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March 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 6

In the United Kingdom / Linking Staff Development with Children's Learning

A common theme in education circles these days is the importance of approaching school reform through improving teachers' performance in the workplace (Joyce and Showers 1988, Rosenholtz 1989, Barth 1990). Out of this trend has come the concept of the school as a learning community, a concept rooted in the premise that when teachers teach more effectively, their pupils will learn more effectively.
Some educators, however, such as Fullan and colleagues (1990), remind us that—as those of us who work in or with schools know only too well—educational change is more complex. They maintain that in order for pupils to improve, principals and other school leaders must work to establish a three-way link, connecting whole-school improvement, teacher professional development, and classroom improvement. A recent United Kingdom study I was involved in (MacGilchrist et al. 1995) adds weight to this assertion.
At the invitation of a school district in an inner-city area, a colleague and I worked with four elementary schools on a yearlong school improvement project. The project provided insight into what is possible when a clear link is established between pupils' learning and teachers' learning. Beyond that, however, it illustrated what can happen when changes in classroom practice—brought about by staff development—drive policy changes: the reverse of what usually occurs. Too often, schools write policy documents first, and the gap between the rhetoric and the reality can be difficult to bridge.

Bringing Teachers on Board

As a condition of our working with each school, we stipulated that improved student achievement would have to be the focus of the effort. Moreover, we encouraged the schools to concentrate on a specific group of children who were giving teachers some cause for concern.
Our rationale for these ground rules? We believed that teachers would be more likely to see the relevance of such an approach, and so be more involved in resolving the problem. We also assumed that the teachers would gain a sense of ownership of the school improvement process, which would influence how they taught and, in turn, the policy and practice of the school as a whole.
To bring about change, it is important to provide a combination of external pressure and support for each school. We offered practical support and guidance in a number of ways. We suggested to the principals that they enlist the staff's interest by asking them about issues that really mattered to them, in particular: What stops pupils in this school from achieving all they can? What reduces the quality of teaching time teachers can give to pupils? These two questions did indeed draw the teachers in and became a real turning point for the project. Because their own concerns became the focus, they were motivated to get involved.
We needed to provide additional help on specific issues that would arise, such as, How many children should be involved? How do you assess their current level of achievement? How do you map the children's progress? How do you identify desirable outcomes and criteria for success? Throughout, we provided continuing support in the form of visits and regular letters and telephone calls.

Guiding Staff Development

Another problem at the outset was that all four schools—in varying degrees—found it difficult to create a plan that focused on a particular group of children in the classroom. Even though the principals had some experience creating whole-school development plans, they were used to working with the macro rather than the micro aspects of school life.
To assist, we suggested strategies that the principals and their senior staff could use to identify teaching and learning strengths and weaknesses. We encouraged them to set targets for student improvement and to identify criteria for success, so that at a later stage they could tell whether the students' work had in fact improved. Because everyone found it a challenge to identify criteria for success, we suggested methods of doing so. We also offered guidance on whether parents and the children themselves should be involved in formulating solutions.
As another aspect of staff development, we required the four schools to hold self-review sessions with the whole staff. And we insisted that all staff spend a day learning how to conduct reviews and evaluations. These invaluable sessions enabled the staff to clarify uncertainties, to establish a practical plan, and to be clear about what they had achieved. Equally important, the sessions gave the staff a chance to celebrate success and experience a sense of achievement; they left feeling that the work they were doing was valued and significant.
We further insisted that the schools hold regular review and evaluation training sessions for different groups—sessions that proved to be important as well. On these days, teachers met with one another and with children, members of the senior management team got together, and school representatives met with the external project coordinators. We also brought together key staff members for general professional development sessions.

Four Schools, Four Plans

With this guidance, all four schools were able to focus on a specific group of children—for different reasons and different purposes. Here's what each of them chose to do.
School A identified two major concerns. The first was differentiated learning and how to match work more closely with children's ability, particularly for the most able pupils. The second was the need to revise the mathematics policy, with an immediate goal to improve children's ability to do arithmetic calculations in their head rather than on paper or with a calculator. We helped devise a plan that combined these two priorities. Teachers selected the six most able children in each class, then worked in pairs to plan weekly mathematics sessions for each group and evaluate the outcomes.
School B also had two major concerns that were combined: the effectiveness of classroom organization and the progress of the least independent learners in each class. To begin, we focused on two or three children in each class, while exploring ways of organizing the classrooms and making resources available.
School C identified a group of girls of the Muslim faith who lacked confidence and were vulnerable to bullying. Staff members were particularly concerned about the girls' social and emotional development, and how their situation was affecting their learning. We tried out a range of strategies for increasing the girls' confidence and involvement in school life.
School D was particularly concerned about a small group of children in each class who had behavior problems that were affecting their learning and increasing the amount of time their teachers were forced to devote to them.

Renewed Policy and Practice

At the end of the year, participants completed a project evaluation questionnaire. It was apparent from the responses, as it had become increasingly apparent from the meetings where senior staff from each school shared progress, that significant changes had taken place. Teachers made marked changes in their practice. Children improved in specific ways. And policy and practice at the school level were revised significantly.
As we had anticipated, gaining the teachers' commitment to the project had made a real difference. So, too, had the strong, sensitive leadership of the principals and other senior staff at all four schools.
In School A, which wanted to improve its mathematics curriculum, the following changes took place. For the first time, teachers began to plan mathematics lessons with a colleague. Moreover, they planned lessons two weeks in advance and wrote up their plans. At the end of each two-week period, the staff as a whole reviewed the progress. Paired planning and review have now become an everyday practice.
The teacher responsible for the mathematics curriculum began to work with teachers in their classrooms in a more structured way. Teachers now visit and advise their colleagues as part of normal staff development practice.
Mathematics teaching approaches changed. Challenging oral mathematics sessions with able pupils became part of weekly practice. Teachers now engage pupils more in creating their lesson plans. And they build in time to give the pupils feedback about their progress.
In addition, teachers became more confident about their mathematics teaching, particularly as a result of the joint planning exercise. They report that they are now more focused in their planning for different levels of ability in their classes. They have raised their expectations of what very able pupils are capable of achieving. Teachers also became more aware of the resources available in the school and now use a wider range of resources in their classrooms.
All these developments have had positive effects on the children. In fact, in the first national assessment test in mathematics for 11-year-olds, the results for children in that age group were the best in the district! Able pupils have gained in confidence, and their test results reflect an improved facility in working with numbers. Other children have made greater progress toward goals set. And every child has benefited from more focused feedback on what to do next to get better.
All staff have agreed to a revised mathematics policy reflecting the changes in content and practice they tried out in their classrooms. This was instrumental in speeding up the revision of schoolwide policy and practice and gaining general agreement on the changes.
Finally, the style of staff meetings has changed. The meetings have become more practical, with time allotted for joint planning. Some are now held in teachers' classrooms. The structured approach to staff meetings that was already well established was strengthened (for example, all decisions are now recorded in the minutes, which are accompanied by a detailed plan).
As for changes at the other three schools:
In School B, both the staff and the target group of children (the least independent learners) completed a questionnaire about ways in which classroom organization supported—or did not support—learning. Based on their responses, we devoted a staff development day to devising strategies to increase children's use of learning resources in the classroom. As a result, these children have shown a markedly greater inclination to learn on their own.
In School C, staff, children, and parents worked together to increase the confidence and decrease the bullying of the Muslim girls. Their strategies have worked. The girls now participate in organized games, school journeys, and swimming lessons, and their increased confidence has boosted their achievement in the classroom.
In School D, staff development workshops concentrated on helping teachers to be more systematic and structured in observing the children with behavior problems. Teachers now review the progress of these vulnerable children each term, while implementing the school's behavior policy. The teachers feel more confident about sharing their practices with one another. And the children's behavior has improved noticeably.

What We Learned

  • Start with a modest goal, rooted in children's learning, and concentrate on that goal for an extended period of time.
  • Convince teachers that the program will benefit both them and their students.
  • Hold regular staff review and evaluation sessions.
  • Identify tangible, realistic targets and criteria at the outset. Encourage staff members to be flexible and open-minded, amending the goals in the light of the review and evaluation sessions.
  • Make the identification of goals and criteria and the review and evaluation process integral parts of staff development.
  • Create opportunities for teachers to work together, to lead development, and to try out new ideas. This promotes a sense of ownership and accountability, and enables teachers to offer one another feedback on their teaching.
  • Hold well-organized staff meetings where teachers can review the school's policies and long-term aims and evaluate whether working practices coincide with them.
  • Develop policy in accordance with practice, not the other way around.
Our experience with these four schools illustrated the benefits of focusing improvement efforts on a specific group of children with a view to raising their achievement levels. By having the confidence to do so, the principals and other staff set in motion a process that had a ripple effect in the schools as a whole. It improved the achievement of all the children. It promoted teachers' professional development. And it led to the refinement of schoolwide policy and practice. The bottom line: By beginning with children and what matters to teachers, whole-school policies have a very practical foundation. They can confirm practices already tried and agreed to by the teachers themselves.

Barth, R. (1990). Improving Schools from Within. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fullan, M. G., B. Bennett, and C. Rolheiser-Bennett. (1990). "Linking Classroom and School Improvement." Educational Leadership 47, 8: 13-19.

Joyce, B., and B. Showers. (1988). Student Achievement through Staff Development. New York: Longman.

MacGilchrist, B., P. Mortimore, J. Savage, and C. Beresford. (1995). Planning Matters: The Impact of Development Planning in Primary Schools. London: Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd.

Rosenholtz, S. (1989). Teachers' Workplace: The Social Organization of Schools. New York: Longman.

Barbara MacGilchrist has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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