I accidentally went and picked a particularly relevant paper for my #rEDBrum journal club presentation this weekend and it’s got me thinking…

When I’m choosing these things I never know who’s going to come to the session and I’m aware I need to find something accessible (interests, language, and literally) and for the first time ever, due to my time-poor life, I chose a paper that I’d already selected for another conference I’m presenting at in a couple of weeks so I really didn’t know that the overarching themes of the day – curriculum, community and culture – would resonate with the paper choice so much.

The paper I used was ‘Teacher collaboration in curricula design teams: effects, mechanisms, and conditions’ (Voogt, Pieters and Handelzalts, 2016) which looks at 14 doctoral theses to establish the features and effects of collaborative design teams, and identify the mechanisms and conditions necessary for these to be successful. The focus for the design teams is curriculum and the paper sets out the effects of collaborative teams on both teacher learning (so a professional development slant) and on curriculum change (something particularly relevent in these times of everyone rushing to redesign their curriculums in the face of a new Ofsted inspection framework).

Half my work-life is now about professional development, both in our school and increasingly across the trust, and six months into our professional development changes we’re starting to evaluate how it’s going and thinking about how it’ll move on next year. Curriculum has had its place in some of our CPD conversations and it makes sense that we combine these in some way, so aside from making some general notes on the paper for journal club I was prompted to think about what it meant for us in terms of professional development and so much of what I heard at #rEDBrum cemented this.

There were a few things that struck me about the paper. It clearly comes from a place that already believes in the value of collaboration for teachers and talks about a shift in methods of professional development to involving teachers more and the increased use of professional learning communities (PLCs); commenting that PLCs are about generating knowledge of practice whereas more traditional CPD conveys to teachers knowledge for practice. I’d not particularly thought of this difference before but it seems so obvious now that all the desirable features of CPD that I’m trying to build into our model are about shifting from just giving people things to do, to getting them to think about why and how they’re doing things.

I’m familiar with benefits of collaboration including development of ownership, trust, and support for changes, particularly in forms of collaborative enquiry and models like lesson study. I’ve heard numerous warnings about schools rushing in to these structures of CPD without proper training, time or follow up and I’m personally cautious of introducing something that may amount to faux-research engagement for show. I’m wondering now about whether collaborative design is a better model than collaborative enquiry – working towards something tangible that’s going to be used and has a reason that’s more likely to engage staff. Certainly the findings in this paper seem to suggest that this could be a way of providing ongoing, long-term professional development, both subject-specific and pedagogical, whilst creating a curriculum that works for us and our pupils within a sustainable structure.

The paper nicely sets out the effects something like this can have on teacher learning and curriculum change including:

  • uptake of pedagogy
  • increased subject knowledge
  • making connections within and between subjects
  • development of curriculum expertise
  • creation of concrete curriculum products
  • improved, higher quality practice
  • systematic structure to curriculum
  • links with external providers and expertise

…the mechanisms that account for these effects:

  • teacher prior knowledge and up to date knowledge
  • level of teacher involvement
  • justification for change/process (stressing the importance of analysis)
  • focussed support
  • time to try things and adapt

…and the conditions that affect change:

  • support (organisational, process, expert and technical)
  • leadership (massive importance)
  • external (national curriculum, staff turnover etc)

I’m still thinking it through a bit really, but as a theoretical concept, if the whole year of CPD was dedicated to this process we’ve got what would probably be two whole inset days (maybe some time as twilights), the weekly half hour of CPD we’ve introduced that could shift a little, and add in opportunities for instructional coaching and expert input. It’s a model with room to account for individual staff needs and levels of experience, building on what we’ve put in place already.

I’m not saying it will happen (or will turn out to be the right thing for us) but as something providing a framework to combining CPD and the curriculum reform we need to make, allowing us to keep the elements of CPD that are working and affording the time necessary for it to work, I think there’s more than a spark of an idea so (before my meeting with SLT on Tuesday) I’m going to think about it in more detail.

There were a lot of moments in Birmingham that made me more convinced about this as having potential. Comments during the panel debate about how the process of curriculum design might work, how to avoid it being ‘scary’ for staff and how to go about building a school culture could all be addressed by collaborative design. What made me more eager to explore this was a fantastic session from Summer Turner on subject communities. Ideas about how these could be structured and where we could access the necessary expertise alongside cementing the benefits of this sort of model are all swishing round in my head now and I just need to try to control it a bit.

Obviously I’ve not mentioned everything in the paper and there are some features that make me pause for thought, but it’s a cracking read and whilst I feel bad about breaking my rule of using the same paper twice for a conference, attendees of the Habs Girls Conference are in for a treat because I’ve got so much more to discuss about this one now.