Chris Brown and Louise Stoll
Over recent years, there’s been greater awareness in England of the important role middle leaders – people such as department heads, key stage leaders or pastoral leaders – can play in school improvement. Middle leaders are the key link between teachers and a school’s senior leaders. As such, they are well positioned to offer support and challenge to teachers and lead their learning both within their own school and across partner schools.
How successful they are at this, in an evidence-hungry policy environment, will depend at least partly on their capacity to engage with and share knowledge about high quality research and practice and track its impact on learning and teaching. In short, middle leaders have the potential to be catalysts for evidence-informed change.
We had the opportunity to explore this issue in a year-long R&D project, funded through the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC’s) (more…)
Chris Brown and Louise Stoll
Louise Stoll and Chris Brown
Both of us are fascinated by how research finds its way into policy and practice. Most researchers hope their findings will be used, but engaging people isn’t always easy or straightforward.
It’s good to see an increase in initiatives focusing on this challenge – for example, the Education Endowment Fund’s recent call for bids in relation to encouraging the uptake of research in schools. Many terms are used to describe the process – dissemination, knowledge transfer, knowledge mobilisation, research utilisation to name a few. Whatever their intention, the message they can convey to practitioners is that researchers have the knowledge that practitioners need to receive.
Our attention has been caught, though, by the term ‘knowledge exchange’. This suggests a two-way flow in a more equal relationship, which makes a lot of sense. Everyone has their own knowledge and experience to share and research can enrich this, as well as pushing researchers to think again about what their findings mean in different contexts.
An R&D project, funded through the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC’s) Knowledge Exchange Opportunities Scheme has been giving us the opportunity to explore researcher/practitioner relationships in more depth. Over the last six months, along with our colleagues Karen Spence-Thomas and Carol Taylor, we have been working with Challenge Partners, a group of more than 230 state-funded schools across England that work collaboratively to enhance the quality of their teaching and leadership, with an ultimate aim of improving outcomes for children and young people. Challenge Partners (CP) aim to provide a vehicle for their schools to learn from the best of their peers.
Our project has been adding research into this mix. It’s exploring and learning about establishing an expanding and sustainable network of middle leaders (such as department heads, subject leaders and key stage leaders) across CP schools that can: exchange evidence-informed knowledge about effective middle leadership that changes teacher practice; track its impact; and find powerful ways to exchange the outcomes of their applied project work more widely within and beyond the partnership to benefit a broader range of educators. For a summary of our project questions and the project, see: ESRC Middle Leaders Project.
In workshops, we share both research findings and effective practice. These are then blended together to create new knowledge that middle leaders use to design and refine processes and tools to help them lead more effectively and track their impact. In between sessions, the middle leaders test new ideas and trial tools with colleagues and teams both in their own and in other schools. They do this both via face-to-face engagement and through social networking. With us they will also be developing processes to embed the notion of sharing high quality research-informed practice between schools in their own networks and for practitioners in other networks. We have a parallel evaluation strand where our researchers and researchers from two Challenge Partners (CP) schools and the CP office are collecting baseline and follow up information, and following project activities.
Partnership is absolutely critical. We co-designed the project with CP, are now involving middle leaders in planning and facilitating sessions, and are co-evaluating the project. Through this, we are trying to model knowledge exchange and collaboration by drawing on the expertise and practices of researchers, knowledge exchange professionals (a term used by the ESRC to describe people who help translate research findings) and practitioners. We hope this will increase the project’s potential to benefit the middle leaders and their colleagues and pupils.
Ours is a two-way relationship: we are learning from our partners as well as them from us, and we have combined our research knowledge, Challenge Partners’ prior experience and published knowledge, and the middle leaders’ knowledge. At times this challenges our thinking – we are tracking this as well – but we know that powerful professional learning does just that.
We will be back with an update in a few months.
Have you heard the one about the professor who did a stand-up comedy course? Well, if you haven’t before, you have now. And if you’re thinking, “why would anyone in their right mind do that?” that’s just what I was wondering after the first two weeks of my seven-week course earlier this year.
Why take on this challenge? Am I about to leave the ivory tower for a life in the comedy clubs? Anyone who saw me perform my final showcase will be overjoyed to hear that’s not my motivation. I just became increasingly concerned that when accountability stakes are high, or educational policies steer educators towards prescriptive teaching programmes, like a specific literacy approach, many teachers respond by playing it safe and relying on others to tell them what to do.
Around the world, many governments recognize that it’s essential for children graduating from school to be creative and adaptable. But, if teachers don’t have the opportunity to be creative, how can anyone expect them to light that spark in their students?
That’s why my colleagues and I started working on creative leadership with teams of school leaders. We explored and studied different ways the leaders could support their colleagues in coming up with and trying out new strategies to tackle difficult problems inside and outside the classroom. We learned that this involves taking risks, for them and for the teachers, as they were pushed out of their comfort zones. Some of the leaders and teachers resisted making changes to the way they carried out their work, finding every excuse to leave things the way they were. The risk just seemed too great.
That’s where the comedy course came in. I wanted to feel what it was like to try something totally different, something that didn’t feel “same old, same old”, that would seriously challenge me. It was really hard. Those comedians who make it all look so easy when they make us laugh actually put a huge amount of time and effort into practising and refining their jokes. My classmates (a retired police officer, an airport driver, a solicitor, a waiter, a documentary film maker, and a prison officer, among others) and I spent hours between the sessions thinking up and developing material, trying it out on willing – and sometimes less willing – friends and family members, then tweaking it or if necessary, ditching it and coming up with something new. Turning up the next week without having put in the effort just wasn’t an option if we wanted to stand up in front of our tutor and peers without feeling completely foolish. Luckily, being in this together, we quickly became a supportive group.
Experts take practising extremely seriously – all 10,000 hours of it, as Anders Ericsson reminded us. In The Expert Learner, to be published at the start of 2014, my colleague Gordon Stobart argues that we can learn many lessons from experts like Mozart, David Beckham and the Williams sisters. He argues that we should be applying this to learning in schools – both students’ learning and teachers’. Practise needs to be more purposeful, focusing on specific elements. He’s not saying that every one of them will become experts, but that learners, however old we are, can improve.
Being a better teacher, leader, parent, policy maker isn’t something that just happens. You have to be open to new ideas and try experiences that push you and challenge your thinking. And you need to practise new skills and keep refining them.
When did you last seriously challenge yourself learning something new for the benefit of children and young people? How did it feel? Did you practise it?
OK – time to confess. This is my first blog. Here I am pushing myself out of my comfort zone again, totally unsure of how you’ll react to this. I’d welcome feedback. Of course, I’ll also need to practise, and you know what they say about practise . . .
This post first appeared at http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/international_perspectives/