Skip to main content

The self-improving teacher

For many years now we have talked about, and tried to promote, system leadership within education. I have written before about this in Beware What You Wish For: Some thoughts on System Leadership published in July of this year, and Headteachers and System Leadership published in February 2015, as well as in a number of other posts which have touched on aspects of such system leadership.The main driver for the development of system leadership within schools and education systems is to produce the self-improving school system. One that is organic and which grows from within, utilising the experience and expertise that already resides within in it. In the first post mentioned above, I did question whether this was in fact what some in the system really wanted, because it would lead to less command and control from above. But, let us assume that this is what we all truly wish to develop in the system. I would like to see true system leadership develop and grow within our education systems, in order to help those systems grow and develop themselves, without any need or expectation of direction and micro-management from those at the top of some hierarchical and dictatorial structure.

For this to truly happen, I believe we should be looking to develop and grow teachers, and school leaders, who are self-improving themselves. They need this as a disposition and a professional stance. The big question I then suppose is, how do we develop such qualities and dispositions within all teachers in a system? When we are emerging from cultures where for many years professional development, for many, was another 'thing' done to them, not by them, such a challenge is not going to be easy or smooth. What can we learn from research about what might work in developing such qualities?

In the mid-seventies, some forty years or so ago, the work of Lawrence Stenhouse proposed a sea change in trying to change our attitudes to teacher development. Stenhouse long argued for teachers to become reflective and enquiring professionals, who constantly looked closely at their practice. He suggested that by employing action research principles, more commonly found in higher education, teachers would have a model for them to take responsibility for their own learning. They would do this by focusing on aspects of their own practice or at systems and structures within their own setting. It is fair to say that this took off in a big way for some, but for many it either never happened or it mutated into something else that was doomed to failure, as people still searched for quick-fixes and silver-bullets, based on little understanding of what this approach recommended or why.

About ten years after Stenhouse produced his research and recommendations John D Bransford and others began to look at, and talk about developing, adaptive expertise in teachers and school leaders. Such adaptive expertise has been described as 'the ability to use knowledge and experience to learn in unanticipated situations.' Bransford and Sears produced a rubric that aimed to measure the use of knowledge in terms of innovation and efficiency. Bransford then went on to work with Linda Darling-Hammond to develop further this approach in preparing teachers and in developing teachers through professional development. I first came across adaptive expertise as a quality that would be worthwhile to develop in all teachers, through the work of Helen Timperley in Australia and New Zealand. To me, it makes complete sense that we should seek to develop teachers, and systems, that have high levels of adaptive expertise, rather than more 'deliverers' or clones of what someone else thinks the ideal teacher might look like.

The other big influence on me, and someone who I think also points the way in developing self-improving teachers, is of course Marilyn Cochran Smith, and her work around practitioner enquiry. Cochran Smith published 'Inquiry as Stance' with Susan Lytle in 2009. This set out their own take on professional development for teachers, and recommended the development of an enquiry approach to such development by all teachers. They saw teachers as best able to develop, individually and collectively, through the deployment of enquiring dispositions towards their own practice and their impacts on learning. This would be a career-long commitment and would lead to sustainable and continuous development, situated in each practitioner's classroom and practice. They would use a rigorous model that was grounded in, and informed by, research as part of a continuous process of self-development.

I believe that if we were to focus more on developing and improving teachers and school leaders so that they are enquiring professionals with high levels of adaptive expertise,  we would go a long way in developing the self-improving teachers and self-improving systems are going to need. We have known how we can go about this for a long time now. What we still need to do is bridge that gap between research and practice that remains persistently stubborn and resistant to closure. Then perhaps we could really address all of the other gaps that exist in schools and education.


'An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development' Lawrence Stenhouse
'Preparing Teachers for A Changing World: What Teachers Should Learn and Be Able To Do' John D Bransford and Linda Darling Hammond
'Inquiry as Stance: Practioner Research for The Next Generation' Marilyn Cochran Smith and Susan Lytle

Popular posts from this blog

Testing Times for Scotland

'These are not high stakes tests; there will be no 'pass or fail' and no additional workload for children or teachers.' John Swinney 25/11/16

I start this look at the introduction of the Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs) with  statement above from John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, made when he announced the contract for our new standardised testing had been awarded to ACER International UK, Ltd. This organisation is a subsidiary of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), whom have been responsible for the development of the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) regime of high-stakes testing in the Australian system since 2008. I also believe they were one of a very short list of providers who tendered a bid for this contract.

I was drawn to this statement as I reflected on many of the responses I have received after I put out a request on Twitter …

Play not tests

Last night I attended the launch the 'PlayNotTests' campaign being led by Sue Palmer and the Upstart organisation in Scotland. This campaign is aimed at getting the Scottish government to think again about their decision to introduce standardised testing into Scottish schools, particularly in Primary 1. Upstart is a group whose main aim is the establishment of a play-based 'kindergarten stage' in Scottish schools, and they want to delay children's introduction into the formal education system until they have reached seven years of age. Before that, Upstart and their supporters, of which I am one, believe that young children learn best, and begin to develop the attributes they will need for life and learning, through play based learning, most of which should be located outside of classrooms and school buildings. This is a model that has been successfully developed by a number of Nordic systems, with positive impacts on the well-being as well as the learning of young…

Structure and systems versuses learning, teaching and leadership

A couple of days ago Education Scotland announced that they planned to make changes to how they carried out school inspections as, 'the first step in a radical new way Education Scotland will work to support and drive improvement in schools.' This new 'radical' approach was to carry out more inspections, coupled with employment of new HMIEs and 'associate assessors' so that they could raise the number of inspections from the 180 expected to be undertaken this year, to a target figure of 250 for the following year. Amongst their stated aims was a desire to engage with every school in Scotland each year in order to support schools, teachers and school leaders and to drive forward improvement. They will also seek to include the 'younger voice' in inspections and include more use of learners in the inspection process, aiming to produce a How Good Is Our School (HGIOS) for young people to help them become engaged. (give me strength!) In addition, they will b…