Cooperative Learning makes learning visible. But, perhaps more importantly to senior leadership teams, it also makes visible their key area of responsibility, namely the teaching.
Were I to sum up Cooperative Learning in one word, it would be empowerment. Empowerment first and foremost of every pupil; self-confidence, courage, curiosity, choice, to name a few; empowerment of teachers (and their support staff) by making all the tick-boxes of outstanding teaching available in a simple, manageable manner; and empowerment of senior leadership teams (SLT) by facilitating their key role as guides to good teaching.
It may be obvious that empowerment of teachers is a prerequisite for the empowerment of pupils. But I venture here that empowerment of leaders in their role is in some ways a prerequisite for the empowerment of teachers themselves.
The responsibility of leadership
This article discusses how Cooperative Learning may empower all levels of your school community by working from the top down. Counter-intuitive, perhaps, and certainly something which needs to be tweaked to reflect the ethos of each school.
The fundamental assumption in this text is that 1) you are a leader because you have more to give – perhaps a more comprehensive educational background, more experience, better communication skills, patience, or decisiveness, to name some – and that 2) most of your staff could actually benefit from you, and actually wish to.
Empowerment via the top-down approach has several aspects. School leaders struggle with an overload of tasks which push the focus away from the raison d’etre of any school: every-day excellent teaching and learning in the classroom:
Given schools only exists for the sake of teaching and learning, and the documented positive impact of coaching on teachers professional development,* you would think that weekly lesson observations of every teacher by an experienced leader would not just be a given, it would be a right, the violation of which could bring the NUT down on the school’s head.
However, learning walks/lesson observations are often draining because outcomes seldom match the effort; objectives are not clear and feedback is not practical and, as a consequence, observations often result in vague hints which are seldom followed up, rather than instantly applicable advice that actually improves life for teachers and pupils from the next day and onwards. (Which only increases the sense among teachers observations are not about them being raised, but being judged).
We have previously discussed how Cooperative Learning has the capacity to effectively turn fluffy concepts of “secure more pupil engagement” into practical reality. The question is, how does the school take ownership of this capacity?
Why coach leadership
The answer is to turn leaders into just that: Trusted, inspiring guides, who master Cooperative Learning enough to take the torch from the consultant and drive their school’s vision. So, rather than having me come into classrooms following CPD to observe and coach teachers, I began coming into classrooms to observe and coach school leaders doing the same.
There are numerous benefits to this, four of which are listed below.
1. Improve Cooperative Learning and basic teaching skills
Teaching becomes visible through Cooperative Learning. Here it is important to grasp that weakness in the understanding of teaching is not the same as weakness in the execution of the Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns (CLIPs).
I specifically coach to maximise the benefit of Cooperative Learning – a clear objective with clear outcomes that I feel confident I can secure during one lesson/feedback session, and although I deal with matters which impinge on the quality of Cooperative Learning (e.g. timing and directive modelling) any underlying deep or subject-specific issues (e.g. misapprehension of objectives, or inappropriate levelling), is best dealt with in an ongoing process with responsible school leaders.
So by coaching SLT rather than the individual teacher, the benefit of the coaching is much more ongoing, comprehensive, and cohesive; and here, the clarity of Cooperative Learning will not only disclose gaps in teaching skills but will give very practical tools to close them, presented in a respectful, and perhaps less direct, manner.
2. Put victims at peace
Most teachers are used to being masters of their own classrooms and, as do most people, dislike the sense of being observed and judged, even if they are brilliant. By focusing attention on the performance of leadership in the role of coaches, it is possible to secure accountability and improvement while being more respectful of teachers’ integrity.
3. Fast-track to independence
By turning SLT into capable Cooperative Learning coaches, the school becomes independent of further external consulting, which is, of course, the ultimate goal for the school – and for me a sign I have done my job right.
4. The learner becomes the master
The practical coaching of SLT will enable leaders who are so disposed – there is at least one of those in every school – to move Cooperative Learning to a whole new level, tweaking, experimenting, combining, Stalham Academy being an obvious case study. But this cannot be done without mastering of the basics. “Wax on, wax off,” for those who remember the Karate Kid’s ordeals (Youtube).
Stages of lesson observations
There are several ways to approach Cooperative Learning lesson observations. The following discusses options of (A) Before, (B) During and (C) After lessons – with (B) obviously being indispensable.
(A) Before the observation
Ideally, the teacher presents the rationale behind the lesson plan prior to the observation (whether to me directly, or to a member of SLT being trained by me). This presentation includes shared reflections on pacing, choice of materials, assumptions about previous learning, securing evidence, as one normally would, but specifically how the CLIPs support this. “Why this CLIP and not that? Which sub-tasks fit in the objective? What target language are you requiring them to use?” For practical reasons, we usually do this in a break immediately preceding the lesson.
A special benefit of this approach is that I can confirm that the teacher grasps where and how to use the CLIPs in the context of the lesson, so that the observation may focus solely on the execution of the CLIP itself. By coordinating when CLIPs are used, it is conceivable to observe up to three separate classes within the span of a lesson slot.
(B) During the observation
With the coach(es) present in the classroom as the lesson takes place, there are two options: one is passive observation for later feedback, the other is active guidance as the lesson proceeds. As Cooperative Learning turns the focus away from the teacher, it is possible to have a real-time conversation about what is happening in the heat of the moment. For example, a reminder to monitor the whole class and not get sucked into the individual pupil’s issues is a classic.*
(An alternative version of this is to watch a video recording of the lesson together, where the teacher can see himself from the outside and discuss his observations with the coach. However, there is a risk that too much detail is lost in a video, as the coach cannot direct attention to individual pupils or teams).
(C) After the observation
It is crucial that the feedback following the lesson is a two-way process, respectful, yet honest. When coaching leaders, I usually run the feedback in the following stages.
1. Alone with me, the senior leader gives her own take on the Cooperative Learning within the lesson, and I fill in the gaps, add to the precision of language, or correct errors. Where relevant, we discuss the relationship to teaching skills and we use a checklist to make sure bases are covered. This checklist is provided to all staff during training (and every teacher is expected to laminate it and chain it to his wrist). Sometimes, the oral feedback is prepared with me playing the role as the teacher.
2. The observed teacher enters and gives his own subjective perspective. (“God, I was horrible!” is not an uncommon – and incorrect – opening statement, which reflects the strain of being monitored more than anything else). What is important that the teacher is allowed time and space to reflect on himself, and come up with his own solutions, first and foremost.
3. The leader being coached then uses this as a sounding board for the feedback, rephrasing it as needed to match, tweak, or correct the perspectives of the teacher. There is, of course, no reason to repeat problems that the teacher flagged up himself, except to note his insight, as realistic self-assessment is one of the single most valuable skills one may have.
4. Now comes the important part: the practical application of the feedback. This means picking the most important few issues, and presenting solutions in an actionable form. An example is given in the following section.
5. The teacher is offered time discuss with me directly, with or without the leader present.
6. I give the leader ia set of final comments on her interaction with the teacher. This will usually focus on the clarity of her message. Hence the extreme example below.
Here is an example of what that could look like, with the wrapping peeled away:
“You pointed out yourself that you find it difficult to connect back to previous lessons. So, what we have agreed is that, starting tomorrow, every lesson will begin with a such-and-such CLIP, staged just like this, using these metacognitive questions about their prior knowledge, and securing this type of written evidence. The CLIP will last minimum five minutes, excluding staging, and you will use a on-screen timer to make your two Asperger’s pupils feel safe. You will dedicate yourself to monitoring, leaving the overall control of the class to your TA, who you will have carefully instructed in this task. A specific target for you is to stop waffling and to bring your modelling down to 45 seconds, giving more time to put the pupils in control of their own learning. So next week, I will pop in and have a look. We’ll take it from there. Any questions?”
Soddin’ Growth Mindset!
I intentionally stripped the fluff of the example above, because I want the content of the feedback to be crystal clear. Two points here: Number One, the “action plan” is the result of a dialogue between the teacher and the leader during the coaching session. Number Two, I do not, and I do not ask leaders to, speak that way to staff. However, behind the coating, that is the level of specificity you need to arrive at. If you find it a challenge to empower yourself in your role as leader to do that, consider asking other leaders in your hub or trust on how they do it.
Because, as uncomfortable and un-British as it may feel to risk stepping on people’s toes (I’ve actually had people apologise to me about the English weather!) just remember that you are doing the teacher and the pupils, both entrusted to your care, a severe disservice by not bringing out the very best in your staff.
As a Dane, I come from a very direct culture where many a casual conversation would be considered extremely rude by the British. Yet, one benefit to this obnoxious forthrightness is that it negates the confusion between what is professional, realistic feedback and what is a personal judgement to which one is entitled to respond emotionally. Those two are not the same.
On that note, ponder this: With smiling faces, we teachers drill into a pupil standing nailed to the whiteboard and feeling utterly humiliated in front of their whole class, that “It is GREAT to make mistakes because we can learn and grow!” Yet, some of us flatly refuse to rectify our shortcomings with a trusted colleague in a private setting, though we affect the futures of thousands of children over the course of our careers?
There is no real reason to feel judged in learning from colleagues, and certainly, there is no shame in learning from a colleague with superior skills or more experience. So, in summary, a trusting, collaborative ethos is not just a requisite for children to learn, but for adults as well. Coming full circle, the capacity to learn and improve is the basis of all empowerment. For pupils, teaching staff, and leaders.
NB: This article has been in the pipeline for a while, and was inspired by a novel take on coaching by a school I am now working with. Here, rather than sending leaders on learning walks, teachers are paired up with a sparring partner, who take turns observing and coaching each other. This opens an opportunity to dedicated use of Cooperative Learning to share practice and experience between those pairs and keep leadership informed in an informal and non-threatening manner. I am hoping to write an ongoing series on this theme. (And learn something new in the process).
Also, benefit from related articles written for leadership on best-practice.
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*) “The reflection promoted by effective mentoring and coaching approaches in turn encourages a collaborative learning culture in organisations. For schools, this is particularly important, as it may alleviate some of the sense of professional isolation….”
From Mentoring And Coaching For Professionals: A Study Of The Research Evidence, P. Lord, et al., National Foundation for Educational Research, 2008, p. viii, https://www.nfer.ac.uk/publications/MCM01/MCM01.pdf (accessed 17 September 2017).
**) Because the learning is so in-your-face, it is almost impossible not to step in. But unless the (indispensable!) TA is present to keep a bird’s eye view, this is not advisable.