Building Great Teachers: Theory of Action

Most, if not all, of my current work is geared towards building great teachers.   It’s such a fascinating, complex and challenging process.  Even if the focus is on yourself, or on one teacher, the process of enabling that one person to become a ‘great teacher’, more effective, more confident, more successful, more able to self-manage, more able to direct the curriculum… there is a lot to consider – for them and for whoever has any responsibility for them.   Once you multiply that up to teams of teachers and a large staff, the challenge is very significant.  At Oldham College, for example, we are delivering and developing our Teaching for Distinction programme for 200 tutors and assessors.  We’re learning a lot!

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There are so many variables to consider in any setting.   Any one of these could be the key to improvement – looking for gaps, conflicts, mismatches, motivators, barriers…..

  • Education and Training: Teachers’ knowledge of the curriculum, pedagogical content knowledge and training in the routines of behaviour management, safety etc.  Starting with curriculum usually pays dividends.
  • Experience: This is different to expertise and there’s no short-cut here – but once you’ve taught the same thing a few times, it’s possible to improve significantly provided there is some self-reflection or process of evaluation going on.  Experienced, reflective teachers are gold!
  • Personal Confidence:  A strong assertive presence is a core teacher attribute – that ability to hold attention from a room of people – and sometimes you need to explore how to develop it directly.
  • Relationships: This is about each person being true to themselves but establishing relationships where roles and responsibilities are clear and two-way communication happens.
  • Values:  There are often diverse views about purposes of education, notions of fairness, ability, standards, learning experiences,  and how much students can or should be pushed or nurtured.   Finding common ground can be key to any discussion about teaching.
  • Self Awareness: It’s common for teachers to perceive themselves differently to the way observers do. Sometimes more positively, sometimes more negatively.  Every teacher has blindspots.  Working on self-awareness is painful but needed at times. If you don’t believe you have a particular weakness, you won’t address it.
  • Mindsets: This can be about children: ‘my students just don’t want to learn’. It can be about self-image.  ‘I work hard, I’m doing my best, there’s not much more I can give’.  Finding space for improvement can require major mindset shifts.
  • Personal Goals: Everyone has different personal goals – teaching might be a mission or ‘just a job’, the research literature might be inherently interesting – or not; career aspirations for leadership roles might be the goal – they might be irrelevant.
  • Beliefs about learning: Across a group of teachers, there will be a range of ideas about how learning happens; about knowledge transfer, skill development, ideas about creativity, testing – everything! Engaging with existing beliefs is key in moving forward.
  • Theories of Action:  This is currently something I’m very interested in: How do teachers form a theory of action that relates what they do to what students do and then to what is learned in the long run? Sometimes there is a big disconnect – teachers plan what they do – but don’t have a well-formed model for the way student learning will arise.  I found this interesting on the theme of theory of action:

I’m currently re-reading Daniel T Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School which is a goldmine of insights into how learning happens.  It’s amazing how far we go just muddling through without really understanding that teacher-to-student-to-learning process fully.  I’m convinced that professional engagement in research is a way to develop effective theories of action – against which we then self-evaluate.

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What influences teacher actions?  Research ought to be this big – but usually isn’t.

That ‘compliance’ circle can be too big in some situations  – a crude short-cut to make teachers do things.   However sometimes, where self-awareness is a barrier, a degree of compliance helps to push ideas through, especially where the framework has been devised by other professionals in that setting.  It’s a mistake to assume that every teacher has the capacity to direct their own improvement journey; everyone needs feedback and some need more than others.  Sometimes it’s hard for people to hear what is being said or to act on it; it takes work to get this right.

At its most positive, compliance can build habits that then help teachers to formulate more effective theories of action – if they experience success.  At its worst compliance against a poorly-judged set of ideas leads teachers to find new lines of work!   The trick is to explore all of this explicitly with people – what does the research say? What values do we share? What makes great teaching?

Once people are involved in shaping the framework and time is given to discussing values and theories of action, compliance takes a back seat and people get better at driving their own improvement.



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