Leadership has become more challenging for sure in the last year, as we often find ourselves swimming against a tide of government policy, and changes to policy, and revisions to changes to policy. By necessity, leadership has become a fast, not slow pursuit. If we agree that building a strong and positive culture is one of the core purposes of leadership, then what does the remote expression of culture look like? The context has changed but how do we articulate the principles?
“Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It is not something you are. It is something you do.” Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code
I like to think of the expression of culture as the coherence that comes from knowing why you chose one direction, behaviour or attitude over another and the way in which you approach it. The interplay between the how and the why. In all the great schools I know, the way that things are done matters. There is a deliberate thoughtfulness about decision making and execution. There are clearly established cultural norms that are part of the fabric of the organisation, evident in relationships, the curriculum and within the accountability measures. When these aspects are in sync, the team moves together.
“For the team to move forward, everyone within must forward in the same direction. This is the essence of team – working hard for each other, in harmony, without dissent, submerging individual ego for greater cause.” James Kerr, Legacy
Language and behaviour may be the more noticeable articulation of culture; for example, we made the decision early on that we would use the language of learning resilience rather than learning loss. This spoke not only to our sense of optimism but also to the trust we have placed in our teachers, the curriculum and its implementation. We have a curriculum designed to build resilience through content and through the work we have done to understand how learning and memory works best. We had faith that once children returned to school in September, we would work on the assumption that learning is resilient and wait for it to bounce back…and joyfully, slowly and steadily, where we were able to keep children in school, it did.
“If learning has been truly lost, it must be regained, which may be slow and painful. On the other hand, if it is merely rusty, it may be quickly regained with a small amount of practice.” EEf Impact of school closures on the attainment gap 2020
There are great bodies of work that provide really helpful and well evidenced approaches to teaching and learning that have been distilled through meta analysis of classroom practice over time and taking account of context. There is no need to take shots in the dark, go with personal preferences or whatever is fashionable because there is evidence and research, lots of it. We can make informed decisions about approaches to teaching and learning. There is also great expertise in the area of professional learning and well evidenced frameworks from which to approach teacher development.. Whilst it would certainly make logical sense to “ transfer into remote education what we already know about effective teaching in the live classroom” do we risk making a lot of assumptions in doing this and perhaps miss the more particular effect of context in these circumstances.
The variables in the online curriculum are considerably greater than the classroom. The means and environment in which pupils learn and we teach are much more fluid than the classroom. Teachers are juggling from the menu of live and pre recorded teaching, with their access to technology, platforms and training, working from home whilst managing their own children and the likelihood of staff absences and illness meaning that cover and inconsistencies are more likely than ever. The variables affecting pupil learning are as diverse and disparate; the unequal access to technology, parental support, stable learning environments, prior ability, before we add the impact of possible food poverty and a complicated set of factors around social disadvantage. We don’t yet know the impact of remote learning in the medium term (the next year or two) or beyond.
Can we make assumptions about what effective online teaching and learning looks like? There are some very interesting studies into pupil engagement (NFER, Schools’ responses to Covid-19: pupil engagement in remote learning, June 2020) and the EEF have published their study last April which highlighted “the quality of teaching as the predominant factor and the importance of pedagogy. There is no evidence that remote learning should be of a particular style, structure or organisation.
“Teaching quality is more important than how lessons are delivered Pupils can learn through remote teaching. Ensuring the elements of effective teaching are present – for example clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback – is more important than how or when they are provided. There was no clear difference between teaching in real time (synchronous teaching) and alternatives (asynchronous teaching).” EEF Remote L:earning Rapid Evidence Review April, 2020
In the rush to replicate the classroom environment, many schools and leaders moved instinctively to live lessons. When we were considering how best to structure online learning, the text that helped us explore the relative merits of live (synchronous) learning vs prerecorded (asynchronous) learning in depth and from a position of expertise was Doug Lemov, Teaching in the Online Classroom,2020. The chapter on synchronous and asynchronous learning is excellent and considers the factors that affect both learning and teaching including scalability, time economy, connectedness, control, pacing as well as the context of the learning within a sequence and children’s overall ability and experience in this area. The idea of a synergistic model which acknowledges the complexity of remote learning and context and where there is a balance of synchronous and asynchronous is perhaps the salient point here. “Both types of learning have benefits and limitations. The trick is finding a way to get the most out of both and exploit the natural synergies between the two.” Doug Lemov, Teaching in the Online Classroom.
There is no conclusive evidence that either approach works best, as explained by the EEF’s recent blog Live teaching and pre-recorded video lessons – how can we best navigate the evidence? The studies that did examine differences between live teaching and pre-recorded lessons on student outcomes found mixed and inconclusive results, with no evidence that one was better than the other in terms of student outcomes.”
However the EEF blog does go on to argue the case for greater professional support for delivering remote learning. There was evidence that quality of implementation did impact learning outcomes; and the importance, therefore, of providing professional support for practitioners who are delivering remote teaching, is noted in the review. This is referred to also by the NFER survey of schools and practitioners teaching remotely last year. “In an open question, we asked teachers what would help them to provide remote learning more effectively in future.” Unsurprisingly teachers widely requested better support to develop their expertise
“Teachers feel that they need training and development in remote learning approaches to improve their skills and abilities to teach in this way. Specific topics identified for training include: video recording and editing, using virtual learning environments (VLEs) effectively, and effective remote learning strategies.”
We are very much operating in a new and complex context. Maybe it would be helpful to think about how we as leaders engage in the process of learning about remote learning, and not necessarily just from a monitoring perspective. I know that there will be schools doing an excellent job of this using the best expertise they have available to support teachers with the complexity of remote learning. There will also be those who have missed this part of the “active ingredients”. To go back to the importance of culture, schools with a well designed and researched approach to professional learning will perhaps be best placed to address the challenges of professional learning.
One of my favourite and guiding pieces of research is: School leadership and student outcomes: identifying what works and why, Best evidence synthesis, Robinson, Hohepa and Lloyd Dec 2009. Based on 134 studies that were identified for positive links between student learning and leadership, the evidence review argues that “Promoting and participating in teacher learning and development is the leadership behaviour that has the largest effect size when looking at impact on pupil learning.” This really raises the question about how well we are supporting teachers with what feels like a huge mountain to climb, new pedagogy to master, complex technology and challenging contextual factors. How well are we promoting and participating in teacher learning on the remote curriculum? How effective is our remote staff learning offer? How well are we modelling this in our own leadership behaviours? If we go back to the principles of normalising culture, how well have we normalised a culture of learning and supporting remotely, through leadership actions?
I think that sadly the monitoring expectations have not always translated well, perhaps understandably due to the language of accountability. Have we mixed up compliance with quality? In a school environment we work on the principle that unless teaching is consistently below an acceptable standard, we start from the belief that teaching is developmental and that the craft of teaching requires deliberate practice over time with appropriate support and guidance.
And yet it would appear that accountability measures have been generously applied in some contexts as teachers begin to share experiences through social media and other networks of virtual lesson observations, online marking scrutinies, deep dives into writing outcomes online, clocking in systems to prove the amount of time staff are online with pupils. I understand that leaders are nervous about pupil learning, but we risk making what is already a very challenging learning experience for teachers so high stakes that it has an adverse effect on teacher performance rather than the intended focus on developing expertise over time.
In terms of professional relationships, we must start from a position of trust and work actively to build a culture of professional learning and professional conversations which impact on learning at all levels. Helen Timperley’s work on professional learning conversations is very much our template and the framework we have used for reviewing and planning performance development systems. Professional learning conversations have become a cultural norm and have helped build teacher motivation, buy in and trust.
Perhaps if we applied these enablers to the persistent and complex problems of remote learning and to maximizing the quality of remote learning, we would be assuming that teachers deserve our trust and want to do what is best for their pupils. An approach based on inquiry and problem solving might therefore seek to identify the most persistent problems experienced by teachers in regard to remote learning and consider the driving questions that we are genuinely curious about.
We might then consider the tools and resources we have available that address the most persistent problems and consider how we might gather evidence and identify where practice is more effective. We might test out identified approaches and possible solutions over time, collectively, in different contexts, and think about how we gather evidence of impact on pupil learning and hopefully on teacher learning.
It is the culture of collective responsibility, problem solving and professional conversations that matters here, rather than compliance and top down feedback. We need to build a supportive culture in which we can grow expertise in this area. I also feel that until you have spent a few weeks planning and delivering online learning, it is difficult to make authentic judgements, from a position of expertise, on the quality of teaching or to make assumptions about this that should be improved.
Or as Brene Brown puts it “If you are not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I am not interested in your feedback”
Let’s not underestimate how hard it is right now to be in the arena. Let’s not forget culture matters and let’s not get lost in accountability measures with this one. One of the few silver linings to the pandemic has been the conversations around the feasibility of accountability measures such as comparative published data, the inspection framework and the national testing program. It would seem that we have an opportunity to review (not wildly abandon) our accountability approaches and to consider what we have learned about how to get the best from people.
Perhaps we should consider this before we drop into a virtual lesson unannounced with a clipboard and a checklist.