In their fascinating article, Pim Pollen and Dr Ben Laker raise some interesting points as a result of what looks like an extensive international survey of teacher attitudes to their own development. The conclusions cover a range of areas, including what teachers feel they are good at and need more help with, as well as thoughts on what schools and wider school systems can do about these challenges. One thing leapt out at me: the clear implication that school leaders have a crucial responsibility to ensure all teachers have access to high quality professional development.
Time is a precious commodity for anyone working in schools. So, for school leaders in particular, making sure they spend their time on things that make the biggest difference is crucial.
When it comes to what the evidence tells us on what it is that leaders do that appears to make the biggest difference to pupil outcomes at a strategic level, in my view there is nothing better than the 2011 meta-analysis that Viviane Robinson and her colleagues from the University of Auckland conducted.
As with any meta-analysis, one needs to exercise a little professional scepticism. There are those among the educational research community who would suggest that Viviane Robinson has overstated her findings. But as a school leader with over 25 years’ experience, the findings of the Auckland team certainly resonate with me.
This diagram summarises their work and identifies the five key activities that leaders undertake that appear make the biggest difference to pupil outcomes.
In relation to the Pollen and Laker article, what is striking how the impact of one factor, supporting teacher development, is so much more impactful than its next nearest statistical neighbour. It only goes to show how important it is for leaders at all levels to create the time to quite simply focus on helping teachers be better teachers.
Which brings me to the work of Yerkes and Dodson (1908). Their model suggests that there is a powerful link between how challenging tasks are to complete and the impact they have on our cognitive development. If we stay in our comfort zone, doing things we find easy most of the time, unsurprisingly our personal development is steady but pretty low. When we are in the zone of stretch or growth, the impact on our learning and development is suddenly much higher.
Typically, the model suggests the zone of growth is 10-15% outside one’s zone of comfort, although I am not sure how one is meant to actually measure this! But the broad concept is powerful and can be applied to teachers and leaders. Pupils should be in the zone of stretch for large parts of their day or we are doing them a disservice. Leaders should be creating the culture and climate that creates high levels of discretionary effort (see Topic 2) among staff, so they are motivated to be a little better tomorrow than they were yesterday. Of course, in all cases, what actually constitutes the zone of stretch will vary from pupil to pupil and between colleagues.
There is however, a limit to how far we can push the level of challenge. If the level of difficulty is too high, and I would argue this can be in terms of cognitive challenge or through the sheer volume of work that is expected, then personal well-being and self-belief start to become an issue and individuals will find themselves in the zone of panic or stress. If individual pupils or staff are in this zone for long periods of time, there is a risk of mental health issues developing.
Having read Mary Myatt’s inspiring book, High Challenge, Low Threat (2016), I am reminded of our ability as both teachers and leaders to metaphorically move where the line separating growth and panic actually sits. If we can create an environment of mutual trust and respect, where it is OK to try hard things even if we make mistakes, then we can enable pupils and colleagues to take on more challenging tasks without feeling stressed or panicked.
So, if supporting teacher development should be a key strategic objective for school leaders, how exactly should you go about it in a way that maximises activity in the zone of growth? My previous blog on incremental coaching sets out the case for why this emerging approach may well turn out to be a very powerful approach when it comes to teacher development.