Opportunity cost

A few weeks ago we viewed a house. It was stunning. Great view to water and hills. Lots of outdoor space. Double garage. Spacious. Bespoke. Great location. And just within our budget. On paper it was our dream home. So we arranged a viewing. But… (yes there’s a but!) it needed too much work. New roof. New windows. Potential. Lots of potential. But just not perfect. The discussion then ensued about the compromise we were willing to make. And to be honest, it continues. But it made me think. Is there always a compromise?

In classrooms across Scotland this last few weeks, teachers have tried to establish routines, build relationships, share learning intentions, ask effective questions, model and scaffold learning, check for understanding and give effective feedback. All whilst teaching pupils behaviour expectations and encouraging them to be be resilient, creative and ambitious! Wow. Teaching is incredibly complex. Ands that before we add in the global pandemic we find our self working within. Or adding into the mix lunch duty, extra curricular clubs or supported study.

We all want the best for our learners and yet we must consider that it is difficult to do it all. If we, as teachers, are doing one thing, then we are not doing something else. Sometimes it’s inevitable that there is a compromise. Therefore we need to be absolutely certain that the practices we employ in our classrooms are the the most effective. It’s interesting to consider the notion that doing less but better could be more impactful than doing it all but without substance.

You’ve probably heard of opportunity cost. The notion that if we choose to use our time in one particular way, there is something else which is unable to be done in its place. If teachers are busy doing wall displays, they aren’t able to spend that time giving pupils valuable feedback. If staff calendars are filled with operational meetings, they aren’t able to commit time to developing the curriculum. If staff are photocopying and laminating, they aren’t able to engage in professional dialogue. Everything has an opportunity cost. No one method is wrong, but we need to be sure we utilising the best approaches if it means others need to be compromised.

Being really clear about what’s important and holding strong to our values is something which will help shape how we use our incredibly precious time as teachers.

For me, Educational research has opened my eyes to so many best bets for learning and teaching, and confirmed why I do lots of what I do when I’m teaching young people. The research is effective. It works. And seeing the impact it has on young people is hugely motivating. When the learning and teaching going on in my classroom is of a high calibre, my job satisfaction is increased. Research is not the only perspective, but it’s a good starting point. As with everything, context is key.

Knowing the research is there and having access to it in a way which is clearly distilled and accessible for teachers, is one way in which we can support time-short teachers to access the information they need. It’s also important to sift through what is relevant and prioritise what will work in your setting. Some schools circulate a helpful summary of individual educational research papers or books. Others share interesting articles to create a space for enquiry. I particularly enjoy professional reading which brings much of the research together in one place and books by authors such as Bruce Robertson and Tom Sherrington helpfully collate important research into easy to digest, practical guides. Discussing this with colleagues through professional reading groups can be really helpful too, to clarifying thinking and engage in discussion to share good practice.

But how do we make use of this without overwhelming teachers who are already working incredibly hard? For me, it’s about making it relevant and worthwhile for teachers.

Allowing them to buy in to the impact it will have on their classroom and the young people. And starting small. ‘Great oaks from tiny acorns grow.’ In my fortnightly faculty update, I include a small snippet of educational research to inspire staff. I don’t insist it’s read, or check up but my hope is that by planting these small seeds, staff will come to it in their own time and by their own decision. In my mind, this is far more powerful and impactful, than it being forced upon them which I suspect may instead turn them off.

The element of personalisation to CLPL means that staff feel ownership of it which makes it far more powerful. Individuals can identify their own individual needs and then seek out professional learning which inspires and motivates them to improve their practice. Flexible professional learning which works around time-strapped teachers’ existing commitments is more likely to be accessed and engaged with, for example drop-in 30 minute sessions, while walking the dog, or driving to work listening to a podcast. We do not have to do it all. Identifying one small area of focus and getting it right, can have a huge impact. If we focus on just improving feedback, the knock-on effect of this for questioning, modelling and scaffolding is huge. There is so much educational research out there that it can be overwhelming. And it can lead to dilutions and lethal mutations if we are not incredibly careful as well meaning practitioners simplify, distort and try to provide a quick fix. Prioritising our needs, the school needs and then digesting small portions of credible, relevant educational research can have huge impact. And what often happens, is that it feeds the appetite for classroom improvement.

This was the main premise behind ScotEd – a FREE, online professional learning conference which aimed to bring short dip in, dip out sessions which would inspire Scottish teachers to explore educational research. We understand that no one will be an expert by the end of a short session, but if the presentations spark a curiosity to find out more and a realisation that educational research is relevant to our classrooms and can have huge impact if explored in more detail, the event will have achieved its purpose. Please tune in on Saturday 18th September 2021 to make up your own mind. Follow @ScotEd2020 for a link to the livestream.

All in Scottish education are very aware of change. However, improvement is not the same. Sustained, long term improvement takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not change for the sake of it. It’s not trying new approaches with an instinct it might work, for us then to revert back. It’s not change, because someone else is doing it and we better too. Or change because it works for the school down the road, so it must work for us too. Change in that context is exhausting and surface level. And that’s the compromise.

Like the house we viewed (and are still going round in circles about!) improvement may be incremental. It’s not rushing in to make changes, before we’ve experienced and lived in it to know what might work best. It’s knowing what’s possible and listening to the experts about how best to do it. We might not be able to afford to do the kitchen this year, but if we know it’s in the plan for next year we can work towards that. But if we do the kitchen now, it means we might have leaky windows over winter. Compromise. Opportunity cost. Systematic, long term planning is needed, and it’s the same for school improvement.

School improvement, like upgrading a house, is far more rewarding because is hard fought and comes from a place of relationships, values, research and context. When we know where we are going (and every school’s destination might be slightly different!) the route to get there becomes much clearer, and less daunting.

Have a great week everyone. I hope you will join me next week to connect at Scoted.

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