Saturday, 6 April 2013

First post - getting started...

Please forgive the slightly tentative start on this - my first ever post on my first ever blog!
In this first post I'd like to set out the reasons for starting this blog and some initial thoughts - hence it's a bit wordier than I may have liked!

What's this all about?
My intention is that this blog will be aimed at exploring thoughts related to managing variability in teaching, due to my subject bias I will naturally focus on maths, but I would hope it is also relevant to other areas, and may also relate outside of teaching.

What's the agenda?
I have no hidden agenda, this is not party political and all thoughts expressed here are my own and not aligned to any particular organisation. For this reason I am not identifying the school I work at. I am undertaking this for my own personal interest, as part of reflecting on my day to day work, and in the hope that there may be others out there who may like to share their thoughts on these topics.

Who am I and why am I writing this?
As some background I initially trained and worked an engineer, and later as an engineering project manager in the car industry for at total of 10 years before re-training as a maths teacher. The car industry is one of the most closely scrutinised arenas for processes and quality improvements, with much of the modern understanding of Quality Management having originated in this sector. During my teacher training, and since qualifying as a teacher I have worked in a total of 4 schools, spanning a range of different intakes and levels of achievement. I am currently a head of maths at a large mixed comprehensive. As part of this I am involved in seeking to improve maths results for the school, increase uptake of maths and further maths at A-level and generally encourage a deep interest in the subject.

To date I have discovered a wide range of blogging and networking/twitter activity linked to the development and sharing of personal practice in maths and other subjects, which is excellent. I am also aware of activity at a senior leadership level, looking at whole school issues. However it strikes me that there is a relative lack of input from middle leadership/heads of department considering how to improve at a departmental level.

My personal view, shaped by my background, is that the key to departmental improvement is the reduction in variability of practice. Once practice becomes more consistent it is easier to ensure good performance.

So why do I think managing variability is so important?
In the UK we are in a bit of a state of flux with changes coming from the government and Ofsted, all with the central intention of "improving standards". Unfortunately what I personally feel is lacking is a good understanding of why "standards" are not at an acceptable level and exactly what an "improvement" would look like.

My suggestion is that standards themselves may not be the issue. Aspects of good and outstanding practice are happening every school day, in every school in the country. The issue we have is that in those same schools there are also examples of poor practice, possibly in the classroom next door with a very similar group and the same access to resources. Critically I don't subscribe to the view that this is simply because the outstanding practitioners are working harder or are more passionate about their classes; I've yet to meet a teacher that doesn't work as hard as they can to do the best they can.

So if factors like the teacher's work ethic, school setting, the type of student, the curriculum being followed and the range of resources available are all the same then how can we explain wide differences in the effectiveness of classroom practice within a school? Similarly how can you explain a wide variation in school "performance" across the country? We could follow a suggestion that outstanding practice is down to something less tangible like teacher personality, but the engineer in me would prefer to think of that as "noise" introduced into the system by the fact that humans work within it.

In other sectors where human factors have an influence on the end result there are actions taken to reduce this. For example on the best production lines the design is set up so that human error can't creep in, or in an aeroplane there are checklists for the pilots to follow.

Please don't think I'm proposing extra procedures or processes though! That's not what I'm about at all. In engineering the ideal way to reduce variation caused by human factors is to set things up to make doing the right process the easiest thing to do, so that it takes more effort and therefore a conscious decision to follow an incorrect or less effective process. Therefore my aspiration as a head of department is to first to identify best practice, and then to find ways of making that practice the easiest thing for the whole of my team to do, not just the exceptional practitioners.

I'm also keen to point out that I don't think that there is a one size fits all recipe for outstanding practice, however I do firmly believe that by having the right structures and guidance in place it is possible to open the door to good to outstanding teaching for the vast majority of teachers.

As I explore this in this blog I plan to consider various aspects of teaching & learning and how this can be developed to reduce variability and therefore improve performance. Much of this is work in progress for me and my department, sometimes it may be a matter of clear guidance, other times it needs some work to create structures to help. In many cases I've not yet found the solution but am working towards it.

Topics for future posts are evolving, but initial ones that spring to mind are:

  • Marking & Feedback
  • Structures for lesson planning
  • Encouraging good standards of work from pupils
  • Assessment & moderation
  • Strategic uses of seating plans
  • Departmental homework strategies
  • Departmental communications

There will be more topics that raise their heads as time goes on, however in the mean time I'd be interested if you have any thoughts or suggestions relating to this post or the topics mentioned above...

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