Recently, my school introduced a new approach to faculty evaluation and improvement, the learner-focused evaluation cycle.
At first glance, and rather flippantly, I thought ‘ah yes, another plan, do, review model’. I also thought that formalizing faculty improvement in such a manner may, as is often the case, result in a bureaucracy overload and enslavement to the process rather than reaping the benefits of it.
However, on reflection, I am beginning to see it’s potential, at least in discovering more about myself as a leader and hopefully, in time, with a measurable positive impact on the team I lead.
In this blog, I will briefly outline the process before reflecting on the many mistakes I have made so far.
The Student-Centered Evaluation Cycle
Firstly, let us briefly break down the components of the cycle. Much more detail can be found on the New Zealand Educational Review Office website. As you can see, learners are at the heart of the process.
Step 1:Noticing Phase
The process begins with a period of observation. What is the experience for students? What are the stakeholders ‘noticing’ about the learning experience? What is making them ‘pause’ and ‘think’? What would be worthy of further time for investigation so understanding can be developed and strengthened?
Step 2: Investigation phase
This is a deeper dive into an issue or issues arising from the noticing phase. The team will construct questions to investigate and collect evidence from pedagogy, observation, student voice, focus groups, and so on.
Step 3: Collaborative Sense-Making
Teachers and leaders make sense of the information they have collected. This also involves a reflection on the quality of the data they are working with. Is there enough data to be able to draw reliable conclusions? Is it truthful and representative? Do we need to collect more? Or a wider range?
Step 4: Taking Action
The evidence is used to prioritise and craft actions that will have a positive impact on learners and learning.
Step 5: Monitoring and Evaluating impact
What is happening as a result of the actions? Is this what was intended? Are adjustments required? Is it time to move on to other priorities?
Findings from the shop floor: noticing phase.
Without a doubt, the biggest mistake on my first attempt was to focus on my own gut instinct. This is suggested on the New Zealand Educational Review Office website. However, this did not work for me.
I framed the process around my own perception that my faculty and team could improve the first 10 minutes of lessons. The teachers I work with are superb; they are hard-working and dedicated professionals. However, we have limited space. Very few teachers have their own room and they are often moving between each lesson. It can be a challenge to be well organized so that your own transition between lessons is fair to all of the classes you teach.
Occasionally, I had ‘noticed’ students waiting outside of classrooms at the start of lessons or teachers dashing to the photocopier (nothing unusual in our frantic paced profession) and I thought that maybe this transferred into the start of the lesson. How much time was being lost? Were my team as well prepared as they could be? Did learning get off to a crisp, purposeful start? Could starter activities be improved?
I was convinced that we could improve in this area, learn from each other, and maximize every minute of our limited time. I informed the team of our focus and immediately introduced a buddy system so that everyone could discuss the first 10 minutes of their lessons through the sharing of ideas, planning of strategies and arrangement of observations.
After this brief introduction, we jumped straight into the investigation phase. We observed every teacher in the team, looked at schemes of learning and chatted to students.
And our findings from the investigation phase? Did we find that time was lost? Did we see teachers running late? With no clear plan or formal starter? Well, erm, no.
Every lesson observed over a couple of months started on time or within 1 or 2 minutes. Starter activities were planned into the lessons and well designed. On the whole, they were thoughtful, relevant and linked to the series of lessons being taught. Basically, although there were great ideas and strategies to share, there were few problems to address. Nothing that would be worthy of our precious time.
We had rushed into the investigation phase after presuming that what I had ‘noticed’ was accurate.
On further reflection, the focus of the first 10 minutes of the lesson was unambitious. Yes, a teacher may be running late and occasionally they would wish to be better prepared. But experienced teachers know how to teach. They know the structure of a good lesson. They understand the importance of recap, recall, sharing learning objectives, taking registers etc.
Even if the outcome of the investigation phase had been as I presumed, how would we have addressed this? If teachers are regularly late then a discussion about the expectations should be enough. If activities are poorly prepared then this would require another management style chat. There was not an awful lot here that would genuinely push the teaching and learning forward.
Furthermore, the cycle was top-down. I brought the focus to the team. It was not inclusive enough and although the team got on with the process, it did not inspire. Fortunately, the cycle allows you to start again at any point. At the end of the investigation phase, it was clear that we did not have enough evidence to justify the continuation of this process. It was a relief to be able to leave it there and start again.
Needless to say that I changed a lot the second time around. The noticing phase started with a blank page and a fully collaborative, evidence-based approach.
- Noticing should be collaborative and involve everyone in the discussion. This will reduce biases, provide a better focus and improve buy-in.
- Avoid assumptions and preconceptions. Look for evidence and let it guide the process.
- Each stage is a fresh start based on evidence from the previous stage.
- Be prepared to change course and start again if you don’t think that the impact on students is clear and significant.
In a future blog, I will talk through the second run-through of this evaluation cycle. This time it is going much better and I look forward to sharing my findings once the cycle is complete.