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The CAT is out of the bag

'The biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching' John Hattie

'Learning in context requires that we focus on how we change the culture in school so that educators learn continuously in the setting in which they work.' Michael Fullan

I was reminded of these two quotes when we had our first whole-school CAT session this week. 'CAT' stands for Collegiate Activity Time and is well know to teachers working in Scottish schools. Those same teachers, and their leaders, will also know that the quality and impact of such sessions can be best described as 'variable'. I am pleased to say that our programme of CATs got off to a flying start and I was blown away by the contribution from all the teachers at our session this week.

Our first such CAT of the new school year has been given over for the last few years to teachers talking about the professional enquiries they have been engaged in over the course of the previous school year. In these they talk about their enquiry and share results and insights gained with colleagues from across both the schools I work in. This is the sixth year we have been using enquiry approaches and so most of our teachers understand the process and look forward to sharing their findings. For new members of staff it is an opportunity to begin to understand something they may have just heard about and perhaps be a little unsure of.

I started the session by reminding everyone why we decided to use enquiry approaches. I talked about Curriculum for Excellence, Teaching Scotland's Future, the General Teaching Council Scotland's Standards for Registration and Career Long Professional Learning and finally Professional Update. These key documents and frameworks help us understand the context and how teachers as enquiring professionals are being encouraged, if not expected. We then we looked at some of the research that suggested such an approach was an efficacious one to be taking. So we considered  Hattie's 'Visible Learning', Fullan's 'What's Worth Fighting For In Headship' and a background paper produced by Helen Timperley to inform the establishment of a leadership framework in Australia. I finished with Dylan Wiliam's recent message 'every teacher needs to improve, not because we are not good enough but because we can all be better.'

Then we broke into a couple of discussion groups so that we could listen to people's stories of the enquiry they had undertaken over last session. What was really exciting for me as the school leader was not so much hearing about the different enquiries they had undertaken, but more about the excitement and levels of engagement they displayed. It was their enthusiasm to share and to talk about evidence and data informed insights, that I found so powerful. They were open and honest and shared their successes and their failures so that all could learn and benefit from their experiences. Some had been with us on the whole journey with enquiry but we had others that were new last session or new this. It was great to hear all their stories and to get their reactions. In my group we had a mix of experience, and a mix of confidence,  but all had positive contributions to make. Our least experienced teacher didn't want to go first, so the most experienced teacher started the ball rolling. She spoke of how she explored issues with spelling amongst a small group of low performing boys. She consulted with colleagues who had previously looked at spelling as an enquiry and had identified a number of successful strategies. She combined these with her own research and the results were startling for the boys focused on. One had made one year ten months progress, as measured by our yearly whole-school screening, and the others had made either eight or ten months progress all in less than a year. I asked about the rest of the class and she was able to demonstrate how others in the class had also made progress above normal levels.

Next our least experienced teacher spoke passionately about how she looked at developing metacognition and the ability to apply and verbalise a variety of strategies when working mentally with number. We had been asked to pilot the use of 'Number Talks' a resource from America that was supposed to help in developing such attributes in learners, so she had used this as the focus for her first enquiry. She was able to explain what worked, and what hadn't and how she was able to identify the positive impact for her focus group but, again, also for all learners. She talked about their increased confidence in working mentally with numbers and their ability to articulate different strategies they were using. She did note that, although all were exposed to and learnt new strategies, they still tended to go back to the ones they originally knew and were comfortable with. Something she plans to explore further. She said she loved working on her enquiry and she had been well supported by other staff, and now she looked forward to continuing with the approach this year. She was followed by our Principal Teacher who produced video clips on her phone of children talking about solving number problems. We heard, and saw, how they at first found it very difficult to verbalise how they solved problems, 'it's just in my head' was a common comment. By the end of her intervention and the reshaping of her practice, they were able to explain working with very large numbers and quite complicated strategies. A lovely insight from her was that 'I need to shut up more.' She's a fab teacher, but she looked at the videos and realised she was still jumping in too quickly as the pupils were trying to articulate their solutions. A very honest and very brave thing to do.

So it went on in both groups for about forty minutes as teachers shared with each other, and enthused about their learning and the impact for learners. Collaborating together and learning in their own setting in order to move forward their own professional learning in a deep and meaningful way. Sound familiar?

We ended with a consideration and recap of the enquiry process, to help everyone. We have another session planned in a couple of weeks. In this we have given the staff time to get together to think about their next enquiry and to plan this together. Myself and the SMT will be around to support and help, but it is really important that we give them all the space and time to think about their own practice and issues they have identified about learning. When teachers identify these themselves the results are powerful not only for them, but for their learners, their schools and for the system.

We have set the bar high for our CAT sessions, the cat is out of the bag, and my job is to make sure it stays out.


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