Kate Edwards, MEA Central, Manchester, UK
In this reflection article, I explore the benefits of incorporating practice into professional development. In my experience, it can be an impactful way of making granular changes that directly and positively improve classroom experiences for teachers and students. For practice to work effectively, the school’s culture of professional development must be non-judgmental and non-hierarchical.
What is practice?
Practise (verb): to do or play something regularly or repeatedly in order to become skilled at it
In Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better, Lemov et al. (2012, pp. 7-8) explain that:
‘Teachers “go live” four or five times a day. And yet unlike other performance professionals, they don’t call what they do to prepare “practice”; they call it “professional development”. If we asked a room full of teachers how often they practiced for what they did in their “game” – how often they rehearsed the questions they ask the students, or the way they start the class – most would look at us funny. Teachers listen, reflect, discuss and debate, but they do not practise.’
It is a striking notion and the more you consider it, the more you realise how very true it is: teachers, and this is especially pertinent to early career teachers, often ‘go live’ with very little or no time spent practising the performative elements of the teaching processes that are so crucial to effectively and efficiently running a successful classroom. Helpfully, the authors use the example of a surgeon and ask the reader to imagine that they were allowed to operate immediately on a patient without the hours spent practising on an orange or other inanimate objects. Shouldn’t we extend the same opportunity for practice to teachers?
Practice makes perfect, right?
At my school, we took the decision to make practice an integral part of our professional development offer. Our thinking began with the notion shared by Lemov et al. (2012) that practice does not make perfect but rather it makes permanent. Repeated practice of something does not mean that you get better at it. Only with clear modelling and precise feedback about what you are doing well and how you can improve will you experience the impact of effective practice. Lemov et al. (2012) set out three initial rules, which we found to be very helpful:
- Isolate the skill (practice each part of the skill until you have mastered it)
- Let the mind follow the body (learn the skill to be able to do it automatically so that you can do complex tasks without even thinking about them)
- Shorten the feedback loop (give feedback right away: a simple and small change, implemented right away, can be more effective than a complex rewiring of the skill).
Put practice into practice
During our September inset, we wanted our staff team to understand how undertaking practice and using these rules might work in reality. The teachers worked in trios and took turns to act as a coach in order to give precise, specific and immediate feedback to support colleagues to improve their delivery of a particular practical skill. It was a useful way to make explicit the impact of practice and how making small changes to our approach was hugely impactful. We chose skills where we were relative novices and it was an essential way for us to understand the impact that the process has.
We then went on to apply the same rules to practising important routines for our classrooms, such as how to deliver a strong start to a lesson. In order to ensure consistency in understanding what a strong start was, we shared a script and a video of it in action to serve as a model or ‘what a good one looks like’. Again, teachers were grouped into trios, and within each trio there was a range of teaching and classroom experience. The same core rules were applied but, this time, teachers were imagining the very real-life scenario of teaching directly to children. Crucially, expert teachers, novice teachers, new-to-the-school teachers, new-to-the-profession teachers or just rusty-from-the-summer-break teachers were able to work together to support one another to master an essential classroom routine. The result was that all classroom practitioners felt confident in knowing exactly how they would approach the start of every lesson with every class. In turn, this created a certainty and a consistency across the school that all learners benefited from, particularly our most vulnerable students.
Following on from this initial session, we now have a scheduled bi-weekly pedagogy briefing where teachers come together in their established trios and practice different aspects of important classroom routines. We cover a range of content, anything from how to effectively deliver praise to how to efficiently transition into a writing task. It has become a defining feature of our approach to staff development and bleeds into other training sessions, as staff are now comfortable with, and have a working understanding of, the positive impact of practice on their own practice.
How can you make practice work for you?
Lemov et al. (2012) write about how practice on this scale requires a good dose of humility and I would agree: teachers must be willing to make themselves vulnerable with their colleagues, and as Brené Brown reminds us in Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (2015), vulnerability is about having the courage to show up. It involves being confident to make mistakes as well as being able to give and receive feedback that is kind, helpful and professional in intention and delivery. But mostly, when you watch the briefings, it takes a lot of professional collaboration and a willingness to find the fun in rehearsing the small things, knowing the big impact that it will have.
So, what are the benefits of practice?
One of the advantages of utlising practice as part of teacher development is that it allows you to leverage change at a granular level, quickly and consistently. For example, qualitative data might indicate a broad area for development across the school, such as the way in which teachers are delivering praise. In a short practice pedagogy briefing, staff can: look at a model of a great way of delivering praise (usually a video clip from the Uncommon Schools ‘Teach Like a Champion’ bank (teachlikeachampion.com) or one taken from within our own school context); practise delivering praise with their colleagues (including the practice of a range of possible variables that could occur); and receive precise, personalised and specific feedback for them to action there and then. Teachers leave the session feeling more confident and implement their learning immediately. The power of practice lies in just how quickly the focus embeds across the school: whatever was practised can be heard echoing around the building and having a very real and rapid impact on the students.
For me, the best thing about practice is that it is for every teacher, whatever their level of experience. We have a mantra at school that we have never arrived, and this serves to remind us all that part of our professional entitlement as teachers is the right to continue to grow and develop, regardless of our career stage. Practice does all of the things that good developmental experiences should: it puts you just outside of your comfort zone; it allows for collaboration; and, most importantly, it is a time-efficient way of improving aspects of classroom practice. Ultimately, the students are the ones who benefit most as they become the recipients of assured, confident teachers and experience consistent approaches across the school.
Brown B (2015) Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. London: Penguin Group.
Cambridge Dictionary (2021) Practise. Available at: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/practice?q=practice (accessed 6 July 2021).
Lemov D, Woolway E and Yezzi K (2012) Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better. San Fransico: Jossey-Bass.