A common language for great teaching

First published for ISC Research, ‘A common language for great teaching’ was written by Julia Armstrong, Assistant Head for Professional Learning at Kellett Senior School Hong Kong.

As part of a review of Continuous Professional Learning (CPL), the senior leadership team at Kellett School has identified the potential of using a clearly articulated common language when it comes to teaching and learning.

Determined that this language be evidence-informed, we decided to adopt the Model for Great Teaching based on the free Great Teaching Toolkit: Evidence Review published by Evidence Based Education.

One year on, we now use the model’s four ‘dimensions’ and 17 ‘elements’ as our teaching and learning framework. This has helped us provide more meaning and purpose to the range of professional learning opportunities offered to our staff. Why did we decide to adopt this model? What has our journey been like and where are we going next in respect to CPL?

Are great teachers born or made?

Think about this question for a second. Are some people just ‘natural’ teachers or can great teaching be learnt? Perhaps just less than a decade ago many senior leaders and teachers may not have been aware of the tsunami of research that was about to come their way. Today, it is hard to ignore the ongoing and sometimes controversial discourse on what may or may not ‘work’ in the classroom. But one thing is clear: great teaching can be learnt, and engaging teachers in the conversation about what this looks like can be transformative.

 

Engaging teachers in the conversation about what great teaching looks like can be transformative.”

Get someone to do the hard work for you

For the busy senior leader, sifting through the available research is not without its challenges. Reading journal articles, blogs and academic papers is time-consuming, and the quality of some educational research is dubious, with small sample sizes and questionable applications to a real, dynamic classroom. Questions that I often asked relate to ‘transferability’, for example: ‘How is research carried out in a laboratory or with university age students transferable to a primary or key stage four classroom? What might this look like in drama or modern foreign languages?’

With so much research out there, it can be difficult to know where to start and where to find answers to questions like this. But this is precisely why we decided to adopt the Model for Great Teaching – the hard work had been done for us! Countless pieces of research had already been scrutinised, compared and considered by over 74 collaborators from 11 countries, all of whom are really invested in helping teachers have the biggest impact on student learning.

Why the Model for Great Teaching helped us

Currently the model suggests the ‘best bets’ for high-quality teaching and learning. Divided into four ‘dimensions’ the model suggests that great teaching is supported by:

  1. Understanding the (subject) content
  2. Creating a supportive environment
  3. Maximising opportunities to learn
  4. Activating hard thinking

Of course, there are other models out there – most educators will have heard of Rosenshine’s Principles, for example. What made the Model for Great Teaching stand out for Kellett School, however, was the range of models and studies reviewed (including Rosenshine’s Principles), its accessibility, ease of use and the fact that the research is clear: teaching is incredibly complex and differs across ages, contexts and subjects. Our adopted model is therefore flexible and transferable to any classroom.

Implementing a new model

Not long after the Model for Great Teaching was published, Evidence Based Education established an online platform – the Great Teaching Toolkit (GTT) – supporting teachers and leaders to better understand each of the four dimensions and constituent elements. Having access to the platform really helped with the personalisation of teachers’ professional learning. The GTT has structured courses broken down into smaller ‘elements’ (eg, Explaining) outlining ‘something that may be worth investing time and effort to work on’. Having access to a structured short course (typically eight weeks) has allowed our staff to learn more and explore the area of their teaching they are looking to change or improve upon.

Whilst staff were encouraged to explore the individual elements of great teaching themselves, it was also felt we needed something to initially unite staff and create ‘buy-in’ to the GTT. We therefore asked all staff to focus on the elements of the third dimension: ‘Maximising Opportunity to Learn’. This encompasses:

  1. Managing time and resources effectively
  2. Ensuring rules, expectations and consequences for behaviour are explicit and consistently applied
  3. Preventing, anticipating and responding to potentially disruptive incidents and reinforcing positive behaviour

At the start of an academic year this made sense. We wanted to ensure staff were using the same language and focusing on the same themes to help give our students a consistent message to our students.

Throughout 2021–2022, we dedicated time during INSET days to allow departments to discuss how the GTT could be implemented within their subject areas. It is widely accepted there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ to great teaching. For example, the fourth dimension, ‘Activating Hard Thinking’, will look different in PE compared to science. We found this ‘tight but loose’ approach worked well – departments had access to the common language of great teaching and could work together to shape what this might look like in their subjects.

Looking ahead

In the 2022–2023 academic year, Kellett School will continue to embed the best available evidence to drive its programme for professional learning. We have relaunched the Model for Great Teaching, reminding everyone that as a school we are 100% invested in understanding what high-quality teaching and learning looks like. All staff have been asked to set themselves a target linked to the model, and these will be discussed and supported by subject leaders. Because we are actively encouraging our staff to take risks and try something new in the classroom, we are also looking to formally adopt more peer–peer support so teachers can observe, discuss and give feedback to each other.

Given that teaching and learning should be the heart of what a school does, departmental and senior leadership meetings also have the four dimensions as a framework for their agendas. We realised this was missing last year and felt that to truly embed the language of great teaching, the framework had to be incorporated. At the end of the day, if middle and senior leaders are not talking about great teaching then something is amiss!

Finally, we have found the shared common language for teaching and learning so powerful that we have also built our own in-house model for effective subject and pastoral leadership. This offers our middle leaders a framework to reflect and set meaningful, personalised targets. The idea here is to create a common conversation around leadership and to help focus line-management meetings between subject and senior leaders.

Key recommendations:

  • Aim to establish a shared common language centred around teaching and learning. This can be achieved in house; however, there are models already out there – the Model for Great Teaching is one such example.
  • Create a supportive environment for your staff. Pair staff who are working on or interested in the same thing. Peer support is invaluable in driving meaningful change.
  • Ensure the rationale for the model is clearly communicated and followed up on throughout the year. Embed the language for great teaching at INSET days and in departmental and senior leadership meetings.
  • Finally, remember the exact level of engagement with the model you adopt will depend on your school and its circumstances. Don’t expect all staff to jump in feet first with the research you present. Developing a programme for CPL is a slow journey – but a worthwhile one in the end!

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