Thinking & Learning 2018 Round-up: Leadership for Teacher Learning Institute
On a crisp Saturday morning, I was mesmerised by the athleticism of the thoroughbred horses being put through their paces around Caulfield Racecourse. As I awaited the commencement of Dylan Wiliam’s Leadership for Teacher Learning Institute, my expectations for a great day of learning were running high – and I was not disappointed!
Shooting from the hip, abrasive, no-nonsense, research-informed, exciting, challenging – these are just some of the words that came to mind as I reflected on my day of learning with Dylan Wiliam. I have read his books, but being in a room with Dylan was breathtakingly exciting. We were immediately engaged with research-driven claims, fired at us by Dylan, that related to what does and simply does not work to improve student learning outcomes. There was some push back initially as some long-standing beliefs were challenged, but by the end of the second session, leaders were beginning to make sense of Dylan’s central claim that as school leaders, we need to focus selectively on the things that have the biggest pay off for students’ learning.
How do leaders do this? Dylan proposed that the essence of effective leadership is to stop people from doing good things so that even better things can be done! He described some key formative assessment practices that support leaders to grow teacher capacity, which he claims is the only thing that impacts on student achievement both positively and negatively. He also suggested that, as leaders, we have to ask our teachers these types of questions relentlessly: What will be the impact on learning if we do this? How much will it impact? How will we know?
Based on strong evidence linked to the effectiveness of formative assessment practices and improved student learning, Dylan asked this question of every leader in the room: “What are you going to take off your teachers’ plates to embed formative assessment?” We were given time to discuss this and the room became animated, especially when Dylan posed two further questions: “What if there were 25 hours in the day – what would you do more of?” “What if there were only 23 hours in the day – what would you do less of?” The point of the exercise being that efficient time management doesn’t give us more hours in the day – rather, it gives educators the opportunity to look back and ask the question, was that the best use of my time?
So what must leaders do? Dylan suggested that a leader’s responsibility to teachers is to create the conditions and engineer effective learning environments such as Teacher Learning Communities. A critical condition for teacher learning is time, which can be achieved by letting go of less effective activities that do not impact enough on learning. Additionally, leaders must establish high expectations that all teachers continually improve their practice through evidence-informed practices that make a difference to student learning.
Authentic and deep learning is, more often than not, born from risk and failure. Consequently, effective leaders need to constantly ask this question: “What can I do to support my teachers to take risks?” Dylan believes that leaders need to model their own failures with teachers to encourage a genuine risk-taking culture within the school. But he also offered us a cautionary piece of advice that literally stopped us in our thinking tracks – as leaders we must never praise people for risks that have paid off. Why? If we do this, Dylan believes we are communicating to the teacher that you were lucky! On the contrary, he encouraged us to only praise our teachers at the point of deciding to take a risk when the outcome is unknown!
Dylan’s final words of encouragement to us as leaders were that “every teacher can become as good as the very best teachers in your school – just imagine how great your school could be! In 10 years you could have every teacher as good as the very best, there is no limit if we support our teachers in the right way!”
Bern Nicholls Bern Nicholls is an authentic and passionate learner who over the span of her career in education has consistently kept students at the centre of all her thinking and research. Read more articles by Bern Nicholls