A consistency of teaching while protecting teacher autonomy

Written by: David Ruddle | Published:
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Consistency is often a misconstrued word in education. David Ruddle explains how his school achieved a consistency of teaching approaches in mathematics while still protecting teacher autonomy

As a primary school teacher and leader, I have helped lead change in a number of schools in England, Wales and the UAE. This has given me insight into what is needed to bring staff along with you and most importantly to convert change into positive impact.

In this article, I am going to be referring to the changes made as the ones that “we” made, rather than I. You cannot be a leader on your own and successful, sustainable change only happens when everyone is invested towards a shared goal (Leithwood et al, 2019).

With this in mind, one school that stands out in my journey served around 200 pupils and was based in the Midlands. We had previously been rated by Ofsted as good – but I was concerned by our SATs results, particularly in maths.

Understanding the broader issue

As part of my role, I observed staff and carried out learning walks to see how we, as a team, worked. After seeing how different teachers worked in their classes, it was clear that consistency was an issue.

Consistency is often a misconstrued word in education. It should not mean we want staff to be clones of each other – rather we want consistency in approaches and teachers working as teams rather than in silos. When I walked into a classroom, and spoke with individual teachers, it was like being in several different schools – it was not about getting consistency of the “style” of teaching, but of the same strategies, and pedagogical approach.

We know that learning is a change in long-term memory – learning happens and needs to be consolidated over time (McCrea, 2018). Therefore, if teachers are using wildly different approaches, students will not benefit. For pupils to benefit, their learning needs to be built on prior knowledge, not be completely different each year.

Overcoming common challenges

One of the key challenges the school faced was a lack of buy-in from staff. Staff had often been left alone for long periods only to suddenly be given a list of things to change after a monitoring session – all without having input or an explanation on how it would improve their practice.

It is always a temptation to change lots of things at once, but research tells us that to form habits of change we need specific, broken-down goals that motivate us (Fletcher-Wood, 2019). So we needed to identify what would make the biggest difference in the quickest time – this would help motivate staff.

After conversations in whole staff meetings, book monitoring, and some honest “casual” discussions, there were some common symptoms that arose: in many maths classes, there was some low-level disruption, poor basic skills, and a general lack of engagement from children.

Previously, I would have tried tackling each symptom, potentially implementing a new behaviour policy, making learning more “engaging”, and so on – but experience told me that we needed to understand the problem more deeply.

After more investigation, we felt that the issue was that our maths results in key stage 2 were low because our curriculum was not structured to allow for retrieval of key knowledge over time. We were essentially moving too quickly to get through the curriculum, rather than allowing time for “learning”. Students were not motivated, or engaged, because they were not experiencing success, causing some low-level disruption.

Drawing on my prior experiences, I felt that using a regular, short maths retrieval quizzes in every year group would help both consistency in the use of teaching strategies and allow pupils to experience success at their level, building consistency over time.

We wanted these changes to be implemented well though, so we asked ourselves two questions:

  • “Are we just adding things and causing more workload and further problems?”
  • “What do we expect will happen if we do/do not do this?”

In answering the first question, we felt that we could manage workload as I already had a bank of maths retrieval quizzes that could be tweaked for our context – these would be given to staff so that they did not have to spend time creating their own. We also felt that we could manage the additional workload by asking just six pupils to complete them each day, meaning that we would gather quality data which could be marked really quickly, with instant feedback that children could apply there and then.

To answer the second question, if we carried through with this, our pupils’ maths results at the end of each term should show improvement and their fluency of using this knowledge should also get better, meaning they could tackle trickier questions. If we did not do this, our maths results would stay low, our reputation and Ofsted rating could also suffer, and – more importantly – pupils would risk not reaching their potential.

Converting change into impact

I wanted to make sure that what we were asking staff to do was going to start from the best place. So I worked with a well-respected member of staff to trial the quizzes in our own classes for a few weeks to identify and iron-out any problems we may face, ensuring we had solutions to give to staff when it was rolled out fully.

Next, we broke the implementation into bite-size pieces. We ensured staff knew why, what, when and how they were doing it. So that staff did not feel they were being asked to attend additional meetings, we used our regular staff meetings to share theory, resources and solutions.

Often I have been in schools where strategies have been implemented too quickly, without staff truly understanding the “active ingredients” of what makes the strategy work. When this happens they begin to adapt the approach or initiative, creating a “lethal mutation” (Rose, 2019) that becomes ineffective.

An analogy: if we looked at toothpaste at a superficial level, we would find mint is a common ingredient, but it is not the thing that makes it work. It is the fluoride that is important. In essence, we wanted to provide staff with digestible evidence, so that they knew they could change the mint but that the fluoride had to be left alone!

After teaching staff the basics, we maintained momentum by dedicating time each week to sharing successes and problems, making it a collaborative experience. People were genuinely involved in our process of change.

Within weeks, the pupils were hooked – they loved trying to beat their own scores each week. They, and the majority of their teachers, were telling us they were more engaged in lessons and this was coming across when visiting classrooms.

After a few months, pupils’ key knowledge was becoming more fluent and teachers had more knowledge of what the children did and did not know, allowing them to be more responsive to their needs.

After the first year, when looking at the maths data, student outcomes were showing a good deal of improvement and some teachers were even taking it upon themselves to implement retrieval quizzes in other subjects.

Was this all directly because of retrieval quizzes or was it because pupils and teachers were thinking more about the content? Or was it that teachers knew their pupils better? I guess we will never know, but we certainly know that it had an impact on our school in a variety of areas.

Although this sounds like a smooth process, it was not plain sailing. Our action plan needed to be flexible, as there were barriers. For example, staff were finding limited time in the curriculum, so we decided to adjust our timetables to create space for a 20 minute “basic skills” time.

One staff member needed a lot of convincing about the need to take on this initiative. After inviting her into my classroom, she was impressed by the independence of my pupils, the little extra work I had to do, and the amount of useful data I was gathering.

Opening up these conversations to try to understand someone else’s perspective is a vital lesson I have learned. As long as staff understand the value of what you are asking them to do, and you create the space for them to do it, they will invest. Change is a process, not a one-off event. As leaders, we need to care about workload, thinking hard as to what changes we need to make, ensuring they are sustainable over a long period of time.

Even though we told staff what we would be doing, we built a community, making it a collaborative experience, giving them agency to help improve the school so that, if staff changed anything, they were not changing the “active ingredients” because they were provided with enough knowledge to understand why and how they were doing this.

Overall, we know our roles as leaders are complicated and the problems we face are complex. In my opinion, the more we can break down and simplify the things that we do, and do those things consistently well, the better it will be for our pupils – after all, they should be at the heart of everything we do.

  • David Ruddle is a design manager at Ambition Institute. After gaining a psychology degree and then his PGCE he worked across both key stage 1 and 2 for more than 13 years as teacher and deputy head in Wales, Dubai and England.

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