Classroom practice: Your teaching ecosystem...

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Image: Lucie Carlier/MA Education

When dealing with teachers’ practice, do you know what you are looking at? The Ecosystem approach has been created as part of an on-going research project. Fiona Aubrey-Smith explains

As part of my current research I have been talking to a range of headteachers about digital technologies. Most heads, in most schools, have a few teachers who are enthusiastic users of technology and a majority who will use what they are asked to use.

Quite often, headteachers have seen improvements in teaching and learning through specific uses of technology and are keen to build on these successes and roll-out those successful projects across the school. But, as we all know, translating pockets of success into school-wide success is a much trickier hurdle to leap. The challenges are not specific to technology, and the answer is about understanding why different teachers view things differently.

This article introduces you to the new “Ecosystem” of teachers’ pedagogical values and beliefs. The Ecosystem unpacks the different influences that shape what each individual teacher thinks, what they say, and what they actually do. By identifying and understanding these influences and the impact they have on a teacher’s actions, we are better equipped to identify what next steps are needed to roll-out new strategies, innovative practice or even address challenging issues.

Consciously, we teach what we know, while unconsciously, we teach who we are. The basic premise of the Ecosystem is that there are two major influences facing teachers – things that are personal to them (Funnel of influence from The Self) and things that are going on around them (Funnel of influence from a Context). These combine to form a unique mix for each individual teacher. As school leaders, it is important to understand these influences and the impact that they have on your teachers.


The funnel of influence from a Context is made up of two parts. Constitutive Order are the things going on at a national level – education policy, how much a culture values education, the economic landscape, the laws that affect schools, staff and families, the role of media, the disruptive role of digital technologies and so on.

Within this is how all that is interpreted at a local level in your school – we call this localised version the Arena. This is where the interpretation and filtering by school leaders, governance, local community, neighbourhood, friends and families translates national matters into local ones – for example, the routines, facilities and expectations that are in place at your school. Some of these might be formal (e.g. policies) and some of these are less so (e.g. parental expectations).

The Arena is what makes every school unique and it is shaped by a lot of people, many of whom (e.g. community members) will be unaware of the impact that their words and actions have sustaining those school habits.

The Self

Each individual teacher working within your school will interpret this Arena differently, and that is because we each come with our own backpack of experiences – these form the Funnel of influence from the Self. There are two parts to this – your Roots and then your Growth.

  • Your Roots are all those things from your own childhood that helped you develop a formative sense of self – the culture and belief systems that you were born into and the values that you were brought up with.
  • Your Growth is about the experiences that you had as a child, through your developmental years, and now as an adult, which combine to influence how you interpret the present.

It is the combination of your Roots and Growth that form your deep underlying beliefs and principles – your personal, often subconscious values.

Context and Self combine

These two hefty funnels of influence mix together to create a unique lens on what we experience today. This is the Setting and is about what is made available within the school – the Opportunities available to us – but more importantly what we perceive to be available to us – i.e. the Possibilities that we see. Each of us will view the same set of resources, rules, expectations and aspirations differently because we have had different previous experiences. Therefore each teacher will have a different sense of what is possible for them in your school.

We are all also affected by Agency – which is about the extent to which we feel able to “do” something (e.g. make a decision, share our idea, carry out an action). Our sense of Agency is again dependent on all those previous influences.

So even if two teachers view the same opportunity as possible, they might not have the same sense of being able to do something about it.

Significantly, in considering Setting, these influences can come from other people’s words and actions, but also from more static things like group habits and resources available.

Finally, comes Identity. It is important to be aware that we have lots of different identities which change depending on where we are and who we are with. While our Roots and Growth remain a stable influence, the context that we find ourselves in – even professionally, e.g. our own classroom, another key stage, an assembly, senior leadership meeting, leadership CPD – varies, and therefore so too does the Arena and Setting.

This changes how we perceive the world around us and our relationship to it and also how we perceive ourselves. Put simply, there are different versions of us and our thoughts dependent on where we are and who we are with. We tend to accept this when we think about our “home” self and our “work” self. But we don’t necessarily think about the different versions of us within our work. This is important to understand because our Identity is the launchpad for the final piece of this jigsaw.

What we say & what we do

It is generally accepted across all walks of life that what we say, what we believe and what we do will not always perfectly align nor represent each other. In teaching we often see this and reflect on it in observations and performance management, but usually at a very surface level. Understanding why these are different is a powerful tool if we want to see positive change. As such, you might find this final section useful for structuring reflective discussions with your teachers.

The key bit for school leaders and teachers themselves is to understand “what” you are addressing – is it what the teacher says (Espoused Practice), what the teacher intends to do (Intended Practice), or what they actually do (Enacted Practice)? By understanding which aspect you are focusing on, you can more easily unpick what happens next.

  • Espoused Practice: What the teacher says to the person they’re talking to will be shaped by what they think they want to hear. If they are talking to you, this perception will come partly from the school’s Arena, in other words the habits of the school (which may not be the same as what you believe), partly from the Setting (what they perceive as possible for them), and partly from their Identity (how they see themselves in relation to you).
  • Intended Practice: What the teacher thinks they are supposed to do – which is a mix of what they perceive you want and what they subconsciously believe about pedagogy and the world around them. It is not necessarily the same as their implicit views – what they personally believe about the world – and may or may not align with your world view and values.
  • Enacted Practice: What actually happens in their classroom – Enacted Practice – is a combination of Intended Practice (e.g. lesson planning, materials and worksheets), and their implicit views (e.g. how they respond to what happens in the lesson, children’s questions, etc).

When you talk to your teachers about practice, try digging a little deeper so that you are absolutely clear on which practice is being discussed – espoused, intended or enacted. Once you have that clarity, you will find identifying the right next steps significantly easier, and more likely to succeed. 

  • Fiona Aubrey-Smith is a former school leader and now Doctoral researcher who facilitates a number of national networks. She sits on several MAT boards and is chair of governors at a maintained primary school.

Further information

The Ecosystem for teachers’ pedagogical values and beliefs is part of an on-going research project – for more details or to be part of the research, contact Fiona Aubrey-Smith via

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