies and techniques of formative assessment. I also enjoyed the opportunity to challenge and discuss with colleagues some of the assumed knowledge around teaching and learning, including:

  • the idea that learning styles exist and can support the learning process when incorporated into lesson planning;
  • the idea that knowledge is no longer as important as skills in the information age;
  • the idea that promoting technology in the classroom is inherently positive for students.

The feedback from the two sessions was positive and at that point I felt that the project would probably end and it would be down to the teachers to take the ideas on and share them with colleagues.

As the final term of the year progressed the leadership team of the Primary School began inevitably making plans for the following year. As part of these plans I was challenged to come up with a programme of professional development for some of our newest teachers. The aim was to develop a programme that would support these new teachers develop their teaching practice in the demanding atmosphere of a fee paying international school where the parents were very vocal about their high expectations. At this point I started researching some of the pre-existing programmes of professional development for teachers out there that I could adapt and use as a starting point.

One of the resources I looked at was the excellent Teach Like a Champion resources produced by Doug Lemov; particularly the Plug and Plays that are available on the Teach Like a Champion website. In the end though, due to my familiarity with the content and the extensive supporting research evidence, I decided to order the Embedding formative assessment two year professional development pack. At the same time that I ordered the pack, my school found out that Dylan Wiliam was running a 2 day professional development course in Chiang Mai in September and swiftly booked myself and another colleague to attend.

***

Upon returning from the summer break in August 2015, I found that the pack had arrived at school and I began looking through the resources with a view to planning a professional development course for our newest teachers. I quickly found that the various films, course materials and two year professional development structure was so extensive that I felt that I would not have to adapt much of the material at all.

The pack contains all the resources required to set up Teacher Learning Communities. These are small supportive communities of 10-12 teachers who meet once a month, guided by the materials from the pack, to focus on introducing research backed strategies for formative assessment into the classroom. My initial idea was that I would lead the TLC, invite 4-5 teachers that we felt would benefit from the course and then leave the rest of the spaces to any volunteers who might be interested.

Before I went ahead with the plans, I provided a brief introduction of the materials to the rest of the leadership team of the school to ensure their approval before moving forward with the project. The response at this point was extremely encouraging; not only did the leadership team approve of the project but they now questioned whether the TLC meetings could be planned into the school calendar so that all teachers could take part. The head of the school also asked if the project could be extended, not only to include all staff in the Primary School but also to include Senior School staff, including specialists.

Although I was encouraged by the enthusiasm of the leadership team, I was also a little wary of making the TLCs compulsory. If teachers were not enthusiastic about taking part and were only there because they were being told to attend, then the project was in danger of becoming another well-intentioned but flawed initiative. This is where the leadership team asked me to step in. It would be my job to run two workshops in the first term to get teachers interested in and ‘fired up’ about formative assessment.

After attending the two day workshop with Dylan Wiliam in Thailand and after taking the opportunity to talk to him about setting up Teacher Learning Communities in schools, I set about preparing the two whole school workshops. I was able to adapt the two presentations I had previously created for the volunteer teachers in the spring and add new parts based on his newly released book, Embedding Formative Assessment and using the films and slides from the 2 year pack. The two workshops focused on:

  • making the case for Formative Assessment and defining it;
  • looking at the 5 strategies of formative assessment and a sample of the classroom techniques;
  • making the case for Teacher Learning Communities as a sustainable professional development structure.

On the day, unfortunately, the Senior School had to postpone their involvement due to other more pressing priorities at the time. We decided to continue ahead with the project in the Primary school and the two workshops seemed to inspire lots of debate as I did take the opportunity to challenge some of the assumed knowledge that surrounds the teaching and learning process. It was my intention to get people interested and talking about teaching and learning and in this respect, the workshops were a success. Unfortunately, the second workshop overran and was slightly rushed in places; trying to summarise the techniques and the strategies in one hour was hugely ambitious.

In the days and weeks after the workshops members of staff who wanted to lead TLC groups approached me. At this point I decided to take Dylan Wiliam’s advice and avoid leading a TLC group myself due to two reasons:

  1. I am a deputy head teacher in the school and my presence would likely inhibit open discussion
  2. Dylan recommends that people who are well versed in the strategies do not lead groups so that the tendency to jump in and say “this how you should do it” is avoided.

In the end we set up 3 Teacher Learning Communities comprised of a mix of staff drawn from Early Years to Year 6. As of the time of writing, each TLC has already met twice. As the person who initiated the project, I have gained a huge amount of satisfaction in seeing staff pop into each others’ lessons, share practice and try out ideas in classrooms across the school. I am also pleased to note that next week I will be supporting the Senior School as they now embark on the same process.

It is early days in the project but the feedback so far from the Primary staff has been incredibly positive. The fact that the TLCs were made a compulsory part of the PLD process does not seem to have negatively impacted on the project so far. The only real frustration associated with the project has been that I am not able to participate in a TLC myself!

 

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