How ‘the discipline of noticing’ (Mason 2003) and ‘the little things’ can support Teaching and Learning in the coming months

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‘The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged
backgrounds: over a school year, these pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very
effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers. In other
words, for poor pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is a whole
year’s learning.’
(Improving the impact of teachers on pupil achievement in the UK – interim
findings, The Sutton Trust, September 2011)

I read the above findings today, at a time when school strategic responses to school closures due to the COVID pandemic, is playing heavily on many educator’s minds. Simply put- effective teaching is powerful and makes a significant difference in pupil outcomes. Particularly for disadvantaged pupils who may have fallen disproportionately behind their peers during this time. This isn’t to say that other responses in the way of intervention programmes or home learning models won’t have their place and it may well be a careful combination of these that will support pupils in re-embarking on their learning journeys after this ‘road block’. But it’s clear and generally accepted that effective teaching and learning in the classroom will be a major catalyst for accelerating pupils’ learning in the coming months.

This poses a significant challenge in itself and this isn’ a new challenge. How do we improve teacher effectiveness in a way that a) develops teachers in the most efficient way possible as to best support pupil outcomes b) allows teachers to feel involved and in charge of their own professional development c) promotes a supportive culture of learning, error and improvement? Pupils aren’t the only ones who will be re-embarking on their learning journeys- so too will teachers. And we have to recognise and accept this as something that holds equal importance. This further reinforces the need for coaching models that aren’t critical in nature and are more collegiate whilst still improving teaching and thus learning/pupil outcomes.

I then came across the work of John Mason (2003) who asserts the importance of ‘noticing’ when we consider our professional practice and how best to improve it. In his 2002 book ‘Researching your own Practice: The Discipline of Noticing’ Mason asserts that by becoming more aware of the individual choices we make in the classroom (everything from where we stand to what tone of voice we use) and exploring alternate choices and reflecting on the impact, teachers can be far more involved in the development of their teaching.

‘The mark of an expert is that they are sensitised to notice things which novices overlook. They have finer discernment. They make things look easy, because they have a refined sensitivity to professional situations and a rich collection of experiences on which to draw. Amongst other things, experts are aware of their actions in ways that a novice is not…’ (Researching your own Practice: The Discipline of Noticing by John Mason)

What would this look like in practice? Models such as the lesson study show the power of ‘noticing’. (See below for model https://www.herts.ac.uk/link/volume-2,-issue-2/the-impact-of-lesson-study-on-the-development-of-two-primary-student-teachers) Using lesson studies, colleagues can isolate particular pedagogical approaches and reflect upon the impact on the learning within the authentic classroom space.

Could we also perhaps develop ‘finer discernment’ in our teachers by picking out the subtle nuances that make an effective lesson one by one and exploring the practice around this particular approach? Find below a sequence of reflective questions for an enquiry based approach to developing teacher practice.

  1. How are you giving instructions to the pupil?
  2. How are you communicating your instructions?
  3. How many instructions do you give in one go?
  4. What if you changed this? What would the impact be in the classroom?
  5. Lets try!
  6. Reflect- did this improve your practice? Impact on pupils? Impact on outcomes?

Lessons are made up of hundreds of choices and moments that can lead to effective teaching and learning. It’s the little moments that define the ‘bigger picture’ of a lesson. By unpicking these moments and reflecting on alternative courses of action, we can iterate and strengthen our practice over time. Being involved in this process and watching it unfold before you can create a very real momentum in improvement and can have implications on motivation.

By adopting this diagnostic approach and cultivating the discipline of noticing, we could also support teacher wellbeing and confidence after an extended period of time away from conventional classroom teaching.

‘Intentional noticing’ as Mason puts it, also supports the model of observing from our more experienced colleagues. This is part of many school’s professional development strategies but I find frequently ‘falls off’ in the day-to-day busyness of school life. Professional development of our teachers requires a commitment to sharing in best practice and having the time and space to meaningfully reflect on how it can support our own development. Having this as an embedded and protected structure within schools could perhaps support whole school teacher development. ‘Reflection is the vogue term for intentionally learning from experience but it is more talked about than carried out effectively…reflective practice requires ‘living in’ and not mere occasional attendance’. This could very well support the case for less ‘lesson observations’ and more sharing of ‘lesson reflections’. Some ideas that might support this:

-Teach Meet style informal opportunities for teachers to share in a particular strategy (small or big) that they have adopted and the impact it has had in their classroom
-Teaching reflection blogs for teachers to journal around their teaching practice in lieu of lesson observations
-Grouping colleagues together to share using the ‘lesson study’ methodology
-Coaching conversations that are centred around a ‘did you notice?’-‘what did this mean for the pupils’ approach

In writing this blog, it has occurred to me that perhaps we could use these unusual circumstances we find ourselves in as an opportunity to revisit what professional development looks like within our schools and create a ‘toolkit’ of strategies for supporting teacher development that promotes teacher agency, confidence and best practice simultaneously, as we collectively navigate our journeys ‘back to school’.

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